Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

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I had previously written on this site that the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was looking to crowdfund an American theatrical release, a campaign that was ultimately a success. I wrote that the movie “promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Having now actually seen What We Do in the Shadows, I am happy to report that the film not only met those expectations, but even greatly exceeded them. The most essential success of the film, however, was not what it had to add to the vampire genre, but just that it was simply riotously funny from start to finish.

Most of my favorite mockumentaries, titles like Best in Show & Drop Dead Gorgeous, aren’t necessarily well-told stories about personal growth and lessons learned. Instead, they’re more or less glimpses into the lives of already well-established characters as they prepare for a major life event, for instance a dog show or a beauty pageant. Staying true to that format, What We Do in the Shadows follows the lives of a small group of vampire roommates in the months leading up to their biggest annual celebration: The Unholy Masquerade, a grand party for the local undead. The Unholy Masquerade mostly serves as a climactic device that brings the film’s slowly boiling conflicts to a head, but what’s much more important is the characters that the “documentary” crew (who wear crucifixes for protection) follow in the months leading up to the event.

The film’s central vampire coven is a small crew consisting of an 18th century dandy, a torture-obsessed pervert, a 183 year old “young bad boy”, and an 8000 year old Nosferatu type named “Petyr”, who terrifies even his own undead flatmates. The group is mostly a collection of goofs, very much delusional in their outsized egos (a common trope in these Guest-style comedies), but also a true, formidable treat who fly, hypnotize, transform into bats & other creatures, and frequently murder unsuspecting victims with their incredibly sharp fangs. It’s a brilliant subject for an awkward comedy mostly concerned with trivial conflicts like a flatmate who doesn’t pull his weight on the chore wheel, the struggles of an active nightlife when you have to be formally invited into bars, meekly asking Petyr to sweep up the skeletons in his room, and struggling to adapt to the addition of a boisterous 5th roommate who shouts “I’m a vampire!” in public even more liberally than Nic Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. There’s some strange, ambitious concepts allowed by the film’s subject, like the existence of Hitler’s secret vampire army or depressed vampires wistfully watching footage of the sunrise on YouTube. It’s the clash of these ideas with the mundanity of modern life that make the film something special, like when one flatmate angrily shouts, “Just leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”

Co-writers/directors Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi (of Flight of the Conchords fame) have crafted a thoroughly funny film here that I expect to revisit often. They have added a few updates to the mockumentary format, like the inclusion of some reality show beats, but for the most part the film is a very straightforward genre execution. It just also happens to be a very funny one. What We Do in the Shadows is as great as a vampire mockumentary could possibly be. An exceptionally funny comedy overstuffed with loveable, but deeply flawed characters (they are bloodthirsty murderers after all) and endlessly quotable zingers, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more rewatchable execution of its basic concept. In other words, it’s an instant classic.

-Brandon Ledet

UPDATE: The What We Do in the Shadows Kickstarter was a Success!

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Last week I wrote that the upcoming Jemaine Clement/Taika Watiti vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was looking to fund an American theatrical release through a Kickstarter campaign. The film had already secured digital & home media distribution, but was struggling to reach American cinemas outside a couple screenings in New York & Los Angeles. At the time I wrote about the campaign to fund a wider theatrical release, it was barely more than halfway funded with only a week left to go. I am happy to report that the project has since reached its goal and will be able to hit a lot more local cinemas as a result (hopefully with New Orleans on its itinerary).

Last week, I described What We Do in the Shadows thusly: “It promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.” Judging by early reports it indeed is a very funny film and I hope that we will get to see & review it ourselves soon enough. Maybe even in the theater, thanks to the Kickstarter!

-Brandon Ledet

Get Excited! What We Do in the Shadows is Looking to Fund an American Theatrical Release

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A few years ago I was ready to concede that the vampire & zombie genres had reached their saturation points. In the mad rush to capitalize off of the successes of viable commodities like Twilight & The Walking Dead, the market has just been flooded with untold piles of subpar schlock like Vampires Suck & Zombeavers. Every now & then, however, a movie proves me wrong. I found the zom-coms Life After Beth & Warm Bodies to be surprisingly sweet and compassionate. The unfairly ignored Vamps was a return to form for Clueless-guru Amy Heckerling’s particular brand of social satire. I have yet to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, but from the advertising it seems to bring the 80’s classic The Hunger’s vampiric ennui into the 21st Century, an aesthetic I hadn’t considered would return. The endless implications & metaphors swirling around the undead have proved the genres endlessly adaptable, even if the final product isn’t always solid.

That’s why I’m hopeful for the New Zealand horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows. It promises to take the same ennui employed by Only Lovers Left Alive into the satiric comedy territory of Vamps. Posed as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film follows modern day vampires as they navigate mundane activities like nightlife, dealing with roommates, and searching for a bite to eat. They clash with the likes of witches, zombies, werewolves, and plain-old humans in a loosely-plotted slice of (undead) life comedy. From the looks of the trailer, it could be quite funny as well as a fresh take on a genre I once thought hopelessly stale.

What We Do in the Shadows is currently looking to fund an American theatrical release through a Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter’s page is helmed by the filmmakers themselves, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, two of the creative minds behind the cult-classic comedy series Flight of the Conchords (as well as the films Boy & Eagle vs Shark). Clement is also a major player in one my favorite dumb comedies, Gentlemen Broncos. He’s a very funny & talented performer that I wish didn’t have to beg for funding like this, but the worst part is that the campaign is barely more than halfway funded with just a week left to go.

Even if you are not in a position to donate to the film’s American distribution, at least visit the Kickstarter page for a humorous promo featuring Clement & Waititi themselves or maybe help spread it elsewhere on the internet. It would be great if more people could see this promising, self-funded comedy and it was rewarded for bringing undead concepts into unexpectedly fresh territory.

2/14/15 UPDATE: The project was a success!

-Brandon Ledet