The Decade in Film

Featured image from Guilty of Romance 

My primary aim in putting this retrospective together was honesty. There are tons and tons of aggregate lists going around from various large publications and critical institutions and most of them are similar to each other and very boring. Aggregation is boring. It irons out distinctness and pretends to objectivity when really it’s a nexus of groupthink and echo chamber effects. I don’t want to read critics polls, I want to read subjective lists from individual people. The quirks and eccentricities of a particular person’s taste are far more interesting to me than the lowest common denominator.

It’s in this spirit that I approached this list. I didn’t put anything on here because I felt like I was supposed to or because it has perceived consensus status or because I expect people would think better of me if I pretended to like it. Nor did I omit anything for any such reason. I did my best to pick the things I honestly like. The first half is a ranked list of my 50 favorite movies this decade. If something’s not on there, either I didn’t see it or I didn’t like it as much as these movies. The second half is an unranked list of 50 honorable mentions, diversified by genre.

Common reaction to lists of this sort include:

“But how could you not pick my own favorite?!”

“Pfffff this dumbbell doesn’t even have Fury Road.”

“Aren’t lists like this supposed to include Moonlight?

Feel free to react like this, but I don’t think it’s likely that I’m wrong about anything on this list, because it is a list of things that I personally like and I feel like I have a good handle on that.

Part of what I enjoy about writing lists like this one is the chance to revisit old opinions. Especially when one really loves a film, it’s a shame to see it once, form an opinion of it, and then file it away and never return to it. For each film on the list and many others, I considered how well I remember it and how sure I am of what I think of it. I revisited anything I was foggy or unsure about. It was very rewarding! It all felt worth another look, even if the result was that I liked some things less than I thought I did. A number of titles dropped off the list while a number of others jumped closer to the top.

My viewing in general was reasonably comprehensive. I’ve seen most of the stuff that’s shown up on other decade lists. The only filmmakers who I really wanted to catch up on but failed at were Frederick Wiseman and Wang Bing (both of whom made quite a few very long movies this decade). I also haven’t seen a number of significant films from 2019 that I don’t yet have access to.

I think it was a pretty great decade overall, though maybe not so great for American cinema. And alas, it was a terrible decade for my beloved horror genre–probably the worst decade in horror since the 50’s. (Though I guess it was a great decade in horror from the point of view of people who don’t generally like horror, as my big problem was that most horror was toothless and aimed at a crossover audience.) The most notable trend that I notice on my list is that I went for a lot of digital movies that embrace their character as digital. Digital is often for the worse when it’s used as a cheaper approximation of film. But there are things that one can do with digital photography that one can’t do with film, and many of my favorite movies of the decade were ones that exploit the unique capabilities of digital photography and foreground their digital character rather than trying to hide it.

Top 50

1) Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz, 2010)

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Staggering. Ruiz made two films that seem to summarize many of his formal and thematic interests: this and Love Torn in a Dream. It’s fascinating that these two works fall at absolute polar extremes of his stylistic range. LTIAD is his densest and most frenetic film while this is his most languorous and elegant.

It’s built out of the materials of the 19th century novel: multi-generational webs of causal entanglement tied together by the sorts of coincidences that suggest that destiny has an aesthetic sensibility. Ruiz’s fantastical approach gradually sheds any sense of realism and reveals a foundation of dream logic. Mysteries of Lisbon finds the common ground between Manoel’s Destinies and Time Regained.

At the level of image and sound, this is pure, distilled essence of Ruiz. Four and a half hours of intoxicating cinematic bliss. The first time I saw it I was so enchanted that I watched it again the very next day. I’ve gone back and revisited it a few times and I’ve felt even more enamored with it each time.

2) Blackhat (Mann, 2015)

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No American film from this decade comes anywhere close to Blackhat for me. I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched it, but it has to be at least fifteen. The film makes absolutely stunning use of digital cinematography, and at the same time thematizes the materiality of the digital. Day to day, we experience the internet as a rarefied, disembodied presence. Blackhat emphasizes the physical groundedness of every aspect of cybercrime: the hacker as flesh and blood, hacking as infiltrating a physical system, the physical realization of the consequences. Casting Chris Hemsworth as the lead was a stroke of genius. The physical bearing of the ex-con is an important trope in Mann’s cinema, and I don’t know if any of his leads have nailed this sort of wary guardedness as well as Hemsworth does here.

But I think the best way to explain why I love Blackhat so much is just to direct you to this epic Michael Mann supercut. Blackhat isn’t in it, but if you know the film well you can see exactly which moments would have been included.

3) Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, 2012)

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When we see are sitting in the garage seeing Noriaki through three car windows while two different mirrors pointing behind us obliquely suggest the outside world, that might be peak Kiarostami. The Iranian master’s second international production (French-Japanese, in this case) is about a sort of love triangle between a young student moonlighting as a prostitute, an elderly professor who hires her for a night of asexual companionship, and her violently jealous boyfriend. It contains many of his most distinctive tropes and themes to an extreme degree: subjective experience of time, extraneous information, frames within the frame, looking in from the outside, looking out from inside, disorienting pairings of sound and image, oblique reflections, failures of understanding across social boundaries, the various roles of women in a patriarchal society, and of course, endless driving.

4) A Woman’s Revenge (Gomes, 2012)

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I get goosebumps just thinking about this movie. On the one hand, it is a triumph of classical mise-en-scène. Evoking Rivette, Resnais, and Oliveira in various respects, the staging is so refined and sumptuous that I can barely contain myself. A bored man of leisure accompanies a beautiful woman (Rita Durão) home, ostensibly for an evening tryst. But then she drops the fucking axe and this becomes an absolutely searing excoriation of a world (and a world cinema) that sees women in terms of their relations to men. Rita Azevedo Gomes has a new film, The Portuguese Woman, which I have not been able to see yet, but just looking at the trailer suggests that it’s a formidable work.

5) Mountains May Depart (Jia, 2015)

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No one working in film today surpasses Jia Zhangke in formal precision and efficiency. The micro level both instantiates and allegorizes the macro themes. Every shot, every cut, every use of music reflects a unified vision and meticulous attention to detail. For the connoisseur of controlled, exacting filmmaking, Jia’s cinema is a feast.

All of Jia’s films are about rapid economic and cultural change in China. Mountains is a triptych of stories about a woman in Shanxi (Zhao Tao) and her family, set in 1999, 2014, and 2025. There’s a veneer of realism, but it’s disrupted by jarring moments of surrealism. The shifts in time are matched by shifts in cinematic style. The aspect ratio gets progressively wider as the characters become more distant from each other. The jump to the bizarre and critically divisive third section, where Jia’s style leaps 10 years into the future, is the most exhilarating cinematic moment of the decade for me. The first time I watched the movie, I was standing bolt upright in the middle of my living room talking to myself: “Whaaaaaaaaat?!  Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!”

One other note: while nearly everything about the characters’ lives changes between the film’s three segments, the one repeating element is that Zhao Tao’s character makes dumplings. While it is a pessimistic film overall, the suggestion that food traditions can be a way for individuals to preserve cultural value through massive social transformations is very resonant and moving for me and reminds me of this short that Jia shot on an iPhone.

6) Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010)

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The film begins with writer James (British opera singer William Shimell) giving a talk in Tuscany about authenticity and arguing that a copy can be just as good as the original. He spends the afternoon with a French antiques dealer Elle (Juliet Binoche), who he has ostensibly just met. Over the course of the film, their relationship abruptly transforms in surprising, surreal ways that relate to James’ theory of authenticity. For me it is a miraculous film, entrancing to watch and fascinating at every level. So much has been said about it already that I just want to call attention to one aspect that doesn’t get as much attention: the acting. Shimell, in his first screen acting performance, is marvelously abrasive. Binoche’s range here reaches from the shyest seduction to the most withering fury. I don’t know if any film more fully showcases her talent.

7) Ash Is Purest White (Jia, 2018)

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Ash is Purist White is in some ways a sister film to Mountains May Depart. Both follow Zhao Tao through recent Chinese history and both are about living through rapid change. While Mountains is the bolder, more ambitious film, Ash exhibits even tighter integration of formal and thematic elements. It is essentially a gangster movie, but takes the perspective of the gangster’s moll. When her beau is threatened by young upstarts, she makes a fateful decision that lands her in prison. Most of the story follows the events after she is released five years later. While the film evokes Hong Kong crime cinema in various ways (e.g., the use of the theme music from John Woo’s The Killer), I take it to also be closely connected with Japanese postwar yakuza movies. A very common theme of these Japanese movies is the way the economic desperation of the postwar era was instrumental in destroying traditional codes of honor. Old guard yakuza essentially had nothing protecting them except for these codes, which were cast aside as the starving younger generation usurped power. In Jia’s film, the same dynamic is driven not by economic desperation, but by rapid growth. It is the westernization of China—a sort of cultural atomic bomb—that destroys the old codes of honor.

Throughout the film, Jia uses digital cameras that would have been available at the time the action takes place. The one exception is the prison section, which is shot on film, suggesting timelessness. While the shifting digital photography conveys the passage of time, the film interlude suggests that time stood still for the character during her five years of incarceration. When she is released into a changed world, she navigates it the only way she knows how: as a jianghu gangster who lives outside the law but respects an increasingly outmoded code of honor. It should also be mentioned that Ash is Purest White is a very funny movie, especially as it follows the cons and hustles the protagonist deploys in her quest to get home.

8) Horse Money (Costa, 2014)

Perusing reviews I saw a lot of remarks like “don’t try to understand it, just let it wash over you.” This is pretty much always a bad take, but especially here. This movie is about something extremely specific, and one really needs a basic background understanding of the history of Cape Verde, the Fontainhaus neighborhood, and the Carnation Revolution to be able to situate it. Ideally, one also would have previously seen Costa’s Fontainhaus trilogy.

Horse Money feels like Straub-Huillet in purgatory, and the alternating use of abstract institutional spaces and near total darkness is mesmerizing. The two leads, Ventura and Vitalina Varela, are the most unforgettable performers to appear in any film this decade. There is also a companion film titled Vitalina Varela that I haven’t been able to see yet.

9) High Life (Denis, 2018)

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Juliette Binoche in High Life (2018)

It’s odd to see a Claire Denis movie without Agnès Godard’s cinematography, but I think Yorick Le Saux does a great job (he’s previously worked with Assayas and Ozon, among others). It certainly looks different from other Denis films, but the look suits the coldness of the production design. By the way, Denis totally read Foucault on prisons when thinking about the set design.

What most interests me about High Life is the way Denis orchestrates an emotional experience. Now, it’s not an emotional experience you’re necessarily going to want to have. I’m personally very interested in negative emotional responses to art, and I’m partial to art that disturbs me to the core. This is definitely that. I spent a couple hours aimlessly wandering the streets of Vancouver after a 10pm screening and then it chased me into my nightmares and hung around in the pit of my stomach for several more days.

Leading theories of disgust suggest that the emotion is an evolved response that alerts us to potential pathogens. This being the case, it makes sense that our reflexive response to the bodily fluids of strangers is typically disgust. Denis deploys copious bodily fluids throughout High Life to push the audience’s emotional buttons. There are few films outside of gross-out comedies and gory horror movies with this quantity of blood, semen, urine, and breast milk. The nonstop deluge of bodily fluids synergizes with the sublime creepiness of Juliet Binoche’s Medea-in-space and the ickiness of her reproductive experiments. The film achieves a sort of monotone of medical bleakness that lulls the audience into complacency only to set us up for some very aggressive catharses. I can’t think of another recent film that goes to such lengths to make the audience feel things that they surely would rather not feel. I’m 100% here for it.

10) Welcome to New York (Uncut Version) (Ferrara, 2014)

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“Bouillabaisse is like a sex party of the fish.”

Warning: the version of this released in the US was censored (20 minutes cut out) and should be avoided at all costs (Ferrara was adamantly against the cut version being released). There are European blu-rays with the correct 125 minute cut. Since cutting the film was an unforgivable betrayal, I think one would be entirely justified in resorting to internet shenanigans to see the proper version.

This is THE movie about the psychopathy of the global elite and my pick for the Zeitgeist film of the decade. Gerard Depardieu is absolutely revolting as Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He’s like a walking embodiment of the global finance system. It’s such a vile performance that Ferrara starts the film with a non-diegetic scene where Depardieu dissociates himself from the character. The movie has a genre-hopping three act structure: softcore porn, police procedural, and chamber drama. The most haunting moment is perhaps the brief glimpse we get of a very small group of protestors—women of color, easily ignored. This was still more than 3 years before #metoo. The amplified echo of that moment in our real world history is part of what makes this movie resonate so ferociously. And then there’s Jacqueline Bisset as Strauss-Kahn’s billionaire wife. She is at least as chilling as he is disgusting. Her rush to replace the art in her husband’s luxury prison and what she ends up replacing it with (revealed after a stunning fourth wall break) is just mind-blowing.

11) The Mule (Eastwood, 2018)

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The Mule is a total banger. The premise is drawn from a true story: 90 year old horticulturist Earl Stone becomes a top cartel mule. At the surface level, it’s a film about white privilege. Being an old white guy is like a superpower. You can just walk right by the cops carrying the drugs and they won’t even see you. Anyone who has written Eastwood off as a partisan hack will be surprised by how confrontationally he depicts law enforcement mistreating nonwhite people. By the way, I have heard several complaints about the scenes in the movie where Earl says casually racist things to nonwhite people. Some people think that these scenes are themselves racist. I find this interpretation so silly that it’s hard for me to seriously respond to it, but nonetheless: c’mon! The point of these scenes is that an old white guy can do or say whatever he wants and the world will extend him deference by default. The relevant scenes reveal the way that nonwhite people feel awkwardly obliged to give casual racism from an old white guy a pass: he’s just an old white guy, what else can you expect?

But The Mule is not just a sociopolitical commentary. It’s also Eastwood’s most personal film in a long time. Horticulture is a thinly veiled stand-in for filmmaking, and Earl is a thinly veiled stand-in for Eastwood himself. He confronts his greatest regret in life: losing his family. Eastwood cast his actual daughter as Earl’s daughter who hates his guts. Dianne Wiest brings down the fucking house as his ex-wife. Nothing made me cry harder this decade than her big scene. It’s not even close.

12) J. Edgar (Eastwood, 2011)

My pick for the most undervalued film of the decade. It’s an unqualified masterpiece and one of Clint’s greatest accomplishments of mise-en-scène. The lighting is stunning throughout. The theme of the duality of the individual is so strongly emphasized by the lighting that it doesn’t even need to be alluded to in dialogue or narration (and if it had been alluded to it would have come across as heavy-handed).

This is one of many cases in Eastwood’s filmography where he manages to achieve an ambivalent outlook on a subject that a lesser filmmaker would have used as a punching bag. It’s a marvel how masterfully Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black balance a critical stance towards Hoover with bottomless compassion. For context, Black also wrote Milk and is a notable gay rights activist who was involved in defeating California’s Proposition 8. Hoover’s repressed homosexuality is the film’s primary interest, though this theme mostly stays just beneath the surface and is only really foregrounded at the end.

The organizing hypothesis of the film is that the entire fucking FBI is an externalization of Hoover’s repressed sexuality. All of the identical, clean-shaven, precisely groomed agents in matching black suits with perfectly toned abs underneath? Narcissism. Ever more sophisticated surveillance techniques and curtailments of the fourth amendment? Voyeurism.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench is an exquisite mommy-from-hell and possible blueprint for Beatrice Horseman. J. Edgar’s futile quest for her approval transforms into a quest for the nation’s love and adoration…which is not forthcoming, because outlaws are far more romantic than cops. Another central concern of the film is the way Hoover’s craven need to be adored shaped the FBI’s midcentury public relations campaign, which was characterized by a very loose relationship with the truth. This is no doubt a comment on Hoover’s legacy and the present day FBI, taken up again in Eastwood’s recent film Richard Jewell.

Where the film ends up, though, is at a place of compassion for Hoover and his lifetime of self-denial. J. Edgar is perhaps the saddest American love story since Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County, and the garish aging makeup used on Leonardo DiCaprio and his would-be lover Armie Hammer suggests the scarring and wear of decades of repression.

13) Romancing in Thin Air (To, 2012)

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No movie from this decade manifests a more profound belief in the power of cinema. It’s a love story between two broken people (Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng!) hiding from the world way up in the mountains—a jilted famous actor and a woman whose husband has gone missing—and you better believe it made me weep. It’s one of the greatest films of all time about the feedback loop between art and life.

14) You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, 2012)

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The ultimate late work. The setup is that a playwright has died and left instructions to summon famous French actors who appeared over the years in performances of the playwright’s Eurydice to watch and evaluate a recording of a young theatre troupe’s new staging of the play. As they watch, the actors slide into their old roles, which they are in some cases no longer anywhere close to the appropriate age for. I don’t even know how to express how much I love this film; it’s so much more magical than any description could possibly convey. It has the full weight of life.

15) A Touch of Sin (Jia, 2013)

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Both the English and Mandarin titles (the latter translates to “heavenly fate”) suggest the wuxia genre. A Touch of Sin uploads various tropes from the wuxia genre into a quartet of stories (based on true events) about violence as a response to ways that global capitalism is reshaping China. The four segments each have a distinct visual style that is adapted to the four different locales. I really appreciate the way that Jia declines to moralize about the violence depicted and instead focuses attention on the context from which it emerges.

16) The Turin Horse (Tarr, 2011)

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Jeanne Dielman if the intended audience were disgruntled horses. I’m here for it.

17) The Other Side of the Wind (Welles, 2018)

It’s hard to know what to do with this one. A legendary lost work from one of the medium’s greatest artists has finally been released in a compromised form, but the relevant compromises are actually highly appropriate to the subject matter. It’s intimidating, difficult, maddening, fiery, and essential.

18) Knight of Cups (Malick, 2015)

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Malick’s Antonioni movie. I rank this above the next two only because it’s more enigmatic and I have less of a grip on it, and so it’s the one I feel the strongest impulse to continue to watch over and over again. I know that a lot of people don’t like late Malick. We are going to have to agree to disagree. It’s not a close call for me. I can tell that these movies are great just by looking at them. The proof is right there on the screen. They are both immediately pleasant and endlessly rewarding.

19) Song to Song (Malick, 2017)

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Malick’s Faust. It’s arguably the purest Malick movie, and so the one that I expect haters to hate the most. Parts of it might seem a bit saccharin, but I’ve found that thinking of it as Faust really helps.

20) The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

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A grand cinematic response to the problem of evil and part of what I see as an informal trilogy pairing events from Malick’s life with spiritual themes (To the Wonder: his marriage to a French woman/God’s silence; Knight of Cups: his unproductive period/sin and decadence; Tree of Life: his brother’s death/the problem of evil). I regret watching the extended cut on the Criterion DVD (which is an alternate cut, not meant to supersede the theatrical cut). It tries to balance Brad Pitt’s performance with Jessica Chastain’s and this seriously damages the movie.

21) 24 Frames (Kiarostami, 2017)

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This is perhaps the most abstract distillation of Kiarostami’s cinema. On the surface, it resembles Five Dedicated to Ozu more than his other recent work, but it can also be taken in close connection with his other digitial films as a meditation on the ontology of images in the digital age. Kiarostami takes one painting and 23 photographs and animates them using superimposition and digital animation. Glitches are often unfixed, which highlights the artificiality of certain elements of the images. An interest that pervades all of Kiarostami’s work is the function of frames in directing the attention of the viewer. He has said that it’s hard to get people to really look at something, and it seems to help a great deal if you put a frame around it. His films are full of imbedded frames: car windows, doorways, mirrors, etc. I take the title of the film to be a pun connecting a frame of film with a frame of the sort that encloses an image. Each of the 24 frames features a frame or some kind of a play on a frame: windows, a rectangular arrangement of trees, a fence, the ocean shore and horizon, etc.

22) Silence (Scorsese, 2016)

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Some of Scorsese’s best movies are about faith, and in particular the struggle to preserve faith through trials and temptations. Silence completes the trilogy about challenges to faith that began with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. It’s based on the same material as the 1971 Shinoda film with the same title, but the Scorsese film is more interested in the Catholic side of the story while the Shinoda film is more interested in the Japanese side.

Silence is about Jesuit missionaries in Japan who are compelled to abandon their faith under threat of torture and death. It’s a harrowing film, but also very beautiful. Andrew Garfield is surprisingly great. It’s not an easy film to approach, but once I actually got myself to sit down in front of it I was fully enraptured.

23) A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (Diaz, 2016)

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It’s an 8-hour opus about the Philippine Revolution that weaves historic events, a famous novel, and folklore together into a surreal narrative with two main branches, one male-centric and one female-centric. The male branch eventually involves transporting a dying man an absurd distance while the female branch focuses on a search in the mountains for the body of revolutionary hero Andrés Bonifacio. The use of high contrast black and white is stunning, even compared to Diaz’s other films, and the expressionistic imagery is in a league of its own. I had to pause it multiple times to read up on the history of the Philippine Revolution (which I already knew a good deal about but not enough), the novel El filibusterismo, and the folklore concerning Bernardo Carpio and tikbalangs. I would advise doing some googling beforehand.

24) Norte, the End of History (Diaz, 2013)

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Certainly the best place to start with Lav Diaz. It’s missing his trademark high contrast B&W, but it has by far the most engaging narrative of any of his long form works and it’s only 250 minutes long. It’s downright entertaining compared to his more typical stuff. It’s a revisionary Crime and Punishment that interrogates the relationship between the intelligentsia and the peasantry and replaces Dostoevsky’s spiritual optimism with an apocalyptic negativism about the movement of history. It might be the most pessimistic film of the decade.

25) Essential Killing (Skolimowski, 2010)

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Elemental cinema. Vincent Gallo plays a Taliban fighter who is captured and then escapes in a snowy European wilderness. There’s very little context or dialogue. It’s just a focused study of a man in an impossible situation with an absolute will to survive. Turn off the lights and preempt any possible disruptions. This is about as intense as movies get. By the end I was standing bolt upright holding my breath. The images of blood on snow are unforgettable.

26) Guilty of Romance (Uncut Version) (Sono, 2011)

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The proper film is 145 minutes long. There is also a 113 minute version that should absolutely be avoided.

My favorite exploitation movie of the decade. It’s a pinku Belle de Jour combined with a gory serial killer police procedural and it centrally involves Kafka’s The Castle. It centers on the relationship between a bored housewife and a female college professor who moonlights as a street prostitute. All content warnings apply, this is a very transgressive movie.

27) Life Without Principle (To, 2011)

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A riff on Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie, set at the onset of the global financial crisis. It puts dreck like The Big Short to shame. Don’t expect To’s usual fireworks, there’s almost no action. This is a focused morality play about the way the amoral ravenousness of the global financial system plays out in the lives of particular individuals. It’s one of four movies that To made this decade examining the soul-killing forces exerted on upwardly mobile young professionals under 21st century capitalism. The other three appear as honorable mentions below: Office and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 1&2.

28) The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, 2013)

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The exhilaration of being horrible. No movie this decade has this level of propulsive energy. It took courage for Scorsese not to moralize. As though he needed to!

29) The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019)

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I don’t know where to put this. I expect I’ll need a few more viewings and a long period of reflection before my opinion of it crystalizes, but here’s a guess for now. It’s grim and fatalistic, overflowing with great acting.

30) SPL 2: A Time for Consequences [aka Kill Zone 2] (Cheang, 2015)

The best action movie of the decade. It’s a sequel in name only and you don’t need to see the first one beforehand (though it’s worth seeing in its own right). The black market trade in human organs is perfect subject matter for Cheang’s horror-influenced, brutal approach to Heroic Bloodshed. Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are two of the best martial artists in movies today and this is a stunning showcase for their skills. Louis Koo is unforgettable playing against type as the waifish villain. And you better believe there’s a CGI wolf.

31) Drug War (To, 2012)

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Lean and nasty. This was produced in mainland China, and To had to contend with government censors. It’s amazing how effectively he manages to critique Chinese authoritarianism given the circumstances. The driving force of the narrative is China’s draconian drug laws and the automatic death penalty for meth distribution. This gives meth traffickers an absolute incentive not to be captured alive and guarantees a maximally bloody drug war.

32) Bastards (Denis, 2013)

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This might have the blackest dark heart of darkness of any noir ever. A man who has mostly forsaken connections with his rotten family of origin is summoned back by his sister when his niece is the victim of a horrific sexual assault. Like many noirs, it’s a march towards annihilation dressed up as a search for answers. Denis’ use of digital video here dials up the sleazy feel of the various poorly lit spaces and dens of iniquity. Many content warnings apply, including the decade’s most disturbing use of a prop.

33)  La flor (Llinás, 2018)

This is the work of a deranged madman. I would certainly advise starting with Argentinian director Mariano Llinás’ first film, Extraordinary Stories, which is a four-hour movie consisting of three stories about piecing someone’s life together from their insane notebooks and maps (and sometimes getting it wrong). If you can’t handle that, forget about La Flor, which is 14 hours long and the most batshit movie of the decade. At one point maybe 2/3 of the way through the director comes out and thanks the audience for sticking with the movie. It has six parts, very uneven in length. The first four parts each contain the beginning and middle of a story but leave off before the ending. The fifth part is a full remake of Renoir’s A Day in the Country, which is itself an unfinished film. The sixth part begins in the middle and reaches a conclusion. The movie as a whole features four actresses, though there are tangents that they are left out of. The first part is a B movie about scientists investigating a cursed mummy, the second part combines a story about a musical couple with a story about a secret society trying to derive the secret to eternal life from the venom of a rare scorpion, the third part is a spy movie about four female spies where we get asbsurdly long digressions explaining the backstory of each, the fourth part goes off the rails into metafiction and returns to the themes of Extraordinary Stories, and by this point you’re like “ok fine, sure let’s just do a remake of A Day in the Country.” And then there’s that ending…

34) Good Time (Safdie Brothers, 2017)

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A throbbing, hallucinatory descent into hell. It’s one of the most intense movies of the decade and the score from Oneohtrix Point Never is pure fire. Good Time makes me feel enthralled about cinema.

35) On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong, 2017)

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Hong made a bunch of movies this decade starring Kim Min-hee about his real-life affair with Kim Min-hee. This is perhaps the most straightforward of the bunch, but also the most emotionally resonant. Kim is an exquisitely subtle actress and this film gives her the space to really show off what she is capable of. Hong likes to play with titles and the expectations they create, and knowing where Kim will eventually end up builds an odd sort of suspense. We imagine what lies beneath the veneer she puts up for others and what will be revealed when she’s finally on the beach at night alone.

36) Phoenix (Petzold, 2014)

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Petzold’s recent films all take a core idea from some classic film and build a quietly devastating drama around it. Phoenix is Holocaust Vertigo and it will rip your heart out of your chest and show it to you. Nina Hoss is extraordinary.

37) Lover for a Day (Garrel, 2017)

One of the most beautiful films of the decade. I underrated it when I did my previous Garrel write-up, because I watched it alongside nearly his entire filmography and it is quite straightforward compared to his earlier works. I revisited it recently and it looks far more luminous against the comparison class of films from the last decade. It is indeed a simple film by Garrel’s standards, but this simplicity is integral to what he’s trying to achieve. He’s stripping his cinema down to the bare essentials: human bodies, light, 35mm B&W, and a palette of basic emotions. 76 minutes of minimalist perfection.

38) The Assassin (Hou, 2015)

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Also one of the most beautiful films of the decade. Hou is a filmmaker of quiet contemplation, whereas wuxia is a genre of sensory overload. This antinomy is at the center of this film, in much the same way as the tension between Hou’s style and the club scene is at the center of Millennium Mambo. All the shots through gauzy fabric are just astonishing.

39) Museum Hours (Cohen, 2012)

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Philosophy of art colleagues take note: here’s your movie. It centers around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The narrator/co-lead is a thoughtful museum security guard who keeps to himself and enjoys the quiet and the chance to commune with art—especially the Bruegel paintings. The other lead is a Canadian woman who is visiting Vienna while her cousin is ill in the hospital. She spends her days wandering the museum and eventually the two become friends. There aren’t many events beyond the two leads hanging around and talking, but this is an exceptionally rich film. A visiting lecturer explains at length that one reason Bruegel is so important is that he documented peasant life at a time when such things weren’t documented. Although much of the film is spent in the museum, it’s also a city symphony that takes us on a tour of Vienna. Extrapolating from the musings about Bruegel, Cohen explores at length the possibility of looking at scenes from everyday life the way we look at paintings. It’s also a film about the way that art and shared aesthetic experiences can bring people together and create a context for rich and valuable interaction. And on top of all this, it’s a celebration of public institutions that make great art accessible for people outside the upper class.

40) First Reformed (Schrader, 2017)

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Here I would just send you to Francey Russell’s excellent piece on the film, which articulates its merits far better than I could. The one thing I want to add to discourse surrounding First Reformed is that discussion of its many influences (including Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, The Sacrifice, and Ordet) ought to consider Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, which I take to be central to what Schrader is up to here.

41) Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015)

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Another Hong film starring Kim Min-hee, but far more conceptual than On the Beach at Night Alone. A film director visits Suwon to screen his film at a festival but arrives a day early and spends the extra time hanging out with a young painter. The film tells the same basic story twice with one major difference: the first time the director tries to observe various social norms, whereas the second time he speaks and acts without any filters.

42) The Lords of Salem (Zombie, 2012)

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It was a good decade for witch horror. This was the best witch movie, followed by Hagazussa:  A Heathen’s Curse, followed by The Witch. This is a moody slow burn that rewards patience with thrilling satanic imagery. Filmed in 2.4:1 on 35mm but looking just as grimy as his 16mm flicks, I think it’s easily Zombie’s best and the best horror film of the decade.

43) Stray Dogs (Tsai, 2013)

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Tsai Ming-liang’s last feature film (he claims). It is very challenging. It’s a threadbare, surreal portrait of people living ghost-like lives on the margins of society and it’s not afraid to hold a painful moment far past the breaking point. I strongly prefer this to trendier attempts to approach similar subject matter through satire and gimmicky cleverness.

44) Twixt (Coppola, 2011)

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This tripped out horror gem was inspired by one of Coppola’s own nightmares. Val Kilmer plays Hall Baltimore, a writer of pulpy horror novels who lost his daughter in a speedboating accident (the exact same way Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo died). While trying to sling witch-hunter books at a hardware store, he meets Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (an utterly fantastic Bruce Dern), who draws him into a local murder mystery involving a vampire cult. Coppola relates Hall Baltimore’s huckster status to his own late career marginalization: this is a minor masterpiece that knows it’s headed to the bargain DVD bin.

45) Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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My favorite Refn film by far (but still not as good as his series Too Old to Die Young). It’s a neon pink martial arts film set in Thailand. Many content warnings apply. This is the central part of the trilogy that begins with Drive and ends with The Neon Demon. Whereas the former is about a masculinity and the latter is about femininity, this is about emasculation (the transition between the two, as it were). There were some good mommies from hell this decade, but Kristin Scott Thomas has to be the best.

46) Unstoppable (Scott, 2010)

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Tony Scott’s last film succeeds at every level, but what is perhaps most remarkable is the way it situates the action within the shitty workdays of ordinary people. Denzel Washington is being forced into early retirement, his wife his dead and his daughters are working at Hooters to pay their way through school, while Chris Pine is sleeping on his brother’s couch because he’s estranged from his wife. It’s understood that Pine is the sort of lower pay employee that the company is replacing lifers like Washington with. This sort of long term boosting of the bottom line without regard for the human cost is echoed in the fast-paced decisions that the company executives make as the crisis unfolds, where working people are treated as disposable and then left to clean up the mess. These power dynamics give the incredibly well-staged action a degree of poignancy unmatched in recent genre movies. Also: it’s a decidedly Hawksian film, and the train-chasing set pieces unmistakably evoke Hatari!.

47) From What Is Before (Diaz, 2014)

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Six hours of Lav Diaz. It bears some comparison to Sátántangó but it has a linear structure. It begins in a remote village in the months leading up to the Marcos martial law era. Odd occurrences and bad omens foreshadow the coming atrocity. This is not Diaz’s most difficult movie, but it is very difficult. It is slow cinema to the bone, with few significant plot events relative to its running time. The subject matter ranges from unsettling to intensely disturbing. It’s got an unearthly feel and finds some truly upsetting images. Various content warnings apply. If you can handle this sort of thing, though, it’s definitely worth it. Follow it up with Diaz’s Season of the Devil, which is about the martial law era that followed upon the events depicted in this film.

48) White Material (Denis, 2010)

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A difficult and confrontational film, my take is that it’s about Fanon’s idea that the colonized internalize and reenact the violence of the colonizer in the process of decolonization and also about the meaning of whiteness in such a context. Isabelle Huppert is great (as always), but Nicolas Duvauchelle may be even more unforgettable as her son.

49) Margaret (Extended Edition) (Lonergan, 2011)

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The proper cut of this movie is 3 hours long. I definitely prefer it to the 2.5 hour version that was initially released. The longer version in particular has an Edward Yang quality, which is the highest compliment that can be paid to an epic coming of age movie like this. Peak Anna Paquin.    

50) A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg, 2011)

The wildest performance of the decade didn’t come from Nicolas Cage or John Travolta or even Tom Hardy. Nope: hands down, that award goes to Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein. It’s a fascinating film across the board, especially unusual in the way it is driven primarily by intellectual disagreements. Viggo Mortensen plays Freud while Michael Fassbender  plays Jung.

Honorable Mentions (unranked)

50 picks diversified by genre

Passion (De Palma, 2012)

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I’m so grateful to have another erotic thriller from the master. It’s not peak De Palma, but it’s still better than almost everything else. First of all you’ve got the always great Rachel McAdams reprising her character from Mean Girls in a corporate setting. Then you’ve got some kinky sex games involving creepy masks. And finally you have a full-on De Palma split screen set piece where he demonstrates his peerless sleight of hand by getting you to watch Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn on one side of the screen while the pivotal murder happens on the other side. *Italian chef kiss*

Office (To, 2015)

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Written by and starring the great Sylvia Chang, it’s based on her stage musical. It’s about several intertwining stories involving a billion dollar company that’s about to go public when the financial crisis hits. It has by far the best set design of the decade and the whole thing is a marvel of staging. It’s not as biting as Life Without Principle, but it’s perhaps the decade’s greatest showcase of To’s craft.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (To, 2011); Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (To, 2014)

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These two really need to be taken together and so I snuck in an extra movie. They are both office romantic comedies, but the former is upbeat while the latter is one of To’s bleakest movies. The real purpose of the first one, as delightful as it is in its own right, is to set you up for the brutal sequel.

Blind Detective  (To, 2013)

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The third film in the trilogy that began with Mad Detective and Running on Karma. They can be watched in any order. All three depict individuals using supernatural mental powers to aid investigations. This one is a romantic comedy where a blind detective is brought out of retirement by a young female officer (Sammi Cheng) to help with a cold case. It is zany, violent, and hilarious

Three (To, 2016)

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A recurrent trope in Johnnie To is the collision of three forces with different aims. In this case it’s medicine, law enforcement, and organized crime. A seriously wounded criminal is in the hospital, biding his time and postponing treatment to try to create a chance to escape while a cop looms over him. A female doctor jousts with the cop over the relative importance of saving his life vs. making sure justice is served. One thing that makes this movie special is its bizarre and enthusiastic hybridization of the medical procedural genre and the crime genre. There is tons and tons of graphic surgery. Another thing that makes it special is the absolutely berserk finale. It’s one of To’s greatest set pieces, and that’s really saying something.

American Sniper (Eastwood, 2014)

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The most misunderstood movie of the decade. Its reception reveals that our tribalism has become so deep that it’s no longer even possible to thematize ambivalence across tribal lines without being widely misunderstood. I’m sorry, but anyone who thinks this movie is Chris Kyle hagiography is plainly wrong. I have trouble imagining how anyone could interpret it that way. Critics from the left complain about Islamophobia in the movie, but this is a clear case of careless viewers focusing on surface content and failing to think about how this content actually functions. American Sniper does depict Islamophobia, but it clearly does not endorse Islamophobia. The first part of the movie depicts Kyle’s activities as a sniper and focuses on the way that dehumanization of outsiders (i.e., Islamophobia) is predicated on deep bonds of interpersonal loyalty between soldiers. Kyle’s absolute commitment to protecting his brethren and dire capacity for violence are two sides of the same coin. Once Kyle leaves the military, he is a totally dysfunctional person. He has become so one-dimensional that he can only function in the expression of his narrow loyalty to fellow soldiers. The film dares to neither condemn nor embrace him. It mourns him, and what it primarily mourns is what military service did to him. It transformed his fundamentally admirable capacity for profound loyalty into something inhuman.

Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010)

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One of Eastwood’s strangest movies. It’s about big themes–death, the afterlife, fear of death, the impulse to believe in the afterlife—but it approaches these themes through strenuous attention to the sorts of small details that are normally left out of a movie like this in favor of sweeping romance and weepy drama. It focuses on three stories: one centering on a well off French woman (Cécile de France), one centering on a lower middle class American (Matt Damon), and one centering on an impoverished young boy in England. Each of the three has experienced a close brush with death; the Reaper cares not about social and political boundaries. What’s really remarkable about this movie is how unconventional it is in the aspects of these stories it focuses on. For instance, we spend a lot of time on Damon going to cooking school and the fact that he’s really into Dickens.

Resident Evil: Retribution (Anderson, 2012)

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Retribution is focused and exhilarating: light on narrative and dense with both action and ideas. It is by far the most interesting entry in the series at the formal and conceptual level and it’s one of the best action movies of the decade. Alice is stuck in a simulation facility and must escape while coping with a crisis of self-knowledge that relates to vital philosophical questions about memory, authenticity and identity.

Pompeii (Anderson, 2014)

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Fully a natural disaster movie and fully a gladiator movie (also a star-crossed lovers movie and a political fable), Pompeii is a legit banger. I’m surprised it wasn’t more popular, given that it stars the beloved Jon Snow alongside Emily Browning AND has Kiefer Sutherland (!) as a villain.

Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2010)

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Nice and twisted with incredible dialogue in a sui generis style. This is Lanthimos at his most impishly original.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012)

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The best true B movie from America this decade. Easily. I can’t even believe how much immersive nightmarish atmosphere this achieves with its budget. No spoilers, but several higher profile sci-fi movies and TV shows have attempted the same premise and none have come close to this. Van Damme goes full Marlon Brando. And the score is so frickin’ good! Turn up your subwoofer.

Barbara (Petzold, 2012)

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Petzold’s Klute, wherein a characteristically brilliant Nina Hoss is stuck in a podunk town under the watchful eye of the Stasi. It’s a small film, but not at all slight.

Lady J (aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières) (Mouret, 2018)

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I complained at the time about The Favourite being nowhere near wicked enough and keeping its emotions too close to the surface. Mademoiselle de Joncquières is exactly the movie I wanted to see when I made this complaint. Based on the same Diderot story as Bresson and Cocteau’s collaboration Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it depicts a jilted woman’s cruel revenge plot. It keeps its emotions buried below a veneer of politeness so that when the underlying wickedness does surface, it is appropriately shocking. Cécile de France is as good as it gets. Mouret’s neoclassical mise-en-scène is ravishing throughout.

The Ghost Writer (Polanski, 2010)

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A Hitchcockian wrong man movie by way of a Polanski slow burn. Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter who travels to Martha’s Vineyard to write the memoir of a Tony Blair stand-in played by Pierce Brosnan. While working on the project, he begins to suspect that his predecessor was murdered for uncovering a dangerous secret. This is one of the best modern political thrillers and also a very fine example of Polanski’s craft. What he does better than anyone else is build a sense of dread out of ostensibly benign details. If there’s a guy sweeping a porch in the periphery, Polanski will somehow render him obtrusively creepy without necessarily implicating him in any proper foreshadowing.

Shutter Island (Scorsese, 2010)

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Scorsese draws extensively on Italian cinema throughout his body of work, but this is the one time when he’s gotten into Italian Exploitation territory. The reductive psychological diagnoses and the overly neat ending that renders all of the movie’s chaos legible are straight out of the giallo genre (thanks to Peter Labuza for this observation). This is one of Scorsese’s wildest, strangest, riskiest movies and it deserves recognition for its boldness and maniacal energy.

Road to Nowhere (Hellman, 2010)

A mystery wrapped in an enigma. Almost the entire film consists in a film within the film about the making of the very same film. A director making a movie about a woman’s disappearance unknowingly casts the very woman who went missing in the role of herself.

The Counselor (Director’s Cut) (Ridley Scott, 2013)

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Who knew Ridley Scott could be this campy? The director’s cut of this is one of the most fun movies of the decade. It’s worth the price of admission just for Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s scenery chewing.

The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar, 2011)

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I like my Almodóvar movies maximally twisted, and this is definitely that. No spoilers, but many content warnings apply and I suspect that some people would find it gravely offensive. I think there’s room for debate on that, but in any case I find the transgressive flair thrilling. I’m with Pasolini: “To be scandalized is a pleasure.” A lot of Almodóvar is about translating the trashiest possible Euro-exploitation plots into polished art cinema, and nobody working today does it better than he does. I would advise going into this knowing as little as possible.

Hard to Be a God (German, 2013)

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The gnarliest foray into medieval futurism since On the Silver Globe. It’s about a group of scientists living on a planet much like ours except the renaissance never happened and humankind is violently opposed to any sort of progress. The whole thing reeks of death and excrement. It came out of Putin’s Russia but it feels entirely appropriate to this decade in total.

Raw (Ducournau, 2016)

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There are lots of movies about going away to school for the first time. What most of them undersell is the amount of bodily fluids and the general sense of bodily porosity involved.  Raw spins these elements into a sort of vampire movie stripped of every genre trope. I’m impressed by how seamlessly it connects the exhilaration and horror of bodily awakening. Cannibalism has rarely been so appealing. Julia Ducournau is the young horror director who I am most excited to see more from.

Killer Joe (Friedkin, 2011)

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The best Matthew McConaughey performance. It’s a southern-fried white trash exploitation noir based on a play by Tracy Letts. There are movies that are sleazier than this and movies that are stagier this but no movie that is at once this sleazy and this stagey. Many content warnings apply.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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Another sweaty, sleazy southern noir, this time in Florida. Nicole Kidman and John Cusack hit all-time highs, with delightful turns from Zac Efron and Macey Gray. And of course, it wouldn’t be a southern sleaze movie without McConaughey. I don’t know if the Cusack masturbation scene will ever be topped.

Unsane (Soderbergh, 2018)

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It’s like Shock Corridor for the #metoo era, filmed on an iPhone. Soderbergh is remarkably effective at building a sense of confinement and powerlessness. Claire Foy is great. This is an immensely stressful movie to watch.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins, 2018)

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What I find so remarkable about this film is that despite being based on a James Baldwin novel and having a novelistic narrative, it is so expressive that you could remove all dialogue and narration and every bit of it would still be legible. Certain elements may seem overwrought, but they are proportionate if you think of Jenkins as deploying silent movie grammar. The villainous cop, for instance, is a silent movie fiend.

Transformers: Age of Extinction  (Bay, 2014)

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Bay’s best action movies are like 21st century Abel Gance. Gance would pack his movies so densely with technical tricks that the audience couldn’t possibly apprehend them all (e.g., 100 superimpositions when only 10 are distinguishable). Swap the imagery of the American military for Napoleon and there you go. This is my favorite entry in the series. No one plays a fake scientist better than Mark Wahlberg.

It’s certainly Bay’s wokest movie: Autobots as undocumented immigrants, simultaneously exploited as a resource and vilified, persecuted, and targeted for genocide. “There are no good aliens and bad aliens, there’s only us and them.” Humans nearly precipitate their own extinction through short-sighted greed while deep and nefarious connections fester between state apparatus and corporate overlords. There are Transformer hyenas! Autobots ride dinobots—a locus of ancient untapped power now freed from bondage—into battle to face a soulless facsimile of themselves. The action climax lasts an hour and a half. No fucks given about audience endurance for skull-rattling mech-combat.

13 Assassins (Miike, 2010)

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An elite team of 12 assassins and a hunter attempt to kill the shogun’s sadistic half-brother, who is guarded by an army of 200+. The cast and action are terrific and this is a deeply satisfying genre movie.

As the Gods Will (Miike, 2014)

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A lot of movies try to integrate a video game structure but few succeed as well as this one, which isn’t even based on a video game. The premise is the gods suddenly decide to intervene in human affairs, and what they do is teleport all the highschool students to these floating structures where they have to face a series of lethal challenges. There is massive carnage, but Miike uses red beads in place of most of the blood so it’s really not all that upsetting. It’s imaginative and very fun and works both as a horror movie and a high school comedy.

Fast Five (Lin, 2011)

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The Oceans 11 of the series, it’s easily the best heist movie and the best car chase movie of the decade. The sequence where we round up a crack team is just delightful. The heist itself is absolutely thrilling and the various twists sustain a high level of suspense throughout. The main crew is great and Joaquim de Almeida is the best villain in the series.

The Fate of the Furious (Gray, 2017)

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The primary overarching theme of the F&F series is that family loyalty is a superpower. This movie has in some ways been the most controversial entry, because fans have questioned whether Dom violates the code of family by shaking hands with Shaw (who killed Han, certainly a part of Dom’s family). I would argue that the “Justice for Han” contingent who dislike this entry are misguided, and thinking through the argument is a good way to see how interesting this movie actually is.

Shaw’s rehabilitation is set up in Furious 7 when Shaw and Dom mutually declare, “you shouldn’t have messed with a man’s family.” Shaw has the same code of family that Dom’s crew does. Dom’s decision to shake Shaw’s hand at the end of Fate of the Furious is grounded in the pair’s mutual recognition that they have both been motivated by the same code. It’s just as big of a concession for Shaw to forgive Dom’s transgression as vice versa. Let’s not forget how we got to this point: in a desperate situation, Dom saw that he and Shaw had a common enemy and he knew that Shaw would be a formidable ally. He reached out to Shaw through his mom, played by Helen Mirren (!), appealing to the code of family. Shaw delivered, and in the process won the audience’s sympathy with the adorable, hilarious, astonishing baby-soothing airplane shootout. When Dom shakes his hand, it’s not as the man who killed Han, it’s as the man who pulled off a miracle rescue of his son. Shaw contributed more to this rescue than any other character and he followed through on his promise even though it forced him to let his own quarry escape. Dom knows it, and you’re damn right he shakes his hand.

The Handmaiden (Park, 2016)

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A very fine Fingersmith adaptation and one of the most purely and immediately pleasant cinematic experiences of the decade. Great cast, including Kim Min-hee, who also stars in the two Hong Sang-soo movies above.

Shin Godzilla (Anno and Higuchi, 2016)

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The best Godzilla movie since the original 1954 Gojira. It throws information at you at a dizzying pace from the very beginning and then still manages to escalate to a hysterical crescendo of practical effects and Japanese collectivism. One thing I really dislike about 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the way that it not only loses touch with the series’ origin as a postwar anti-nuclear weapons statement, but basically treats nukes as convenient batteries for a benevolent Godzilla. Shin Godzilla goes in a much more intelligent direction by instead relating Godzilla to a number of more recent disasters that have impacted Japan.

Pacific Rim (del Toro, 2013)

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I couldn’t count the number of evenings when my sentiment has been, “what I really want right now is to watch Pacific Rim for the first time again.” It’s all the Robot Jox vs kaiju I ever wanted. Please pour this all over my face.

Love & Peace (Sono, 2015)

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I picked Sono’s gnarly exploitation movie Guilty of Romance in my top 50 above. This is the exact opposite. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Godzilla meets Toy Story, and it’s a rock opera AND a Christmas movie. It’s the most family-appropriate movie on this list.

Army of One (Charles, 2016)

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The funniest comedy of the decade by a large margin and my favorite Nicolas Cage performance in recent memory. He plays a Trump supporter-type who has a vision that God wants him to go to Pakistan and single-handedly kill Osama bin Laden. The part at the beginning where he tromps around Home Depot giving unsolicited, casually racist advice to other customers is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Damsels in Distress (Stillman, 2011)

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Now this is my kind of Greta Gerwig movie. She plays a sort of campus Don Quixote who leads a clique of absurd do-gooders on a quest to prevent suicides and start the next big dance craze. Endlessly droll, it’s one of my favorite comedies of the decade.

The Shallows (Collet-Serra, 2016)

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Shark horror is my jam and this is top-tier shark horror (both 47 Meters Down movies are also very good—it was a solid decade in shark horror). Collet-Serra is better than just about anyone else at giving the viewer a clear sense of orientation in the space where the action takes place. Blake Lively is perfect as the resourceful, self-possessed protagonist.

Carlos (Assayas, 2010)

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339 minute version. Wildly entertaining throughout, this does for 20th century internationalist leftist militants what Scorsese did for Italian-American gangsters.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010)

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The most accessible Weerasethakul flick and probably my personal favorite. His work is always hard to pin down and seems to emerge unfiltered from his subconscious. This one is engaging and imaginative throughout, full of ghosts and creatures pulled directly from the low budget fantasy TV shows he grew up with.

Jauja (Alonso, 2014)

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A trippy South American version of The Searchers where Viggo Mortensen plays a Danish captain in Argentina searching for his daughter, who has run off with a young soldier. This is my pick for the best use of landscape in a narrative film this decade.

Magic Mike XXL (Jacobs, 2015)

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Very funny, very poignant, and replete with fantastic dancing. It’s about mitigating alienation in working class life through self-expression and community. The hangout movie—the movie that mostly just consists in people hanging out and talking—is a dying art. This is a great example. It’s a hangout movie plus dance numbers.

3 From Hell (Zombie, 2019)

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We can all agree that ready-made cult cinema is the worst. The harder question is how to delineate between a real exploitation movie and canned junk in the post-ironic era. For me, Mandy is a clear example of ready-made cult cinema. It’s too self-conscious and it tries too hard. I know some will disagree but my emphatic stance is that 3 From Hell is the real thing. It was made under genuine conditions of economic constraint (Zombie’s previous 31 was crowdfunded and he only got money for this because he agreed to make a sequel to an established franchise with a built-in audience) and comes from a place of sincere irreverence and disdain for polite constraints.

It’s part women-in-prison movie, part hangout movie, and part fugitives-on-the-lam movie. Many movies interrogate our love for villains and outlaws. Many of them land on moralistic, critical explanations. 3 From Hell is a refreshing hot shower of unapologetic immoralism. Why do we love villains and outlaws? Because they are awesome. This is mean, grimy, anti-elevated horror and I love it. It’s definitely not for everyone. Start with House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects. If you don’t love those, forget about it.

Flight (Zemeckis, 2012)

No one crashes a plane like Zemeckis. This is one of the best and truest movies about alcoholism, and Denzel Washington is immense.

The Color Wheel (Perry, 2011)

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Perry trades in Post-Mumblecore Cinema of Cruelty, where he traps you with totally unbearable characters for longer than you can reasonably endure. This is easily his best and least painful movie, though it’s plenty abrasive. It depicts a brother and sister with a creepily intimate relationship going on a road trip to retrieve the sister’s belongings from the house of her ex-boyfriend/former professor. It’s a twisted movie and very dear to my heart.

Mr. Turner (Leigh, 2014)

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I don’t know how biographically accurate it is, but I really don’t care. I love Timothy Spall and his performance here is singular. He explores the tension between the ugliness of painter William Turner’s disposition and the beauty of his work.

The Woman Who Left (Diaz, 2016)

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This is based on Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits.” Much as he did in his revisionary Dostoevsky adaptation, Norte, The End of History (in the top 50 above), Diaz sheds Tolstoy’s spiritual optimism and takes the story in an entirely different direction. In this version, a woman who has been imprisoned for 30 years is released. She learns that she was framed by her jealous, wealthy ex-boyfriend. She moves to his neighborhood intent on taking revenge. News broadcasts repeatedly announce an epidemic of kidnappings in the Philippines and rich people like the protagonist’s ex live behind considerable fortifications and only leave the house with a crew of armed guards. The protagonist is left to wait and bide her time. Over the course of this nearly four hour movie, she naturally slides into the role of caretaker for the poor people who live side-by-side with the wealthy elite. It’s hard for me to take the critique of capitalism in a movie like Parasite seriously when I compare it to something like this. While Parasite focuses on inequity in creature comforts in a rich country, The Woman Who Left focuses on the way that violence and rape are part of the baseline living standard of the global poor (and are taken for granted while public discourse frets about any threat whatsoever to the rich). Attempts to claim justice or assert dignity are only met with the swift and violent exercise of state power.

Season of the Devil (Diaz, 2018)

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A four hour musical about the martial law era in the Philippines. Imagine Trump supporters were given automatic weapons and effectively unlimited authority to keep the rest of us in line (and unlimited latitude to interpret what that means). Add the background context of a long post-colonial hangover and that’s basically a glimpse of the Marcos martial law era. Set that shit to music and that’s this movie. It’s about a woman who moves to a rural village to set up a medical practice but later disappears, and her husband’s search for answers about what happened to her (based on true events). There is an emphasis throughout on the way fascists exploit superstition to control the masses. Diaz might be the only filmmaker today whose work is as confrontational as the global political landscape warrants. This is an intensely disturbing film and the sung dialogue is extra, extra creepy.

Li’l Quinquin (Dumont, 2014)

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I never liked Bruno Dumont’s dramas but wow, do I love his comedies. This is certainly the strangest comedy I saw this decade. It’s an absurdist, deadpan 3.5 hour romp that follows two policemen as they investigate a series of bizarre killings where corpses were found inside of cows. They are pestered along the way by a gang of kids. This certainly wins the award for Best Use of Eyebrows.

Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, 2012)

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The filmmakers (associated with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University) put a couple hundred Go Pro cameras on a Massachusetts-based commercial fishing boat and edited together a collage of footage that captures sensory details of life aboard the boat and fishing practices. There is no narration or interviews or exposition. There’s no moralizing about fishing or the environment or working conditions, but this is not to say that the movie paints a rosy picture. It is a swirling, churning, often disturbing work that might be labeled “Nautical Gothic.” It has that Melvillean man-against-nature darkness and doesn’t shy away from gruesome imagery of dying fish and evidence of polluted oceans.

Almayer’s Folly (Akerman, 2011)

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Chantal Akerman goes Herzog in this Joseph Conrad adaptation that moves the story from the late 19th century to the 1950’s. Almayer is a virulently racist Dutch trader in Malaysia who obsesses over the racial identity of the daughter he had with a Malay woman who he detests. It is a hypnotic tale of colonial purgatory that deserves much more attention than it’s gotten in America.

Split (Shyamalan, 2016)

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I really admire how bonkers this manages to be while still being commercial enough to make $280 million dollars and how risque it manages to be within the strictures of a PG-13 rating. James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are both phenomenal. I didn’t even know I liked McAvoy until I saw this. One of Shyamalan’s best.

 

The Richard Jewell hot takes are garbage. And: the time I got polygraphed by the feds

The lead story on Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, released today, should be “Paul Walter Hauser gives breakthrough lead performance.” He’s amazing.

The actual lead story is infuriating: “Eastwood smears journalist by depicting her sleeping with an FBI agent for a tip.”

This is the primary hot take, and then there’s the secondary hot take: this is a right wing persecution fantasy straight from the heart of Trumpland. I just saw the movie and I can tell you with my highest level of confidence that both takes are hot garbage.

The primary hot take is more straightforward to dispense with.  Let’s be clear that the movie absolutely savages Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Kathy Scruggs. It savages her because she wrote and the newspaper printed a rushed, irresponsible story implicating Richard Jewell as a suspect in the bombing, when in fact he had discovered the bomb and saved lives. We have seen many, many examples of inadequately corroborated stories being published the last few years and reinforcing Trump’s “Fake News” narrative by in fact being fake news. We will get to the Trump issue below; suffice to say for now that I think that the journalist who wrote the story implicating Richard Jewell and the newspaper that printed it ought to be a fair target for critique.

But people aren’t mad that the movie savages her reputation as a journalist, they are mad that it suggests that she fucked Don Draper. The pearl-clutching horror is that a female journalist is depicted as sleeping with an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm in order to extract a tip. Seriously, this is what people are worried about: not whether she in fact irresponsibly published a story that put an innocent person through hell, but rather whether or not she fucked Don Draper for a tip.

In any case, this is not what happens in the movie! Reading it this way is willful bad faith. Very plainly, the two characters are depicted in a previous scene as already having a sexual relationship (or at least a flirtatious relationship that’s clearly on a sexual trajectory). Scruggs is depicted as playing up her thirst for information in a joking way as part of their flirtation. When she actually approaches him in the relevant scene, she does offer to have sex with him for a tip, but he clearly interprets her as joking. He gives her the tip, and when she suggests that they go have sex he indicates that he didn’t think she was serious and that sex isn’t necessary. She then indicates that she is actively interested in having sex with him.

Olivia Wilde herself has confirmed this interpretation in tweets today:

Here I want to ask the hot take folks: why is no one indignant about the reputation of the FBI agent? Isn’t it at least as bad to leak information for sex as it is to trade sex for information? (Though, again, I don’t even think the movie is depicting either thing as happening!) So, why is no one saying, “how dare Clint Eastwood smear the reputation of the FBI agent?”

I have a couple diagnoses. The first is ugly: implicit slut shaming. The hot takes that are so outraged by the way Scruggs is depicted are essentially slut shaming the fictionalized version of her. Why is it so horrible to be depicted as horny for Don Draper?

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The second is that this really isn’t about accuracy of biographical depiction or the sanctity of a person’s legacy, this is about tribalist flag waving. Ever since Eastwood’s Obama chair debacle, hipster critics and large swathes of the left have (very, very ignorantly) dismissed him as a right wing simpleton. I’ll get to that in a minute.

None of these people cared whether the depiction of Cheney in Vice was accurate and it’s highly unlikely they cared whether Ron Howard’s repugnant depiction of Max Baer in Cinderella Man was accurate. Nah, this is about sacrosanct idealization of journalists in the age of Trump, and it’s about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exploiting the #metoo zeitgeist to divert attention from how bad they look in this movie.

So about that second hot take… is this a Trumpist tale of persecution by the media and FBI? Fuck no, it’s not. For one thing there is absolutely not a whiff of the “deep state.” But does it take up Trump’s Fake News narrative?

One could be excused for thinking such a thing if and only if one hasn’t seen Eastwood’s other movies (and if one hasn’t seen them I really don’t think one is qualified to sound off on this). Looking at the artistic context that Richard Jewell emerges from paints a clear picture. The movie is highly continuous with themes from previous works dating long, long before the age of Trump. I could write a dissertation on this topic but I will be as brief as possible and only discuss the most directly relevant examples:

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) unravels the mythology surrounding the famous photograph from Iwo Jima and the way that the government and media conspired to promote a false narrative while leaving the actual veterans without needed care and support.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is a movie in Japanese that sympathetically depicts the Japanese side of the battle. Eastwood said that he thought if was going to make a movie about the American side he should make a movie about the other side as well. (I know, such a dire jingoist!)

J. Edgar (2011) tells the story of the founding of the FBI and the way Hoover ruled it with an iron fist for decades, often exploiting its apparatus for his personal political aims. It is highly critical of the way that the FBI tries to sell itself to the pubic by glamorizing its activities and gaming the media. It is also highly critical of the FBI’s disregard for privacy and the Fourth Amendment

Sully (2016) depicts the bureaucratic nightmare that Sully was caught up in after the Miracle on the Hudson. It’s a kind of Rashomon riff that examines the sort of automatic, reflexive responses that actually saved the day and their incommensurability with bureaucratic codes and procedures, but also calls into question the capacity of individuals to assess their ability to achieve such responses.

The Mule (2018) is about a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s about white privilege and the way that an old white guy in a pickup truck is invisible to law enforcement. The movie very confrontationally depicts police mistreating nonwhite people and reveals a clear and nuanced understanding of the difference between the way that white people and nonwhite people experience interactions with the police.

It is against this backdrop that we must interpret Richard Jewell. Does that seem like a progression that would lead naturally to Trumpist flag waving? Does it suggest that Clint Eastwood is harboring a distinct white dude persecution complex? No!

The character of Richard Jewell is a schlub who wants to be a cop. He loves guns and belongs to the NRA. He’s a virgin and lives with his mom. Keeping in mind that Eastwood made a movie about the way that police disproportionately target minorities *LAST YEAR*, the natural thought is that he’s now turning to the alt-right basement dwellers and saying “it can happen to you, too. maybe you shouldn’t be so dismissive of police accountability movements.”

It seems dead obvious to me that this is what Clint is up to. He pokes pretty good fun at Jewell, revealing that he’s not afraid to laugh at a deplorable. But Eastwood is above all else a humanist, and so many of his films over the years have been about outsiders making connections in unusual circumstances (e.g., Honkey Tonk Man, A Perfect World). That’s also where he ends up with this material. He finds sympathy for Jewell: a fat guy who lives with his mom, who no one takes seriously and who everyone bullies and calls mean names. Of all people, the one character other than his mom who is genuinely decent to Jewell is Sam Rockwell’s back-alley lawyer, who struggles with Jewell’s difficult personality but comes to value his kindness and sincerity. This element is sweet and moving and very in line with Clint’s previous work. In perhaps the most telling moment in the entire film, when Rockwell learns that Jewell is moving on to a different job in hopes of eventually becoming a cop, he gifts him a crisp $100 in exchange for a promise: “Don’t become an asshole.”

Back to the big picture and the point about flag waving: if there is such a thing as Trump derangement syndrome, it is surely adopting the posture that anything that Trump attacks should be immune to attack. Trump has attacked the FBI and the media. I never thought I’d see the day when leftists would get all defensive because Clint Eastwood made a movie critiquing the FBI and media, but here we are. You can definitely leave me out of that shit. The FBI is not our friend, and although not ALL journalists are like Scruggs, it should certainly be fair game to depict the media harshly (I mean Nightcrawler? No rage there?).

And now to live up to my promise from the title: yes, I got polygraphed by the Feds. This experience certainly helped me relate to Richard Jewell, though it was a very minor incident by comparison.

I was in grad school in Princeton, NJ and I had just been grocery shopping at a very large, popular grocery store. I was making salsa, and I was aghast to slice into a tomato and find a frickin’ sewing needle. I immediately emailed the grad student listserve, knowing that most people shop at the same grocery store: “Yo double check your produce for sewing needles!” Within thirty seconds I got a response from a friend living in Philly: “holy shit call the police right this minute, there have been a string of food tampering incidents like this around here, but I don’t think anything has been reported in Jersey. This is a really big deal.”

So, I called the police and I called the store. Neither cared. The store offered me a refund for the tomato. My partner at the time had a friend whose mom worked for the FDA. We called her and got the number for the local FDA and called them. No one cared. We threw the needle away. The next morning I got a call from the store asking me to bring the needle in for investigation. They gave me 50 bucks and apologized. We also got an unexpected call telling us that a family friend’s mother had died. We drove straight down to the Baltimore area to console the friend and attend the funeral. Late that night I got a call from special agents from the FDA. They wanted to talk to me ASAP. I told them I was in Baltimore and they’d have to wait till I got back. They said they were driving down there right away and that they would be at my doorstep at 6am.

Very long story short: they pressured me to come with them to a field office. They threatened that they would make my life difficult if I refused. I got my partner to follow us with a separate car so I would have the option to leave, but they said that she could only stay on the premises if she agreed to be interviewed. Knowing what I know now, I would have lawyered up. But at the time my anti-authoritarianism was less developed and I hadn’t thought through what to do in such a situation. Knowing that I had nothing to hide, I agreed to be interviewed (as did my partner) and I answered all their questions honestly. They made it very clear that I was the primary suspect. They said that the person who reported the tampering is the culprit 97% of the time. They said they were the ones who busted the woman who lied about finding a finger in her Wendy’s chili. They repeatedly said that if I lie to them I would be going to jail that very day.  Eventually, they busted out the polygraph. They said that agreeing to take it would make my life a lot easier, and that if I refused they would make things as hard as possible for me going forward. I agreed. It was a farce. They kept asking me things like “have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” and I was like “I’m sure I have.” “When?” “I don’t know” “well in order to take anything you say seriously we need you to tell us that you’re not a rotten liar.” “I’m not a rotten liar.” “but have you ever lied to avoid trouble?” “I’m sure I have.” “When?” and so on. I eventually got them to rephrase the question as “Do you specifically remember at this very moment any occasions when you lied to avoid trouble other than that one time you lied to your mom about leaving the gate open?’ This version I was able to say “no” to and pass the test.

I walked away from this experience unscathed, but it gave Jewell’s speech special power for me when he asked the FBI agents (to paraphrase), “do you really think the next security guard is going to report what they find after seeing what happened to me?”  This is exactly how I felt after my experience. “Well, that teaches me to report something.” And that was the last time I ever reported anything.

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Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 10: Culture Wars

Featured image from Transit

The Disney Culture Wars are heating up. Scorsese and Coppola threw down, Loach jumped into the fray, Marvel fans got ornery. This is the single most important piece to read on the subject: https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/disney-is-quietly-placing-classic-fox-movies-into-its-vault.html

It’s no secret that I’m anti-Disney and probably no surprise that I haven’t been spending my time watching a bunch of stuff that I’ve seen before on Disney+. I consider Criterion Channel and MUBI to be the best streaming services, but for all their faults Netflix, Prime, and Hulu consistently offer some very worthwhile selections. Sometimes you just have to dig a little. I’ve done the digging for you, and I have another round of recommendations I’m very excited about. Last time I recommended only horror. This time I am recommending mostly non-horror, and I made my picks with the guiding thought “yo Disney, now this right here is culture.”

Amazon Prime

New Rose Hotel

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What a gift. This has been available cropped and in shitty quality for ages, but Amazon is now streaming a restored HD version. I recommend watching this movie at least twice. At first it seems scattershot and incomprehensible, but it is actually very densely purposeful. It might even be my favorite Abel Ferrara movie. Based on a cyberpunk story by William Gibson, it’s set in a future where technology develops so quickly that traditional corporate espionage is useless and corporations instead try to steal each other’s most talented employees through illicit means. Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe play a duo of corporate kidnappers who hire a prostitute played by Asia Argento to seduce a bio-engineer and convince him to leave his job and family and relocate to a secret facility in Morocco. All three central performances are pure fire. Walken is totally off the leash. This is a difficult movie, but worth the effort.

Road to Nowhere

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The first film in 21 years by the great Monte Hellman. I am a huge fan of Late Style: what happens when aging masters no longer give any sort of fuck (cf. Clint Eastwood). This is Late Style par excellence. It’s a thoroughly self-reflexive mystery wrapped in an enigma that consists almost entirely in a film within the film that is directed by a fictional character. It’s double-plus ultra weird and it wouldn’t be totally out of line to compare it to, say, Mulholland Drive, but it’s far less flashy and the weirdness is more conceptual.

Youth Without Youth

One of the most irritating things about the Coppola/Scorsese/Marvel kerfuffle is how misinformed a good slice of the public is about Coppola and Scorsese. Apparently, people think they primarily make gangster movies. In fact, in both cases only about a fifth of their output is in the gangster genre.

Coppola’s 21st century films are remarkably bold and ambitious. I have recommended Youth Without Youth before and I’ll emphasize again that I think it’s one of Coppola’s very best and one of my favorite films of the aughts. Tim Roth is an old linguistics scholar in Romania who gets hit by lightning and is suddenly young again. He flees to Switzerland to escape the Nazis and eventually meets a woman who is the exact double of his lost love from his previous life. He has a chance to address his deepest regrets. It’s a wild ride.

Tetro

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More late Coppola, also wildly inventive and a complete banger. High quality Vincent Gallo

The Time to Live and the Time to Die

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Early Hou Hsiao-hsien, it’s an excellent introduction to the Taiwanese New Wave, which is one of the world’s greatest treasure troves. Characteristic of Hou’s early stuff, this is a sad and elegaic coming of age movie.

That Obscure Object of Desire

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Buñuel’s last movie. Fernando Rey tells the torrid story of his affair with a young flamenco dancer who is played alternately by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina (without explanation– it’s surreal). Magnificent and essential. 

Transit

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It should be no surprise if you’ve been keeping up with Christian Petzold that his new one is excellent. Most of his films are directly connected to a well-known classic. This is his Casablanca riff. This time there’s a formal twist: the film is ostensibly set during WWII, but it is filmed in contemporary Europe with modern cars, cellphones and so on. The result is fascinating and enables Petzold to connect the contemporary migrant crisis with the history of fascism without the sort of cringey preachiness I’ve come to expect from topical films.

Bad Boy Bubby

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This one is fairly obscure in the US but I think better known in Australia? In any case I did a deep dive into Australian cinema many years ago and this was my favorite discovery. It’s about a Kaspar Hauser-type scenario where a grown man has been kept in his basement by his abusive mother for his entire life and believes the air outside is poisonous. He eventually makes it out into the world and gets into humorous, vulgar, and moving shenanigans.

Ganja & Hess

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Bill Gunn’s audacious Blaxploitation vampire classic. The quality isn’t great but we are lucky to have it at all. It was once considered lost. Spike Lee remade it as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, but see this first.

Netflix

The Dark Crystal 4K restoration and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

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Hot damn this made me happy. First of all the restoration of The Dark Crystal is just pristine. Second, Netflix’s prequel series, Age of Resistance, is better than I ever hoped it might be. The bedrock argument I always hear people make in defense of the MCU is “but it’s an awesome spectacle!” I mean, fine, if that’s what you’re into I accept that our taste is different, but I think it’s important for us all to acknowledge that there is room for disagreement about what constitutes awesome spectacle, and I find this incredibly intricate PUPPET WIZARDRY far, far more awesome.

If you’re a fan of The Dark Crystal, you’ve probably wished that we could have explored the world a little more. Age of Resistance explores the world A LOT more. There are so many delightful details. The voice acting is uniformly great (especially the Skeksis). So yeah, basically I’ve gone Netflix fanboy.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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One of the best Tennessee Williams adaptations. Paul Newman slays as a withdrawn alcoholic (in my own drinking days, I related to him very strongly), while Elizabeth Taylor is at her sultriest as his neglected wife.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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For anyone who thinks Scorsese only makes crime movies or that he never gives his female characters enough dialogue, there are quite a few that you need to see, but here’s a good place to start. Ellen Burstyn is a struggling single mom who gets romantically involved with a rancher played by Kris Kristofferson.

Domino

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Late Style from De Palma. He’s got a piddling budget and is working in hostile circumstances with a Danish production company that interfered with him at every stage, and yet he still manages to put together some of the most vital images and stunning set pieces of the year. Not for everyone, but if you love De Palma, don’t miss it. .

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

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Another spectacle that I find infinitely more thrilling than Marvel. Tsui Hark is a rebellious filmmaker at heart (his early stuff is hardcore) but he likes to make money, and so he’s created this niche of totally insane CGI spectacles that appeal to the Chinese market. You don’t need to see the first Detective Dee movie before this one, but it would help to see Young Detective Dee (still not mandatory). Basically these movies are like Chinese variants of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes with tons of delightfully ridiculous CGI. Tsui Hark is maybe the best director in the entire world at putting bad CGI to good use.

Night Moves

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Kelly Reichardt’s eco-terrorism thriller. It gotten less attention than some of her other movies but I think it’s one of her best. If anything it’s become more relevant in the last five years. Cf., Bresson’s The Devil, Probably.

Hulu

Ugh, Hulu is owned by Disney and I really hope they don’t interfere in any way with Wu Tang season 2. It’s still easily the weakest of the three but it’s got some good titles here and there.

Light Sleeper

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The third part of the Paul Schrader trilogy that began with Taxi Driver (which he wrote but Scorsese directed) and continued with American Gigolo. Willem Dafoe plays a drug dealer. As Schrader put it: “This is not the first time that I’ve written this character. When he was in his 20s, he was angry and paranoid–a lonely cabdriver. When he was in his 30s, he was narcissistic and self-involved–a gigolo. Now he is in his 40s and he is an anachronism–like the drug culture is an anachronism. He is a listener, he takes confessions. That scarf he always wears, it’s his vestment. He’s a wanderer, a voyeur, not really a person but a soul in search of a body to inhabit.”

Magic Mike

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This was marketed as a fun chance to objectify men for once, but really it’s a very melancholy movie. It’s great and totally worth catching up on if you skipped it. The sequel is great, too.

Matador

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Ultra-lurid erotic thriller from Pedro Almodóvar with a young Antonio Banderas. Sex and death. Various content warnings apply.

Paranoid Park

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Dreamy tale of paranoia from Gus Van Sant, about a young skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard. It’s intense.

Mommie Dearest

Peak camp, with Faye Dunaway going apeshit as Joan Crawford.

 

 

 

 

Franchise Fever vol. 3: Conjuringverse and the Insidious Tetralogy

James Wan rules. He’s given us three of the best and most important contemporary horror franchises (Saw, Insidious, and the Conjuringverse). We wrote about Saw in a previous post. Wan also directed one of the best Fast and Furious movies (Furious 7), one of the only recent superhero movies we like (Aquaman), one of the better modern revenge movies (Death Sentence, with Kevin Bacon going full Charles Bronson), and another very solid doll horror movie (Dead Silence). That’s an impressive body of work. So here we are stanning James Wan.

Wan directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 and produced the rest of the movies in the franchise (working with a number of collaborators, including Leigh Whannell). The series is a little uneven, but the very best entries are exceptional and even the worst entries have redeeming qualities. This is some of the most accessible horror you will find us recommending at Strohltopia: generally mild enough for people who shy away from the genre but scary enough for horror fans.

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The series is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are real life ghost hunters/demonologists/suspected scam artists. The fictionalized version of the couple is played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. She’s the tormented, gifted one who communes with spirits; he’s a sort of 50’s businessman-meets-religious zealot who takes the lead with both clients and the Catholic Church. The two Conjuring movies are the hubs that the other entries in the series branch off from. Both films are part of the “family in a captive space” haunting genre but feature all sorts of auxiliary menaces that open up spin-off possibilities.

Perhaps the most distinctive trope of James Wan’s empire of supernatural horror is that what initially appears to be a run-of-the-mill haunting is actually something far more malevolent. This runs through the Insidious series and most of the Conjuringverse. The Far More Malevolent trope is a big part of what makes these movies special. We get two levels of reveal and jump scare. First, there is the ordinary sort of haunting: banging sounds in the night and unexplained open doors escalate to grabbing and clawing and dragging. But once the Warrens are called in, they discover through paranormal sleuthing that this is no ghost: it’s a demon from hell, and it wants your child’s soul. The haunting phenomena are just a way of softening up the most vulnerable member of the family: the real endgame is demonic possession and/or soul devouring.

The films were released in following order:

The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

There are a lot of prequels in the mix, however, so the chronology of the stories is totally different:

The Nun (1952), Annabelle: Creation (1953), Annabelle (1967), The Conjuring (1971), Annabelle Comes Home (1972), The Curse of La Llorona (1973), The Conjuring 2 (1977)

We can see the merit of both viewing orders but we think release order is clearly the best way to watch these the first time around. Here’s the overarching structure connecting the series: The Conjuring introduces us to the Warrens and follows one of their cases from beginning to end. We learn that they have a room full of evil artifacts and the most malevolent of these artifacts is the Annabelle doll. Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring, where we get the story of what the Annabelle doll was up to prior to the events of The Conjuring. The Conjuring 2 brings the Warrens to London, where they work on a fictionalized version of the real life Enfield Poltergeist case. Lorraine struggles a great deal because when she uses her gift she is assailed by a demon in the guise of a nun. The nun’s origin story is the subject of (you guessed it) The Nun. We also meet a character in The Conjuring 2 named The Crooked Man, who will be the subject of another spin-off. Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to Annabelle (we love nested prequels!) and gives us Annabelle’s origin story. Annabelle Comes Home jumps back forwards and takes place shortly after the events of The Conjuring in a single night when a very irresponsible friend of the Warrens’ babysitter lets Annabelle out of her case in the evil artifact room. We meet at least two other menaces in this movie that could potentially support further spin-offs: The Ferryman and The Black Shuck (a damn hellhound!). The Curse of La Llorona is the most tangential entry and is connected to the other movies only by the relatively brief appearance of Father Perez (Tony Amendola), a main character in Annabelle. In a deleted scene, La Llorona’s necklace ends up in the Warrens’ artifact room, so there’s some chance there could be further tie-ins.

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One of our favorite things about these movies is the music. Most of the Conjuringverse and Insidious tetralogy scores were done by Joseph Bishara (who appears in the Insidious series as the Lipstick-Face Demon) and they are incredible. Check out this short track titled “Black Bile” from The Conjuring, featuring Diamanda Galás:

Or this violin hellscape from Insidious: 

The Nun does not feature work from Bishara but has an excellent score from Abel Korzeniowski featuring more ominous chanting and droning synthesizer:

Strohltopia ranking:

Matt and Josh agreed on these rankings. It reflects some degree of compromise but we are both happy with it.

7) The Curse of La Llorona (Chaves)

Linda Cardellini plays a social worker who interferes with a mother of Mexican descent who is trying to save her child from dark spirits through folk practices that look awfully abusive out of context. She takes the haunting home with her and soon finds her own children threatened.

We love folk horror and we love the idea of a Conjuringverse movie based on Mexican folklore, but this is mostly a letdown. While we do think the commentary on child protective services is interesting, we really would have preferred a Latina protagonist over Linda Cardellini. Her generic white mom vibe waters down the cultural setting. The script is lazy, La Llorona herself is underwhelming, the CGI is lame, and the jump scares are mostly tepid. The haunting is too mundane. We really craved something Far More Malevolent. The best element of the movie is Raymond Cruz, the character actor who played Tuco on Breaking Bad. He usually plays a cartel guy, a cop, or a military guy. Here he plays a spiritual healer named Rafael Olvera. When the haunted family can’t get timely help from the Catholic Church, Father Perez recommends Olvera as a back-alley exorcist. Cruz really chews the scenery and it is delightful to see him deploy various Mexican folk remedies. We just wish it were a scarier movie.

6) Annabelle (Leonetti)

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A young couple, John and Mia Forn, are expecting a baby. Mia collects dolls. John tracks down a rare vintage (creepy) doll for her collection. Shortly afterward, their neighbors are murdered by their estranged cult member daughter Annabelle and her boyfriend, who then try to attack John and Mia and end up getting some blood on the doll. Paranormal activities begin occurring.  The movie becomes a sort of third rate Polanski-style paranoid apartment movie combined with a haunting movie.

A good haunting movie needs a steady crescendo of tension. The big problem with Annabelle, aside from the fact that it’s generally uninspired, is that it keeps breaking its own tension. There are too many temporary reprieves that disrupt the crescendo. It does have some very good jump scares, however, and we enjoy the late 60’s setting and the way cultural touchstones like the Manson family are deployed. The depiction of early parenthood is sometimes interesting: the movie laces the natural fears and anxieties of having a newborn with the intensity of Conjuringverse haunting.  We appreciate the restraint it took not to animate the doll at all: it’s much scarier this way.

Also, we didn’t dock the movie for this, but we have beef with director John Leonetti, who insulted the great Tobe Hooper by claiming that Spielberg in fact directed PoltergeistAnyone who knows anything about Tobe Hooper and has seen Poltergeist can tell it’s a Tobe Hooper movie. It also has some Speilbergian qualities, and the unlikely fusion is what makes it special.

5) Annabelle Comes Home (Dauberman)

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As soon as we see the evil artifact room in The Conjuring absolutely crammed with creepy trinkets, haunted board games and ominous samurai armor (!) we dread the day when someone without an appropriate sense of caution tromps around in there and unleashes a fleet of demons and ghosts. Annabelle Comes Home consummates this dread. The Warrens’ daughter Judy is left home with babysitter Mary Ellen, who invites her friend Daniela to join for the night. Daniela has lost her father in a tragic accident and is drawn to the evil artifact room and the promise it holds for contacting the dead. We sometimes enjoy an excess of foolishness from horror protagonists. It’s part of the grammar of certain subgenres. It’s nice to see a self-possessed protagonist put up a good fight in a horror movie, but it’s also fun to see someone do the most ill-advised possible thing at every juncture. Daniela makes us want to scream at the screen: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DANIELA! DO NOT TOUCH THAT! DO NOT OPEN THAT FUCKING CASE! ARE YOU KIDDING?! DO! NOT! OPEN! THE! ANNABELLE! CASE!”

We give the movie a mixed review. It is very fun. We like dark and serious horror and we like horror with heavy themes, but we also enjoy stupid ridiculous horror that doesn’t take itself seriously, and this is definitely that. Some very funny moments accrue from the slumber party scenario and the cute-but-clueless boy across the street’s attempts to woo Mary Ellen by ineptly serenading her from the lawn. The array of menaces we meet is fully delightful. But on the negative side this isn’t very scary, it has dull stretches, and it doesn’t have much bite. Given how brazenly Daniela taunts death, there are basically no consequences. Fans of the series will enjoy it, but it’s not a particularly great movie.

4) The Conjuring 2 (Wan)

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The Enfield Poltergeist is one of the most famous suspected real world hauntings.  The Conjuring 2 focuses a great deal on aspects of the situation that made it seem especially credible to many people (levitating children in front of police, etc) and also tries to explain away the eventual discovery that the whole thing was a hoax. In this heavily fictionalized version, the malevolent presence forces the child to pretend to be staging a hoax so that the Warrens and the church will stop interfering. At the same time, Lorraine is tormented by the demon Valak the Defiler in the form of a nun. It’s extremely treacherous for her to contact the spirit realm–it gives Valak a way in–but she also can’t bring herself to abandon the Hodgson family. This conflict is among of the most interesting elements of the movie, and it brings a great deal of depth to the character of Lorraine. We really like The Conjuring 2 overall. It is not as good as The Conjuring and it has the same problem that Annabelle has with breaking its tension and disrupting its crescendo, but it is properly terrifying, the jump scares are legit, and the Valak subplot is well-integrated.

3) The Nun (Hardy)

The setup is that a nun in an isolated convent in Romania has committed suicide and a priest travels to investigate along with a young nun-in-training (Taissa Farmiga) who is originally from the region. It turns out that the convent is the site of a gate to hell that the nuns have been struggling to contain. We learn how the demon Valak from The Conjuring 2 came to take the form of a nun.

This is a sharp stylistic departure from the rest of the series. It is an homage to two great horror traditions: Italian maximalism and Hammer Horror. The main Italian influence is clearly Fulci, but Bava’s gothic horror is also a point of reference alongside Hammer. This movie got pretty bad reviews from mainstream critics, which does not surprise us very much because most of these people don’t know a thing about Italian horror or Hammer and they don’t have the context to see what the movie is trying to do. But don’t be deterred: The Nun has many direct pleasures to offer for the open-minded. You have to be okay with maximalism, though, because this movie is stuffed to the gills. Every possible time there could be a jump scare, there’s a jump scare. The production design is absurd. I would wager a great deal that there have never been more crucifixes in a single movie. The last time I watched it (my sixth viewing) I resolved to count the crucifixes, but I gave up because there are several dozen in the first few minutes. The climax is at a fever pitch and it goes on for a looooong time. Screaming! Jumping out of the shadows! Opening a gaping chasm to hell! All the nuns praying at once to hold back the evil! The literal blood of Jesus! This movie throws the kitchen sink at you. 

2) Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg)

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Annabelle: Creation is a banger. Sandberg previously directed Lights Out (2016), which revealed that he has formidable chops. This is the origin story of the Annabelle doll and it mostly takes place 14 years before the events of Annabelle. Doll-maker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther lose their 7 year old daughter Annabelle in a tragic accident. 12 years later they invite a nun and six orphaned girls left homeless by the closing of an orphanage to live in their home. The whole situation is intensely creepy and there is one rule that we really hope none of the orphans will break: don’t go in Annabelle’s locked bedroom!

Alas, the rule is broken. We eventually learn of a dark pact the parents made in an effort to contact their daughter again which has invited something Far More Malevolent than the average ghost into the Annabelle doll. This movie is a tightly constructed piece of horror and it is terrifying. The jump scares will send you airborne. We love it. Even though Annabelle is pretty weak, it’s well worth watching to get to this. Play it as loud as possible with all the lights off.

1) The Conjuring (Wan)

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The Conjuring is in many ways a very traditional haunting movie. It hits all of the expected narrative marks and the plot solution is pretty much standard. Where it really stands out is in its relentless intensity and bombastic craftsmanship. It’s a straight up modern horror classic. People will watch this movie for decades and it will continue to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s nearly universal in its appeal: Christians love it, Satanists love it, teenagers love it, our mom loves it. Sometimes the most popular thing really is the best.

 

Insidious Tetralogy

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Insidious predates The Conjuring. The first film was released in 2010, Chapter 2 was released in 2013, Chapter 3 was released in 2015, and The Last Key was released in 2018.  Chronologically, the order is basically: Chapter 3, The Last Key, Insidious, Chapter 2, but the films also contain extensive flashbacks that make the timeline more complicated than this. There is a fifth movie coming.

Insidious is PG-13, which we are normally strongly against, but in this case it is in no way a problem. This is some terrifying PG-13 horror. Wan wanted to make a movie without gore as a response to critics of the Saw series who thought he had nothing to offer but blood and guts.

The center of the Insidious tetralogy is veteran actress Lin Shaye. She’s 74 years old and she’s a total badass. She’s played a lot of smaller roles over the years and it’s awesome to see a whole series built around her. She plays a powerful psychic named Elise Rainier who has a multi-generational connection to the Lambert family, the primary haunting/possession target in the first and second movies.

The other element that is distinctive of the series is The Further, which is the name given to the astral plane where the dead who have not passed on reside and where various demons and evil spirits who are trying to reach the living world get stuck. The production design of The Further is fantastic. Poltergeist is a clear point of reference but this is its own thing. It’s a black and desolate place, but it’s not empty. The sparseness of The Further makes the jump scares double plus effective.  If you’re going to put an astral plane in your horror movie, it better be cool as hell and viscerally terrifying. And this certainly is.

The overall structure of the narrative goes like this: Insidious tells the story of the haunting and possession of Dalton Lambert. Dalton’s parents Josh and Renai are played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (and so, alas, the Conjuringverse and the Insidiousverse don’t stand much of a chance of overlapping, since Patrick Wilson plays Ed Warren in The Conjuring). The grandma (Barbara Hershey!) calls in her demonologist/psychic friend Elise Rainier who works with a pair of ghosthunter lackeys, Specs and Tucker. It turns out that Elise had also been called in for a paranormal incident in Josh’s childhood. Dark secrets are revealed and tie in with Dalton’s predicament. I won’t say anything else but it rules so hard. Chapter 2 picks up directly from the end of Insidious and continues the story directly. Chapter 3 is a prequel, set several years before Insidious. It documents a previous case Elise worked on and also tells the story of how she came to team up with Specs and Tucker. The Last Key is about another case that occurs between Chapter 3 and Insidious. The case involves Elise’s childhood home and there’s a whole flashback narrative about her time living there.

Strohltopia ranking:

4)Insidious 3 (Whannell)

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Decent, but clearly the weakest entry. This is the first movie chronologically but Elise is already retired from demonology. She is drawn back in by a young woman named Quinn who has psychic gifts of her own. Despite Elise’s warnings, Quinn tries to contact her dead mother and ends up encountering a malevolent force. It’s not particularly scary compared to the rest of the series and it feels half-baked.

3) Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan)

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Chapter 2 is nuts, in a good way. We really can’t describe the movie at all with spoilers for part 1, so we’ll just say that Patrick Wilson is great and the movie is a hoot.

2) Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel)

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This is by far the darkest movie out of both series. Drawn back to her childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico by the resurfacing of a malevolent entity (Key Face!) that she previously encountered as a child, Elise confronts her horrifying past. We learn that Elise’s father was terribly abusive and tried to violently prevent her from using her abilities. But that’s just the beginning of the dark secrets that unravel in The Last Key. It’s a very disturbing movie that brings weight and depth to the series as a whole. We love it.

1) Insidious (Whannell)

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“But there are other entities who are malevolent and have a more insidious agenda. And then there’s this… A demon who seeks Dalton’s body for one reason – to cause pain to others.”

Insidious is our personal favorite of the whole James Wan supernatural constellation. This is a movie that knows how scary empty space can be. It knows how to use sound and music to shape and intensify the audience’s emotional response. Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Lynne Shay just slay in this. Turn the lights out, turn your phone off, and turn up the volume.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 9: Month of Horror

‘Tis the season for carnage. We are recommending only horror movies for this installment. We usually try to avoid overly obvious recommendations and repeat recommendations, but this time we are lifting all such restrictions. We figure a lot of people who don’t watch many horror movies make an exception in October (do it!) and might appreciate more obvious recommendations.

Amazon Prime

Stagefright (1987)

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Michele Soavi is responsible for some of the very best efforts from the twilight of the golden age of Italian horror. Stagefright is tremendous and very much my jam. A theater troupe rehearses a play about a contemporary psychopath while they are terrorized by the very same psychopath.  In an owl costume.

Gothic (1986); Lair of the White Worm (1988)

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This is a pair of 80’s gems from the great Ken Russell. Gothic is about the night Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein and features Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley, Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, Julian Sands as Percy Bysshe Shelley, and an unforgettable Timothy Spall as Dr. John William Polidori. It is batshit. Lair of the White Worm is comedic folk horror with Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe.

Wolf Creek 2 (2014)

Genre fans only. This is a very grimy exercise in disturbing excess, but it has a sense of fun (a very depraved sense of fun).

Child’s Play (1988)

Still lit! It’s amazing how long it manages to hold out on its big reveal.

Humanoids from the Deep (1980)

Barbara Peeters’ Roger Corman-produced creature feature is thoroughly messed up. She is one of many great unsung female horror directors from this era. But yeah, the premise is that fishmen seek non-consensual reproduction with human females. It doesn’t pull its punches, so proceed with caution. This is a new restoration and it looks great.

Class of 1984 (1982)

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So you know all those movies where an idealistic teacher starts working at an urban school and is shocked by the violence? This is probably the single most extreme riff on the premise. It goes so far.

Blood Rage (1987)

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We recommended this recently but it’s worth emphasizing: Terry and Todd are identical twins. Terry commits a brutal murder as a child and frames Todd for it. Now, many years later, Todd has escaped. All time Louise Lasser performance. This is a stellar example of American 80’s horror.

Deep Red (1975)

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One of Argento’s peak masterworks and arguably the single greatest giallo, absolutely watch it if you haven’t seen it. Daria Nicolodi is peerless. This is the shorter cut, which I think is fine but there are trade offs. The pace is livelier but there are some unexplained plot developments (stuff like “wait, how did they know to look here?”). It’s worth seeing both cuts.

Inferno (1980)

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The second entry in Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy (the other parts are Suspira and the underrated Mother of Tears), about a trio of powerful witches who have taken up residence in a trio of creepy buildings. Suspiria is set in the Black Forest,  this one is set in NYC, and Mother of Tears is set in Rome. This lacks a Claudio Simonetti score but Keith Emerson’s work here has started to grow on me. The movie itself is straight fire. It’s arguably Argento’s most abstract, surreal movie.

Phenomena (1985)

Another banger from Argento. Jennifer Connelly can telepathically communicate with bugs. I love it with my whole heart and I could watch it a hundred more times.

City of the Living Dead (1980)

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Part of Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy. It has some of his most potent imagery and is a great introduction to his work.

Sleepaway Camp 1-3 (1983, 1988, 1989)

The gender depictions in these movies are certainly “problematic” (in contemporary parlance) but also radical and subversive. I love this series, especially parts 1 and 3. Check them out if you want classic summer camp slasher with a subversive gender twist and you aren’t too worried about offensiveness.

Prom Night (1980) and Prom Night 2: Hello Mary Lou (1987)

The first one is a classic slasher with Jamie Lee Curtis. It takes its time but the payoff is awesome. I like it but definitely prefer the sequel Hello Mary Lou, which is much campier. It’s like Carrie meets A Nightmare on Elm Street. 

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

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Amy Holden Jones’ essential slasher classic. Girl gang vs. pervert monster with death phallus power drill.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

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The best horror sequel of all time, it’s the perfect comedic companion piece to the best horror movie of all time.

Netflix

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)

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I really love this. It’s an atmospheric slow burn set in a girl’s boarding school in the icy, desolate wasteland of upstate NY in February (my homeland). A malevolent presence seeks to exploit a young woman’s loneliness. Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton are all terrific. This is my favorite sort of haunting movie: the narrative is sparse and elusive and the setting and context are abstract and suggestive.

Terrifier (2016)

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Hardcore. This is a stripped-down, supremely nasty dose of nihilistic clown horror. Practical effects, very little story. What motivates the clown to do such horrible things? Well, his name is Art.

Hush (2016)

Pretty much everything Mike Flanagan has done is great and this is no exception. There’s been a recent trend of sensory deprivation horror and this is far, far better than most of the other titles. A deaf writer (Kate Siegel) at a house in the woods copes with a home invader. At 82 minutes it’s lean and efficient.

Candyman (1992)

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A classic of urban horror. I intend to revisit it myself

Carrie (1976)

Perfect in every way. You’ve probably seen it and you’re probably due for a rewatch. I know I am.

Insidous (2010); The Conjuring (2013)

A couple bangers from James Wan. Haunting done right. Insidious is in the running for scariest PG-13 horror movie of all time. Lin Shaye owns. The Conjuring was quite popular and you’ve probably seen it but if not I highly recommend. Both of these are appropriate for non-genre fans.

The Witch (2015)

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This is one of the A24 horror movies that I wholeheartedly defend. The period dialogue is awesome and the movie has a strong sense of atmosphere and setting. Anya Taylor Joy is a great talent and the movie is scary af.

Truth or Dare (2017)

For a Blumhouse movie targeted at teenagers, this pretty much rules. Evil truth or dare.

47 Meters Down (2017)

Underrated Mandy Moore shark horror. This is another rare example of exceptional PG-13 horror. It’s so scary that at one point I screamed a full-on involuntary high-pitched scream.

Train to Busan (2016)

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One of the only good non-Romero zombie movies of the 21st century.

Hulu

The first four movies are absolutely central to the horror canon and essential viewing for anyone interested in the genre.

Hellraiser (1987)

Part of the peak horror pantheon, absolutely watch it if you haven’t seen it. Clive Barker’s peerless imagination is on full display.

The Beyond (1981)

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Fulci’s masterpiece.

The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)

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The height of 80’s splatter. Raimi’s maniacal energy is singular.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

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Stellar 80’s schlock with exquisite practical effects.

Ravenous (1999)

Well-done western cannibal horror.

Saw (2004), Saw 2 (2005), Saw 6 (2009)

I’ve written about Saw here. 2 and 6 are my favorite entries but I wouldn’t advise watching 6 without first seeing 3-5.

I Spit on Your Grave (2011); I Spit on Your Grave 2 (2013); I Spit on Your Grave 3 (2015)

Not for everyone! I repeat: not for everyone! These are dyed-in-the-wool rape-revenge movies and they are gnarly. The subgenre is not exactly in vogue right now and I completely understand why most people don’t want to put themselves through this sort of thing, but if you do want to put yourself through this sort of thing, you could do much worse than the I Spit on Your Grave extended universe. The original 1978 I Spit on Your Grave features possibly the most disturbing rape scene of all time (calling it a “scene” is perhaps misleading, given that it lasts for nearly half the movie). I was scared to watch it for most of my life and when I finally got around to it earlier this year I found that it lived up to my fears: it’s a horrible masterpiece and it should be approached with maximum caution. The remake and its sequels are far more accessible, but still quite difficult. The 2011 film follows the rough plot of the original; writer Jennifer Hills rents a quiet cabin in the country to work on her new book. She rejects the attention of various townsfolk who seethe with toxic masculinity and eventually group up to brutally attack her in her rental home. She survives despite their best efforts and returns to kill them one-by-one with brutal methods that fit their crimes. The impressive creativity of the kills elevates the movie. The 2013 sequel is quite vile and not nearly as creative. It is to the 2011 film as The Human Centipede 2 is to The Human Centipede. It doubles down on the grime. Like half the movie takes place in a literal sewer. Even a lot of people who would be into the first and third movies should probably skip the second one. But if you want max vileness, go for it. It made me physically nauseous, which is a rare accomplishment. The third one returns to Jennifer Hills, who is now living in a new city under an assumed name. There is no big rape spectacle in the movie. Instead, the action centers around a rape survivor’s support group where Hills bonds with other survivors while struggling with PTSD and ongoing violent fantasies. Harkening back to 1974’s Act of Vengeance (a very ahead of its time movie about a group of survivors who decide the police are worse than useless for rape victims and form their own support squad), it depicts members of the survivor’s group taking matters into their own hands. I think this third movie is especially interesting and unusual. The first half plays like a serious drama about a rape survivor’s group. It’s so sensitive by comparison with typical rape-revenge movies that I started to feel like it wasn’t going to be a rape-revenge movie at all. When the blood did finally start flowing, it genuinely shocked me.

Two quick takes: Wu-Tang (yes) and Booksmart (no)

Wu-Tang:  An American Saga

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The problem with the musical biopic as a genre is that these movies tend to put their focus into pulling off a good karaoke impersonation and ticking off the obligatory recognizable milestones (early failure, big break, escalating success, drugs and sex, hard times, and finally either redemption or an early death) rather than on telling a good story or exploring the subject’s creative process or doing something interesting with form. I find most of these movies unwatchable, though I do sometimes find myself deriving mild enjoyment from karaoke movies about artists that I like (e.g., the Biggie movie or Straight Outta Compton). There are several excellent movies about classical artists, which I think is much easier to achieve because no one is tempted to build their Mahler biopic around a gimmicky Mahler impression and a bunch of Behind the Music cliches. The ones I really love are Straub-Huillet’s Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania and Mahler, and Zulawski’s La Note Bleue (about Chopin).

I can think of exactly one exceptional biopic about a pop musician: Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. It’s great because it totally eschews the standard formula and instead focuses on Brian Wilson’s unique way of experiencing the world and how it manifested in his creative process. It uses innovative sound design and editing techniques to depict Wilson’s point of view. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not go listen to Pet Sounds a couple dozen times afterwards.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga takes a totally new approach and I loooooooooooove it. Forget the biopic, this is a bio-miniseries. It uses the larger canvas to craft a mythic origin story that focuses on the parts that are normally glossed over. We are 4/10 episodes in and no one even has their rap nickname yet. Method Man and Ghost are still enemies. This is closer to a musical version of The Wire (minus the cops) than to Straight Outta Compton. There’s certainly a degree of embellishment and narrative liberty and as far as I’m concerned THAT’S FINE. If I want to be informed about the actual history here I can watch the Wu documentary and read the wikipedia articles. Tell me a good story, I don’t care if you made some of it up.

So far, this is a Wu-Tang gangster saga with rap greatness simmering just below the surface. The RZA (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) is at the center of it all, making beats in his basement, forced to hustle when his brother is imprisoned, torn between his duties to family and his own boundless creative drive. He’s the visionary, the one with his eye on the prize, but he keeps getting pulled towards the street game. He sees his friends, family, and even enemies as MC’s lying in wait. He’s constantly trying to pull them away from the corner spot and into his basement to lay down verses, while they are trying to pull him back out to sell blue tops. Kung fu movies play in the background. Five Percenters preach in the streets. As a fan of Wu-Tang since 36 Chambers dropped when I was 12 years old, it all feels familiar. But it feels more like the Wu Tang fictional universe developed across their body of work than like a rote wikipedia survey of noteworthy biographical events. This is the Wu-Tang Clan as they see themselves: superheroes emerging from the Slums of Shaolin. They’re gaining their powers now, and soon they will don their alter-egos. I also really appreciate that Hulu is releasing this week-by-week instead of all at once. I like having something to look forward to: Wu Wednesdays, highlight of the week.

Booksmart

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(warning: spoilers)

There aren’t many movies I dislike this strongly. I put it on late at night, imagining it would be a funny and entertaining high school comedy updated for contemporary moment. Not only did I not find it funny, I spent several days ruminating on how intensely I disliked it. It’s instructive to compare it with Kay Cannon’s Blockers, which is also a female-centric take on a familiar highschool formula. Blockers is a gender-inverted American Pie. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is often compared to Superbad, which is apt, but it’s closer to Can’t Hardly Wait, with a pinch of Ghost World. So far, so good. One feature of the high school comedy subgenre is that it can withstand a high degree of reiteration. All those American Pie sequels are solid, for instance. Blockers is very effective about both hitting all the genre norms and doing something new and refreshing. I really admire it for giving the female characters unflinchingly raunchy dialogue. Also, the way the parents’ side of the story ends up resolving is a brilliant revision. Usually in a movie like this, the parents discourage their daughter from having sex, she tries anyways, and at the moment of truth she realizes they were right all along and she should really wait to lose her precious flower. Here it’s the opposite: at least in one arc, the parents learn that it’s fine if their daughter has sex. Hallelujah.

What I really dislike about Booksmart is the way that it forsakes an absolutely essential element of the high school comedy: sincere sentimentality. I think you will find that every single great highschool comedy has a streak of saccharin sweetness. It needs to be there. Booksmart seems to want to be funny at all times. Whenever there is a moment of sweetness, it sees a chance for a cheap laugh. Its schtick is to disrupt any sense of sincerity that starts to develop with a joke on the level of a loud fart. At no point in the movie did I get a sense that the two leads are best friends. I believed that they hang out together, but I did not believe that they love each other. Their ultimate separation when one leaves for a year abroad has no impact, and in any case is disrupted with a joke on the level of a loud fart. That’s right, not even the final goodbye lets you feel anything.

The scene that I hated the most is the bathroom sex scene. In fact, I think this is my least favorite scene in recent memory. One of the two female leads is out as gay but hasn’t yet consummated her sexuality. She crushes on a quirky girl who may or may not be gay, which leads to an unsurprising and genre-typical humiliation when she turns out to be straight. Then we get a delightful twist where the Hot Mean Girl (Diana Silvers– her performance is the best thing about the movie and she’s also great in Ma) turns out to be into her and they start making out in the bathroom. The scene starts out charmingly awkward and sweet. I had really been hating the movie and I thought to myself, “how does this terrible movie have a lovely sweet scene like this?” And then…. we get a “wrong hole” joke directly into a vomit joke.

Fuck this movie. The character has already been humiliated enough at this point and deserves a win. It would be highly appropriate to genre conventions: I thought we were getting the equivalent of the Lauren Ambrose bathroom scene in Can’t Hardly Wait. There is no good reason to humiliate the character again. It’s not funny. The movie turns around and gives her a small redemption: the Hot Mean Girl stops by to say goodbye at the end and makes it clear she’s still interested. But if you were going to give her this win, why not give it to her in the sex scene, where it can have far more emotional impact, rather than as a hasty afterthought? We are told to see this as a win, but we can’t feel it. One might think that the sex scene functions to let people know that it’s okay if their first sexual encounter is a bit of a shit show. But the movie could have accomplished this without tawdry, lazy gross out jokes. The embarrassment and awkwardness could have stood hand-in-hand with sweetness and sincerity.

Small note: I also really did not appreciate Feldstein’s arc, where she is rejected by the goy boy and ends up settling for the desperate kid coded as rich and Jewish. The subtext there is off-putting. See Blockers if you skipped it. It’s so much better.

Notes on Midsommar (Director’s Cut)

Warning: spoilers lie within.

  1. On the director’s cut: My sense is the longer cut is the way to go. I didn’t see the original theatrical cut because I knew that it was much shorter than Aster’s preferred cut and I wanted my first experience of the movie to be of the more authoritative version. The director’s cut includes more scenes that give us a sense of Christian and Dani’s relationship and more depictions of rituals that aren’t integral to the main narrative. The one element of the director’s cut that I could see a case for cutting would be some of the thesis material, but my sister-in-law Izzy makes the point that this is the one place where the movie gets into racial themes and it does a lot to establish Christian’s entitled white guy douchiness. The other question is pacing. I can’t attest to the way the pacing feels in the shorter cut but I don’t expect that the movie would benefit from trimming down. One of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it pushes the classic slow burn horror arc past its traditional scope (see below). I think the longer runtime is crucial here. Image result for midsommar
  2. On “elevated horror”: Some of the most hardcore horror fans whose opinions I follow love to shit on A24 horror releases. I totally understand where they are coming from, but I think that each movie deserves a fair shake. A24 tends to release some of my favorite movies and some of my least favorite movies every year, without too much in the middle. The bad stuff wouldn’t be so infuriating if all the hipster critics didn’t wet their pants over it and throw around phrases like “elevated horror.” Here’s a tip: if you ever see that phrase being used unironically, ignore the author’s views. The problem is the presumption that horror needed to be elevated. The sorts of themes that these “elevated”  indie horror movies bring to the surface are already there in the subtext of reams and reams of unpretentious genre movies. There are vast numbers of haunted house movies that are about grief, trauma, abuse, and family secrets, for instance. They typically address these themes in subtle ways, keeping the outward focus on the horror action. “Elevated horror” movies take a heavy hand to what was already there. They turn the subtext into text. Critics who throw the phrase “elevated horror” around (think Indiewire) don’t actually like horror, and they praise A24 releases at the expense of the genre. They say things like, “this isn’t just a horror movie, this is a piercing study of grief and trauma.” Horror fans want to say: “fuck you, horror doesn’t need all this indie film festival bullshit to be a piercing study of grief and trauma, you just don’t know how to watch a horror movie.” That said, I think Midsommar is far from elevated bullshit like The Babadook. It’s a horror movie to its bones. I liked Aster’s previous movie, Hereditary, but I didn’t love it. That movie mushes together a prestige drama and a bargain basement haunted house movie somewhere between Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, with a Rosemary’s Baby ending tacked on. I was concerned when I saw the long runtime of Midsommer that he was giving us a feature length prestige drama conjoined with a feature length horror movie. Nope! The extra length is devoted to the slow burn. It’s a movie with broad connections to the history of the genre, coming from a place of love and admiration, rather than the sort of condescension that characterizes the worst examples of “elevated horror.”
  3. There’s a beautiful and perfect Texas Chainsaw Massacre nod that announces the beginning of the final act. It’s the scene where Josh sneaks into the forbidden temple to photograph the forbidden book. His grisly demise closely echos the first kill from Texas Chainsaw: 
    Notice the mask of human skin, the smash, the squeals, the dragging. It’s unmistakable. Aster knows that any serious horror fan will catch this reference, and to me it felt like a warm reassurance: “This right here is a horror movie, buckle up.”Image result for midsommar ending smile
  4. There are two respects in which Midsommar is notably original: the three-hour scale and the aggressive brightness of the cinematography. There aren’t many horror movies where most of the action takes place in sunlight. The Wicker Man is the most obvious point of comparison (in many respects), but Midsommar not only takes place in sunlight, it is one of the brightest movies I’ve ever seen. It is the inversion of the neglected vampire gem 30 Days of Night, which takes place in Northern Alaska during the winter solstice.
  5. Midsommar connects with three venerable horror traditions: folk horror, the Italian Cannibal movie, and the slow burn. Folk horror– horror based on dark folklore–is most closely associated with late 60’s-early 70’s British films like Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and of course The Wicker Man. We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the subgenre in recent years, with titles like The Witch, Hagazussa, and The Curse of La Llorona. Midsommar has a high degree of continuity with the British classics, but also pushes the subgenre in new directions. Most notably, it fuses folk horror with the Italian Cannibal movie. Italian Cannibal movies typically depict a group of westerners– usually anthropologists and/or resource exploiting capitalists– journeying into the heart of the jungle to the territory of an uncontacted tribe, where they both brutalize and are brutalized by the tribe’s members. On the way in, the westerners romanticize the tribe. The typical end result is the ceremonial slaughter and consumption of any westerners who are still alive. By this point, the westerners have perpetrated enough atrocities on the tribe that it’s a pleasure to see them eaten. The theme of these movies is that civilization is a way of institutionalizing rather than transcending violence. Civilizations that imagine themselves more developed are really just more developed in their savagery. There have been two recent titles that revive the Italian Cannibal movie: Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno and S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. The former is a pretty classic rendition while the latter fuses the Italian Cannibal movie with the Western. Both of these movies more-or-less flew under the radar, but can you just imagine how the hot take brigade would react to a proper Italian Cannibal movie making it to the mainstream? There is no question that the racial politics of these movies is vexed (not to mention the gender politics) but the genre has much to offer and deserves rehabilitation. I think Aster’s solution is genius: make the tribe the whitest people in the world! This racial shift and the corresponding gender inversion of the sexual violence give Aster space to make an Italian Cannibal movie for the age of the woke take. The main point of reference is definitely The Wicker Man, but Italian Cannibal movies like Cannibal Holocaust are a close second. And then there’s the slow burn. This is a 60’s and 70’s tradition and the paradigmatic example is Rosemary’s Baby, but we have seen some excellent slow burns in recent years, my favorites being Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem and Ti West’s House of the Devil. The art of the slow burn is to stretch the crescendo out as far as possible and escalate the tension until it becomes unbearable and ultimately explodes into a frenzied catharsis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slow burn quite at the scale of the director’s cut of Midsommar. The closest thing I can think of is Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. By the time the movie really shows its teeth (the Texas Chainsaw scene!), half of the protagonists are already dead. And then you couldn’t ask for a more frenzied catharsis *Italian chef kiss*.
  6. The score is straight fire, courtesy of Haxan Cloak. There have been some worrisome trends in horror scores. Namely: scores that are not creepy or scary. That Thom Yorke Suspiria score is one of the worst damn horror scores I can think of. More of this, less of that, please.
  7. I don’t even know how many cinematic representations of drug-induced hallucinations I’ve seen in my life and this is literally the only movie I can think of that effectively captures what drug-induced hallucinations are actually like. The persistent use of these excellent effects helps the viewer to become immersed in Dani’s state of mind, which for me greatly enhanced both the buildup of tension and the visceral release of the climax. Image result for midsommar
  8. Thank you for the ambiguous City Lights ending. There are still bits and pieces of immaturity (Gaspar Noé has ruined the upside-down shot and I wish everyone would refrain from using it for a good long while), but Aster has come a long way from Hereditary. Rather than giving us both a disappointingly literal prestige drama and a horror movie like he did in Hereditary, he’s just given us an excellent horror movie that lets the audience draw connections for ourselves between the opening sequence with Dani’s family, the depiction of her relationship with Christian, and the ending. There are themes of co-dependence, grief, alienation, etc., but nothing is spelled out explicitly, and the audience is allowed multiple ways of reacting to her fate. One of my favorite things about the movie is the incongruity between the foreshadowing and the conclusion. Being familiar with the relevant genre conventions, when Pelle initially tells Dani about the May Queen competition I thought, “OH FUCK NO, YOU DO *NOT* WANT TO BE THE MAY QUEEN!!!!!”. We expect that the May Queen will be the one sacrificed. The surprising inversion of the finale– she’s the only one NOT sacrificed– abruptly inflects everything that preceded it with new significance, particularly the opening sequences.
  9. Concluding summer movie rant: This was one of the worse summers for movies that I can remember. Fuck Disney! Anyone who boycotts companies like Amazon and Walmart should look long and hard at Disney. They have bought up all the most popular properties and given them the New Disney Treatment of ironing out as much distinctness as possible and delivering safe, predictable box office products that pander to audience expectations. Any time I thought about going to the movies this summer I was dismayed to see that I only had one or two non-Disney options. I’ll keep going to see Lucasfilms movies, because I can’t not, but otherwise I’m done with this shit. The live action remakes of classic 2D animated movies are the last straw for me. This is the most cynical cash grab bullshit of all time. Amidst this landscape of cultural decay, we must cherish the few gems that make it into the multiplex. Midsommar is one of them. I just have to give props to Aster and A24 for making a hit out of a long, slow burn folk horror movie, even if they had to cut a half hour out of it. I saw the three-hour version at the local multiplex, and that’s remarkable. The other horror gem from this summer that I would urge people to check out is Aja’s Crawl. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned creature feature. It’s not goofy and self-aware like Snakes on a Plane (and most other creature features from recent memory– the Australian crocodile flick Rogue being the most notable exception). It’s an efficient, scary, tense, chomptastic alligators-in-a-hurricane genre exercise and it rules. Go see Midsommar and Crawl if you still have the opportunity. Support the good shit. Fuck Disney.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 8

Featured image from 10 to Midnight. 

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime continues to overflow with riches. This time I have an impressive batch of 70’s and 80’s exploitation movies to recommend along with some very nice odds and ends.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

Featuring a memorable lead performance from Millie Perkins, this slow burn is at the far “arthouse-feminist” end of the exploitation spectrum. It’s got buckets of grime, but it’s also a potent dramatic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. Essential 70’s horror.

10 to Midnight (1983)Image result for 10 to midnight

Wall-to-wall sleaze. A repulsive incel serial killer runs afoul of Charles Bronson, a Dirty Harry type. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who also made the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone.

Blood Rage (1987)
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Bonkers! Blood Rage is top tier 80’s horror. Terry and Todd are identical twins. Todd has been locked up for a decade for a grisly childhood murder at a drive-in theater but has now escaped, Michael Myers style. But has Terry been the real psychopath all along?? Absolutely incredible Louise Lasser performance as the mom.

Night Train Murders (1975)Image result for night train murders

Heading over to Italy, this Aldo Lado jam is a particularly depraved riff on Last House on the Left (which in turn is a riff on The Virgin Spring). A couple of girls headed home to visit family end up on a train with a trio of violent sadists. Every content warning certainly applies. Lado’s stylistic chops are on full display and Ennio Morricone contributes a sparse and unnerving score.

Under the Silver Lake (2019)Image result for under the silver lake

This is from David Robert Mitchell, who also made The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows. After the success of the latter, he got a pretty nice budget for this one, and what he ended up doing is deeply weird. So much so that A24 dumped it to VOD just three days after its theatrical release. I was *definitely* vibing on this. It’s a 2 hour and 20 minute stoner Philip Marlowe odyssey into the surreal underbelly of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It’s in the tradition of The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice, but it’s very much its own thing. One of my favorite new releases of the year.

Peterloo (2019)Image result for peterloo movie

A powerful, richly detailed study of a clash between activism and tyranny, vitally relevant to today’s world. Worthwhile political films are in short supply nowadays and I wish everyone would watch this.

Lord of Illusions (1995)Image result for lord of illusions clive barker

Clive Barker made three movies and they are all horror masterpieces. This one was severely underappreciated when it came out, partly because the theatrical cut was butchered. It has since been rehabilitated on home video and taken its rightful place in the canon. A cult of magicians is led by Swann, a popular illusionist  who is in fact performing real magic on stage. Swann’s wife (Famke Janssen) hires private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) when she fears that other cult members are conspiring against her husband. Madness ensues.

Serenity (2019)Image result for serenity movie

My favorite good-bad movie of 2019. I admit I had started to become a little bit of a Matthew McConaughey detractor. I very strongly disliked him in Dallas Buyer’s Club and let myself get carried away. Between this and The Beach Bum (see below), I stand corrected. I am ashamed of myself: Matthew McConaughey is a gift to be cherished. In this GLORIOUS movie, he plays a salty charter boat captain who pleasures Diane Lane for rent money and spends his days on a quest to catch one specific fish (the fish’s name is Justice). The plot thickens when his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) pays him to take her abusive husband (peak Jason Clarke!) out on a day trip. I love this movie from the bottom of my heart.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)Image result for belladonna of sadness

Someone pointed out to me recently that I don’t spend much time on Strohltopia talking about animated movies and asked whether I’m partial to anything in particular. I thought for a minute and said “well I love Belladonna of Sadness!” 86 minutes of insane phantasmagoria, witchcraft, and vengeance.

Millennium Actress (2003)Related image

Another animated favorite. This is Satoshi Kon’s journey through the memories of an aging actress. It’s a sister film to Perfect Blue, offering a more positive variation on similar material.

Netflix

I resent Netflix for cancelling their best show (The OA!) but I can’t stay mad at them long when they deliver stuff like Wu Assassins.

Wu Assassins (2019)Image result for wu assassins

Angela and I are having a great time with this series. It’s like Iron Fist but good. It’s got all my favorite stuff: Iko Uwais (aka The Guy from The Raid), superhuman martial arts powers, food, triads and tongs. It’s a compulsively watchable delight.

The Box (2009)Related image

This didn’t cause quite the stir of Donnie Darko or Southland Tales but it’s probably my favorite Richard Kelly movie. It begins with an ethics class thought experiment where a sublimely creepy Frank Langella gives Cameron Diaz a black box with a red button and tells her that if she presses the button she will receive a million dollars while a stranger somewhere in the world will die. Her choice begins a dark spiral into batshit sci-fi territory.

Lady in the Water (2006)Related image

As I wrote in my Shyamalan piece, this is easily my favorite M. Night movie. I was delighted to see it featured front and center on Netflix. Often used as a punching bag by dour detractors, it deserves reappraisal. I was struck on my most recent viewing by how hilarious Cindy Cheung is.

Horns (2013)Image result for horns movie

Aja has put together a very impressive body of work. Not exactly being a Daniel Radcliffe fan, I was skeptical, but he’s good here. He stands accused of murdering his girlfriend and spontaneously sprouts horns and gains the power to compel people to confess and then act on their most depraved impulses. Aja is in fine form stylistically.

The Wandering Earth (2019)Image result for wandering earth

Armageddon times a thousand. This is the first big budget sci-fi extravaganza produced in China. The entire earth has become a space vessel being propelled out of the solar system by giant thrusters. Threatened by a collision with Jupiter, a rag-tag team of misfits must save the day. I enjoyed how massive and excessive this movie is, and I also enjoyed the way that it packs in the “collective before individual!” themes wherever it can.

Hulu

Hulu was starting to wear out its welcome with me but they’ve done a lot to redeem themselves by bringing us a fourth season of Veronica Mars. They’ve added a few notable movies as well.

Veronica Mars (2019)Image result for veronica mars season 4

Yeehaw! I devoured S4 like the delicious meal that it is. It feels like home. I love how seamlessly it connects to the previous seasons and the movie. If you’re into the show, a great delight awaits. If you’ve never gotten into it, Hulu also has seasons 1-3. Certainly this is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)Related image

My opinion of Moonlight is that the first act is transcendently gorgeous but that the second and third acts let it down. Jenkins’ follow up lives up to the promise of that first act.  A period piece set in 70’s Harlem, this is a superlatively sumptuous, sensual piece of film-making. The acting is so expressive that this could have worked as a silent film. Curl up on the couch with your beloved and/or your cat or your dog or your favorite stuffed animal– someone or something to snuggle– and be ready to cry your eyes out.

Joe (2013)Image result for joe nicolas cage

Arguably David Gordon Green’s best movie, featuring an exceptionally great serious dramatic performance from Nic Cage as an ex con with a soft spot for a hard luck kid working on his crew.

The Beach Bum (2019)Image result for the beach bum

A gentler, sweeter side of Harmony Korine. Featuring one of two great salty wharf rat performances this year from McConaughey (see Serenity above), this is a loving and unapologetic ode to the life of a stoner degenerate. It warmed my heart.

Final Destination 1-3 (2000, 2003, 2006)Image result for final destination 1

I love these movies. The formula is simple: several individuals are saved from a disaster when one of them has a prophetic vision, but then death comes to claim them anyways and they die one by one in elaborate freak accidents. Each film is a collection of grisly, imaginative set pieces. The fourth one is also on Hulu but it’s not very good (it was the first 3D entry, and it substitutes 3D for creativity), but the fifth one (not on Hulu) is amazing and completists may just want to watch them all.

Shivers (1975)Image result for shivers

This might be my favorite early Cronenberg. There’s a sexually transmitted parasite that turns the people it infests into sex-crazed maniacs. Mayhem ensues. Works great on the “zombie orgy of gore” level but also gets into Cronenberg’s abiding interest in the relationship between the body and technology.

 

 

 

TV Roundup

Featured image from Too Old to Die Young (also the next two images)

TV is pretty lit right now.  I was getting pessimistic about the state of the medium but this summer’s fare has changed my tune. I’m having trouble keeping up. I have not started Stranger Things season 3 yet but I’m excited for it. It seems like credible people love it and less credible people hate it.

First, let’s divide things up into three categories: Meh, Very Good, and Where Have You Been All My Life.  I will also comment on the Deadwood movie at the end. I can’t put it in any of these categories.

MehGood Omens, Legion S3, Chernobyl

Very GoodFleabag S2, Big Little Lies S2, Billions S4

Where Have You Been All My LifeEuphoriaToo Old to Die Young

Commentary:

First the good news: ambitious, transgressive TV is back on the menu. Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (Amazon Prime) is an absolute banger. Let me be clear: it is NOT for everyone. A list of the relevant content warnings would pretty much include every possible content warning. It is fucking dark. If you ever avoid things because of content warnings, this is probably something you should avoid. I was a little skeptical going in because Refn’s so full of himself that it’s kind of hard to self-identify as a fan, but I really, really loved both of his last two movies (Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon), so I guess I can say that I am a huge fan of post-Drive Refn (Drive is okay, but nowhere near the level of what’s come after).

I think it’s fruitful to compare Too Old to Die Young and Chernobyl.  Before starting Chernobyl I thought, “I really hope this isn’t too heavy handed with the Trump/Putin connections,” and then BAM! the opening narration spouts the dreaded cliche: “If you repeat a lie enough times…”

There are glimpses of something really interesting that could have made for a very special TV show. In particular, amidst all the olive-drab-so-you-know-it’s-the-USSR production design there are bits and pieces of expressionistic radioactive imagery that scream to be fleshed out further. Make like 50% of the show radiation horror and add a pulsing synth score in the style of John Carpenter and you could really have something. Instead, the show mostly goes for a “banality of evil” approach, where we see horrible consequences accrue from a bunch of bureaucrats making self-serving decisions and other bureaucrats following orders. There’s some very nice body horror, especially in episode 3, but I would have enjoyed a more hysterical and less sentimental approach to the hospital material. In any case, my overall opinion of the show as a work of horror is that it manages to take some of the most viscerally horrifying material imaginable and make it relatively mundane. It’s a black rain nightmare that wants to be a stodgy procedural.

Image result for too old to die young yaritza

Too Old to Die Young is the exact opposite. It takes commonplace elements of the contemporary zeitgeist and filters them through a neon prism of hallucinatory existential panic. Sex trafficking, #metoo, drug cartels, border violence, hedge fund managers, police corruption, collapse of the gender binary, Trump, even cultural appropriation of the taco by white hipsters: it’s all in there, but in the manner of a nightmare. If you’ve seen Refn’s more recent films you might worry that the whole thing becomes too incomprehensible, but there’s no need to fear, his collaborator Ed Brubaker (of comics fame) moderates his more extreme experimental impulses. Brubaker pulls the show in the direction of an aggressively dark border noir with a tight narrative while Refn pulls it in the direction of a glacially-paced, neon pink Inland Empire. Add pulsing synth music from Cliff Martinez and the result is completely and utterly exhilarating. Best show since Twin Peaks: The Return and it’s not close. To reemphasize, though, this is definitely not for everyone. It is very hostile to audience expectations. I find this quality thrilling. But if you don’t like being messed with, this is probably not the show for you.

Image result for too old to die young yaritza

It doesn’t compare to Too Old to Die Young, but the other show that’s really impressing me is HBO’s Euphoria. It’s been stealing Big Little Lies’ thunder on Sundays. Euphoria is at its core a new entry in the well-worn high school soap opera genre with a heavy dose of hard NC-17 Kids/Thirteen-style teens behaving badly. Initially I was skeptical. It seemed to me like the business model here was to be as shocking as possible to promote controversy to get people curious enough to subscribe to HBO. All the lurid content seemed to be framed in terms of pro-helicopter parenting moralism.  DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE DOING?? But it’s sooooo lurid and seemed to have mischief in its heart, so I stayed with it. Four episodes in it has just gotten better and better. The fourth episode shows that Sam Levinson has some chops, with its vivid carnival setting and well-executed cross cutting between multiple subplots.  I thought homeboy was a hack after seeing Assassination Nation but I can’t fault what he’s doing here. The moralism, I’ve realized, is just to clear the way for some seriously risque fun. It’s like those early 60’s exploitation movies that would frame themselves as warnings about the dangers of homosexuality (or whatever)  but really just as a pretense to portray subject matter that couldn’t otherwise pass the censors. Euphoria is not here to lecture us, it’s here for subversive fun. 

Image result for euphoria trans

Even people not watching the show may have seen headlines about transgender model Hunter Schafer’s performance. She is really phenomenal. Her character is probably the most complex, three-dimensional transgender character I’ve seen in popular media. Too often, characters that occupy particularly marginalized social roles are saddled with moral sainthood. This is an insidious tendency. It reflects the impulse of guilty privileged progressives to idealize the moral purity of the oppressed, which is its own sort of dehumanization. Schafer’s character, Jules, is both flawed and profoundly sympathetic. Euphoria strikes the perfect balance of filthy dirty fun and sincere poignancy. 

And now, the bad news: Legion continues to languish. I thought the first season was stellar. That season was short and tight, and the weirdness was focused around a few good ideas that gave the whole thing structure. Several episodes take place in the time it takes a single bullet to travel across a room. That’s a really good idea! Season 2 was bloated and aimless, with whole episodes devoted to uninteresting tangents and an excess of godawful Don Draper pseudo-philosophical voiceover soliloquies (the smartphone sermon was where I admitted the show had jumped the shark). The finale of S2 was kind of a banger, however, and it left the door open for the show to redeem itself. So far, I’m disappointed. S3 started out with some pretty entertaining time travel action but now it’s back to slow and uninteresting tangents that pack less dramatic punch than their posture indicates.

I watched three episodes of Good Omens on Prime and bailed. Stylistically, it’s like a toothless American Gods. I was intrigued enough by the apocalyptic premise and the fact that the Antichrist is a character, but the show is much more interested in the friendship between an angel and a demon who have taken to enjoy life on Earth. The concept seems to be to get two very fine UK actors (Michael Sheen and David Tennant) buddied up and just let them banter. But the writing is nowhere near compelling enough to render this interesting. And once the apocalypse does start breaking out it is far too goofy. Not for me.

Image result for billions s4 jock

Turning back to the Very Good, I certainly enjoyed the latest season of Billions, though it does have some major flaws. Some of the plotting is lazy. The first couple seasons felt fairly grounded in the show’s internal logic but at this point all such pretense has been abandoned and the writers take whatever contrived narrative shortcuts are necessary to set up the desired rivalries and give each character ammunition against the others. This complaint aside, though, the rivalries themselves are very entertaining. The show’s become a character study of the two most vindictive people in the world. I fear that we may be headed towards a cold shower of moralism, but we’ll see. For now, it’s all horrible people screwing each other over in ingenious ways and tons and tons of excellent dialogue in the show’s sui generis style.

Image result for big little lies

Big Little Lies is delightful. The show was teetering between preachy and campy at the end of S1 and now it’s doubled down on the camp. It’s basically like “let’s round up all our hammiest actresses and let them go absolutely apeshit on a hothouse melodrama.” Meryl Streep rehashes her glorious Mommy from Hell from Demme’s’ The Manchurian Candidate remake, but with fake teeth added and some very loopy dialogue. I love her so much in this! Laura Dern continues to absolutely slay, and Shailene Woodley is actually pretty good in this season. I’m still not fully onboard with the Reese Witherspoon performance, though, which seems really obvious and one-dimensional compared with all the genius around her.

Image result for big little lies streep

Image result for fleabag s4

This brings us to Fleabag, which I think is very good indeed. It’s short and there’s no reason not to watch it. It’s witty, dirty, and relatively original. I appreciate how efficiently it turned Andrew Scott’s priest into a sex symbol. Olivia Colman continues to be amazing. Good show.

Deadwood: The Movie

Image result for deadwood the movie

Alas, I wanted it to be better. I rewatched seasons 2 and 3 and they hold up incredibly well. The show has some of the best dialogue ever written. As for the movie, I don’t think it’s good, but at the same time I have affection for it as a Milch swan song.

The three seasons of Deadwood reflect the progression of the western genre. S1 is a heroic western with a relatively black and white moral landscape where we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. S2 is more in the territory of a 60’s Italian western where most of the characters fall somewhere in a moral grey area and the audience is invited to identify with less than savory characters as they manipulate and connive against even worse assholes. S3 resembles the late westerns that chronicle the fall of the last honorable men as the inevitable westward march of progress brings the intertwined forces of modernization and exploitation.  Aside from some unfortunate loose ends, the end of S3 was already perfect. It’s sad and dissatisfying but that’s how the west went out. Deadwood: The Movie is at its worst when it plays as fan service. It essentially returns to the heroic western paradigm, riles us up anew about Hearst, and then gives us a small victory to quench our dissatisfaction.  But this undermines the poignancy of the original ending. My other complaint is all the flashbacks from the original series reminding people who didn’t rewatch it of things that they may have forgotten. These flashbacks are uniformly disruptive and the scenes they intrude into would have been much more powerful if we could have inferred the relevant memory rather than being shown it. Just rewatch the series, it’s worth it. On the positive side, the Deadwood movie is at its best when Milch is foregrounding his own showdown with mortality and sense of abiding regret. There are some powerful moments, particularly surrounding Al on the one hand and Joanie and Jane on the other. Alas, I’m grateful to have this, but it’s not what I hoped it might be.