Dir Panos Cosmatos
Saturated in a druggy wash of deep reds and dark blacks there's so much beauty in every composition of this sludge rock vengeance masterpiece as to deserve a painted mirror you might win on the Seaside Heights boardwalk back in 1983, when you're an impressionable 14 year-old so every Frazetta cover blazes with aliveness. 1983 is also when this set, and deep in some magical forest deep in the Shadow Mountains... Cage is a lumberjack living in a very groovy pad with his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Happy as could be, they live as any of us might, eating dinner while agog in front of the TV, telling weird Erik Estrada knock-knock jokes, and rowing out to the center of the glassy lake out back --perfectly in tune and in trippy love, all captured in dreamy dissolves. Naturally a bunch of crazy acidhead Manson-esque Jesus freaks show up and... well... soon enough Nic has plenty of reason to go on a bizarro drug-fueled killing spree.
Throughout Cosmatos detours into sludgy canvasses of deep red and black, which if it's your favorite color combination as it is mine, you will love this sludgy film. In one of countless great choices, Cosmatos foregoes the usual heavy metal or hard rock classic soundtrack, aside from an unforgettable opening title set to "Starless and Bible Black" by King Crimson. The great, dearly departed Johan Johannson score lays a deep abstract Carpenter carpet underneath the wildness, occasionally going over the deep end as when Red (Cage) samples the jar of Black Rider grey jelly, a kind of super psycho-meth that hits him as instantly and crazily as any ever. As with Cosmatos' iconic debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, your familiarity with 70s-80s Canadian horror and sci-fi films, novels and heavy metal album covers, and mind-bending drugs isn't needed, but it sure helps. Add Cage at his wildest, and badass behavior from both him and Mandy in the face of pure evil and this movie leaps right over the... two moons?! This movie, I tell ya. The whole revenge of one simple man with chainsaw skills on a one-man druggie vendetta against Manson-esque Jesus freaks (and their demon allies) may not be terribly new, but what Cosmatos does is far more ballsy than just adding dour self-importance of social messaging, he brings in the supernatural in a way more holistic and connected than, say, Lynch does in Twin Peaks; The Return. And best of all, does the slow weird meaning-tentacled abstraction of strong psychedelic drugs better than any other working director today, x 2
(see full review: Acid-Etched Damascus)
MOM AND DAD
Dir. Brian Taylor
There's an ingeniously simple, savage, disturbing premise to this wild satire that basically sends a cold shot of Drano-laced meth up the IV tube that's been keeping suburban tract home 2.5 children family bliss/stasis stabilized with cheap corn sugar glucose nigh these 70 odd years (since the dawn of the suburbs at the close of WW2). Tapping into a kind of unspoken universal American rage but reversing the flow (instead of protecting children from harm, etc.) Nicolas Cage is letter perfect as the weirdo dad, and Selma Blair is a whole extra book of revelations as the spin class nervous breakdown mom and it's always nice when Lance Henriksen shows up, giving everyone--even crazy Cage--a lesson in balls-out crazy lunge-for-the-jug style acting. Best is the real-time single 24-hour time frame of events, the way--as in the roots of what's going on are never overtly spelled out (beginning with the super weird early and confusing evacuation of school). I haven't enjoyed a movie this much since, well, ever. Mr. Bill's unruly industrial clatter/whoosh score keeps everything rolling with seven layers of ominous adrenalin. Director Brian Taylor is the nutcase who gave us Crank and Crank 2: High-Voltage in case you're wondering how he got so good at lunatic real-time mayhem and blacker-than-the-anti-sun comedy. He and Nic Cage were made for each other, as they already proved in the 2012 guilty pleasure Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance! I mean, just look at Cage in the pic there, have you ever seen a man crazier? He's right up there with Toni Collette in Hereditary as far as new high water mark level of nuts, which, in our Trumpian post-wasteland, I think more than sums up the tenor of the time.
Dir. Ari AsterSuccessfully goes where others of this decade have only tried, namely to the whole "is there a difference between inherited bi-polar manic depression, and literal matriarchal conspiracies of witches?" split. There's room for both answers in all the best films on the subject, like Rosemary's Baby, and even the ones that are only partly successful (House of the Devil, The Witch, Lords of Salem). The subject--when examined right--treads so close to the line where acute perception--reality stripped of its facade--becomes paranoid schizophrenic insanity that it's very easy to forget which side of it you're on at any given times. Living with a person suffering from such a problem, always teetering over the edge, is truly unnerving. Thanks to a terrifyingly vivid performance by Toni Collette (the most tragically scary mother in a horror film since Essie Davis in The Babadook) we get just how tragic and extra-deep that rabbit hole vortex goes.
The weird thing is that none of this stuff seems at all gratuitous or even sadistic - it's all leading to a certain place and every chill is earned. This is no 90 minute thrill ride but a solid legitimately rich character study that marks the crossroads between mental illness's effects on families and the way paranoia about witchcraft and life after death exacerbates these effects. Is devil worship a system created out of our brain's compulsive need to find hidden systems and motivations that explain away the random events of nature and our tiny place in it? Or has a life of being manipulated by Satanic forces have permanently warped even our most mundane collective conceptions of reality? Rosemary's Baby explored these same questions but, as that film's dream sequence reminded us, it left a whole ocean unexplored, with enough unsounded depth to make a dozen such voyages as full of terrifying epiphany and 'take-away' madness as the first.
Best of all is the ways Aster clearly gets what's wrong with modern horror films--the overly detailed horror make-ups and unearned shocks with bombastic mickey mouse music cues--and eliminates it all. Watching Halloween again for the first time in a few years I especially noticed that, during the whole extended climax, the single note ominous repeating 'dun... dun.... dun..." during the closet upstairs sequence is preceded by a whole downstairs thing with no music whatsoever! The silence is more terrifying than any movie could be, and I wondered how overbearing a modern orchestral score would have made that sequence, feeling all our fear for us like a micro-managing den mother. The climax of Hereditary is right up there and a reminder of the effectiveness of silence as well as music: Colin Stetson's score underlies this with weird eerie drones, sparing but unremitting --other horror film composers should take a mighty heed. (see also: Hereditary Witchcraft Reader)
4. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Dir. Orson Welles (w/ Peter Bogdanovich)
As in that film, we realize much of a director's life is spent being hounded by underlings--writers, make-up artists, personal assistants, young girl intern/eye candy/drink getters, and sycophants galore, all wanting to either get on or stay on his good side and/or payroll. Swirling in and around a 70th birthday party that involves screening the director's unfinished, very artsy and psychedelic late 60s hippie movie (the kind of thing neither Welles nor Huston would ever do, presumably) on the one hand, and the movie itself on the other (and for the end, a fatal intersection of the two), The Other Side is a relentless attention grabber, full of blink-and-miss clever edits, guns, mannequins, and retorts zippy enough that by the time you untangle their genius, three more have passed you by.
The film-within-the-film is harder to peg. Certainly it's definitive Welles--with deep focus Dali-esque compositions reminiscent of passages in Welles' Othello but--especially during the psychedelic stretch of film that finds the heroine in a deserted train station in the desert, then a rainy street at night, a psychedelic rock club bathroom, and subsequent getting it on in a car in the rain with no music but the sound of the wipers and the clack of her bead neckless against her breasts as she gyrated atop this beautiful but similarly mute boy. With all the brilliant, lovingly restored colors, the sequence, lasting well over 15 minutes, is a marvel all its own evoking, of all things, Amer's co-directors Helen Cattet and Bruno Forzani with its intelligently arranged sequence of open-ended surrealist imagery.ich in rich Suspiria colors. With its tail of a beautiful blank looking boy feebly following a Cher-like Native American woman--unsmiling and dead-eyed throughout--the dour mood of dream-like student film art-for-art's sake seems to be almost mocking Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, yet is so rife with Welles' signature expressionist style it kind of takes off anyway. We certainly can't blame Welles for wanting 'in' on this new type of Age of Aquarius expressionism, since he invented some of it.
Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again . Since Welles isn't around to second guess and overthink it into endless abstraction, it's a real gift to cinema that someone who 'gets' Welles and knew him and respected his notes almost slavishly, yet is a talent in his own right, was there to pick up the million pieces and finish what may be one of the best 70s movies of the 21st century. Though again, not unlike most of Welles' work, the overall effect seldom transcends its maker's larger-than-life male ego. The hall of mirrors climax of Lady from Shanghai is again the definitive Welles' image, albeit with him firing at himself firing at himself, self-love and epiphanic realization of that love's hollowness revolving in an endless reverse ouroboros. Doesn't matter, though - his gun never misses and his puking bite is never totally fatal. He even lets a few female characters make their comments. A bitchy lady critic (played with gusto by Susan Strasberg) get in some cruel barbs before someone punches her out. Auteurs will be boys, after all. Hey, speaking of boys...
5. THE WILD BOYS
(Les garçons sauvages)
Dir Bertrand Mandico
Nadja]), sexually devouring and killing randy sailors. Or something. Touching Lord of the Flies meets The Blue Lagoon kind of castaway weirdness, this is really off in a field by itself, chasing horny phallic dragonflies and volcano penises erupting into bubbling crevasses. What does it all mean? You know damned well: when surrealism sets sail, the wind that blows the ship forward is the gas bag exhalation of meaning dying in its conformist straitjacket back on shore. When French women put on male drag, they swagger and wave their cocks around like they just strapped them on, it's really something. Shot in startling black and white with forays into surreal 16mm color, this exercise in gender bending psychosexual surrealism is a breath of fresh island air, salty with sex, oysters, and horny vegetation, the sequences at sea are great too - not sure how they did it, but its some of the best stormy ocean, (non-CGI) floundering ship work I've seen in a long time. (in French with English subtitles) - See full review: Isles of Lowensohn
6. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Dir. Boots Riley
A fresh new African American voice, pitched somewhere between the social surrealism of Michel Gondry, the urban agency of Spike Lee, and the savage middle class satire of Jody Hill, Boots Riley announces "I am here" with a truly weird and engaging feature debut. In some weird alternate LA, slacker Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) intends to pay rent on his uncle's garage apt. as soon as he gets a job. He's got a cute girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson)-- an artist/activist who works spinning a sign on the street, but who aims at something better, so Cassius better pull himself out of his slacker spiral before she moves on. Working largely on commission as a telemarketer, Cassius flounders until he's counseled by a wise cubicle neighbor (Danny Glover) on finding his 'white boy voice' - which means he's soon dubbed by David Cross and moving up the ladder, selling arms and slave labor but making so much money he can't complain, even as he sells out his former co-workers, now unionizing. Meanwhile there's a controversial work camp arrangement heavily advertised as an options to the struggle, one where all bills are paid, needs are met, and you live where you work, eat and sleep all in the same place - though apparently once the Wal-Mart-ish sheen is stripped off, it's slavery. From there it only gets weirder including a WTF moment so insane I can't spoil it (it wasn't spoiled for me, I won't do it for you). You're bound to laugh at least once, nervously, and come away with new ways of asking the right questions so wrongly they don't even need an answer.
Dir. Lucretia Martel
Dir Alfonso Cuaron
Clearly a letter of love and gratitude to Cuaron's maid/nanny while growing up, a reverie of life in a big family in Mexico City circa 1971 actually functions together with Zama as an almost sequel (even the names are familiar, neither has any music --relying instead on a tapestry of diegetic sound--and Martel made a similar film to Roma in her feature debut, La Cienega) - showing the result of all that Spanish colonization in the 1600s. Here it is a mere 180 or so years later, Native South Americans aren't enslaved anymore, but rather work as servants to the more European-blooded upper middle class or else scrabble around in the outskirt slum areas. The mostly silent maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is much loved by the children and the mom even though she seldom cleans up after the dog (it clearly needs to be walked more often), so there's piles of shit all over the driveway. She winds up pregnant (the boyfriend disappears as soon as he hears) and eventually finds a sort of peace in the arms of a household where the men run off and abandon and their women and children. Told mostly in long slow pans, the shots are amazing. The standout: an extended sequence of the grandmother and maid trying to buy a crib at a furniture store while a full-blown bloodbath riot goes on outside (ala the car attack in his Children of Men), leading to her water breaking; their attempt to get to the hospital in the thick of tear gas and traffic and climaxing in a genius over-crowded public hospital (where the deadbeat husband happens to work as a doctor). It's topped later in an amazing glide shot that follows Cleo from the beach out into the deep deep water to rescue the kids nearly swept out to sea in rough tides over the holiday. From far up the beach all the way out to the whirling depths without the slightest tremor in the camera, there's not even salt spray on the lens. It's beyond amazing. Every inch of the screen is used for masterful compositions, the incredible extended sequences, and invisible acting, make this one a real winner despite the 'have your cake and critique the power structure that made someone else bake it for you' subtext. (in Spanish with English subtitles)
Dir Bo Burnham
Lots of angst and pain in this torturously awkward film. Set in the last days of junior high school as experienced by a typically awkward girl, it posits the terrors we all felt as children in the horrible 'body changes' portion of childhood (that we tend to block from our memories as if some brutal assault). With this film they come flooding back, and we learn since we escaped the self-consciousness has been amped to eleven thanks to the proliferation of smartphone technology. Now, every awkward attempt at socialization shall be preserved and disseminated amidst a teen's peers faster than you can even regret what you just said. The one advantage: even with no hits you can pretend you're sort-of famous. First-time feature director Bo Burnham (see his comedy specials on Netflix, please!) keeps the acne-ridden face of our frumpy heroine front and center, forcing us into a kind of aesthetic corner, a self-conscious nightmare prison. It all climaxes in a horrifyingly tense backseat seduction attempt that will be truly illuminating to a lot of men. It's all illuminating, but in the end all it perhaps does is remind us why we blocked those memories out, making us wonder if Bo's a sadist or just trying for a unique catharsis. It succeeds in both counts, but I never want to see it again.
10. INFINITY WAR
Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo
11. HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES
Dir. John Cameron Mitchell
That's Mitchell's big gift to the world, but he has another too, music (or are they the same?): his you-are-there camera and sound mixes really capture the live punk rock basement club event momentum. You can hear the instruments echoing off the low cavernous ceiling of the club, yet it's all vivid and electric and immediate. It's maybe the best-mixed live punk music I've ever heard --raw and immediate, powerful and yet low-fi, both celestial and punk rock earth. I'm not sure, but I think Mitchell may have just redeemed the entirety of the long-sold-out punk rock movement with this one film, and I think Ziggy would like it as much as Iggy - and isn't that the whole Mitchell mission? Accomplished.
1. THE SHIVERING TRUTH
Created by Vernon Chatman
Adult Swim continues their descent into the void with this mind-bending claymation spectacular from the demented mind of Vernon Chatman (Wonder Showzen). Following a kind of Rod Serling-meets-the "in a world" movie trailer voiceover narrator, we go on a bizarre free associative trip into the looking glass with the result being like the entire run of The Twilight Zone all compressed into 15 minute windows, liberally dosed with weird sex, violence, and Cronenbergian new flesh appendage removal, the "yes -and" improv-style relentless compounding lunacy of it all has reduced me to rolling on the ground convulsing with laughter like I haven't done sober ever. There's no going back after this. It's so out there it makes pretenders to the throne of strange wilt and fold. Accept it.
2. BABYLON BERLIN
Created by Tom Twyker, et al
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga / Created by Patric Somerville
With great lighting and deep human insight as well as tapping into that great sleep-over feel (as participants are in this cool 70s-modular deep bunker within a giant pharmaceutical corporation for an entire week) it evokes 60s-70s vintage sci-fi films (and modern retrofuturist wonders like Beyond the Black Rainbow). The only wrong notes are the terrible name (there's already a downbeat 1980 horror movie by the same name, its remake, and at least one other movie or TV show also called Maniac!) and Dan Romer's opportunity-squandering score, for he passes over the modular synths and analog Moogs (imagine the seat-rumbling analog insanity Sionoa Caves or Tom Raybould could have brought to this!) in favor of the same alterna-twee folksy nonsense that's been warning men away from rom-coms since Garden State. Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizumo are a great team as the brainy scientists who put the whole thing together, and try to fix it when it all falls apart. Sally Field is Theroux's Dr. Phil-like daytime TV therapist mom, called in to relate to the AI when it starts to go rogue. Considering the rumor that the show itself got its start through a computer program reading and assembling elements of the most watched Netflix shows, it's mad meta. Don't even worry about where it's headed or why, just note the similarity to films like John Dies at the End and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and know that's a good thing.
4. THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA
Created/developed: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Aided by a stunning cast this gorgeously wicked show is one of the first to make full use of the modern HD widescreen TV as its primary frame, filling every corner of the screen with sumptuous dark detail. The story is one of the ubiquitous teen fantasies --the 'there's a magical society operating right under our townie mortal noses and if we meet the right friends or hit the right birthday--we'll get to join and leave suburban tedium behind' trip. I spent the season hoping Sabrina would sign the book of the devil and be damned forever yet bestowed with countless evil powers since her smarmy mortal half was a drag. Unfortunately she lets herself be dragged down, as so many girls in real life are who are destined for bigger and better things, by love for some doomed luddite townie named Harvey--the fantasy equivalent of not going to college because your dumb boyfriend didn't get accepted. Still, it all works because though aimed at younger viewings there are ample killings and exclamations like "Thank Satan you're all right!" by worried aunts. As for the adults, all very fine with a real full-blooded stand-out in the evil Michelle Gomez (aka "The Master" in later seasons of Dr. Who) as Satan's henchwoman, so relishes her own wickedness we practically are inhaled through the screen in her torrent of marvelous evil.
5. BIG MOUTH
by Nick Krohl and John MulaneyAmazingly instructive as well as relentlessly horrifying, there's abundant wit and compassion in this hilarious animated examination of those 'special changes' that demarcate puberty. Nick Krohl and John Mulaney once again star, with Jordan Peele doing the voice of the irrepressible ghost of Duke Ellington. This time there's a special "Planned Parenthood" episode, a drug episode and great new characters like the Depression Kitty and, most memorably, the Shame Wizard makes his debut and never leaves. Voiced with real slippery charm by David Thewlis, his undermining all the children with deep age-appropriate insecurity becomes the runaway scene stealer of the season. The snippy gay aesthete kid also finds a bit of a guide in a chance encounter with a Fierstein-ish neighbor at an bachelor apartment complex (Broh! He even vapes). All the good stuff more than makes up for the sleazier aspects like the eternally horny Jay and his talking sex pillow's rivalry with a downstairs couch cushion.
(season 2 - Netflix)
(season 2 - Netflix)
Yeesh, is that how I'm going to end this year round-up, talking about Jay's cushions?
Change of Subject: How about a shout-out to:
FORGED IN FIRE
The best reality series on TV, a re-exhumation of the Iron John power that men sorely need and women inherently gravitate to (host Will Willis is the mancrush of his era). It fills a starved-for-positive male images nation with hope. Tapping into the riddle of steel has never seemed more accessible and vital. Even if no one is going to move into metalsmithing after watching it, we need this show's wild man archetypal power. Hurrah. We may be saved, after all. If you're listening guys: more ballistics dummies and fewer animal carcasses, please!
BEST OF 2017
BEST OF 2017