Brandon’s Top Films of 2018

1. The Wild Boys As an art film oddity & a transgressive object, this gem lives up to the “wild” descriptor of its title in every conceivable way, delivering everything you could possibly want from a perplexing “What the fuck?” cinematic bazaar. More importantly, though, Wild Boys is thoroughly, defiantly genderfucked – a freshly radical act of nouveau sexual politics represented via the tones & tools of the ancient past. All of its psychedelic beauty & nightmarish sexual id is filtered through an early 20th Century adventurers’ lens, feeling simultaneously archaic & progressive in its subversions of gender & sexuality. It looks like Guy Maddin directing an ancient pervert’s wet dream, both beautifully & brutally old-fashioned in its newfangled deconstruction of gender.

2. Double Lover Not your average, by-the-books erotic thriller, but rather a deranged masterpiece, a horned-up nightmare. Double Lover’s basic premise is a familiar template, but as it spirals out into total madness there’s no bounds to its erotic mania, which is communicated through an increasingly intense list of sexual indulgences: incest, body horror, gynecological close-ups, bisexual orgies, negging, pegging, “redwings,” erotic choking, and nightmarish lapses in logic that, frankly, make no goddamn sense outside their subliminal expressions of psychosexual anxiety. It’s a gorgeous work of fine art that disarms its audience with its nonstop onslaught of inelegant prurience as a means of crawling under our skin and rotting us from the inside.

3. Mandy So sinisterly beautiful & deafening that its aesthetic indulgences become a grotesque, horrifying display. This is less of a revenge thriller than it is a Hellish nightmare, a dream logic horror-show that drifts further away from the rules & sensory palettes of reality the deeper it sinks into its characters’ trauma & grief. Nic Cage may slay biker demons & religious acid freaks with a self-forged axe in a neon-lit, alternate dimension 1980s, but Mandy is not headbanging party metal. It’s more stoned-and-alone, crying over past trauma to doom riffs metal, where the flashes of fun & cosmic absurdity are only reminders of how cruelly uncaring & meaningless it can feel to be alive.

4. Dirty Computer A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, this “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Janelle Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of her newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position, to the point where a tyrannical government facility is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze before she rises against them in open bisexual rebellion.

5. Sorry to Bother You – Incredibly dense, gleefully overstuffed sci-fi satire about the Amazon Prime-sponsored hellscape we’re already living in today – just bursting with things to say about race, labor, wealth, and the art of selling out. I can see how this movie’s third-act rug-pull could make a lot of people wince at it for going too far over-the-top, but that’s exactly when it went from good to great for me. The fact that it’s never satisfied with exploring one idea at a time when it could just as easily flood the screen with thousands is what endears it to me as one of the year’s clear stand-outs; more films cold benefit from being this wild & unrestrained, subtlety be damned.

6. Paddington 2 There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson, but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

7. Annihilation It’s a shame more people didn’t take a chance on this Alex Garland sci-fi stunner when it was on the big screen. On one level, it’s just a visually gorgeous, weirdo monster movie that reimagines Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a Tumblr-ready pastel color palette & more traditional genre thrills. On a deeper level, though, it’s a powerful reflection on how grief & trauma transform us into entirely different people, to the point where that change becomes physical & irreversible. Haunting stuff.

8. Upgrade The very real, very macho anxiety of approaching obsoletion at the hands of automated future-tech is shown in gloriously over-the-top extreme, where a once-mighty macho man now needs a computer’s help to even move a single muscle, much less stage a gory revenge mission against an effete Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade has an entirely different plot & satirical target than RoboCop, but the way it buries that social commentary under a thick layer of popcorn movie Fun that can just as easily be read at face value is very much classic Verhoeven. It’s a subversive, playing-both-sides tone that’s exceedingly difficult to pull off without tipping your hand, which is what makes this sci-fi action gem so instantly recognizable as a modern genre classic.

9. Cam Between its Unfriended-style user interface horror about the Evils of the Internet and its smutty Brian De Palma modes of building tension through eerie sexual menace, this movie is so extremely weighted to things I personally love to see in cinema that my adoration for it was practically predestined. A neon-lit, feminist cyberthriller about modern sex work, Cam was custom-built to be one of my favorite films of the year just on the strengths of its subject matter & visual aesthetics alone. It’s only lagniappe, then, that the film is excellently written, staged, and performed – offering a legitimacy in craft to support my default-mode appreciation of its chosen thematic territory.

10. You Were Never Really Here Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell obscures the emotional release of traditional macho revenge thrillers by focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. In crime thriller terms, this resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester.

11. BlacKkKlansman As its buddy cop & blacksploitation throwback narratives power through their natural conclusions, BlacKkKlansman pretends to be a straight-faced, well-behaved participation in old-fashioned genre tropes meant to leave audiences entertained & satisfied. Then all of that easy, comforting payoff is swept away with an epilogue that effectively punches the audience in the gut, reminding us that we’re not supposed to feel good about the way the past has shaken out, that the modern world remains messy & nauseating in a way that can’t be captured in a fully satisfied genre exercise. Spike Lee knows exactly how storytelling conventions have trained audiences to expect easy, comforting resolutions to even the most sickening thematic territory, and he’s found potent, purposeful ways to weaponize that against us.

12. Unsane Filmed on an iPhone and shamelessly participating in every mental institution thriller cliché you can imagine, Unsane is a Soderberghian experiment in the lowest rung of genre filth. It uses that unlikely platform to explore themes ranging from capitalist greed in modern medical & prison systems to male-dominated institutions’ flagrant dismissal of the concerns of women to the power dynamics of money & gender in every conceivable tier of society. Unsane experiments with a teetering balance between microbudget exploitation cinema & power-skeptical radical politics. They’re two flavors that shouldn’t mix well together in a single container but do find a chemically explosive reaction in the clash.

13. Flames A collaboration between two filmmakers & conceptual artists documenting the rise & fall of their own romance, Flames presents a scenario where not being able to tell what’s genuine & what’s performance art can have emotionally devastating effects on a real-life relationship. Instead of merely manipulating audience perception, the filmmakers manipulate their own understanding of what’s even happening in their own lives, turning the already volatile emotional powder keg of a passionate romance into a daily terror of bruised egos, questionable motives, and petty acts of self-serving cruelty. It’s deeply fascinating, but it’s also deeply fucked up.

14. Shirkers This documentary figuratively hit close to home with me in its profile of a D.I.Y. art project tragedy, but it also literally, geographically hit close to home with me in the trajectory of its narrative. I was pleasantly surprised to personally connect with the film as a self-portrait of a socially tactless, self-sabotaging D.I.Y. artist; director Sandi Tan got through to me via the merits of her brutal self-honesty & her authentic zine culture aesthetic. More superficially, she also got through to me with her story’s exponentially rapid trajectory to my front doorstep. It’s shocking how much of this story about a conflict that begins in Singapore finds its way to Mid-City New Orleans.

15. Eighth Grade With a piercingly astute eye for the way social media has reshaped & mutated adolescent anxiety into an entirely new beast, Eighth Grade excels both as a snapshot of what life online looks like in the 2010s and as a distinct, character-driven drama even when removed from its of-the-moment focus on social media. Reductively speaking, it also excels as an anxiety Litmus test. You can either read its plot as a relatively low-stakes depiction of an adorable teen girl’s final week of middle school or as a horrifyingly relatable depiction of an anxious mess puzzling her way through a world that no longer seems conquerable & a changing self-identity she has little control over. I was personally watching it through my fingers as if it were a jump scare-heavy slasher.

16. Vox Lux – Brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. A distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western pop culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, shamelessly unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

17. The Favourite No matter how wild or devilishly cruel The Favourite may seem in a costume drama context, it’s also a rare glimpse of Yorgos Lanthimos on his best behavior. Part of this smoothing out of his most off-putting impulses is due to the setting; an 18th Century royal court is the exact right place for buttoned-up, emotionally distanced mockery of “civility,” whereas it often feels alien or robotic in his more modern settings. Still, the jokes fly faster & with a newfound, delicious bitchiness. The sex & violence veer more towards slapstick than inhuman cruelty. The Favourite is Lanthimos seeking moments of compromise & accessibility while still staying true to his distinctly cold auteurist voice – and it’s his best film to date for it.

18. Beast Partly a murder mystery concerning missing young girls in an isolated community, but mostly a dark romance tale about two dangerous people who can’t help but be pulled into each other’s violent orbits. There’s a distinctly literary vibe to Beast, nearly bordering on a Gothic horror tradition, that almost makes its modern setting feel anachronistic. The intense, primal attraction at the film’s core and the seedy murder mystery that challenges that passion’s boundaries make it feel like Wuthering Heights by way of Top of the Lake, like a modern take on Beauty & the Beast (except with two beasts).

19. Good Manners On a horror movie spectrum, this is more of a gradual, what-the-fuck mind melt than a haunted house carnival ride with gory payoffs & jump scares at every turn. Descriptors like “queer,” “coming of age,” “romantic,” “body horror,” and “creature feature” can only describe the movie in spurts as it loses itself in the genre wilderness chasing down the details of its own nature & narrative. It’s an unconventional story about unconventional families, one where romantic & parental anxieties are hard to put into words even if they’re painfully obvious onscreen. Anyone with a hunger for dark fairy tales and sincerely dramatic takes on centuries-old genre tropes are likely to find a peculiar fascination with the subtle, methodical ways it bares its soul for all to see. Just don’t expect the shock-a-minute payoffs of a typical monster movie here; those are entirely secondary, if they can be detected at all.

20. Hereditary Requires a little patience in allowing it to establish its peculiar version of atmospheric dread, but once the nightmare imagery & themes of familial resentment start piling up it more than makes up for the unease of that early stretch. Where it overachieves is in anchoring all of its glorious 70s-throwback horror vibes & stage play familial viciousness to the best Toni Collette acting showcase since Muriel’s Wedding (give or take a season of United States of Tara). You can’t overvalue a novelty like that.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast: #NOFF2018

Welcome to Episode #71 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-first episode, Brandon and CC review the overwhelming list of oddball films they caught at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest: shorts, documentaries, and narrative features. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– CC Chapman & Brandon Ledet

#NOFF2018 Ranked & Reviewed

Here we are almost a full month since the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival has concluded and I’m finally gathering all of titles I caught at the fest in one spot. CC & I will be recording a more fleshed-out recap of our festival experience on a near-future episode of the podcast (Episode 71, due early December) – in case you’re interested in hearing about the goings-on at the handful of downtown theaters where the festival was held, the various short films that preceded some of those screenings, and the reasons why we suspect Vox Lux is going to be the mother! of 2018. This list is a more bare-bones kind of recap: a ranking from the best to the . . . least best of the features we managed to catch at this year’s festival. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

1. Vox LuxLike mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.”

2. Pig Film “The degradation of the picture quality (as it was shot entirely on expired, second-hand film stock) combines with the grimy art-instillation surreality of its pig farm setting to establish an overriding sense of isolation & rot that feels more emotional & subliminal than overtly political. Human or not, our sole on-screen character is the last shred of humanity left stalking the mess of a planet we’ll soon leave behind, emptily mimicking the records of our behavior she finds in our rubble and converting that industrial garbage into beautiful song. It’s a gorgeous, grimy nightmare – a sinister poem.”

3. Chained for Life “At times eerie, howlingly funny, cruel, sweet, and disorienting, Chained for Life mines a lot of rich cinematic material out if its initial conceit of discussing Hollywood’s historic tradition of exploiting disabled & disfigured performers for gross-out scares & sideshow exploitation. Freaks isn’t the movie’s target so much as its jumping point, so that Browning’s self-contradictory act of empathetic exploitation is demonstrative of how disabled & disfigured people are represented onscreen at large.”

4. The Gospel of Eureka “The documentary finds its most satisfying groove in cutting back & forth between performances of the Gospel drag show & the Passion Play as they separately cycle through their respective routines. Performers on both sides apply their own make-up, lip-sync to pre-recorded soundtracks, and exaggerate their religious narratives to the point of over-the-top caricature – practically in unison thanks to editing room cross-cutting. More so than a shared passion for Biblical scholarship, they share a weakness for over-the-top pageantry; the only difference is that the drag end of the divide is self-aware of that commitment to camp & caricature, whereas the other end believes they’re merely being devout.”

5. United Skates “A documentary ‘about’ black skating rink culture that’s actually about how all pockets of black culture are policed & legislated out of existence in small, cumulative increments.”

6. Cane River (1982) – “Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance.”

7. Jules of Light and Dark“Dual coming of age stories— one for a smart kid in their early 20s and one for an overgrown man-child in their early 50s— are allowed to remain largely separate throughout Jules of Light and Dark, but they converge early when the fallout from ‘the last rave of the year’ leaves several characters in need of intensive post-trauma physical therapy. Estranged from their families because of their sexuality, our two disparate protagonists find unlikely kinship & emotional support in each other; their parallel tales of recovery are both quietly transformative, although never grand nor overachieving.”

8. Empty MetalEmpty Metal‘s greatest strength is in its direct, assertive call for violent uprising against vile real-life public figures. It’s a shame some of that direct, assertive messaging is lost in such a messy, loosely edited-together sci-fi narrative that just can’t muster up the enthusiastic momentum needed to match the energy of its politics.”

9. Nailed It “As fascinating, succinct, and stylish as Nailed It can be, the film never really transcends its limited means to become something especially great. It’s the kind of moderately successful documentary that gets by on the interest of its subject, when it has the promise to be so much more.”

10. This One’s for the Ladies . . . “As compelling (and visually interesting) as its subject matter can be, it’s undeniable that This One’s for the Ladies hits a wall somewhere in its brief 80min runtime. The pro wrestling & ball culture-style pageantry of the dance events never gets tiring, and the times the film documents the prurient pleasures therein it’s a hoot. Where it struggles to maintain that excitement is in the behind the scenes interviews with participants, which stray from discussing the dance event circuit to touch on issues of racial & economic inequality the film makes no point to explore in a distinct or substantive way.”

-Brandon Ledet

Vox Lux (2018)

The riskiest gamble of Vox Lux: “A 21st Century Portrait” is that it looks and sounds like a mainstream movie with wide appeal when it is, in reality, a purposefully divisive work meant to enrage & alienate. Featuring an Oscar reel-worthy performance from Natalie Portman (in full Black Swan mode) and arriving just in time to make that PR push happen, the film masquerades as a must-see Important Drama friendly to mainstream discussion in wide release. It’s the most flagrantly misrepresented film in that vein I’ve seen since mother!, however, and it’s sure too piss off just as many onlookers unprepared for the cold, mean, absurdist melodrama that awaits them. The funniest thing about that gamble is that this is a film about marketing and public perception. It’s about a pop culture artist who has a hostile relationship with the public, so it’s already sneering in the general direction of its inevitable detractors. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet it’s absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s a distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. There’s no way to properly market a work that tonally volatile to a mass audience, so the film is going to be paraded around like an Oscar Season drama when it’s actually something much weirder and more deeply sinister. It’s a Trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a concealed weapon; it’s a film I admired on its own merits, but also look forward to seeing it being met with hostile negativity.

Vox Lux’s cheeky air of self-importance extends beyond its festival circuit & Oscar Season release strategy. Its self-appointed intent to function as a “21st Century Portrait” is not only a reference to its depiction of a pop star’s rise from teenage darling to thirty-something monster, but also its cold, detached commentary on the modern world at large. A bitterly sarcastic antidote to the earnest, vulnerable pontification of 20th Century Women, the film is relayed through the dry, humorously overwritten narration of Willem Dafoe, who acts as our godlike tour guide of the last 20 years of terrorist violence & pop culture rot (and finding those two forces grotesquely symbiotic). Portman’s central character, Celeste, is a kind of cipher for this cultural commentary. A permanently scarred victim of domestic terrorism as a teenager, Celeste turns a personal tragedy into a hit song to achieve instantaneous fame, so that the film can comment directly on how horrific violence is marketed for easy profit. The pop music machinery of this divide is anchored by an original soundtrack of Sia compositions, performed by “Celeste.” The menacing violence of the world it exploits & mismarkets is represented in contrast by a horrifyingly minimalist score from Scott Walker, approximating his best 21st Century mutation of John Carpenter. That internal musical conflict matches the other binary confrontations represented throughout: pop vs. metal, terrorism vs. Public Relations, “real art” vs. “having an angle.” By the time the film reaches its climatic Celeste concert and all that’s left is the conflict between Sia’s songs & Dafoe’s narration, the clearest binary at play is Good Vs. Evil. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.

All that thematic discussion is just me intellectualizing the real reason I enjoyed this film: it’s fun to watch women misbehave, unconcerned with whether or not you like them. Celeste starts the film as a relatively normal teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy­­), but the circumstances of her rise to fame and 24/7 pampering transform her into a monstrous, irredeemable brat. Portman has way too much fun going over-the-top as a power-hungry villain in the role, chewing scenery with an exaggerated Staten Island accent and an addict’s insatiable desire for more, more, more. She admits her latest album cycle’s “sci-fi anthems” are creatively bankrupt in one breath, then claims she is a literal god in the next. She pretends to be a thick-skinned badass in a leather jacket, but crumbles at any mention of her glaring, public faults – a vulnerability visually represented by the decorative neck guards he uses to conceal the wounds from her teen-years tragedy. A lesser film would portray Celeste as a victim of her circumstances, a product of an abusive, exploitative culture and frustrated expression of mass violence. Vox Lux refuses to let her off the hook so easily, instead allowing her the space to alienate & enrage with a comically escalating set of temper tantrums and demands for attentive admiration. Even her one saving grace as an artist, the frequent defense that “at least she writes her own lyrics,” is demonstrated to be a vicious lie, as she constantly takes credit for loved ones’ work and then bullies them into silence. The concluding minutes of concert footage that gloss over all that backstage misery with a pure-fantasy pop star sheen only make her monstrous behavior more horrific in contrast: yet another internal conflict meant to sit queasily on the viewer’s stomach.

I don’t expect universal backup for my love of Vox Lux, nor do I really want it. Just like how the movie is perversely fun in its uncompromising depictions of a woman’s monstrous behavior, I suspect some of my enjoyment of it as a final product is its built-in divisiveness. There were several walkouts at our New Orleans Film Festival screening of the picture, and even the audience who remained to squirm in their seats weren’t sure what to do with the film’s cold brutality & absurd melodrama humor. You either revel in that discomfort or you dismiss the film as a failure, and I very much look forward to seeing the most polarized reactions in that binary divide. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where I look forward to reading their most fiercely negative reviews; that’s not something I’m used to getting out of an Oscar Season prestige release, so I find this instance especially exciting.

-Brandon Ledet