Claire Denis’ L’Intrus was a foundational film in the development of my taste. It wasn’t the first of her films that I saw, but it was the one that really pulled me into an intense long-term relationship for her work. When I first saw it 15+ years ago, I thought it was one of the most stunning, enigmatic, alluring films I had ever seen. I recently watched Metrograph’s HD release and I felt the same way. It is my favorite Claire Denis film and in the running for my single favorite film of the last twenty years.
Most of Denis’ work has an elliptical quality; she forsakes the usual connective tissue of exposition and instead shows us evocative shards of narrative. L’Intrus pushes this tendency to its far extreme. At one point, we see the film’s unsympathetic protagonist, Louis Trebor, go to sleep in Geneva, Switzerland and then we see him wake up in Busan, South Korea. Further confounding the narrative, surreal waking events are juxtaposed with dreams in a way that unsettles the distinction between the two. But it would be a mistake to treat L’Intrus as an unsolvable riddle, as so many critics have. It’s not merely inscrutable phantasmagoria that we should let wash over us like a psychedelic lightshow. It’s presented as being inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “L’Intrus,” and we ought to take that connection seriously and think about the direction it points us in for engaging with the film. This is easier said than done, however, since Denis’ film is connected to the essay only in the most esoteric ways (Nancy himself said that he didn’t see the connection after his first viewing).
Nancy’s short essay relates the concept of the intruder to his own heart transplant years earlier. Denis’ film does involve a heart transplant and includes a number of intruders of various sorts, but extrapolates far beyond the content of the essay. At the beginning of the film, we meet Trebor, a mysterious old man living in the Jura mountains with two dogs. He is played by Michel Subor, the actor most famous for playing Bruno Forestier in Godard’s Le petit soldat. He has only appeared in a handful of films since 1990 and most of them are by Denis. Fascinatingly, this is one of two movies by her where his backstory is supplied by another movie that she did not direct. His character in Beau Travail is Bruno Forestier, the same character he played in Le petit soldat. In L’Intrus, our only glimpses into Trebor’s past are clips pulled from Paul Gégauff’s unfinished 1965 film Le Reflux, where he played a sailor in colonial Polynesia. In both Beau Travail and L’Intrus he is a lingering vestige of the colonial era. He also appears in Denis’ Bastards and White Material, in both cases a sort of dark apparition of the previous generation. White Material again has a colonial context while in Bastards Subor’s character is part of the aging generation of rapacious capitalists. Taking all this together, we can see that Subor’s place in Denis’ cinema is as an avatar of past sins living on in the present. In L’intrus, this avatar is the protagonist rather than a menacing peripheral character.
We never learn exactly what Trebor did for a living, but his vast illicit wealth and penchant for bloodshed suggests that he was some sort of mercenary (this is the standard interpretation, at least). We see him early in the film basking in a forest with his dogs in a sequence that resembles Straub-Huillet’s idyllic forest compositions (I’m not sure what to make of the connection but I point it out because it is an unusual point of reference for Denis):
We also see him struggling with chest pain while swimming in a mountain lake. We will later learn that he requires a heart transplant. After pulling himself ashore, clutching his heart and catching his breath, he finds a cigarette butt in the sand… evidence of an intruder in this idyllic space. He looks towards the forest. We are shown a woman slinking through the trees, out of sight.
This woman is listed in the credits as “La sauvageonne” (“The wild child”). She is one of three mysterious, unnamed female figures we encounter early in the film. The first is “la jeune femme russe” (“The young Russian woman”), who speaks the first words of the film: “Your worst enemies are hidden inside, in the shadow, in your heart.” The third is Trebor’s neighbor, played by the great BéatriceDalle. She is listed in the credits as “La reine de l’hémisphère nord” (“The queen of the northern hemisphere”). She lives alone with a whole brood of sled dogs but obviously hates Trebor and his dogs and considers him an intruder when he calls on her.
We also meet Trebor’s lover, “The pharmacist,” one of the few film roles of French model and singer Bambou (the longtime partner of Serge Gainsbourg). While basking in post-coital glow with her, he hears an intruder downstairs and gets up to investigate. We don’t see exactly what happens, but the intruder is La sauvageonne and Trebor apparently kills her with a knife before going back to bed. This is very possible a dream, but I think the film is ultimately unclear about this. We see him dispose of the body later, but we also see her alive later in the film (though that scene may very well have taken place earlier than the other events of the film, and there is some indication that it did– one can see why many consider L’Intrus an unsolvable riddle).
It’s becoming clear at this point that La sauvageonne is operating at a metaphorical level — we aren’t going to learn who she is or what she wants. We can find hints, however, in the text of Nancy’s essay. He writes, “My heart was becoming my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside. Yet this strangeness could only come from outside for having first emerged inside. A void suddenly opened in my chest or my soul—it’s the same thing—when it was said to me: “You must have a heart transplant. . . .”
The intruders appear for Trebor just as he has this realization– he must have a heart transplant. The flipside of accepting that one must have a heart transplant is accepting that someone else must lose their heart. The estrangement from one’s own heart is coupled with opening oneself to receive a strange heart. Strangers out in the world become possible donors– possible intruders. Later in the film, we learn that Trebor is particularly concerned that he not receive a woman’s heart, because he does not want to lose his character. At the same moment that Trebor experiences his own heart as an intruder, he apprehends himself as an open wound waiting to have his own intruding heart removed and then the cavity filled by the fresh intrusion of his future heart. The most apt way to understand La sauvageonne as Trebor’s projection of the unknown strangers who could provide his new heart. His killing of La sauvageonne can be understood as a ruthless step to prevent a woman’s heart from intruding into his body. She sneaks into the house in the dead of night to emasculate him while he lays naked with his lover. If this sequence is a dream, it’s a dream about his fear of receiving a woman’s heart.
When Trebor kills La sauvageonne, we also see the young Russian woman who delivered the opening lines of the film standing outside, watching and judging. Soon we see Trebor log on to an old computer and send an ominous message in Russian. He wants to take the “emergency option.” He is told he’ll need to bring money. We can infer that he is purchasing an illegal heart transplant on the black market. The person who responds to his message–we soon learn after Trebor travels to Geneva to retrieve cash from a safe deposit box–is the young Russian woman. He pays her a large wad of cash and also buys himself an expensive new watch. In a clear dream sequence (clear because we see him wake up from it), Trebor is dragged through the snow by the young Russian woman and another figure on horses. He protests “But I’ve already paid!” Her response is the apex of existential torment in the movie: “YOU’LL NEVER PAY ENOUGH.”
From here we see a post-transplant Trebor contracting with a South Korean shipyard for the construction of a large vessel. We don’t know exactly how large, but we know that the executives at the shipyard investigated Trebor’s finances and found that he has vast assets and the backing of a bank before they agreed to build the ship. He explains that it is a gift for his son, a sailor who loves the sea. They ink the deal and drink to celebrate. For the last section of the movie, we see Trebor in Tahiti, ostensibly searching for his lost son. This is the point of the movie where we see flashbacks to his youth pulled from Le Reflux. I haven’t mentioned this but earlier in the film we met another character who is evidently Trebor’s son, Sidney, played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin. Sidney is portrayed as an exceptionally empathetic and nurturing man– the polar opposite of Trebor. His wife is a border agent (someone who protects the border from intruders) and in a moving early scene we see him talk her through a sort of guided meditation after she returns home from work in obvious distress. In another earlier scene, we see Trebor meet Sidney’s wife on the street with her two young children. Trebor is surprised to see that they now have a girl in addition to the boy, but he is wrong. He’s told that not only is the younger child a boy, he’s even named after his grandfather: his name is Louis. Meanwhile the young Russian woman is seen looking on in judgment.
Does Trebor have two sons, one in France and one in Tahiti? Or does he only have one son, Sidney, and is his journey to Tahiti in search of his son a purely metaphorical element of the film? Perhaps Sidney was originally born to a Tahitian mother? The film provides no answer to these questions, though many critics assume that their are two sons. I do not think we are entitled to this assumption, especially in light of the ending, which I will not spoil here (but my point should be obvious for those who have seen it).
He explains that he wants to find his son in part because “everything I own is his.” But he cannot find his son anywhere, and islanders insist that he has become theirs, not Trebor’s. But Trebor finds his old hut and starts fixing it up to take up residence there (prompting the memorable image of he and a friend carrying a mattress through the shallow ocean waters).
What’s most striking to me through this section of the film is Trebor’s sense of entitlement to redemption. He is wealthy, therefore he is redeemed. Passing his wealth to his son– and gifting him a ship–redeems his actions. His previous words “but I’ve already paid!” gain a new resonance. “You’ll never pay enough.” Whether Sidney is his only son or not, his journey to Tahiti can be seen as a Gauguin-esque quest of selfishness. He has left behind a son who loves him. If Sidney is his only son, Denis’ surreal narrative gambit is doubly brutal. He brusquely passes on genuine redemption in order to pursue a grandiose romanticized version that serves only himself. It is he who is the sailor; it is he who loves the sea, not his son. It is he who is drawn to leave his family behind to despoil the southern hemisphere. His son waits faithfully in Europe, with a son of his own named after a grandfather who doesn’t care at all.
There is a large body of academic literature on L’Intrus and most of it focuses on the post-colonial dimension of the film. Trebor’s past in French Polynesian and his journey to Tahiti in the film must indeed be understood against France’s colonial history. This is a theme that pervades Denis’ work. But I think academic commentators make the mistake of downplaying the more personal dimension of L’Intrus in favor of its world-political dimension. The political dimension of the film is just one layer, and it is not a privileged layer. It is the macro-dimension of the personal story that the film is more closely concerned with. The ultimate intrusion is that of the northern hemisphere into the southern (which casts different light on the naming of Dalle’s character “the queeen of the northern hemisphere”). I will not discuss this dimension further here, but there is a large body of (not very exciting) scholarship on the topic waiting for anyone who cares. I prefer to take the colonial context as background rather than as foreground. It inflects the foreground, for sure, but it doesn’t supplant it.
To return to Nancy’s text:
“This was always, more or less, the life of the infirm and the aged: but, precisely, I am neither one nor the other. What cures me is what infects or affects me; what allows me to live causes me to age prematurely. My heart is twenty years younger than I am, and the rest of my body (at least) a dozen years older. So having at the same time become younger and older, I no longer have an age proper, just as, properly speaking, I am no longer my own age. Just as I no longer have an occupation, although I am not retired, so too I am nothing of what I am supposed to be (husband, father, grandfather, friend) unless I remain subsumed within the very general condition of the intrus, of diverse intrus that at any moment can appear in my place in my relations with, or in the representations of, others [autrui].
In a single movement, the most absolutely proper “I” withdraws to an infinite distance (where does it go?; into what vanishing point from which I could still claim that this is my body?) and subsides into an intimacy more profound than any interiority (the impregnable recess wherefrom I say “I,” but that I know to be as gaping [béant] as this chest opened upon emptiness, or as the slipping into the morphinic unconsciousness of suffering and fear, merged in abandonment). Corpus meum and interior intimo meo, the two together state very exactly, and in a complete configuration of the death of god, that the truth of the subject is its exteriority and excessivity: its infinite exposition. The intrus exposes me, excessively. It extrudes, it exports, it expropriates: I am the illness and the medical intervention, I am the cancerous cell and the grafted organ, I am the immuno-depressive agents and their palliatives, I am the bits of wire that hold together my sternum, and I am this injection site permanently stitched in below my clavicle, just as I was already these screws in my hip and this plate in my groin. I am becoming like a science-fiction android, or the living-dead, as my youngest son one day said to me…..
The intrus is no other than me, my self; none other than man himself. No other than the one, the same, always identical to itself and yet that is never done with altering itself. At the same time sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-equipped, intruding upon the world and upon itself: a disquieting upsurge of the strange, conatus of an infinite excrescence.”
Nancy isn’t the sort of writer who goes out of his way to make sense, but there is a relatively clear thought in this bit of the essay. His transplant represented a sort of intrusion of the other into himself, but at the same time the strain of going through it aged the rest of his body. He ends up with a younger heart than before but otherwise feels older. He is, at the end point of the process, composed entirely of parts that he experiences as intruders, and therefore is himself “the intruder.”
I take this passage to be the lynchpin connecting the film and the essay. The film begins by chronicling a series of intrusions as experienced by Trebor, but it ends up with the realization that he’s been the intruder all along. You may find this a cryptic closing thought on my part, but it is appropriate to such a wonderfully cryptic film. L’Intrus doesn’t simply hand itself over to any viewer who stumbles in. On first viewing, it’s hard not to experience the film itself as a sort of intruder. Like most of Denis’ work, it takes more than one viewing to even begin to unearth its riches. My aim here is just to offer a sketchy map pointing towards a way of engaging with it that I’ve found fruitful.
At every party my dad ever attended, sooner or later he’d wind up surrounded by a group of people laughing hysterically while he told jokes. The jokes he told often weren’t very good. If you read them on paper, most of them would not make you laugh. The magic was in the way he told them. It was a full-blown performance: he did voices, he jumped up and down, he snarled and bared his teeth, he leaned into the dirty parts. He had extraordinary charisma and rejected ordinary social inhibitions and their attendant shames. Jon Strohl said what was on his mind, whether it was anywhere near appropriate or not. He was entirely willing to get into avoidable confrontations. When a school principal called to complain about me or my brother, he wouldgo directly on the attack, launching into legalistic complaints about the school’s failure to meet our needs and threatening to sue.
My dad didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of him and he raised us to not give a fuck what anyone thought of us. He swore profusely and instilled in us the aesthetic virtue of swearing. “A well-placed ‘fuck’ makes all the difference, Matthew.” He had a big heart and a ferocious hatred of bullies and he always stuck up for anyone he saw being mistreated. He was a passionate advocate for the mentally ill and his life’s work was in mental health services. He was extremely proud of the way that he was able to deploy his forceful personality over the course of his career to make positive changes in the lives of patients.
Jon Strohl was a brash character and he made a big impression. As my brother Josh put it, “he didn’t filter himself, and people liked that about him.” In what follows, I’ve assembled key events and important stories from his life in an effort to say something about who he was and what he meant to the people who loved him.
On his birth and upbringing:
Jonathan Peter Strohl was originally named Gary Lee Coleman. He didn’t like to talk about the fact that he was adopted, but he always told me that he was originally the product of an illicit affair between an older Italian man and a young German woman, both first generation immigrants from the WWII era. There are conflicting accounts, but we believe his birth mother was around 16 years old when he was born in 1948. She had other children, but he had no interest in ever seeking them out. “My parents are my parents, my family is my family, and that’s that.” There was a lot of pain behind that attitude, but it wasn’t a pain that he ever wanted to acknowledge.
He was adopted by Chester and Mary Strohl. He was their only child. Chester was a minister in the Lutheran church and a veteran of WWII, where he served as a chaplain and received a Purple Heart (“The Germans treated the cross on my back like a target,” he once told me). His mother Mary was very much a pastor’s wife. She worked alongside Chester in the series of churches they ran throughout my father’s childhood. They were both devoutly religious and very strict, and although my father loved them very much he did not inherit their religiosity. He was a defiant person who disdained all forms of authority and there’s no doubt that this aspect of his character had roots in his strict religious upbringing.
Chester specialized in rehabilitating churches in financial difficulty, and so my father spent much of his childhood moving from place to place. The two places he talked about the most were Lake Ronkonkoma (on Long Island) where he grew up and Burnt Hills (near Albany) where he went to high school. He fondly remembered the time he spent living near NYC and often talked of his love for Coney Island and its Cyclone roller coaster.
On his origin story:
My dad didn’t just tell jokes, he was also an extraordinary storyteller. There is absolutely no doubt about what his signature story was: The Ballad of Barry Franc(k). This is his origin story. I heard him tell it so many times. When I was in high school, sometimes when we were bored my friends would suggest we go over to my house and get my dad to tell that story again. It’s such a good story that we always assumed he was exaggerating at least a little bit, but when he started to get sick years back a couple of his old friends from high school who we had never met before came to visit and they confirmed that not only is the story entirely true, he had been underselling certain aspects of it. I could never tell it the way he does, but I can reconstruct the key events. When he told this story, though, it was more of a one-man play. It took him about a half an hour and he got so into it that it felt like he was going to break something. Here’s my best attempt. Actual lines from the way my dad told it are marked with quotes:
Barry Franc(k) was a bully. “He had greasy fucking slicked back hair and he walked around with two chickeypoos on his arms.” Barry demanded that his last name be pronounced franc, like the former French currency, and got angry when anyone called him Barry FRANK, like the hot dog. (Amazingly, my brother and I have opposite memories of this part of the story. He thinks Barry’s name was actually ‘Frank’ and didn’t like to be called ‘Franc‘. If anyone who heard him tell the story has a clear memory either way, please let us know).
My dad at the time was a short, pudgy high school freshman and Barry had taken to bullying him. My dad didn’t back down, but instead taunted him by mispronouncing his last name. Barry beat the crap out of him one day and capped it off flushing his head down the toilet and badly humiliating him in front of a large crowd.
So what did my dad do? He got a paper route. He got up at 5 every morning and delivered 120 papers and then he used the money he earned to buy a bench and a set of weights. He started obsessively weight training. During lunch breaks he biked home to lift, he skipped dances to stay home and lift. Over the course of two years he got frickin’ ripped. He was not a tall man at 5’6”, but his short stature and muscular build were perfect for wrestling and powerlifting, and he became very successful at these sports. He also played football, where his teammates called him “Sparkplug.” He set a northeastern states record for bench press in his weight class, benching 275 when he weighed 148 (as a high school student).
Having completed this transformation from vulnerable freshman to invincible beast, he confronted Barry Franc(k) yet again after the bully shoulder-checked him in the hallway. “Right up in front of his chickeypoos I said ‘Hey Barry FRANK, long time no see.’” “Didn’t I teach you a lesson already!”
They had another fight. One part of the story that he left out that we learned from his old highschool friends is that the fight was planned and even advertised with flyers made by other students. Teachers did nothing to stop the fight. The whole school wanted to see Sparkplug teach Barry the Bully a lesson. And teach him a lesson he did.
The story of the second fight cannot be captured on paper. My dad acted it out, and it would be impossible to overstate how into it he got. The gist of it, though, is that he beat the ever living shit out of Barry. “I grabbed him by his greasy fucking hair and I SMASHED his face into the urinal, and I SMASHED it again, and I flushed his greasy fucking face down the toilet, and I threw him into the fucking wall….” At the end, he dragged Barry half-conscious into the school hallway and held him aloft by his greasy fucking hair, declaring once and for all: “Here’s Barry FRANK for ya.”
Another part of the story that he always left out was that the entire school started chanting his name and they lifted him up and carried him out of the building as a hero.
On his adventures and misdeeds as a young man:
Not all of my dad’s high school antics were so glorious. He was a rebellious pastor’s son and he raised hell. Most notoriously, he found out that his German teacher had called the cops to report him for driving his convertible around the neighborhood too fast. My dad knocked on the teacher’s door and punched him squarely in the face when he opened it. He failed German that year.
As a wrestler, he often boasted that he was “meaner than a shithouse rat.” He once bit an opponent in the testicles during a match. My brother asked, “Dad, what did this guy say to you after you bit him in the nuts?” “He said ‘fuck you!” “And what did you say?” “I said’ ‘fuck YOU!!!!”
On his John Belushi years:
My dad attended Hartwick and joined a fraternity. He showed me Animal House as a kid and told me that everyone always compared him in college to John Belushi. He has two particularly famous stories from this era. He had one frat brother who he really didn’t like. That guy was shut in his room with a girl and my dad threw a full keg of beer through the wall. He also famously drove a riding lawnmower through the building and mowed the carpet.
He loved to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and smoke menthol cigarettes. He also enjoyed smoking weed and could roll a joint with one hand while driving (I saw him do it), but rarely touched hard drugs. He attended an Acid Test party in his youth without realizing it and drank a large amount of LSD spiked Kool-Aid that he mistook for a weak cocktail. I recently learned that no one else in my family had heard this story but he always told me that he woke up two weeks later in a different state with no desire to ever take LSD again. He had an epic amount of fun in his party days, but his drinking eventually became one of the saddest things about his life. I’m not going to focus on the sad parts in this remembrance, but suffice to say that his drinking was unhappy in his 50’s. For the last phase of his life he switched to non-alcoholic beer and e-cigarettes and had a pretty tame old age (much to his dismay)
On his military service:
My dad really, really did not want to go to Vietnam. He had been invited to train for the Olympics in power lifting but turned it down to go to college, and then after he finished college he promptly joined the Army reserves to avoid being drafted. He often talked about being stationed in Texas where he had a great time crossing the border to party in Mexico but was extremely bored on base. This was the era where he got interested in chess and learned all sorts of card tricks and also how to roll joints and cigarettes with one hand.
When he visited Montana for my wedding, I found him vaping in the hotel lobby and dragged him outside, where we ran into a couple biker guys with Vietnam veteran hats on. My dad walked right up to them and was like “You’re a Vietnam vet? Cool! I’m a draft dodger.”
On his career in mental health services and his moral convictions concerning the treatment of the mentally ill:
Jon was a psychology major and after he finished his military service he moved to Elmira, NY, where his parents lived, and got a job at the Elmira Psychiatric Center. This was the beginning of a 40 year career in mental health services. He said to me many times that the two things that he was the most proud of in life were his three kids and the concrete ways that his work improved the treatment of mentally ill people in western New York. He showed me One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a kid to illustrate the way that mentally ill people had historically been treated and saw it as his calling in life to work to provide the best possible care for patients and to enable them to move out of institutions and live productive lives in the community.
My dad loved his patients. He took calls any time, day or night. He loved just hanging out with them at the Psych Center (as it was called). He brought us with him as small kids and introduced us to them. He always adamantly reinforced the idea that mentally ill people are just people and we shouldn’t be afraid of them or treat them differently than we’d treat anyone else. Indeed, he taught us that people who are different tend to be really interesting and cool and they have a lot to offer if we give them the chance. We’d often run into patients and former patients when we were out doing errands and they were always so happy to see him. He’d greet them happily and introduce us to them and they’d often tell us how great a guy he was. I always had the sense that he’d much rather hang out with his patients than with people who society had dubbed “normal.”
He started out working directly with patients, including troubled teens and inmates in the Elmira State prison. He told me that going into the state prison had been extremely intimidating. This is a serious facility and he was working with people who had been convicted of the most serious crimes. His strategy? He brought potato chips and hot sauce with him. He loved this combination and he made friends with inmates by bringing plenty to share.
During this period, in his 20’s, he fostered a teen girl named Velvet for a period of time. She showed up at our house when I was a kid to tell him what a big difference he had made in her life. I didn’t remember this bit until my mom told me about it recently. I would be intensely curious to talk to Velvet if she ever stumbles upon this and wants to reach out.
While working in mental health services he also nearly completed a Master’s degree in psychology. He was, sadly, kicked out of the program after insulting a professor in class who he thought had no understanding of actual clinical practices, “those who can’t do, teach!” I looked through the paperwork that he saved from this event and it’s heart-breaking. They used his low GRE verbal score to kick him out while he protested that he had a verbal learning disability and should be granted an exception given his strong performance overall. He eventually went back to school at age 40 while raising three kids and working full time. He completed his Master’s in community service, which led to him moving up the career ladder. He spent much of his career working for the state as a program analyst. The way he explained it, his job was making sure that all of the programs receiving state funding for mental health services in Western NY were using that money in the way that would be most beneficial for patients. He was, as he put it, a “ball buster,” but he saw this as a duty. He didn’t fuck around when it came to standards of patient care.
A former colleague wrote on his memorial page this week, “Jon was a brilliant policy planner with boundless energy and exceptional creativity.” Another wrote, “I will always remember him entering our office with a burst of energy, along with his amazing smile and laugh. He never turned away clients or family members in need of services or guidance.”
On his wrestling of a fish:
To this day, there’s a large taxidermied king salmon hanging on the wall of my parents’ house. It’s like a 30 pound fish. He often told the story of its origin: he had gone up to Pulaski, NY to fish the first day of salmon season. It was a miserable affair. Men lined up shoulder-to-shoulder along the banks of the Salmon River in the freezing dead of night and waited hours for sunrise when they could legally begin fishing. A lot of drinking was involved. He had endured this a couple times before without catching anything and was just overwhelmed with excitement when he hooked his first big salmon. When he finally got it to the shore, however, it shook off the hook and flipped back into the water.
What did Jon do? He dove into the fucking water in middle of winter and wrestled the fish. He wrapped his arms and legs around it and then just started pummeling it with his fist. When it was unconscious, he dragged it out of the water in triumph and decided to have it taxidermied.
This was another story where we thought he might be exaggerating, but one of my brother’s first jobs was working for a local hardware store that was owned by one of my dad’s old fishing buddies. When the owner realized who my brother was he was like, “You’re Jon Strohl’s son??? Did you know that he once dove into the Salmon River and punched a fish to death??? Wildest shit I’ve ever seen.”
On Strohly’s House for Unwed Boys:
My dad had an unhappy first marriage in his 20’s. I can say with great confidence that this was his least favorite topic and so I never asked too many questions about it, but it was a marriage in name only and he never let go of his anger about it (he actually even had another marriage that was quickly annulled when he was young, which none of us knew about until very recently). After his unhappy marriage ended he established Strohly’s House for Unwed Boys: an 120 year old farmhouse in Breesport, NY that he bought for next to nothing. It was a ramshackle building and the foundation was infested with snakes. He had a number of bachelor friends living with him and they partied hard and did lots of hunting and fishing.
On his whirlwind courtship and marriage to the love of his life:
My dad met my mom when he was 31 and she was 22. He saw her in a bar and begged a mutual friend to introduce him. The way he told it, “I was never faithful to a woman before your mother, but I’ve never looked at anyone else since I met her.” It turned out that they had both gone to Hartwick (though she had transferred to Cornell) and their parents knew each other. Her father was very involved in the local Lutheran church. She always said that he “swept her off her feet.” He was in extremely good shape and he was funny and charming and absolutely crazy about her. He proposed after three weeks and she accepted three weeks later. They were married seven months after they met. I was born ten months and ten days later. They remained married until his death 40 years later. Till his last day he often said that my mom was the best thing that ever happened to him.
On the early years of the Strohl family:
We were poor when I was born. We slept in the same room together huddled up under an electric blanket. The main source of heat for the house was a wood-burning stove, and then we also used a kerosene heater. The main oil heater was too expensive to run. Snakes would suddenly appear from cracks in the walls. I will never forget the day my dad and his friends tore out the old stone porch and revealed an Indiana Jones-worthy pit of snakes. Like, thousands of snakes. My brother was born in this house as well but we eventually moved into town after a freak accident where he slipped and cut the artery of his wrist on a piece of glass. We only had one car and my dad was at work, so I had to run to the neighbor’s house to get someone to drive him to the hospital.
We owned a property on Seneca lake that he bought for next to nothing. It had a small structure but no running water. We usually slept in a camper when we were up there. He loved “pulling copper” for huge lake trout and we spent countless weekends up there fishing and swimming. Those were some of the happiest times of my childhood.
On his bittersweet ascent to the middle class:
My dad did not like living in town. He always said that he wanted “autonomy,” which to him meant being able to do what you want on your own property and not be restricted by neighbors or cops. He liked to shoot guns out in the backyard and have loud parties.
Also at this time he started to become busier and busier at work. He mostly stopped hunting and didn’t go fishing as much. He took up golf, which he was terrible at but enjoyed. What I think he enjoyed about it most was getting day drunk and riding around in a golf cart with his buddies.
Sadly, these changes did not make him happier overall. He had obsessive compulsive disorder and didn’t cope very well with stress. There were still lots of good times, but he missed his old life, when he was poor and free and happy and his neighbors lived further away.
On his parenting:
My dad’s resistance to authority carried through to his parenting style. He was adamant about letting us become our own people and not trying to mold us into any preconceived image. He supported us in whatever we were interested in and set few limits. As Strohltopia readers know, my brother Josh and I became avid movie buffs. From a very young age he exposed us to grown up movies and let us pick whatever we wanted from the video rental store. There was never a time when we weren’t allowed to watch R-rated movies. It was awesome. We were very well-developed cinephiles before we even got to high school.
On his favorite movies:
My dad liked to watch the same movies over and over and over again. He had a small set of perennial favorites and then there were two other categories he was interested in: “movies with T&A” (this was how her referred to the erotic thrillers that were popular in the 90’s), and “rock ‘em sock ‘em action.”
Throughout my childhood, he was obsessed with the movie Dirty Dancing. He had visited a similar resort in the Catskills as a kid in the 50’s and it was extremely nostalgic for him. We must have watched it 200 times. We kids would get super embarrassed when Jennifer Grey took her shirt off but then we would become animated and dance around the house during the big finale. “No one puts Baby in a corner.” God, he loved it.
But without a doubt the movie that he watched the most was My Cousin Vinny. I would make a hefty wager that no living person has seen the movie My Cousin Vinny more times than my dad. For years and years you’d find him watching it multiple times per week, always laughing hysterically. One of my fondest memories of him, as silly as it is, was the time that I came home to visit from college and found him STILL watching My Cousin Vinny. I was like “DAD, do you seriously still find this movie funny?” He didn’t answer my question directly, he just started doing an impression of Marisa Tomei and laughing hysterically: “You’re gonna shoot a deer?? A sweet, innocent, doe-eyed little deer?”
He also loved big historical epics (e.g., Spartacus, Ben Hur) and movies where the underdog makes good (e.g.,The Bad News Bears, Sister Act). Pretty much any time you’d ask him if he wants to watch a movie he would propose Ben Hur.
On his pool game:
My dad was a great pool player. I honestly have never seen a better one in person. I never once saw him lose a game of pool. He certainly never let me win. When he was in college his parents sent him 10 dollars a month to live on. He used that as a starting point for betting on games and essentially paid his way through college by hustling. “I had a misspent youth,” he always explained when people marvelled at how good he was. He preferred to play straight pool (like in The Hustler) and disliked 9 Ball (and partly for this reason didn’t like The Color of Money as much), but he typically settled on 8 Ball because the mechanics of straight pool led to everyone else sitting around watching while he ran the table. He often talked about how on one occasion some old timer had taught him a lesson and hustled him good, which made him so angry that he broke his beloved ivory pool cue over his knee and stopped playing for serious money.
In a favorite example of his off-color sense of humor, on one occasion he was teaching my brother and his friends how to handle a pool cue. He slowly demonstrated the motion and explained with evocative inflection, “It’s like stickin’ your dick in something smooth… it’s like stickin’ your dick in something smooth.” My sister Alexis interjected, “DAD!!!” Surprised that she was in the room, he immediately corrected himself, “Sorry, Alexis. It’s like buttering your corn… it’s like buttering your corn.”
On his evening ritual:
Once my dad settled into the trudge of middle class life, he had a very funny nightly ritual of changing out of his suit, putting on ripped jeans and an old flannel shirt, and standing around in the kitchen for a couple hours in his underwear, smoking, drinking, and watching cable news while he made these weird and meticulous little notes on pieces of ripped up paper that he kept in a neat little stack and carried around with him. These notes were an expression of his OCD and one of his only strict rules was that no one was ever allowed to disturb them or get them out of order.
Another strict rule was that no one else was allowed to touch his grapefruit soda. He switched from beer to a cocktail of grapefruit soda and cheap vodka, and he was infuriated by the notion that anyone else might drink any of his soda and he might run out in the middle of the night or something. We (of course) loved to mess with him and take swigs of soda when he wasn’t looking. He started drawing a line on the grapefruit soda bottle with a sharpie to make sure no one could get into it without him knowing. Since we actually did like grapefruit soda we tried buying our own, but he simply commandeered it and wouldn’t let us have any. The rule was very clear: no one but Jon Strohl gets any grapefruit soda in this house.
On his transplant and declining health
My dad’s years of hard drinking and an earlier bout with Hepatitis B caught up with him in his late 50’s and he was diagnosed with terminal liver problems. He had extremely good health insurance from New York State, however, and my mom fought hard and somehow got him a liver transplant. This is a difficult topic for me, because as a recovering alcoholic myself I am vividly aware of how many people die of alcoholism without ever having a chance for a transplant. Indeed, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of another example of someone who had liver problems due to alcohol use getting a transplant.
By all reasonable expectations he had no chance of surviving this first terminal illness, but survive it he did. I am profoundly grateful for the extra years he got as a result, but I also feel tremendous sorrow for all the people who have died without getting the same opportunity. The 13 years that my dad lived after his transplant were a gift.
Unfortunately, his health never fully rebounded. He had several years of complications from the transplant and we nearly lost him several times. Eventually his transplant stabilized but he started to develop other health problems: Alzheimer’s, congestive heart failure, a stroke. He had many, many brushes with death but proved to be incredibly resilient.
On his dementia:
Dementia is a heartbreaking thing and I know that it’s a brutal experience for many familes. However, I hope I can offer some comfort to those with loved ones in the early stages of dementia by reporting that in my dad’s case it really wasn’t all that bad and there were even some good things about it. My dad had become a pretty cantankerous person in his 50’s and he actually became much nicer and less angry as dementia set in. He turned into a silly old guy who smiled a lot and struggled with benign confusion about what the fuck year it was. He would come into the room with a bow tie and a t-shirt on and say he was getting ready for the high school dance. When he watched his The Godfather late in life he remarked “this is a fantastic movie, how have I never seen this before?” “Dad, you’ve seen The Godfather.” “No I haven’t. I’d remember.” It really didn’t seem too bad to me: I wouldn’t mind getting to see The Godfather for the first time again.
He was very funny during these years. He’d vape in inappropriate places and then when his vape pen ran out of batteries he’d try to light it like a cigarette. It was dangerous but it never stopped being funny (and all of his vape pens had melted ends).
One of the funniest stories from this stage of his life was the time he shaved his head. He was left alone at the house and decided to shave it himself. He didn’t do a great job. My mom walked in and found him with a few bloody spots on his scalp. He grinned, “Hey Patti, you want some strange?????”
On his love of dogs:
Late in life, my dad had our pit bull Roxie as his constant companion. She watched over him in his sickbed and slept beside him. She was one of many dogs he dearly loved in his life. There’s no question, though, that his greatest canine love was a German Shepherd named Cassandra (Cassie) who he had for 14 years. The first time I ever saw him cry was the day he had her put to sleep. He actually took her in twice. The first time he dropped her off and went out to the car because he couldn’t be there to watch it happen. He couldn’t do it and ran back inside to take her home for one last night, then brought her back the next day. God, he loved that dog so much. She was very smart and understood complex commands and he took her everywhere with him off leash. He’d walk into the bar with her and when the bartender said no dogs allowed he’d point to a barstool and she’d jump right up and sit there politely. He’d say “that’s not a dog, that’s a paying customer. I’ll have a beer and she’ll have a beer.” And the dog would drink an entire beer directly from the glass.
Today, my sister has a German Shepherd named Kassie. She doesn’t drink beer but she’s a very sweet dog.
In one particularly unpleasant ordeal, we had a Rottweiler named Zoe who was big and excitable but basically just a lovemonster. By that point we had moved out of the suburban wasteland and lived on top of a hill where we had a little more of the autonomy my dad valued so much. People liked to jog up the hill for exercise, and there was one woman in particular who jogged with some sort of club (or was it even a cattle prod?) that she brought to protect herself against dogs. We never knew for sure, but we always suspected that Zoe (who was restrained by an electric fence) had run near the end of the driveway and barked at her and she had attacked the dog with her weapon. For whatever reason, Zoe absolutely hated this one woman and would get very riled up whenever she ran by. On one occasion, she burst through the electric fence and bit her. Her husband came to the house to complain. My dad was never very responsive to complaints about his family or his animals and he basically said, “Oh, does your wife like to jog up here? Get her exercise? Stay in shape? Well FUCK you and FUCK her. She can jog somewhere else and leave my dog the hell alone.” “If you won’t agree to keep your dog restrained, I’m going to call animal control.” “Go ahead, you miserable prick.”
An agent from animal control did come, and Zoe jumped up on his lap and licked his face while he cooed “oh you are not a vicious dog are you? Oh you cutie you’re not a vicious dog!” He remarked that the woman was singularly unpleasant and that it seemed to him like the dog had her number. He concluded that she must have done something to provoke Zoe and we suffered no consequences.
On his happy last years and the birth of his grandchildren:
The greatest gifts of my dad’s extra years were that he got to see all three of his kids get married and he got to meet his three grandchildren. My wife Angela adored him and he adored her. He would always forget that we were married and then when we reminded him he would congratulate me on having married such a wonderful woman. My brother Josh and his wife Izzy have a three-year old girl named Sky and a baby boy named Charles Bronson. My sister Alexis and her husband Mickey have a baby boy (born one month after Charley) named Lachlan.
Given the health troubles he had, we all consider it a tremendous blessing that he got these last few happy years. Sky loved her Baba so much, and was always checking on him to make sure he was okay and bringing him blankets to make sure he was warm enough. She wrote a little “letter” to him after he died and I can’t think about that without tears flowing.
On a silly memory:
When I think about the happiest times with my dad, I remember something extremely silly, and that’s note I want to close on. One night, when I was around college age, he and I were hanging out alone watching Saturday Night Live. My mom didn’t allow pot smoking in the house but we freely ignored her (she just yelled and yelled about it and no one really paid any attention– sorry mom hahaha). We smoked a great big joint and laughed our asses off. There was one particular sketch with Norm Macdonald as Lou Gehrig that really wasn’t anything spectacular but that made my dad laugh just about the hardest I ever saw him laugh. Here it is:
I can still picture his face. We laughed for what felt like 15 minutes. We were rolling around in stitches. He just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually my mom came down and was like “what the hell is going on down here? IS THAT POT I SMELL?????” which made us laugh even harder. She didn’t understand what was so funny. “You had to be there, Patti.”
I remember that silly moment because it was maybe the purest happiness I ever felt in just being with him. I miss you, dad, and I always will.
A friend contacted me recently with an urgent query: “I’m out of stuff to watch and the only things my friends are recommending are bougie serials with good dialogue. Help!” Clearly, it’s time for a new round of streaming recommendations.
Paid rentals (these are on multiple platforms)
The Kid Detective (2020)
This Canadian noir is one of the best new releases from 2020. The setup is that Adam Brody was a kid detective à la Encyclopedia Brown who grew up to become a loser private eye. A young woman comes to him with his first big case in ages: her boyfriend’s murder. The big case doubles as a quest for self-knowledge and personal reckoning. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that while the movie is quite funny, it also achieves surprising gravitas. It is ultimately very heavy. Indeed, the emotional fallout from watching this stayed with me for several days.
Joan of Arc (aka Jeanne) (2020)
We loved Bruno Dumont’s 2017 headbanging musical Jeannette (aka The Childhood of Joan of Arc) and were dismayed when early reviews painted the follow up as more conventional and less inventive. We were delighted to discover that these early reviews were total bullshit. This movie is way out there. It *is* a musical, but the music is handled much differently than in the first movie. While it’s not a full-on absurdist comedy like much of Dumont’s other recent work, the trial material has absurdist elements. This is not for everyone, but if you like Jeannette, you should absolutely see this. (NB, we like the French titles Jeannette and Jeanne much better than the English titles!)
Prime still reigns supreme among the most popular services, with a really fantastic catalogue of genre movies. The main downside is that you have to be careful about aspect ratio and overall quality. The most time-consuming part of writing these recommendations is vetting the damn amazon selections for quality (it’s really annoying, there’s one title below where two different versions are on amazon and one is much better quality than the other).
Oh, baby! This is a real treat. It’s been on prime for ages in terrible quality and the wrong aspect ratio. Finally, the restored version! This is one of my favorite films by Italian genre maverick Lucio Fulci. It’s part of the 80’s wave of sword & sorcery flicks kicked off by the success of Conan the Barbarian. It is *wild*. The entire film is shot through a foggy lens filter, and then he pumped as much fog as he possibly could into every scene. The result is like a transmission from another dimension. Handsome young adventurer Illias is given a magic bow by the god Cronos, which it turns out is the only weapon that can kill the evil witch Ocron. Ocron sends her army of werewolves to retrieve the bow, promising that she will take away the sun for all time. Illias teams up with an older misanthropic loner played by Jorge Rivero, and their relationship simmers with delightful homoerotic subtext.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Note that there are two versions of this movie on Prime. The one labeled 2018 with the yellow thumbnail is poor quality. The one labeled 1964 with the orange and red thumbnail is good quality.
This is the film that popularized the giallo and established many of its most prominent conventions. Set in a fashion house, full of luscious production design, and filmed by Bava in a vibrant and exaggerated style, this is one of the greatest and most essential gialli. Beautiful murder, and lots of it.
The Sweeper (1996)
PM Entertainment was a production company founded by the owner of a chain of Las Vegas pizza restaurants that churned out cheap direct-to-video action jams in the 90’s. It’s not for everyone. I had to progress pretty far in my journey into the depths of low budget action cinema before I learned to appreciate PM Entertainment. Still, their very best titles will appeal broadly to fans of B-movies, and this is one of their best. It’s about a cop who won’t play by the rules and so is recruited by a secret society of vigilantes. If you like this kind of thing, this is a delicacy.
PM Entertainment Gary Daniels double feature: Rage (1995) and Recoil (1998)
Two parts of the PM Entertainment Gary Daniels “R” trilogy. Riot is missing. Recoil has mandatory commercials because it’s on the IMDB channel rather than Prime, but Rage plays without commercials. If you like Sweeper and/or you have a taste for British kickboxer-turned-actor Gary Daniels, don’t miss these. Rage is about a schoolteacher who gets caught up in a nefarious plot. Recoil is a revenge movie about a cop taking on the mob.
Blind Fury (1990)
If you’re around my age, this probably has immense nostalgia value for you. I watched it like 100 times as a kid. It’s an American riff on Zatoichi (the blind swordsman), starring Rutger Hauer.
Super weird Ringo Lam-Jean Claude Van Damme movie. This doesn’t have a ton of action but it does have an absolutely bonkers premise (which I won’t give away) and two especially wild Van Damme performances (this is one of the three movies where he plays two roles).
Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Very good sword & sorcery schlock. Peak Jack Palance.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995) – Also on Hulu
This has aged extremely well. I remember how unpopular it was upon initial release, but in retrospect it’s mostly just amazing that such an uncompromised example of cyberpunk was sold for mass consumption. The cast is deep and awesome, but Dolph is without question the MVP.
Not my favorite Italian Star Wars knockoff (that would be The Humanoid), but certainly the craziest. This thing is way, way out there. It’s worth watching for the production design alone in my opinion, but your results may vary.
The Boss (1971)
In Italian exploitation movies from this era, actors usually spoke whatever language they were most comfortable with during filming and then multiple audio tracks were dubbed in post-production. The English track often fits at least as well as the Italian track does, but there are many exceptions. Sometimes the English track uses alternate voice actors where the Italian track uses the actual cast, or sometimes the Italian track is just much better than the English track. When available, I always compare both to see which I like better. As a rule of thumb, most Italian horror movies can be watched in English, Westerns are about 50-50, and most poliziotteschi should be watched in Italian. This is a poliziotteschi and part of a trilogy by Di Leo (who most Americans would know best from his collaborations with Sergio Leone). Caliber 9, part of the same trilogy, is also on prime but it’s in English and I would not recommend watching it that way (though I like it even better than this film and would recommend seeking it out). The problem with the English tracks for these movies is that the characters are usually supposed to be formidable badasses and the English dubbing makes them sound goofy. It takes off the hard, gritty edge that poliziotteschi are supposed to have. It works much better for horror because most Italian horror films from this period have a more outlandish tone.
Anyways, this is a very representative and very good poliziotteschi with Henry Silva as a hit man who gets involved in a mob war, though it’s not in the highest tier of Di Leo’s output.
Easily my favorite of Spike Lee’s latter-day output, this is a formally ambitious adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, transposed to South Chicago.
Homefront (2013) and Redemption (2013)
Not one but TWO movies from 2013 where Jason Statham is a military veteran who needs to fight one last battle. Both are upper-tier Statham.
Soi Cheang is one of the best directors working in the post-handover Hong Kong film industry. This one is extra slick in the Milkyway house style. It’s a paranoid thriller (reminiscent of The Conversation) about a hitman who specializes in faking accidents.
Rogue City (2020)
Excellent French crime yarn (set in Marseille), full of dirty cops and drug traffickers of all stripes. It’s the sort of gritty, expansive, technically sound genre cinema we rarely see in the US anymore.
Between Worlds (2018)
I believe I’ve recommended this before, but if you want to get your Nicolas Cage on, this is absolutely hilarious and way out there.
Guest House (2020)
I dragged my feet on this at first, until my brother called me in disbelief: “Dude, this is the most exotic animal: a 2020 Pauly Shore movie! How have you not watched it?!” And that’s what it is, for better and for worse. Of course, this is not for everyone. OF COURSE. But you know who you are. It’s like Neighbors but instead of a fraternity across the street, it’s Pauly Shore refusing to move out of the guest house.
Legendary Weapons of China (1982)
Watch this in Cantonese with subtitles. This is one of Lau Kar-leung’s most significant 80’s films. It’s ridiculous and the narrative is sort of garbled and hard to follow, but the action choreography is great and it’s really fun to cycle through all the legendary weapons one by one (I think there are 18?).
Knock Knock (2015)
One of the best thrillers of the 10’s (really it’s right on the border between thriller and horror). This gives the Eli Roth treatment to the 10’s trend of flipping the script on gender roles. It’s far more subversive and complex than most titles of this ilk. Excellent Keanu performance
If you haven’t discovered this yet, we probably haven’t been talking very much. I feel like I discovered it way late (I heard of it well before I watched any of it), but I’ve been recommending it to everyone. It’s a Japanese serial about a late night diner in Shinjuku. There is also a reboot series, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories that I haven’t watched yet. I find this show to be the absolutely perfect late night vibe. It is *exactly* what I want to watch when I decide I want to go to bed soon but I’m not quite ready yet. It’s about a lot of things, but most episodes have one focal dish and one or more focal characters, and there is a (compassionate, complex) emphasis on sex work. The main focus, though, is really on the way that food can become invested with emotion. In most episodes, there is a big climactic scene where the focal character of the episode eats the focal dish and has an emotional catharsis.
Excellent functional thriller. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but (as one would expect from John Hyams) it is precise and stylish and it goes hard. The use of rack focus is especially impressive.
Jerry Lewis comedies directed by Frank Tashlin: The Bellboy (1960), The Patsy (1964), Cinderfella (1960)
I haven’t seen Cinderfella myself, but I can’t wait. These Tashlin-Lewis collaborations are pure joy for anyone who likes Jerry Lewis (and it seems a grave misfortune not to like Jerry Lewis, though I guess I understand how someone could feel that way).
Love, Simon (2018)
If you missed this one, it’s a very endearing gay highschool romance. It takes a few missteps, but it’s so charming that I have no trouble giving it a pass on its small faults.
Dog Eat Dog (2016)
Paul Schrader full-tilt madness. Cage is pretty tame in this; it’s Dafoe who lets loose. Content warnings, etc. but if you enjoy transgressive movies, it’s not to be missed.
The Quick and the Dead (1995)
Sam Raimi neo-western with Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. It’s aged very well IMO.
The Mechanic (1972)
Laconic hitman thriller. Stoical early performance from Charles Bronson. Tight direction from Michael Winner. Highly recommended for genre fans.
Gretel & Hansel (2020)– also on Prime
I’m brought this up many times but yeah: this is my favorite 2020 horror movie. It seems to be divisive among horror fans, but I am a stalwart evangelist. Watch it in the dark and turn it up loud. Unlike a lot of the horror movies I recommend, it’s PG-13 and safe viewing for horror tourists.
Nic Cage 1997 Blockbusters Double Feature: Con Air and Face/Off
You know you want to. Everyone has always loved Face/Off, but few movies have aged better than Con Air. It was sort of a joke at the time, but now it’s plainly a masterpiece.
HBO Max is so stacked that I don’t think recommendations are as necessary, but still, here are a few:
Fassbinder’s last film and one of his best (not a popular opinion, but definitely my opinion), based on Jean Genet’s novel about a much-desired Beglian sailor’s homosexual experimentations. It’s stylistically delirious and extremely frank about its sexual content. Not for everyone, but I love it. NB, the arthouse crowd is less likely to appreciate one of this film’s main attractions: Italian genre icon Franco Nero as the Lieutenant! Django himself!
Police Story (1985)
Essential Jackie Chan actioner.
Biopics are terrible, but this is one of the good ones. It really changed my perspective to learn from a friend who grew up in Iran that kids were shown this at school to learn about the evils of the USA and the noble struggles of Muslims like Malcolm X. That tells you something about how hard Spike goes here.
10 to Midnight (1983)
Cannon Group sleaze, starring Charles Bronson. Traditional masculinity vs. the proto-incel. It’s a hoot.
One of the most important films from Senegal, directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty (the uncle of Mati Diop, who many know through her recent film Atlantics). It’s aggressive and not for everyone (skip it if you can’t watch unsimulated violence towards animals), but also vibrant and playful. Godard is the most obvious influence, but it’s notably original in the way it connects trends from European art cinema with post-colonial themes.
One of the more obscure titles from this phase of Bergman’s career. It wasn’t easy to access until just a couple years ago. It’s not one of his best, but if you’re interested in Bergman you should absolutely see it. It’s short, strange, and visually striking.
I used the last gasps of my grand 2020 movie binge to scrape up the rest of the horror new releases that were on my radar. I wanted to get as broad a view as possible of the state of the genre. I watched everything of note that’s currently available for home viewing and quite a few things not of note. I did skip a few titles that I expect are almost certainly a waste of time.
It’s not good news. The worst trends of 2010’s horror have taken over and things are getting worse rather than better. The horror genre is multifaceted and there are many different sorts of values that horror movies can achieve, but the most essential element is visceral emotional impact. This element is largely missing. The vast majority of horror releases are aimed at a crossover audience. It’s like a Buffalo Wild Wings where you can only order your wings mild.
Two formulas have taken over. The first and most prevalent is the mashing together of well-worn horror tropes with topics trending on Twitter. These movies typically have an overly literal context and dialogue that directly explains their thematic orientation. They are characteristically extremely safe and tame, so as to appeal to a broad audience of people who don’t necessarily like horror but do like having their worldview reflected back to them. The second is the horror family drama, where the real horror is trauma/loss/grief/secrets. These movies recycle the grammar of the haunting and possession subgenres but add an overly literal context and (usually) ugly CGI. There’s usually a black mold motif, and it’s usually a transparent metaphor for trauma/loss/grief/secrets. Category 2 is a little edgier than Category 1, but they’re both united in selling themselves as “not just a horror movie.” I don’t mean to say that all of these movies are bad. Some Category 1 movies are clever and inventive. Some Category 2 movies go far enough to work as horror.
There were no horror masterpieces. Nothing for the pantheon. That’s been par for the course in recent years, but it’s still disappointing. There were a handful of very good horror films, however, that deliver a visceral emotional experience while achieving something interesting with cinematic form. There were also a number of movies that I found enjoyable and/or interesting despite some shortcomings. Unfortunately, the largest cluster of the 2020 horror movies I saw were in the OK to Meh range (which is probably a generous appraisal because I have an easy time enjoying horror movies). And then there were a number that I actively disliked.
The list is divided into the above-mentioned categories and is very roughly ranked within each category (if I thought about it for a while I’d probably change my mind about some of the specific rankings). I’m not counting John Hyams’ Alone, because I consider it a thriller rather than a horror movie, but it would be in the “very good” category.
Gretel & Hansel: Moody and refined, with an appealing abstract visual style and immersive score.
The Dark and the Wicked: Family loss horror done right. Light on narrative, heavy on Bertino’s deliberate framing. The horror is driven by a slow accumulation of nightmarish moments that build an overwhelming sense of spiritual desolation, like there could be no hope or love or brightness ever again. A rare movie that feels genuinely evil.
Possessor: Brandon Cronenberg takes up his dad’s legacy with exhilarating boldness. It’s a real horror movie with original ideas and challenging content. This is the kind of thing I would like to see the genre moving towards.
The Golden Glove: How did Fatih Akin get from Soul Kitchen to here in so few moves?! It’s a grisly, grimy, nasty portrait of a serial killer with Jonas Dassler turning in the horror performance of the year. The setting is vivid; no punches are pulled.
Hunter Hunter: I recommend going in cold but if you must: it’s a variant on Leave No Trace where something actually happens. It’s about a family of three living on the outskirts of civilization and is thematically concerned with hunters as predators and the way going off the grid makes salient the animal nature of human beings.
Enjoyable and/or interesting
Sputnik: Russian Alien– style sci fi horror. Excellent monster.
Run: Well-crafted but formulaic genre exercise with terrific acting and well-imagined suspense sequences.
VFW: It’s too dark and it’s hard to see what’s going on in some scenes, but it still works as a fun throwback splatterfest with old guys vs mutant punks.
The Beach House: Of the several vacation property-themed movies that came out this year, this is the most Lovecraftian. Alternate title: When the Edibles Hit: The Movie. The early expository dialogue is clumsy and the movie doesn’t do a great job sustaining its crescendo of tension, but the high points are very high and this is overall a refreshing example of low budget horror done well.
Antebellum: Wokesploitation! Between this and Ma, we’re starting to see a transition out of the initial moralistic phase of woke horror into an exploitation phase where the woke themes serve as pretext for trashy spectacle. Jena Malone chews scenery like an absolute boss, casually addressing a hotel employee as “puddin’” and using the most condescending possible tone at all times. Janelle Monáe is totally up for carrying this thing and her big slo-mo Daniel Day Lewis from Last of the Mohicans horseback ride is glorious.
Freaky: a mashup of Freaky Friday and Friday the 13th. It’s underrealized but a lot of fun and many of the jokes land.
La Llorona: Not to be confused with the Conjuring spinoff, this is a new release from Guatemala. I appreciate that it takes a different approach to the sprawling “haunting as transparent trauma metaphor” subgenre. This time it’s not the supernatural presence haunting the family that’s malevolent, but rather the family whose perspective we adopt. This pulls its punches, but it’s still one of the better recent examples of explicitly political horror.
The New Mutants: This is surprisingly out there. It’s sort of a Nightmare on Elm Street riff where Freddy is a teenage girl and the hero of the story. This has more of a slow burn horror vibe than a superhero origin story vibe. I always find Maisie Williams a little intolerable but Anya Taylor-Joy is delightful. Overall, I appreciate how unique this is. It’s not destined to be a crowd-pleaser, but there are enough crowd-pleasers already.
Deep Blue Sea 3: The production value is much, much higher than part 2 but the fun wonkiness is still there (“Water Blog!”). Frankly, it’s a lot better than a bargain basement smart sharks thriller needs to be. Bring on part 4.
The Grudge: The CGI is a bummer (are CGI maggots seriously easier than real maggots?) but every second of Lin Shaye is a treasure and I enjoy how old-fashioned this is. It’s fun to see Harold Lee married to Debbie Eagan.
The Invisible Man: This could have been much better if the villain weren’t so one-dimensional, but Whannell is great with high concept gimmicks and he finds plenty of inventive things to do with the premise. Elisabeth Moss is strong, as one would expect.
Zombi Child: Bonello’s films are always nice to look at. This has interesting moments scattered throughout and the boarding school material is mostly good. But it’s timid about its subject matter and wants to lead the viewer by the hand and as a result it has nowhere near the impact of previous attempts at zombie horror colonial reckoning (e.g., Tourneur, Fulci, Craven, Costa).
Ok to meh
Color Out of Space: This has a great list of ingredients, but they don’t really come together. I would have loved to see what Stuart Gordon could have done with it.
The Wolf of Snow Hallow: Deadpan black comedy/werewolf horror/police procedural/family melodrama. The family melodrama and about half of the black comedy falls flat for me but the werewolf horror and the other half of the black comedy are good.
Bad Hair: This is a frustrating movie, because it doesn’t play to its strengths. It’s a paradigm example of a perfectly good monster movie that is weighed down by an overly literal context and dialogue pulled directly from Twitter.
Relic: This is a very typical example of the contemporary wave of family horror dramas, complete with all the overdone tropes. It does have a few inspired passages, though, and it sticks the landing. It’s an ugly, unpleasant movie (in a good way) and it successfully leaves the viewer with a putrid emotional residue.
Blood Quantum: I would be surprised if there’s ever another great zombie movie, but this isn’t bad. I like the gritty representation of the rez.
Impetigore: Indonesian supernatural horror. There is some good material and the high points are high, but I question the decision to let this drag for the long middle section and then tell the entire story in an abrupt three-minute info dump.
Come to Daddy: Decidedly stupid, but it has a strong supporting cast and it goes far enough to be exciting.
Becky: Very derivative (Home Alone meets Green Room) but it has its pleasures. The score from Nima Fakhrara is absolutely lit. Honestly, the score is too good for the movie. I like the idea of Kevin James playing against type as a violent white supremacist, but it’s mostly a cowardly performance.
She Dies Tomorrow: This is basically 4:44 Last Day on Earth meets Pontypool, mumblecore edition, as imagined by a David Lynch fan. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie—it’s half baked—but I found it fun to watch. Right away you get the sense that it’s capable of anything, and that’s an exhilarating feeling. The sound design shook my house pretty well.
Anything for Jackson: It’s very derivative and peters out in the end but it hits some offbeat notes and I appreciate that it keeps throwing twists and turns at us instead of getting bogged down in the drama.
The Babysitter: Killer Queen: Junk food. Indefensible, but in a way I mildly enjoy.
Fantasy Island: It’s too long and I wish it were rated R, but I do not regret it.
The Craft: Legacy: Campy fun for the most part. Making the nemesis David Duchovny as Jordan Peterson is a great idea. But the plotting is terrible and the second half fizzles.
Bit: Queer hipster Lost Boys/Near Dark. Aside from the main character the acting is unfortunate, but the movie is sort of endearing and a little edgier than I expected.
Spree: High concept satire where an Uber driver live-streams a killing spree in the hope of going viral. Much of it is presented as a social media story, with comments scrolling up from the bottom of the frame. Influencer satires are nearly as unbearable as influencers, but this is sometimes appealing in its chaotic energy. The humor mostly falls flat, except that the comment streams are HILARIOUS.
The Rental: Not terrible but I really hope that there are no more Airbnb horror movies ever, because it’s instantly played out.
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find: Dumb and thoroughly inept, but odd and erratic enough to be occasionally fun.
Host: I admire the concept. There are a few inspired moments—it’s at its best when it exploits the novel mechanics of zoom and when it manages to capture the chaotic rhythms of zoom socializing. But it doesn’t have enough ideas even for its short running time and devolves into well-worn clichés.
That’s gonna be a no for me, dawg
His House: On the nose political horror. When I finished itI felt less like I had just watched a horror movie and more like I had just read an opinion piece in the Atlantic. It’s reasonably well-done for what it is, but I really did not like it.
After Midnight: It feels about 10 years late for this sort of generic mumblecore lite-horror, but the punchline is good. I might not have minded it if not for the soundtrack.
May the Devil Take You Too: I liked the first one but this is basically generic CGI-heavy Sam Raimi pastiche minus the humor. And it needs the humor. The first one has a much tighter narrative and is more fun.
Scare Me: A waste of a great premise. I assumed from the description that this was going to be an anthology film about two writers settling in to tell each other scary stories. (Mild spoilers, stop reading if you want to go in cold). I was very surprised when we stuck with the chamber play format and the actors actually told scary stories in the range of 20-30 minutes. Cool. The problem is that the stories suck. And while Aya Cash and the actor who plays the pizza guy are very good, the male lead can’t stand up to them (I later learned that he’s the writer-director, which explains a lot).
The Platform: It’s trite, lacks for interesting images, and the ending is just godawful. I did appreciate some bits of nastiness, though.
The Lodge: Tortuously contrived to get someplace very uninteresting. The cold Austrian precision just magnifies how silly it is, and not in a good way.
Underwater: Awful, muddled action, everything looks the same, the monsters are garbage, and the acting is mostly generic. And then the public service announcement anti-drilling stuff infuses the whole mess with cringey moralism.
Beneath Us: Truly terrible topical immigration horror. I was bored out of my mind almost immediately. I was promised scenery chewing, but Lynn Collins is underwhelming in the Karen From Hell role that needs to carry the movie. She’s generically shrill and her sadism is uninspired. The thematic pronouncements at the end are beyond unbearable.
Corona Zombies: A re-edit and redub of parts of Hell of the Living Dead and a few other movies. It tries to spin a humorous zombie narrative about Covid-19. Complete and utter fail. It’s like the least funny possible undergrad improv team took one attempt at this and then just stuck with whatever they happened to end up with. I hated every minute of it.
There’s some enduring part of me that wants to live as a movie recluse and spend all of my free time curled up with my home entertainment system and stockpile of Chinese tea. This part of me gets indulged plenty, but normally I make a deliberate effort to keep my anti-social impulses in check and maintain a reasonably balanced life outside my lair.
Not this year. I reasoned: “There are plenty of years to go do shit. This is not one of them. There is some shit that it’s possible to go do but it’s terrible. Even the outdoor recreation in Montana is far worse than usual because trails that one would normally have to oneself are crowded with tourists escaping urban pandemic hell. This is the year to really and truly indulge my homebody tendencies. I’m going to allow myself to watch as many movies as I want to, and then when the smoke clears I’ll rejoin society.”
It turns out that “as many movies as I want to” is 1,200 movies. And indeed that’s how many I watched (it’ll probably end up being like 1,210). Some of these 1,200 were short films, but I also watched quite a few in the 8-14 hour range, so it balances out to about 1,200 feature-length movies. That’s about 40 hours a week in movie viewing. How does one watch fit in 40 hours a week of movies?
Well I can tell you. My typical schedule was to get up around 9, exercise, work on my book for a few hours, cook and do chores, have an early dinner, and then watch movies until I crashed at around 2am. Some days I had to teach and/or attend meetings and that typically meant not working on my book and watching one less movie. Some days I snuck in an extra movie first thing in the morning (usually something from the 1930’s– I crave that era with my coffee). I took some days “off” from work and did nothing but watch movies. I very rarely went anywhere. In the summer I went swimming a lot in my neighborhood swimming holes. There’s a farm stand around the corner. Otherwise we ordered supplies online and my wife Angela did errands on her way home from work. I avoided Zoom as much as possible. My buddy Jesse came over sometimes. I have not gotten a haircut since February.
It helped that my book was about movies and so I could think of a lot of my viewing activities as “research.” I’ll be the first to admit that my research was disproportionate to what was required. I wrote about a third of a chapter on direct-to-video action movies. To prepare, I watched something like 250 direct-to-video action movies. I found it especially important to maintain a balanced cinematic diet. One can’t watch 1,200 films that require maximum focus and attention in a single year. I watched plenty of demanding art films, but I also watched an enormous amount of trashy genre movies.
Overall I had a very good year. I don’t mean to gloat about that. I know that a lot of people struggled horribly and the fact that I was able to have a good year reflects many ways in which I am unusually fortunate in my material situation. But I do think it’s important to say that a lot of people whose disposition is better suited to a reclusive life would be better off if the world didn’t make us leave the house so much. We all realized this year how unnecessary a lot of face-to-face interaction really is. Zoom teaching is certainly crap compared to in-person teaching, but I really hope I never have to attend another in-person committee meeting again.
I came to terms this year with the fact that being a homebody is my true nature. I could do this indefinitely and I wouldn’t mind. But when the pandemic finally does end, I will resume forcing myself to do otherwise, and I will feel better about it for having had the chance to fully indulge my inner recluse for such a large swath of time. I doubt I’ll ever watch 1,200 movies in a single year again. But if there’s another pandemic? Absolutely.
So what did I watch?
I used letterboxd to keep records. I kept up with new releases, but because so many releases were postponed I only watched about 105 new releases from 2020 (keeping with tradition, we will put up our 2020 year in review on Oscar Sunday). Most of what I watched was older. The 80’s and 90’s were heavily represented but I watched a decent number of films from each decade beginning with the 20’s. My deepest dive was definitely in the action genre, where I watched about 375 films, including many childhood favorites that I hadn’t seen in ages. I watched about 270 horror films and 225 comedies. The majority of what I watched was in English, but there was quite a bit of diversity. Letterboxd includes movies that are only partially in a given language in these stats, but according to my records I watched 153 films in French, 99 in Italian, 88 in Mandarin or Cantonese, 83 in Spanish, 70 in German, 55 in Japanese, and 33 in Russian.
Here’s a list of the directors I watched the most films by along with the number of films I watched by them. There’s still a week left for Albert Pyun to take the lead, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened:
Fritz Lang- 21
Albert Pyun- 20
Chantal Akerman- 15
Jack Hill- 12
Roel Reiné- 12
Abel Ferrara- 11
Ringo Lam- 10
Kiyoshi Kurosawa- 10
Isaac Florentine- 9
Herman Yau- 9
And here’s a list of the actors who appeared in the most films I watched:
Dolph Lundgren- 48
Jean-Claude Van Damme- 44
Nicolas Cage- 24
Scott Adkins- 18
Danny Trejo- 15
Charles Bronson- 11
Randolph Scott- 11
Gary Cooper- 11
Joan Blondell- 11
Jean Arthur- 11
And what were my favorites out of all that?
Finally, here is my top 50 out of everything I watched this year, including both first time viewings and rewatches. All of these are peak personal canon for me and the list is a nice cross section of my all-time favorites. The list is in chronological order.
Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
House by the River (Fritz Lang, 1950)
A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952)
The Tall T (Bud Boetticher, 1957)
Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Vampyros Lesbos (Jess Franco, 1971)
India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975)
Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, 1977)
Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Chantal Akerman, 1978)
The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowsky, 1978)
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Francisca (Manoel de Oliveira, 1981)
The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)
Mermaid Legend (Toshiharu Ikeda, 1984)
Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph, 1985)
Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991)
La Belle Noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)
The Untold Story (Herman Yau, 1993)
Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)
Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)
The Blackout (Abel Ferrara, 1997)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
The Captive (Chantal Akerman, 2000)
Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz, 2004)
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Déjà Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, 2006)
Permissions roll over tomorrow, so I may have to update this if something changes, but I decided to post it today because if there’s something you really want to see, you’ll at least have definite access tonight. I looked at lists of what’s due to come and go tomorrow and I don’t think it will change anything, but I will double check for surprises.
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You (2012)
To quote Ethan Vestby, “The United States of America may be a rotting corpse, but this represents it at its best.” Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You is a microbudget feature about a New England town with a Riverbeast problem. It’s not going to work for everyone; the production quality is very low and there are some problems with the sound design. But for those of us who are comfortable with bargain basement quality, this is an absolute delight. I could watch it every day. It gets funnier every time. The key is that everyone plays it straight. It does not make fun of itself or exaggerate its cheapness or wink at the audience. There are no shock tactics or gross out jokes. It’s actually quite wholesome. The humor is in the exceptionally clever writing and committed delivery. NB, this is the very tip of the Motern Media iceberg. It is a vast and strange universe once you start digging.
2020 has not been great for new releases. This is one of the only American films I’ve loved this year. It’s an ugly movie and it reeks of death. Tom Hardy, playing Capone at the end of his life with dementia, continues his run as the most interesting actor of his generation. El-P’s score is nightmare fuel.
The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Excellent satanic horror with Ernest Borgnine as a Satanic high priest! Also William Shatner and Ida Lupino.
Eccentric Gary Sherman thriller where a bored teenage girl calls the adult party line and ends up in a phone flirtation with an honest to goodness serial killer. This is not an original observation, but it’s like Harriet the Spy vs. American Psycho.
Valley Girl (1983)
In honor of the totally unwelcome remake, I’m recommending the original. This was the movie that launched Nicolas Cage’s career. He plays a rough Hollywood Romeo to a privileged San Fernando Juliet and it’s utterly delightful.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
One of Nicholas Ray’s peak masterpieces and something everyone should see. It’s about as good as movies get. Bogart sparks a hopeful romance with Gloria Grahame but his inner darkness immediately threatens it. The companion piece to this is Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, which is comparably great and available as a paid rental on various services.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
One of the greatest Hollywood melodramas and also one of the greatest movies about American class immobility. It’s in some respects the polar opposite of Sirk’s great melodramas, replacing color hysterics with straight-faced B&W, but it’s in the same echelon of achievement. Montgomery Clift is exquisite. Compare his performance in Wyler’s The Heiress (1949).
Amazon has a particularly good selection of direct-to-video (DTV) genre movies. DTV is not for everyone (I expect that people who mostly watch high-budget contemporary releases or who have highfalutin taste are less likely to enjoy it). In any case, I am very deeply into this category right now and here are some treasures I’ve found:
For connoisseurs of insane DTV sci-fi premises, this is a fine wine indeed. I couldn’t begin to explain it, but kickboxing champ-turned-actor Olivier Gruner gains atavistic superpowers after a shady tech corporation tries to murder him.
The Minion (1998)
Batshit DTV fantasy-horror with Dolph Lundgren as a member of the Knights Templar who comes to NYC to combat Satan’s minion.
Silent Trigger (1996)
One of my favorite Dolph Lundgren movies, directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, Razorback). The half-finished skyscraper setting is like an Expressionist nightmare and Mulcahy never runs out of inventive ways to exploit it. The combination of minimalist narrative and elaborate two timeline cross-cutting gives this a dreamy, abstract vibe. This is definitely for a very specific niche: people with an arthouse sensibility who like DTV action. But if (like me) you’re in that niche, *chef’s kiss*.
Close Range (2015)
This is a tightly constructed, very enjoyable DTV bordersploitation Scott Adkins action vehicle with characteristically fluid direction from Florentine. It’s the sort of movie that starts out with title cards explaining the meanings of ‘samurai’ and ‘ronin’.
The Hard Corps (2006)
Not for everyone, BUT if you love Jean-Claude Van Damme, you should give this a look. It’s one of his better latter day efforts. He’s a bodyguard with PTSD and he has a romantic subplot with Vivica A. Fox.
I actually really like retired pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin as an actor, and this is one of his best roles. He plays a vigilante on a rampage. It begins in medias res as Austin rolls in with incredible angry momentum. His physical acting is very impressive. Danny Trejo is the lead biker villain.
I’m shocked that a slasher this good was made as late as 2014. Thanks, Canada. It’s about a college student with financial difficulty who moves into an erotic webcam house. Things are going well enough until a disturbed fan of the website with computer expertise shows up. GirlHouse doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it is very well-executed and does a great job fusing a classic slasher formula with a heady 2010’s cocktail of technology and voyeurism.
The Outpost (2020)
This is an immersive military procedural along the lines of 13 Hours, but it sets itself apart with its vivid sense of the rhythms of life at the outpost of doom. It’s no American Sniper, but it is comparable in the way that it burrows into the mindset of a deployed soldier. It’s not sanitized; it’s full of brash homophobia and it presents its ample violence in the desensitized way the characters experience it. These elements are probably going to turn off some viewers, but it’s important to recognize that while the movie does have an overarching reverential stance towards the military, it’s not uncritical of its particular subjects. The action climax is jaw-dropping.
War Horse (2011)
Throwing this out there as a holiday family viewing option. I’m sure a lot of people have seen it, but it does seem underappreciated. It’s upper-tier Spielberg and it combines superior craft with a pop Saturday matinee sensibility.
Yes, God, Yes(2020)
Very funny 78-minute sex comedy about a young Catholic woman’s sexual awakening.
Luc Besson-penned high concept sci-fi action. It’s like Escape from New York meets Fortress, with Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace doing an It Happened One Night rendition.
The Green Inferno (2013)
I’ve avoided recommending this for *years* because I thought the cut on Netfix was edited, but it turns out there is no edited cut. Eli Roth just labeled the blu-ray release as a director’s cut to highlight that it reflects his uncompromised vision. It’s the same as the version on Netflix.
This is an audacious pastiche of the much maligned Italian Cannibal cycle and an absolutely vicious satire of bourgeois progressive activism. It’s one of the only horror movies in recent memory that effectively combines extreme content and a high level of artistry. Definitely top ten horror of the 10’s for me and a breath of fresh air amidst all the defanged hipster shit.
American Pie Presents Girls’ Rules
Not for everyone, but you know who you are. It stays close to the formula; it’s modern in its outlook without pandering; the characters are vivid and it’s easy to believe they’re friends. It mostly goes for the obvious jokes, but it executes them effectively. I’d say it’s a notch below Blockers and three notches above Booksmart.
Beach Rats (2017)
You don’t hear me getting excited about a lot of contemporary American indie dramas, but I am a total stan for Eliza Hittman. Her Never Rarely Sometimes Always is my favorite American film this year, and I also highly recommend this 2017 effort. It’s in her trademark edgy, fleshy, impressionistic style, but unlike her other features it follows a male protagonist. He’s a good-looking young guy in Brighton Beach who hangs out with a crew of homophobic tough guys while secretly hooking up with older men he meets online. It has the same sort of crescendo of anxiety that I find so compelling in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Both resemble a gentler, more delicate Uncut Gems (other obvious points of comparison are Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat). NB, I think this is more thematically interesting than many critics give it credit for. It gets at something deep about the opacity between our public and private selves.
13 Assassins (2010)
This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve recommended this but to reiterate, this is one of the best modern chanbara and an immensely satisfying action picture. It has just a little of Miike’s perversion– enough to give it a Miike vibe, but not so much that it should deter most people. It’s about an impossible mission to kill the Shogun’s heavily protected brother with a crew of only 12 assassins (plus one surprise figure).
Disappearance on Clifton Hill (2020)
This sleazy little Niagra Falls potboiler is one of the more intriguing 2020 releases, with Tuppence Middleton as the noir protagonist and David Cronenberg as a conspiracy podcaster. It’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, but I want to call attention to it because it’s very under the radar and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Great score.
HBO Max has an embarrassment of riches with its Criterion section, so I won’t make extensive recommendations (just throw a dart at the Criterion offerings and press play), but here are a few:
Sudden Impact (1983)
This is the one Dirty Harry movie that Eastwood directed himself and it is by far the best and most artistically ambitious in the series. It was early in his directorial career but it has his trademark dark lighting and immaculate framing. Sondra Locke is superb. This is a very dark movie and it deals with difficult themes of sexual assault and trauma. Strong content warning.
As quirky oddball indies go, this is solid. Absurdist horror-comedy about a man bent on being the only person with a jacket.
Troll 2 (1992)
One of the best-worst movies ever made. Directed by Italian trashmaster Claudio Fragasso, written by his wife Rossella Drudi (as an anti-vegetarian parable), and starring a glorious cast of non-professional actors from the Salt Lake City area. There’s a long, loving discussion of this in my forthcoming book on good-bad movies (which I’ve recently submitted a draft of). It’s perfect for a social setting. Profoundly eccentric, very funny.
The best month of the year is upon us. Last year I watched 57 horror movies in the month of October and I expect to easily beat that number this year thanks to pandemic lifestyle changes. I’m continuing my yearly tradition of posting a set of horror streaming recommendations. I am including both more popular, obvious recommendations suitable for horror tourists (and by all means, ’tis the season for horror tourism) along with some deep cuts for genre fans. I will include recommendations for HBO Max, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, but I also want to draw attention to the Criterion Channel this year, which has come out of nowhere with the most impressive set of horror options of any service other than possibly Shudder. Shudder is a horror-centric service which I do recommend in general (I’m not going to include Shudder in this post but for Shudder subscribers I would especially recommend the slasher classic The Burning and Dario Argento’s masterpiece Tenebrae).
If you haven’t used your Criterion free trial yet and you like horror, now is the time. They dropped a couple horror features today that are just fantastic: a set of 70’s horror movies and a set of New World Pictures productions by female directors (this was Roger Corman’s infamous production company). The 70’s selections include some seminal classics as well as some very deep cuts (there are a few I haven’t even seen). They are all worth a look, but I want to draw special attention to a few.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
This is one of my favorite examples of moody, slow burn psychological horror. A woman who has just left a psychiatric facility moves to a country home with her husband and friend, but she questions her sanity after encountering a young woman who may be a vampire. This one is all about creating an atmosphere of mystery and dread rather than aggressive gore or high octane thrills. It’s not very well known, but it’s revered among 70’s horror fans. If I could pick one movie for you to watch this October, this is the one.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea
Another peak 70’s hallucinatory slow burn dread jam. This one is very dark and deals with themes of trauma and abuse. I really love the salty seaside setting and director Matt Cimber’s aggressive stylistic weirdness.
A couple go on a camping trip where they flagrantly abuse the natural world, and the natural world strikes back. As far as message-y environmentalist horror goes, this is solid. It’s from Australia and bears some comparison with Wake in Fright, though I wouldn’t say it’s as good. Still, it’s worthwhile in its own right and something that I don’t expect most American horror fans will have seen.
Serious horror fans have probably seen this, but for those who are just looking to dabble in the genre, this is one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Ignore the new remake and peep the original 1974 masterpiece. It takes place at Christmas in a sorority house and the scares are set in motion by a series of frightening phone calls from a stranger. This is a consummate piece of horror filmmaking in all respects. At the formal level it is among the greatest stylistic triumphs of the genre. The lighting and cinematography are perfectly tuned to the setting and subject matter. It creates a vivid atmosphere of mixed holiday emotions (celebration mingling with loneliness and despair). But this is perhaps most notable for the richness of its characterizations: unlike most horror movies set in a sorority, every sorority sister feels like a distinct person. (note: this is also on Shudder)
Gary Sherman is nowhere near as famous as he should be. This is one of several neglected Gary Sherman horror classics. It’s very eccentric and not for everyone, but Donald Pleasence fans shouldn’t miss this London Underground subterranean cannibal odyssey.
Slumber Party Massacre
This is part of the New World Pictures feature. Amy Holden Jones’ feminist spin on the slasher– featuring a phallic drill killer– is one of the high points of 80’s horror.
The Velvet Vampire
Also part of the New World Pictures feature. This is an American horror movie but it feels closer to Eurotrash vampire erotica. Stephanie Rothman’s film is an intriguing oddity, with incredible dream sequences and probably the most dune buggy riding of any vampire movie ever.
Humanoids from the Deep
Another New World Pictures title. This Barbara Peeters flick gets a very strong content warning: it’s about fishmen who seek non-consensual mating with human females and it is extremely messed up. But wow, if you want a confrontational take on reproductive horror, this is your movie.
This has been on Criterion for a month or two, but I’m not sure if it’s a permanent addition or a rotating selection. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for his 2001 film Pulse, and that is a great film, but this is even better. It’s arguably the best horror film of the 90’s. The narrative is elusive and I don’t want to say too much as it’s best to go into this cold, but I think of it as being in the tradition of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse movies. Like Pulse, it’s pitched at a very abstract level.
This 1968 title is part of the permanent collection on Criterion and not a rotating selection, but I want to put a special plug in for it. Although it’s not as famous as Shindo’s Onibaba, this is my favorite of his films and one of my favorite Japanese horror films, period. It’s a revenge story and supernatural romance about a mother and daughter living as ghosts in a bamboo forest who terrorize lost samurai. The black and white horror sequences in the thick bamboo forest are just stunning.
HBO Max is very strong on horror right now.
The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula
These are two of the greatest and most iconic Hammer horror titles, both directed by Terence Fisher and starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. If you want to check out some vintage British gothic horror, Horror of Dracula is as good as it gets, and Curse of Frankenstein is also tremendous.
The best known Obayashi movie. Totally batshit. Not scary, but truly something to experience.
Solid shark horror
Day of the Dead
The third entry in Romero’s Dead series, and the strangest. It’s aged extremely well.
Final Destination 5
This might be the best of the whole series. The gymnastics set piece is for me the high point of Final Destination.
I recommend this every chance I get. Ken Russell crazytown psychedelic evolutionary regression horror.
My favorite early Cronenberg. Come for full tilt Oliver Reed, stay for subversive feminism.
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Aja’s remake of the Wes Craven classic is one of the best modern horror remakes. It is GNARLY. Not for the faint of heart.
Vampire in Brooklyn
Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven team up! This neglected gem is due for reappraisal. It’s a true Murphy/Craven hybrid and manages to balance serious horror with absurdist comedy.
Lords of Salem
For me this is easily the greatest American horror movie of the last decade (overall a lousy decade for horror) and Rob Zombie’s best film. It’s another slow burn dread jam. It’s not going to thrill gorehounds who want constant jump scares, but it is a masterclass in atmosphere and emotional crescendo and the production design absolutely slams.
Bloody Moon (rental)
The new Severin restoration of Jess Franco’s slasher gem. This is particularly interesting for people deep into the horror genre, as it is a rare example of a European director attempting an American-style slasher (for an example on the other side of the spectrum, compare Nightmare Beach). Elements of the Italian giallo and Eurohorror in general are integrated into the slasher formula. Also, this is one of Franco’s greatest achievements at the formal level. It’s gorgeous. NB, some previously censored scenes are included in this restoration but the materials are lower quality.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
The greatest horror sequel of all time and the perfect comedic companion piece to the original, which is the greatest horror film of all time, period. (You can see the original on Criterion or you can rent it).
Don’t Kill It
This is a direct-to-video low budget horror gem. The hook is there’s a demon that possesses people, but you can’t kill the possessed person or else YOU get possessed. Dolph Lundgren is doing a twangy Indiana Jones-meets-Van Helsing character who wears a duster and VAPES? Yes! I could go for five sequels with this character.
30 Days of Night
Such a great premise: vampire movie set in Northern Alaska at the winter solstice.
John Carpenter’s Vampires
This is such a mean, nasty, hardass vampire movie. It’s about as mean and vile as Carpenter gets. James Woods brings so much intensity. Some elements haven’t aged terribly well (the misogyny is thick) but this is one of the most hardcore vampire movies.
Netflix doesn’t have jack this year. I can repeat my recommendations of The Blackcoat’s Daughter (which is yet another slow burn dread jam) and Cam (which is erotic technological horror, sort of like a more lurid Black Mirror, but good). And then there are a few other things.
Brad Anderson atmospheric slow burn horror. Grimy production design. Dark secrets resurface in an abandoned mental hospital.
House of 1000 Corpses
Rob Zombie’s debut film. It’s roughly in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre zone but with Zombie’s distinctive sensibility and a great cast featuring 70’s exploitation icons like Sid Haig. It’s by no means his best and it has an amateurish roughness, but it’s a good intro to his filmography and full of nasty delights for genre fans.
A fun, dumb modern classic creature feature with an absolutely fantastic cast. Ice Cube, J-Lo, Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz, and Danny Trejo are great, but the MVP is Jon Voight. This is god-tier Jon Voight.
Hulu is also not great this year, but there are a few things. I won’t bother to write up Hellraiser or Evil Dead II, which I have recommended multiple times and are essential horror viewing.
Larry Fessenden reimagines Frankenstein in terms of military trauma. It’s overlong and messy but it’s unique and interesting.
Hostel and Hostel II
These nasty Eli Roth bangers are due for reappraisal. “Torture porn” got a bad rep in cultural discourse, with the result that the thematic sophistication of these movies was overlooked. These are some of the most aggressive critiques of capitalist exploitation in the genre.
The Last House on the Left
Not for everyone. Early Wes Craven, grimy production value, rape-revenge exploitation. It still stands out for its unflinching vileness and howling rage. Essential for genre fans, others should proceed with caution.
The Omen (2006)
I actually prefer the Omen remake to the original (which I’m not a huge fan of). It’s the Mia Farrow factor that really puts this over the top. She is fantastic in this.
Featured image from Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
Rentals (on Amazon, Vudu, and Apple)
Gretel & Hansel
From the director of The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Tellingly, among the people whose opinions I follow, the most avid horror fans especially love this while the horror tourists generally dislike it. It’s moody and refined, with a striking abstract visual style and immersive score (aptly described by one fan as “paganwave”). For me, it’s the best American horror movie not directed by Rob Zombie in years.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
I am generally not a fan of this sort of topical indie drama, but Eliza Hittman is on another level from the throng of directors cashing in on opportunistic progressive slam dunks. This is the Uncut Gems of going to NYC with your cousin to get an abortion at age 17. It’s much quieter and more low key than Uncut Gems, but it is built around the same sort of extended crescendo of anxiety. I’ve seen complaints that it’s too relentless about ticking off political talking points, but I think this is a mistake. What this movie is interested in is the phenomenology of patriarchy. That is, it’s interested in the way that two 17 year old girls experience oppressive sociopolitical structures. It’s impressionistic (and it is clearly influenced by the impressionistic style of the Claire Denis of Nenette and Boni and Friday Night). If some scenes lay things on a little thick, it’s to capture the way the characters experience those situations. If every man we meet in the movie is menacing, it’s because that’s how it feels to the characters. First time actress Sidney Flanagan is just fantastic. The way she lets emotions bubble to the surface in glimpses and then swallows them back down almost reminds me of Liv Ullmann.
This is exceptionally hilarious and also sincerely moving. Asexual romance has to be one of the most interesting subjects that basically no one makes movies about. This just hits it out of the park. It has a very distinct tone and style (featuring inventive use of the academy aspect ratio). If you find it annoying early on there’s probably no chance you’ll come around to it, so I’d just bail, but if the movie’s sense of humor works for you, you are in for a treat.
The Wrong Missy
This is for a very specific audience (which I am a part of). You need to be nostalgic for the prime era of the Happy Madison SNL constellation (Rob Schneider and all) and you need unlimited tolerance for Lauren Lapkus. It’s essentially a revisionary Heartbreak Kid where Lila is the romantic lead rather than the antagonist.
There’s a whole lineage of comedies where one character is from a different universe from everyone else—not merely eccentric, but outside the limits of what we can imagine a real person being like. Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey built their careers on this basic shtick. We have seen a lot of gender swap comedies in recent years, but whereas most just swap the men for women and repeat a formula, this is deep gender swap. Lauren Lapkus turns in the sort of massive, balls-to-the-wall alien-among-us performance that has in the past been reserved for male comedians.
Angel Has Fallen
The best of the “has fallen” trilogy, this loses the malign politics of the second one and focuses on excellent action and a whole lot of very satisfying Gerard Butler and Nick Nolte. Don’t miss it if you like action movies.
One of the best children’s movies of all time, from the great Nicolas Roeg. I loved this so much as a kid—it terrified me, but in the best possible way—and it absolutely holds up as an adult.
Feast upon cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s ravishing digital textures and Mann’s romantic fatalism.
Delicious sci-fi sleaze. I still remember how thrilling I found this movie the first time I saw it. The set up leaves some very weird places to go, and I was really, really hoping it would go to those places. I was not disappointed.
This is a satisfying Scott Adkins vehicle with loads and loads of Adkins beating people up, hacking people with machetes, blowing people up with grenades, etc etc. It’s well-made, the writing is enjoyably pulpy, and the character acting is excellent. “Christ never gave him much but a godawful talent for carnage and death.”
The Debt Collector
Excellent comedy/crime thriller with Scott Adkins and Louis Mandylor (who is fast becoming the poor man’s Mickey Rourke) as muscle for organized crime. Most of the movie has a relaxed hangout vibe, and the banter between the two leads is delightful.
Very fun low budget prison exploitation/action movie with Matthew Reese as a cop who goes undercover as a prisoner to catch a gangster played by UFC star Chuck Liddell, who does a very entertaining Russian accent. The other big treats are Danielle Chuchran, who is especially badass in this, and Dolph Lundgren in the Morgan Freeman role. Lots of brutal action.
Acts of Vengeance
The one where Antonio Banderas is inspired by Marcus Aurelius to become a vigilante. Ridiculous and very entertaining.
John Frankenheimer possessed by Michael Winner, doing a sleazy blackmail thriller in the Cannon Group house style. The cast is stacked (Roy Scheider!), but the mvp is easily Clarence Williams III. He is off the charts.
Probably the highpoint of Djinn horror. “You wish to know what I am? To you, I am this: The cry of the abandoned child. The whimper of the whipped beast. I am the face that stares back at you from the shadowed mirror. The hollowness at the heart of all your hopes, Alexandra. I am despair.”
Alan Parker died recently, so I finally watched this after saving it for a long time. It’s the most significant Nicolas Cage movie that I hadn’t seen. It’s a hot mess, but I realized as I watched it that this was the only way to approach the material. It’s about an intensely close friendship between Matthew Modine, an ostensibly asexual outcast obsessed with birds, and Nicolas Cage, an oversexed histrionic high school hero. The movie cross cuts throughout between lighter material depicting their highschool days and very heavy material about them coping with mental and physical trauma after serving in Vietnam. The narrative is ambling and episodic, which is appropriate to the subject matter: it’s more interested in helping the viewer understand the central friendship than it is in plowing through important events. The Cage factor is very high grade. He has a couple monologues that belong in the Cage pantheon.
A belated Die Hard/Sudden Death knockoff. The action is uneven but the high points are very high (motorcycle chase!) and there’s a lot of imaginative brutality. Bautista is great in the Bruce Willis/Van Damme role.
A DTV Cartelsploitation martial arts western. But Catholic. Catholic as in Passion of the Christ meets Rambo 4. I’m here for it.
This is two hours long and for nearly the entire duration some bomb or other is about to go off. Die Hard With a Vengeance taken to the furthest extremes and directed with panache by Herman Yau.
Larry Cohen’s extremely confrontational satire of LA race relations, featuring the great Yaphet Kotto. It’s aged well, but content warnings galore.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity
One of the most essential yakuza movies. There are four sequels, which I believe are also on Prime. Together they tell an epic story of the postwar transformation of the yakuza, as the old codes of honor were overthrown by the starving younger generation, resulting in decades of bloody conflict. This thing goes a hundred miles an hour from beginning to end.
This is a very representative late-60’s yakuza movie with Jo Shishido and an epic finale.
Shinjuku Triad Society
One of Miike’s best crime movies. He’s especially interested in foreign gangsters living in Japan and Japanese gansters living abroad. As the title suggests, this starts out with Chinese gangs in Tokyo. It’s aggressively sleazy both with respect to content and production value, and is especially notable for its queer themes. Content warnings in abundance, not for everyone.
Sukiyaki Western Django
Miike doing spaghetti western pastiche. Don’t miss this if you skipped it when it came out. Tons of fun.
Under amazon above, but it’s also on Hulu.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Well-crafted naval war movie. The sound design is exceptional.
Stuck on You
This was one of the more neglected peak era Farrelly brothers movies, with Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins. It has the trademark Farrelly combination of clumsy humanism and ribald hilarity. One of their best.
Not for everyone, but this 1971 British exploitation western should interest genre fans. It’s a rare example of a western built around a female gunfighter, Raquel Welch (!), who seeks revenge against the men who assaulted her and murdered her husband.
(Also on Prime) Top-tier Jason Statham action movie in the vein of the Transporter series but less car focused. He’s trying to protect a young Chinese girl from Triads, Russian gangsters, and corrupt cops.
The Last Mistress
One of Catherine Breillat’s best, featuring an utterly raw Asia Argento as the older mistress of a 30 year old man who is trying to move past their affair and marry a young noblewoman. Excellent production design.
No Strings Attached
I didn’t much care for this back when it came out, but it’s aged well. It definitely got some deep belly laughs out of me. If you’re in the mood for a politely raunchy throwback romantic comedy, this fits the bill. Kevin Kline isn’t my favorite here but Natalie Portman is great and Ashton Kutcher is solid.
David Gordon Green’s riff on Night of the Hunter. This arrived at the end of the first phase of his career, when he was still in the mode of Malick-influenced Southern Gothic, and I’ve always considered it one of his best. A young Kristen Stewart is especially memorable. Score by Philip Glass.
I’ve noticed with delight that there is an increasingly large selection of Hong Kong films available to stream in the US. Here’s a roundup of stuff that is worth checking out (note: there is also a lot of Wong Kar-wai, but criterion is restoring and releasing his whole filmography, so probably worth waiting for that):
Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2011)
The best movie about the 2008 financial crisis. It’s a riff on Killing of a Chinese Bookie, set in a bank on the day the crisis hit.
The White Storm 2 (Herman Yau, 2019)
This is a sequel in name only and you do not need to see Benny Chan’s The White Storm first, though it is a good movie and worth seeing. This one is much better, though. Andy Lau plays a pseudo-Batman, facing off against drug lord Louis Koo and destroying the city in the process. It’s a slyly subversive movie about the collateral damage of drug wars.
The Magic Blade (Chor Yuen, 1976)– note that there is a newer movie with the same title
An especially abstract and crazy Shaw Brothers wuxia. It’s dark and violent and the pacing is exhilarating. There’s an assassin named Devil Grandma!
Death Duel (Chor Yuen, 1977)
Another Corey Yuen wuxia with similar virtues as The Magic Blade. The narrative is a riff on The Gunfighter, with a legendary swordsman trying to lay low to evade the brigade of challengers trying to prove themselves.
Office (Johnnie To, 2015)
Probably an acquired taste, but worth acquiring. An upbeat musical/office melodrama/critique of professionalism under global capitalism. The production design is glorious.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 2010)
These Detective Dee movies are a total blast. They are like Hong Kong Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes with maximalist CGI and no annoying Robert Downey Jr. to spoil the fun.
Fandor (Amazon channel):
Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)
Oh baby. Green Snake is at the level of batshit creativity that only Tsui Hark is capable of. It is *great*. Two snakes take human form to find love. Starring a young Maggie Cheung.
Magnolia Selects (Amazon channel):
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok, 2013)– Also on youtube
It’s much less goofy than I expected, and actually fairly dark. Demon hunters take on a series of escalating menaces. Extraordinary set piece after extraordinary set piece.
Hi-yah! (Amazon channel– this is three bucks a month and a total treasure trove):
Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012)
Hard, edgy, violent crime movie critiquing China’s draconian drug laws.
Call of Heroes (Benny Chan, 2016)
A very gripping wuxia with excellent Sammo Hung choreography and well-integrated American and Japanese influences. It’s like a Rio Bravo/High Noon riff with Lau Ching Wan in the John Wayne/Gary Cooper role, but then Eddie Peng is doing Mifune (he faces off against Wu Jing!). Louis Koo‘s character is visiting from a Miike movie.
The Bodyguard (Sammo Hung, 2016)
Sammo Hung’s Man on Fire, about a retired bodyguard with dementia who seeks to protect his young neighbor from thugs. Both the dementia arc and the redemption arc have real pathos, and the way they tie together is especially moving. The action is sometimes filmed too closely and edited too frenetically, but it is always well-conceived and choreographed and the sheer quantity of broken bones is very satisfying.
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Herman Yau, 2013)
Not to be confused with the Donnie Yen Ip Man movies. Those are also good but Yau is a much more interesting director than Yip.
The Stool Pigeon (Dante Lam, 2010)
Solid crime thriller. A street racer named Ghost is sent to inform on a gangster named Barbarian…
Loving You (Johnnie To, 1995)
Short but potent drama about a cop who comes to depend on the wife he formerly mistreated after suffering a head injury.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 1&2 (Johnnie To, 2011 & 2014)
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the only truly great romantic comedies of the last decade. They are in line with Office and Life Without Principle as critiques of the upwardly-mobile professionalist lifestyle.
Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013)
One of three movies To made about investigators with unusual powers (along with Mad Detective and Running on Karma). The pairing of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as the leads is a real treat. He plays a blind retired investigator who she recruits to help investigate a cold case involving her friend.
Five Elements Ninjas (Chang Cheh, 1982)
Chang Cheh’s late movies are characterized by a near formalist level of abstraction. This is all color and movement. A martial arts school takes on Japanese ninjas, first losing decisively before developing new tactics. Be sure to watch in the original language rather than dubbed.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 1978)
One of the greatest and most iconic Shaw Bros. movies. This is probably the Lau Kar-leung title most seriously concerned with ethical and philosophical issues.
Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings (Tsui Hark, 2018)
The third Detective Dee movie. Extremely fun.
There are quite a few other good Hong Kong movies rentable for few bucks. I’m going to leave out the Johnnie To stuff as there’s plenty to explore above, but every To movie from 1997 on is worth watching (the earlier stuff is a mixed bag).
I had this high on my best of the decade list. It’s a sequel in name only and you don’t need to see Killzone/SPL first. Two of the greatest martial artists of our time–Tony Jaa and Wu Jing– really let it rip. The black market organ theft storyline is the perfect framework for the brutal action. This is as good as action cinema gets.
Motorway (Soi Cheang, 2012)– Vudu, Amazon
Distilled essence of awesomeness. Car chase pastiche, expertly crafted and with a degree of genre purity that strongly appeals to me. The sense of physicality is refreshing in the full CGI era.
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark, 2013)– Vudu
The second of the three Detective Dee movies. Delightful.