Probably my biggest regret of this past Sundance 2021 was not finding the time or ability to review even a single one of the multiple features I saw during that single week (though I am glad I was able to cover the short films selections), until far enough since the end of the festival that there was no relevance or point anymore. Maybe I can turn that around as they are wide released stateside, especially as it would give me a chance to refresh movies that were already fading by the time I could sit down and write again.
But one movie didn’t fade all that much. One movie, above all others, stayed embedded in my mind as I kept turning around it over and over until it finally got its expected release here (one of the movies that already had a distributor before it arrived to Sundance). And that was Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, which heralded a return to form for Wheatley that rivals his early greatness (barring Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, which is my only gap among his features as it’s not yet released in the US).
In fact, it’s a movie that most feels in line with A Field in England, his 2013 rural period-based psychological hallucination that I frankly was not as impressed on first viewing with, but I do feel like I’d revisit with newfound appreciation in its untethered atmospheric madness. That movie begins with a sense of distance brought by its time setting and dreamy black-and-white and minimalist production design, In the Earth starts way differently. Its starting point is in fact extremely relatable to a viewer in early 2021, set in the middle of what is not identified as the COVID-19 pandemic but sounds eerily similar from how it’s discussed in dialogue (as one of several movies developed and produced during it) as scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) prepares to move further beyond a unnamed government outpost into its neighboring forest with a local park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). And if I’m being honest, that “a virus is happening” starting point may pull the viewer into the world but it’s also not particularly a committed element and the more In the Earth follows Martin and Alma through the woods… the less we have that virus as an urgent element. There’s more pressing matters to worry about.
The central matter is something I wouldn’t want to spoil, for a lot of In the Earth is trying to get us lulled into the rhythm of a quiet isolated trek through the woods – perfect for a film production made at a time where few people should be in close proximity to each other – and then have that violently swerved into something we couldn’t imagine. And Nick Gillespie’s soft photography of the oppressive greenery and shade does phenomenal work laying a tired shadow to Martin and Alma’s hike, seeking out Martin’s former colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) and getting more and more nervous as they run into abandoned tents and a random habitant of the forest Zach (Reece Shearsmith) who gives off a plenty irregular enough vibe to make us prepped for something bad to happen.
Well, this IS a horror movie so something bad happens. And Wheatley’s work as his own editor does so much to make the bad things interrupting the slow-running expedition truly feel discombobulated by the later shifts it takes, inviting us to expect some contagion-set Blair Witch material what with Alma’s explanation of an folklore by the name of Parnag Fegg and campfire lit sequences taking up the first third. But In the Earth is headed towards something more eagerly aggressive in its aesthetic that Gillespie (who at one point of heightened disorientation and terror utilizes diagetic bright strobe lighting that makes this impossible to tough for the photosensitive but for myself I found absolutely thrilling), Wheatley, and the soundtrack (eager to bring us aware of how impossible it is to truly have quiet in the woods, your isolation surrounded by rustling and chirps) all crank up with enough measurement to give the kaleidoscopic indulgences a true sense of climax by the final moments.
Arguably the only constant to In the Earth‘s shifts is Clint Mansell’s droning score which fits smoothly into the preceding worshipful nature footage and slides into the abstract madness that lives deeper and deeper in the runtime. The closest I’m willing to provide as a plot spoiler (and frankly something easy to predict with that plot summary) is how Squires and Shearsmith’s arrival on screen truly marks the moment things change gears. The two actors together are contradictory guides to the narrative context of what weirdness Wheatley and his crew throw at our face, both grounded in their own awe of the invisible cosmic horror atmosphere. Shearsmith, absolutely unrecognizable to me from the few previous works I’ve seen him in (his prior collaborations with Wheatley, Doctor Who), resembles what I’d expect a dark version of a Taika Waititi performance while Squires carries the concept of hard science-fiction and procedural to the uncertain tension surrounding them.
So basically Alma begins as our guide into the woods, but really this movie slips away from her control and ours. It belongs to Ben Wheatley finally finding himself back in the zone of surprise horror scenarios that he always did best flexing between Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. I’m sure the past few years of him getting more of a budget to play with have been satisfying to get out of his system, but they didn’t result in very interesting or good movies. Sometimes all a person needs is a few humans, a vast space, and a limitless collection of sounds and filters to truly show us something terrifying. Looks like Wheatley and his crew made the most out of little.
The latest episode of A Night at the Opera (if you happened to catch it, I haven’t posted it here yet as I’ve moved the hosting to Anchor and I’m still figuring out the issue with embedding from there) saw Britt, Erickh, and myself providing predictions to tomorrow’s Oscar ceremonies, but as that was before I finished watching ALL the nominees (as I now have), I was kind of non-committal about my predictions and I’m sure it was obvious for all that you could hear me mumbling.
Now that I’m up and familiar with all of these nominees deeply, I feel a lot more confident in providing my final predictions for tomorrow’s ceremony… the deathly wrap-up of a deathly year showcasing the deathly offerings. Let’s get this year buried.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7
My Favourite:The Father
Snubs:First Cow, Emma., Tenet
My certainty in Nomadland‘s win here has been diminishing a bit as the conversation has sort of faded, but that feels more of a byproduct of this year’s ceremony feeling so much less of an EVENT in the wake of the year and the enthusiasm drying out. Besides which it feels like any major competitors it has – Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Minari, and Sound of Metal feeling like the most aggressive ones – will be spending more time splitting each others votes than stealing it. I’m not looking forward to it: Nomadland was among my most unpleasant watches of the past year and it’s getting harder and harder not to respond to continuing praise with “Oh come on!”.
Lee Isaac Chung – Minari
Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
David Fincher – Mank
Thomas Vinterberg – Another Round
Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
My Prediction: Zhao
My Favorite: Fennell, though this is a remarkably unimpressive slate where none of the nominees feel strong to me.
Snubs: Kelly Reichardt, Christopher Nolan
Now this is a category where the confidence in my prediction hasn’t lowered one bit (in fact, I’m sure Disney is holding on the Eternals trailer just so they can attach an “Academy Award Winner Chloé Zhao” to it). And intellectually, I do believe it’s been about time that a woman of color has won the Best Director Academy Award in the 93 years since it’s existed but I just can’t root for a movie I vehemently disliked. It feels condescending and performative to all parties.
Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins – The Father
Gary Oldman – Mank
Steven Yeun – Minari
My Prediction: Boseman
My Favorite: Ahmed
Snub: Delroy Lindo, probably the biggest snub of the whole ceremony in my eyes.
Just the most obvious narrative to hand it over to Boseman posthumously in recognition of his accomplishments during a much-too-short career.
Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Andra Day – The United States vs. Billie Holiday
Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand – Nomadland
Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman
My Prediction: Mulligan
My Favorite: Davis by a country mile
Snub: Anya Taylor-Joy
Now this is actually a 50/50 chance for me: it felt so certain early in the season that McDormand would get a three-peat Oscar (especially given that Nomadland was her passion project) but Mulligan has the awards season momentum that truly seems to be threatening that assuredness. Guess that wave Mulligan has been making finally caught up to me with my final prediction going to her.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom, Jr. – One Night in Miami…
Paul Raci – Sound of Metal
Lakeith Stanfield – Judas and the Black Messiah
My Prediction: Kaluuya
My Favorite: Odom Jr.
I don’t really have a snub for this. I guess Aldis Hodge would count (I do like Odom Jr. in the movie but it is really wild to me that he has been getting more attention than Hodge), but he seems more a co-lead in One Night in Miami…. Which is to say the same of Odom Jr., Kaluuya, Cohen and Stanfield all being co-leads in their respective movies making this a hotbed of category fraud (I guess the Oscars think Jesse Plemons is the lead of Judas and the Black Messiah), but you know what? It is what it is and it’s that lack of true competition that ensures Kaluuya is set to win.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Olivia Colman – The Father
Glenn Close – Hillbilly Elegy
Amanda Seyfried – Mank
Youn Yuh-Jung – Minari
My Prediction: Youn
My Favorite: Youn
Snub: Helena Zengel
Momentum drive for Youn here, sorry Glenn.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Judas and the Black Messiah
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7
My Prediction: Promising Young Woman
My Favorite: Minari
I think this could go any possible direction really. Promising Young Woman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are the ones most obviously “WRITTEN” so that would be the safest direction to go and Promising Young Woman has a hype brigade that Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
One Night in Miami…
The White Tiger
My Prediction: Nomadland
My Favorite: The Father by a country mile
Snub: First Cow
Very few Best Picture statues are lonely by the end of the night.
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
My Prediction: My Octopus Teacher
My Favorite: Time
Snub: Dick Johnson Is Dead
Going with the nicest and most agreeable picks would lean The Mole Agent or My Octopus Teacher and one of these happens to be in English. The Mole Agent is better though.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Over the Moon
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
My Prediction: Soul
My Favorite: Wolfwalkers
Snub: Ride Your Wave
I mean, this was set a long time ago. Still hoping for an upset from Wolfwalkers, though.
BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Quo Vadis, Aida?
My Prediction: Another Round
My Favorite: Quo Vadis, Aida?
Like Animated Feature, this was set for certain forever ago and given that Best Director nomination, less chance of an upset here.
BEST FILM EDITING
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7
My Prediction: Sound of Metal
My Favorite: The Father by a country mile
Snubs: Tenet, First Cow
This is definitely the hardest to lay it on. Early in the season, I would have predicted Zhao would be the first person to win 4 Oscars in one night since Walt Disney but now it looks like it’s a real horse race here. Going for the “MOST EDITING” would assume we pick out Metal, Chicago 7, or Woman and the two bloggers I most follow on Oscar stuff have both leant on Metal so I guess I’ll follow their lead.
Judas and the Black Messiah
News of the World
The Trial of the Chicago 7
My Prediction: Nomadland
My Favorite: News of the World
Snubs: First Cow, Tenet, Emma.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
News of the World
My Prediction: Mank
My Favorite: Mank
Snubs: Pinocchio, Emma.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
My Prediction: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
My Favorite: Emma.
Snubs: Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman 1984
Maybe the only category where I could look at it and nod at the selections in approval.
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
My Prediction: Hillbilly Elegy
My Favorite: Pinocchio
Snub: Promising Young Woman
It’s that “make actors” ugly thing that I’m guessing by.
News of the World
Sound of Metal
My Prediction: Sound of Metal
My Favorite: Soul
Snubs: Tenet, First Cow
I forgot they made it one category now and I’m just shaking my head.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Da 5 Bloods
News of the World
My Prediction: Soul
My Favorite: Mank, but it’s the same composers anyway.
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
The One and Only Ivan
My Prediction: Tenet
My Favorite: Tenet
Snub: Monster Hunter
Outside of Mulan, this ain’t a bad slate either.
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
A Love Song for Latasha
My Prediction: A Concerto Is a Conversation
My Favorite: A Love Song for Latasha
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
The Letter Room
Two Distant Strangers
My Prediction: Two Distant Strangers
My Favorite: White Eye
BEST ANIMATED SHORT
If Anything Happens I Love You
My Prediction: If Anything Happens I Love You
My Favorite: Genius Loci
I normally don’t have any idea what I’m doing with the short categories, but given recent wins, I have taken this ceremony to mostly picking my least favorite of the bunch as my prediction (which bodes hecking bad for Live Action Short: Two Distant Strangers may challenge Skin as my least favorite Oscar winner ever if it lands). That doesn’t factor for Best Animated Short as my least favorite is the VERY Icelandic Yes-People so instead I will go with my second least favorite If Anything Happens I Love You, which has the benefit of “relevant so social material”.
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Fight for You” – Judas and the Black Messiah
“Hear My Voice” – The Trial of the Chicago 7
“Io Sì (Seen)” – The Life Ahead
“Husavik” – Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Speak Now” – One Night in Miami…
My Prediction: “Speak Now”
My Favorite: “Husavik”
Now more than ever, I cannot bring myself to care about this category.
I’ve made this clear enough but from where I stand 2020 was definitely an anemic movie year based on worldwide circumstances and I regret that 2021 seems to be just as poor a movie year where I haven’t been able to witness a single masterpiece just yet. But it hasn’t been absent of any of its great joys and certainly some movies I hope to see re-released in cinemas so I can rewatch them with a crowd of strangers on the same wavelength as I. For Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, the second writing collaboration between Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (following Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids), is exactly that sort of movie that invites you to share its anarchic sense of humor, driven by first narrative feature director Josh Greenbaum. Which is one of several arenas in which Barb and Star differs from the more “grounded” Bridesmaids, another major arena being in how despite the go-for-broke non-stop laughs of Barb and Star, it feels pretty obvious that most of the jokes on the screen existed on the page with Greenbaum having none of Feig’s bothersome habit of lingering on one ad-lib session for too long beating a dead comic horse. Which I imagine is the going to be the result when the screenwriters are also the stars of the movie and so probably thought through exactly what they wanted to say as they wanted to say it.
Mumolo and Wiig are portraying the eponymous Barb and Star respectively, of course. They’re a pair of middle-aged Midwestern women with a deep friendship that saw them through their past marriages and are now facing a new crisis after losing their job and friends group in rapid succession. Star’s solution to this is to follow the rejuvenated “soul douche” of their friend Mickey (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and visit the Florida town of Vista Del Mar. This decision unfortunately coincides with the murderous plot of Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig in what looks like an albino parody of a Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), sending her deeply pining henchman Edgar (Jamie Dornan) to set up a receiver for fatal mosquitos in that very same small town.
It is to the phenomenal go-for-broke credit of Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar that these two plots converge in a natural sense rather than interrupt each other (possibly might help that we meet Fisherman before we meet Barb and Star). Both threads are of the same manic energy exerted by Greenbaum, Wiig, Mumolo, and the rest of their collaborators on this film throughout, something that makes sense that this turns into a surprise musical at least a full act in, something that fires off non-stop jokes and an insistence on having cartoonish fun that could understandably be exhausting to a different type of viewer (especially since not every joke is a bullseye and the movie is kind of pushing its welcome at only 107 minutes). But for my type of viewer – the kind that needed a real shot to the system to stay interested in contemporary cinema – it’s a breath of fresh air.
See, there’s several different types of mainstream comedies that just don’t get made as much these days and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar embodies most of them. We’ve already acknowledged this as the kind of movie where the makers just opted to throw every idea to the wall and seeing what sticks, the sort of indulgent “take a studio’s money and run” production that I always have room for in my life, but so rarely seems to be done with studio comedies. That is has the discipline to so with the precise focus of running through this buddy plot and maintaining a singular buoyant attitude is of the deepest credit to Greenbaum as a director as well as Wiig and Mumolo not necessitating the cast to improvise because they structured their scripted jokes with a discipline I haven’t seen since Community. Everybody in the cast gives the vibe of having a tremendously fun time while playing the absurdities as straight-faced as possible (including Richard Cheese as a background pianist singing endlessly about boobs), having their cake and eating it by inviting us to be in on the joke.
The other kind of studio comedy that we just don’t see these is one that cares about the actual cinematic craft of it and this is very much where Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar excels. Certainly it’s filling in the cracks between verbal jokes with visual gags based on the cutting and distortion with varying intensities of fever dreams or warm flashbacks, but it’s also just a bubbly and bright looking film as it gives us all that resort town vibes by boldly suffocating us with marine-like pinks and turquoise in the walls and costumes all around. And how could one ignore the costumes of a movie that opens with the definition of “culotte” and makes culottes and belt buckles an outright plot element. It’s no less eye-catching in its vision of this beachside, seafood-obsessed tacky resort as it is gut-busting and maybe the only excuse ever to give me characters that would willingly go to Florida (I respect Barb and Star too much to let that go off-hand).
All of this comes in service of a story deeply sincere about the relationship between its two characters and their desire to feel alive in the throes of middle-age once again, feeling like something entirely driven by the relationship of Wiig and Mumolo behind their writing. Which makes it all the more enjoyable to share it with them and root for their lovable if absent-minded characters finding new joie de vivre and falling in love (it says particularly a whole lot that even in the middle of the excellent comic timing Dornan displays here, he’s had a lot better chemistry with his romantic screen partner here than in the 50 Shades trilogy or Wild Mountain Thyme) and most particularly reinstating the benefit of just having friends. The direction that even the supervillain plot goes even begins to lean on this and it leads to Barb and Star as a movie really tying itself off in an organic and satisfying way.
So that’s just what I needed in the early months of “The Long 2020”, a breezy comedy that cares about how it’s built, getting as many jokes out there, and making the viewer feel good. And it does all of these things. Imperfectly, but in a manner that we just don’t see enough comedies these days try for and it deserves all that credit for. I like to dream of some time soon getting to rewatch Barb and Star with my friends in a house watch or maybe running into a midnight screening of a movie that definitely deserves the cult it is destined to build. It’s a really great time, “a real tit-flapper” if you will.
So far so good as Dr. Britt, Erickh, and Salim go for the second verse, same as the first, where they muse over the passings of Jessica Walter and Beverly Cleary and finish their reveal of their Top 5 Favorite Movies of the 2010s. In the meantime, they discover the refreshing license for profanity that podcasting affords them, gush over several shared top 5s, apologize to the Producer Matt Damon for running out of time, flex their arrived Hertzfeldt prints, muse over their histories with Doctor Who, and sweat under the wire of getting this episode completed in time for Erickh to rush to work after.
We’ll get this downpat soon enough.
Salim’s Top 150 Movies of the 2010s can be seen here.
Salim’s Top 10 MVPs of 2010s cinema can be seen here.
And Salim and Erickh’s flexed Don Hertzfeldt prints can admired in the picture below. Via 480p Google Hangouts screenshot. Just as Nolan intended.
Way back, when this blog was still started (in fact it was mentioned in the intro post), I shared a radio show in my undergrad alma mater with Britt Rhuart and Erickh Norman by the name of A Night at the Opera promptly ended by our subsequent graduations and my leaving Phoenix, AZ where we had it. We had been talking for the last 4 years about pulling it back up from under the ground and now we’ve taken our shovels and broken the ground. Can we maintain the chemistry we once had in our college years? Do we probably need a new banner image? Can we make this a regular thing despite out conflicting work schedules and different time zones? Tune in for the first few episodes to see if you like me better in print or think I have sexy voice and find out.
In any case, this first episode finds us catching up on a few things that passed us by: the 93rd Oscar nominations, the breaking up of Daft Punk, the bankruptcy filing of Alamo Drafthouse, the passing of Yaphet Kotto, and the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. And of course going through the bottom five of our top ten list, leaving a heartpounding cliffhanger as to what will make our top five (and even if the bottom five of mine has changed in the 6+ months since originally posting, I expect my top five is still easy to predict).
The referred-to Monkey Hu$tle review can be read here.
The referred-to 150 favorite movies of the 2010s list can be read here.
You can call blaxploitation films a lot of things, but one descriptor you don’t hear very often about blaxploitation movies is that they’re “nice”. That’s kind of the inherent fact about exploitation movies – blaxploitation or otherwise – that they gotta be aggressive at the very least with what they’re selling so that it slams on the lap of the viewer, whether it’s sex or violence or anything else that exploitation cinema is all about. And Arthur Marks’ 1976 film The Monkey Hustle (or The Monkey Hu$tle as the marketing referred to it and though I love that spelling, it’ll be too much of a hassle to type that out over and over in this review) isn’t really all that aggressive about anything, barring a few sequences. Its grit is minimal and in the service of realism more than attitude.
That realism being subject to Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, because of course a 1970s blaxploitation movie would have to be set in the area most famously populated by Black-Americans (though a not insignificant part of it passes through Downtown Chicago). And the sort of story that writers Odie Hawkins & Charles Eric Johnson weave into the movie is kind of loose – the subject of its unfair negative reception that it still suffers to this day – but of all the colorful personalities in this movie’s vision of South Side, the one we attach ourselves most to is Daddy Foxx (Yaphet Kotto), a fast-talking hard-hustlin’ small time con man who has already taken under his wing the young Baby D (Kirk Calloway) as his protegé when we first meet him and is taking to teaching two other teens Player (Thomas Carter) and Tiny (Donn C. Harper) in his “Monkey Hustle” schooling.
And while I hate to show my hand so early in this review, I did dedicate this review to Kotto to begin with: this is by and large his movie, owning every shot he is in and delivering all his winding lines with a culture crispness and a speed that rivals any door-to-door salesman. Foxx is not just our anchor because the screenplay frames him that way, conflicting with a plot line involving Baby D’s older brother Win (Randy Brooks) coming back to town after a bad attempt at showbiz on the road and suspicious of Foxx as an influence on his sibling. Foxx is our anchor because he just dominates the screen, being performed by the best actor in the varied cast and having a dynamic swagger in how he walks and talks that would explain how easily somebody could be swayed by his charms.
And yet there are other characters. Some even making for worthy foils towards Foxx, like the flamboyant numbers man Goldie (Rudy Ray Moore, cast at the height of his Dolemite fame to the point that he’s billed next to Kotto for a small part and even takes up the front of my DVD cover) or the matriarchal restaurant owner Mama (Rosalind Cash). And they all have their own negative responses to the proposal of an expressway being built over their neighborhood, something that all the local forces band together to rebel against whenever we’re not just watching Foxx and his crew scam shop owners or Win work to regain the affections of his abandoned beau Vi (Debbi Morgan) or the local cop self-proclaimed The Black Knight (Frank Rice) just fucking up everywhere. I can’t help understanding the complaints about how unfocused and half-baked its script is, while also admitting it’s something I don’t care much about.
The manner in which issues are picked and dropped and forgotten is a big part of what gives The Monkey Hu$tle the amiable feeling it has. Goldie plays as something like a semi-antagonist for a brief time, being the employer behind the closest thing to a full-time antagonist this movie has: Win’s drug-dealing rival for Vi’s affections Leon (Frank Barrett). But one second, Goldie is confronting Player and Tiny for jumping Leon, the next he’s renouncing Leon in the view of everyone. Another moment emblematic of this amnesiac conflict-building is how a truck driver that Foxx’s crew rip off will jump into a length car chase with them, but then halt once he’s stopped by some firefighters being sprayed by local kids and jump out not in an angry mood but laughing at the scene along with the children. The troubles are abandoned the moment the chase is over. Even the last few scenes introduce a crisis of conscience for Foxx late in the game regarding Baby D that just gets tossed aside eagerly so we can rush to the credits.
That’s the way the world of The Monkey Hu$tle feels: nothing particularly personal, everybody is just playing the game and as Foxx puts it “there are many large and small inequities in life that Man must live with…”. And when it comes to actually confronting the man and telling them “no, you’re not stepping in our community” as the climax shows them doing, it’s by that shaggy solidarity that we buy their sincerity and success between the characters’ tension. It’s not a good script, but it tends to amplify the movie’s strengths: letting actors just hang out and be broadly cool. But particularly there is one strength I neglected to address and that’s the loving portrayal of that South Side and Downtown of Chicago that Marks and his crew bring.
It’s not just enough to have a colorful cast, but a grounded environment that is believable for all these characters to live and believe in enough to defend it. And Marks finds a variety of distinct locations to capture like little biomes of one giant world in between Bridgeport and South Shore: empty warehouses and lots, street parties, residential areas, and offices right near the elevated train, all consistent enough to belong to one idea of a Chicago neighborhood that every character feels right at home with.
So a sense of place and a sense of people, neither of which are bad things to have carrying your film. It just tends to show how my sensibilities are different from other filmgoers that I am so easily able to shake off the writing and attach to the liveliness of The Monkey Hu$tle that it ends up one of my favorite blaxploitation movies and thereby a source of optimism and comforting good cheer on the times when I need to watch it and get pulled in by Yaphet Kotto’s silver tongue and cool confidence. I hesitate in calling it Kotto’s best performance (largely because I’ve never watched Homicide: Life on the Street) but when I think of the actor, it’s his giant grin and hanging suit in this movie that pop up first as an image, even before his better-known work in Live and Let Die or Alien or Midnight Run. Just can’t deny why Daddy Foxx gets his way.
I admire everyone who is trying to stay positive and optimistic about the last 9 months of the movie year, but I just don’t see any possible way this wasn’t the all-time worst movie year… possibly ever? Definitely since I’ve been alive. Even beyond the obvious factor of movie theaters (including the fact that AMC’s on the verge of being bought by Disney now that the Paramount decree has been overruled. Thanks a lot, Trump) and video stores closing across the country and film productions having to shut down costing a lot of people in the industry their jobs and livelihoods and Disney’s grip tightening more and more over the conversation around movies, there was no popcorn summer movie season. Most of the prestigious arthouse fare was pushed back to 2021 alongside the big-time popcorn movies that couldn’t yet be thrown into Disney or Warner Bros.’ streaming content power plays. Cannes didn’t occur this year. We are witnessing maybe the least impressive slate of Oscar contenders since 1929 to the point where the best of the most-locked Best Picture movies (One Night in Miami and Minari) are still movies where I am fucking meh about. There was not one fucking movie I gave a five star rating to on letterboxd. Not. One. Especially in comparison to how there were two movies I gave half-star ratings to. And frankly I don’t want to diminish my top ten so soon, but I’m not sure half of them would have made my top 25 of, say, 2019 if they had released then.
Besides which, now that streaming seems to be the full force behind movie-watching, I got to get this off my chest… it is just a downright awful way to watch movies: On a tech basis given how even the best video quality of 4K streaming doesn’t match up with the worst video quality of a blu-ray (oh shit but there goes the video stores), on an industrial basis given how flat and polished movies already look even when they’re not Netflix originals that have this visually windexed aesthetic, and on an experiential level: whether I’m alone in the theater or the theater is packed (in which the experience is shared in a way that makes movie-watching feel so much more community-based than having a water cooler subject of the week), being in a pitch black room with one image glowing above me and hanging in the air like a ghost as the soundtrack surrounds, sinking me further into a movie than sitting in my living room off of a flatscreen tv with a soundbar. It just doesn’t match up in an effective way, whether or not I get to determine the bathroom break. And now it’s threatening to be the only way movies I would have otherwise loved to see in theaters will be available to me. This is not the fault of COVID necessitating we all stay at home and take care of ourselves and being the bare minimum way to incentivize others staying indoors as much as possible, but there’s no fucking way I wouldn’t have enjoyed Soul much more in the movie theaters than I did at home.
So yeah, I am not in the slightest conflicted about saying that 2020 as a movie year was garbage. To say nothing about its experience as a year with actual consequence and exhaustion to every single person in the world (though this is a movie blog and I feel like if you get me started on the state of affairs within 2020 overall, I will never stop) and I’m way happy to wave it goodbye.
Let’s get this wrapped the fuck up, so I can take a step away from it all.
First, a post-mortem…
REST IN PEACE Ennio Morricone Diana Rigg Sean Connery Olivia De Havilland Wilford Brimley Chadwick Boseman James Lipton Max von Sydow Ian Holm Fred Willard
CLOSED-DOWN VIDEO STORES I WILL MISS Odd Obsession Vulcan Video I Luv Video (and I guess Family Video qualified even though that took place January-February)
10. The Lie (Veena Sud, Canada/USA) – This movie got delayed as much as the distributors could before having to hide behind similarly mediocre horror movies, but this one was still a standout of badness.
9. A Fall from Grace (Tyler Perry, USA) – How low do y’all think Tyler Perry can go? Because he is always surprising me.
8. Scoob! (Tony Cervone, USA) – Maybe the worst instance ever of trying to will yourself an unearned cinematic universe.
7. Stardust (Gabriel Range, UK/Canada) – Imagine thinking it’s a good idea to make a David Bowie biopic without his music. Marc Maron without a moustache is an unnerving sight.
6. Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square (Debbie Allen, USA) – The only bad thing Dolly Parton can ever be associated with.
5. The Turning (Floria Sigismondi, USA) – The Turn of the Screw for the hyperactive generation, complete with missing an ending so bad.
4. Godmothered (Sharon Maguire, USA) – Disney is death.
3. Cats & Dogs 3: Paws United (Sean McNamara, USA) – It’s a third Cats & Dogs, movie. Why?
2. Fantasy Island (Jeff Wadlow, USA) – I wish I hadn’t seen this.
Dolittle (Stephen Gaughan, USA) – Having Robert Downey Jr.’s career after being cast as Tony Stark is clearly a fate worse than death.
BEST TITLE I’m Thinking of Ending Things
WORST TITLE Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
MOST OBVIOUS TITLE ATTEMPT TO AVOID ABBREVIATION TO WW2 Wonder Woman 1984
EASIEST PAIR OF TITLES TO MIX UP Emma. and Ema
I swear those are two different movies. To be fair, they both star Latin Americans, but one of them stars an Argentinian and a Brazilian and the other one stars a Mexican and a Chilean. OK, actually that doesn’t clear anything up. As the director of one of these gloriously pointed out, the period film is the one with a period at the end. That help?
BEST POSTER Da 5 Bloods
A side effect of barely any movies at the theaters means that there’s hardly any physical posters since there’s no theater to display them at, so I really hoped to pick a theatrically released film to stick it to streaming but there’s just slim pickings. Even then, it’s hard to argue against this poster’s utilisation of protest art – of a beautifully dual-sided anti-war and pro-black protest – aesthetic to present the grab bag of ideas it’s delivering as well as reflecting on the epic and unwieldy nature of the movie.
BEST TEASER POSTER Gretel & Hansel
At least this one can be a theatrical release and it’s just about simple enough to creep one out without even trying, placing Alice Krige’s wonderfully creepy vacant face on one edge of the poster to the point of barely capturing her profile and her hand at the opposite end and makes sure to fill that empty space with just one very wrong thing to tell what kind of movie this is with the sickly yellow hue of it sealing the deal. “A Grim Fairy Tale” is also a very cute pun.
WORST POSTER Mank
I know what it’s trying to imitate but it is imitating it badly. It’s the text placement that is messing it up for me, which would make more sense if they didn’t still shove conventional credits at the bottom. Plus the attempt to take what’s already a plenty expressionist art style and overwhelm it with the warping to imply a drunken haze. Like, nah, this ain’t it.
BEST TRAILER The Green Knight
Ambiguous enough to pull the interest for more information, even as someone who is already familiar with every part of Arthuriana. Eerie and atmospheric to give the psychological sense of fear without acting like a horror movie. David Lowery has generally been a director that I’ve been dubious of but every image and sound that this trailer communicated has me just ready for what he’s about to deliver and it’s even enough to wash the bad taste of David Copperfield out of my mouth.
BEST TRAILER UNDER ITS CIRCUMSTANCES The Batman
Nothing particularly revelatory in this trailer, but one has to admit it’s impressive what they were able to put together just to build early hype especially given how cursed the production was turning out to be. Plus the build up with Nirvana almost makes me forgive how much a Nirvana song showing up in a movie trailer would have Kurt Cobain rolling in his grave.
WORST TRAILER Mank
Same as the Mank poster, it is just so bad at resembling the Citizen Kane era movie preview-isms. It feels like too much of a blur to make any worthwhile impression. Really emblematic of my issues with Mank as a movie, how dedicating it is to imitating a style instead of using it as a launchpad.
BIGGEST PLOT TWIST IN A TRAILER Connected
This loses its punch now that the title has been changed back to The Mitchells vs. the Machines but once upon a time I had absolutely no reason to expect the trailer to suddenly change the movie’s premise halfway through its family road trip picture to a robot action movie. Felt like a Spies in Disguise move.
MOST “SO BAD, IT’S GOOD” TRAILER Hillbilly Elegy
This movie is a bad terminator but the trailer is a so bad, it’s good terminator.
MOST UNORTHODOX NEEDLE DROP IN A MOVIE “The Plan” – Travis Scott in Tenet, which I’m imagining was just Ludwig Goransson lazily inviting Travis Scott to check this cool thing he was working on and Scott deciding he wanted to lay a verse over one of the music cues of the film. At least it’s in the credits, but Travis Scott in a Christopher Nolan movie is wild.
MOST SCENE-BREAKING NEEDLE DROP “Running with the Wolves” – Aurora in Wolfwalkers. I can admire the musicians for trying to rearrange the song to fit more with the wonderful Celtic folk score, but it still sounds just way too poppy in its drums to prevent taking me out of this transportive film as an emotionally critical moment.
BEST LINE “There’s fuckery afoot.” – Rosalind Pearson (Michelle Dockery) giving us word up in The Gentlemen (written by Guy Ritchie)
WORST LINE “Oh, my Barry berries” – Barry the tiger (Ralph Fiennes) after getting punched in the balls in Dolittle (written by Stephen Gaghan, Dan Gregor, & Doug Mand and definitely other ghostwriters but whoever is responsible for this line knows what the fuck he did).
BEST MOMENT The fireworks sequence in Wonder Woman 1984, absolutely hokey and cheesy as it is but feeling just as much a part of the Silver Age optimism of Richard Donner’s Superman with as much dazzling colors and light. If modern superhero movies were more like that scene, I’d probably not be complaining as much about their existence. Almost as iconic as the first movie’s No Man’s Land scene.
WORST MOMENT The very last reveal of Fantasy Island involving a character’s new identity, which had to work incredibly hard to be a low point for a film that just kept getting worse and worse and feels like some miscalculated fan service for the internet generation.
MOST FILM-DESTROYING MOMENT The third act of Promising Young Woman which crashes and burns where a previously perfectly functional anti-rape revenge picture was flying to have really unchecked character nihilism.
MOST INSANE PLOT TWIST Wild Mountain Thyme and I ain’t spoiling a damn thing.
BEST CAMEO Veronica Ngo in Da 5 Bloods
Always a pleasure to see her show up in a picture and her presence as a source of inspiration and disillusion for the characters in the minimal screen time she shows – I have no real reference towards the mimicry of the real-life Hanoi Hannah so I can’t say much on that – is balanced impressively.
MOST BALLSY CAMEOS Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Sturgill Simpson, and Glenn Howerton in The Hunt
I really like how long The Hunt was able to play the long con of who of these recognizable actors is supposed to be the protagonist while dispatching of them bloodily over the first 20-30 minutes.
MOST EGREGIOUS BRAND PLACEMENT Amazon and US Gypsum in Nomadland.
Imagine actually working with two of the main benefactors for the system that causes poverty while making a movie ostensibly about poverty and being actually nostalgic for those benefactors.
MOST INEXPLICABLE PRODUCT PLACEMENT Olive Garden for Sonic the Hedgehog.
MOST UNORTHODOX CAMEO Bill Nye in Mank. I genuinely would like to know the thought process that determined we’d watch Bill Nye chant socialiast ideals in silhouette pretending to be Upton Sinclair for 60 seconds.
MOST UNEXPECTED CAMEO Michael Bay in Bad Boys for Life. So I guess he left the franchise on good enough terms but I can’t tell if he was playing an MC at the wedding or actually a friend of the family’s. The wooden delivery of calling Will Smith “Uncle Mike” blurs those lines.
WORST CAMEO Simon Cowell in Scoob!. Are we still in 2003? The man is basically trying to synergize his brand and apparently dragged his poor son into this as well.
HORROR MOVIES ABOUT MISERABLE HOME SITUATIONS RANKED The Dark and the Wicked Run The Lodge Color Out of Space Come to Daddy Come Play You Should Have Left The Turning
MOVIES ABOUT WEIRD SOUL SWAPS IN OTHER BODIES RANKED Wolfwalkers Ride Your Wave Zombi Child Soul Wonder Woman 1984 Freaky NiNoKuni
(I regret to say I have not yet seen Possessor)
BEST MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE MOVIE The only good thing about 2020 in movies is that we’ve had the best MCU year ever: 0 fucking movies.
Now we’re slated for 4 movies and 6 tv shows in 2021 and already the discussion on WandaVision got me sick of it without even watching an episode.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT Ema
It’s not like Pablo Larrain has never made a movie I disliked, given that The Club exists. But the stylisation gave me much higher hopes that this would exactly be my shit and instead it’s not nearly stylized enough or with a strong enough central performance to function as what it wants to be: a coy character study with an opaque central character.
MOVIES I WAS MOST EXCITED TO SEE IN 2020 THAT I GOTTA WAIT UNTIL 2021 FOR NOW Annette – Not only for being Leos Carax’s new movie since Holy Motors reawakened him but also for being a musical composed by Sparks and starring Marion Cotillard. The French Dispatch – Yes, of course I am excited for a Wes Anderson omnibus. The Green Knight– Even as someone suspicious towards David Lowery, I’m just too much of a sucker for Arthuriana. The Tragedy of MacBeth – Apprehensive about if one Coen brother is as strong as the two of them together but also Denzel playing Shakespeare seems a no brainer. Top Gun: Maverick– I cannot imagine watching this movie anywhere but on a big screen.
MOST OVERRATED Oh my word, it’s slightly early still but the Best Picture Oscar is basically Nomadland’s to lose right now and everybody is eating it up and I will want to crawl under a fucking rug when it happens. Sure, it’s nice to see a woman of color sweep awards but it’s hard for me to root for it without feeling performative when it’s a movie I disliked and morally object to by a director I’ve been unimpressed with.
MOST UNDERRATED Technically this would be the ridiculously over-hated Wonder Woman 1984 or the disappointingly underappreciated Monster Hunter, but those will both have their moment later in this post. Instead, I must give this to Underwater, a movie whose sole crime appears to be a tense and murky deep sea thriller with basically no fat to its escalation to deep sea monster movie. Some people just can’t appreciate the good stuff.
MOST LIKELY TO DEPRECIATE FOR ME OVERTIME Birds of Prey and Fatman
Both of them for similar reasons of feeling like they try a bit too hard, to the point that Fatman has already aged enough for me to go maybe “it’s more the idea of its humor than it actually being funny”. In Birds of Prey’s case, the more I look back on any self-referential winking moment, the more it reminds me of Deadpool’s artificial attempt at bounciness and while Birds of Prey is definitely better than Deadpool and Suicide Squad… that chain isn’t a good thing to be reminded of.
MOST LIKELY TO APPRECIATE FOR ME OVERTIME Greenland and Zombi Child
Again, both of these pretty much already started growing more on me: Zombi Child is the sort of weird thing that just sticks in my brain and never lets go, steadily climbing to my honorable mentions of this year as you will see. Greenland, it’s all about that first act and how much it does with the scope of an apocalyptic movie even while it later devolves into the usual Gerard Butler vehicle trash. Maybe I can just stop the movie 40 minutes in next time and pretend it’s that perfect.
MOVIE I’M MOST PROBABLY GOING TO REWATCH SOON On the Rocks
It’s the same thing as every Sofia Coppola movie, the surfaces are so distracting in awesome ways that I feel the need to go back and scratch further underneath to see what else it is she’s got on her mind. And say what we like about her using the same premise over and over, she always has a lot on her mind.
BEST SURPRISE The Croods: A New Age is probably the 2020 movie that has the least reason to exist at all and yet it justified itself and more by its embracing of color and ridiculous animal designs, disabusing me of the fear Trolls: World Tour gave me that Dreamworks Animation’s unexpected late reign of visual splendour had ended and giving Kelly Marie Tran a role worthy of her talent (she sounds like she’s having more fun here than she did in Raya and the Last Dragon) and Cloris Leachman a hilarious final hurrah.
(For the record, I almost made Trolls: World Tour my Biggest Disappointment for the symmetry of having Dreamworks Animation sequels up in here, but even as someone who really likes the first Trolls, it was worryingly evident in the trailers they already over-smoothed the textures that made the first a visual delight).
BEST POPCORN MOVIE This is technically Tenet but that’s in my top ten and it’s also technically Wonder Woman 1984 but look below on that so I will instead dedicate this space to the awesome popcorn movie power of Monster Hunter, the most successful of Paul WS Anderson’s experiments to translate video game storytelling to real big movie scenarios. On top of its ability to take Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa and star in their own wasteland buddy comedy together. On top of having a pirate chef cat.
BEST Fantasy Island ADAPTATION Wonder Woman 1984, complete with a better Mr. Roarke in the form of Pedro Pascal. Sorry, Michael Peña. (Thank you to Z.G. for making this joke in my view)
MOST UNEXPECTEDLY APT FILM FOR THE PANDEMIC She Dies Tomorrow. Talk about prophetic with the conceptual virus here.
BEST BAD MOVIE You can tell Josh Trank had no intention of wasting his unexpected “second chance” at a career as a filmmaker with Capone and the resultant excess is a gloriously dedicated time. Which is probably to be expected everytime you give Tom Hardy a chance to ham it up, but even in its laughability… this movie is weirdly admirable in its go-for-brokeness.
GUILTIEST PLEASURE A Recipe for Seduction. In the words of Rick Sanchez, I just looked straight into the bleeding jaws of capitalism and said “yes, daddy, please…”. Helps that it’s only 16 minutes long though and that I never have any craving for the world’s worst fried chicken so I am immune to the propaganda. My craving is just for Mario Lopez’s biceps with that moustache.
BEST FESTIVAL WATCH NOT YET RELEASED IN THE US Frank & Zed
BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN 2020 FOR THE FIRST TIME Bridges-Go-Round (1958, Shirley Clarke, USA) A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang, Taiwan) The Cameraman (1928, Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, USA) The Falls (1980, Peter Greenaway, UK) Forty Guns (1957, Samuel Fuller, USA) Glistening Thrills (2013, Jodie Mack, USA) God Told Me To (1976, Larry Cohen, USA) Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989, Tracey Moffatt, Australia) Redline (2009, Koike Takeshi, Japan) Tekkonkinkreet (2006, Michael Arias, Japan) (and One Cut of the Dead and La Flor, though they qualified for 2019)
MOVIES I WISH I HAD SEEN BEFORE MAKING THIS POST BUT DIDN’T WAIT BECAUSE I WANTED TO BEAT THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS AND IT’S MY OWN FAULT THERE’S SO MANY FOR BEING TOO BABY TO KEEP UP WITH NEW RELEASES BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE STREAMING Possessor, Peninsula, The Willoughbys, The Cordillara of Dreams, Graves Without a Name, Joan of Arc, Sunless Shadows, The Painted Bird, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, The Truth, Young Ahmed, Liberté, Kajillionaire, A White White Day, The Roads Not Taken, Vitalina Varela, and Tigertail.
HONORABLE TELEVISION MENTION Small Axe, Primal, and Keep Your Hands Off, Eizouken!
Primal is on its second season of course and there doesn’t seem to be any mistake with Eizouken’s status as miniseries, so I guess Small Axe is the only one that needs explaining. In which case I’ll just point out that save for Mangrove (which definitely feels cinematic in its choice of runtime and structure and aspect ratio), the strengths that make Small Axe (and especially the phenomenal Lovers Rock) one of the best things I’ve watched all year are strengths that take advantage of the limitations and format and even the viewing area (probably your living room) of a television program.
HONORABLE MENTIONS The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA) Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France) Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa, Poland/France) Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA) Farmageddon: A Shaun the Sheep Movie (Richard Phelan & Will Becher, UK) The Father (Florian Zeller, France/UK) Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, USA) Monster Hunter (Paul WS Anderson, China/Germany/Japan/USA) Nimic (Yorgos Lanthimos, Germany/UK/USA) Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, UK/France/Belgium) Soul (Pete Docter & Kemp Powers, USA) Synchronic (Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, USA) The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, China/France) Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, USA) Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, France)
AND THE TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2020
10. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack, USA)
Probably more of a result of having directly binged as much of her expansive short film work (as well as her first feature) as I had access to before watching this one, but there’s just something really satisfying about watching a filmmaker’s development over her career to something as confident as this. Using her characteristic avant-garde stop-motion cutting over textiles, The Grand Bizarre guides us through a wordless globalist musing on how cloth with its colors and textures communicate cultural ideas to us and has its mark all over the world.
9. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Without diverging from his MO of lacking narration or narrative, Wiseman finally went and decided to show his hand as a political filmmaker and the result is his most exciting documentary since National Gallery. Is it the sort of movie where you imprint your own conceptions on the fly-on-the-wall footage, same as his other films? Absolutely, but the arrangement in his cutting here surprisingly brings his personal perspective this hometown city of his and the frustration with bureaucratic slowness that feels stuck between the urgency of each individual constituents’ personal issue and glad-handing idealist speak that politicians use to give the impression that they’ll do something without providing any actual action.
8. The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
Kind of easy to do when it’s a short film, but I promise I haven’t forgotten a single image from this most harrowing of short films. Uses lines and blackness in a way that makes it more solid and urgent as a nightmare and with Mica Levi’s score amplifying the terror that this short is supposed to communicate without relying on anything visceral or grotesque. Just masks and lines and black and bass. So good, rewatching it washes off the bad taste of Strasbourg 1518 from the same year. I don’t know how long we need to wait for Glazer’s next feature, but I can’t wait.
7. Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, UK/USA)
All it needed to do was be well constructed enough and have a cast that has a good enough handle on the material to be a movie I liked. The way that De Wilde and company walked into this production with a contemporary willingness to be mean about its characters and that her crew got to let the colors truly add a rosy irony in its aesthetic to all the nastiness going on beneath the proper prose. It’s always the dopest when filmmakers REALLY get Jane Austen’s viciousness and play into it. Begs for a rewatch double feature with Love & Friendship and I wouldn’t be surprised if I indulge in that soon.
6. Tenet (Christopher Nolan, UK/USA)
It is just a huge breath of fresh air to have Christopher Nolan finally tell us the only things he really cares about with his movies: visual sleekness, pounding momentum, and structure. That’s it: story and characters are at the mercy of the writer (which is him. Oops!) and the cast (which play with 2D spy movie stock types incredibly well – Washington and Pattinson with their personality, Branagh with his hamminess). So all that’s left is to just rocket through the creative big-time action set pieces with enough spy movie tension in between so that we don’t get a chance to catch our breath even when stuff isn’t going backwards on-screen, in Nolan’s lovely feature-length tribute to the oldest of cinematic visual effects: running the film backwards. Really, I feel the chilliness this movie received is based on a misconception that its convolutions and flatness as a story are a puzzle to be solved rather than just a ride to be rode. And I really enjoyed the ride.
5. The Wolf House (Cristobal León & Joaquín Cociña, Chile)
If The Fall was harrowing as a fantastical concept delivered in less than 10 minutes, The Wolf House was like slowly discovering your spine has been shivering for the past 75 minutes. From its impressive meta-gambit to the grotesque look of its animation style as though watching characters painfully melt and reconstruct over and over, The Wolf House was already plenty horrifying enough on a fundamental manner of its creeping dark aesthetic even without the context of the real-life horrors this movie is trying to contextualize under its skin. Have something ready to cheer you up after watching this for sure.
4. Ride Your Wave (Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
The argument can of course be made that it’s Yuasa’s second shot at the same concepts as Lu Over the Wall, but Ride Your Wave takes the similar ingredients while having its own visual identity – its sunbright pink and blue animated lighting, the singular pop song as an emotional anchor of Ride Your Wave are easy to distinguish from the Fleischer dance animations, the cool green, and the bouncy music of Lu Over the Wall. And while I love Lu with all my heart, Ride Your Wave sweeps the floor with it: it has a much more down-to-Earth (for a fantasy about resurrection) story about making your own life while dealing with love and loss as things that the human soul is going to have to push through, however hard it gets. Sneaking in emotional gut punches while still having the sense of humor that something as cartoonish as a Yuasa film should have, I’m honestly disappointed with how little it’s been making waves on the Animated Feature awards circuit while being surprised there were at least two animated films that surpassed this year.
3. World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
It took me a minute to get used to the sudden shift of focus and mood that the third film in Don Hertzfeldt’s ongoing existential future series of short films threw us into, and I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got my footing on it (but I am confident I’ll have it by Episode 4). But the presence of the wonderful Emily Prime of the first two seemed to have brought us to forget how dark and cynical Hertzfeldt was capable of being in between his insightful humanity as a storyteller. Either way, each World of Tomorrow entry has proven to be Hertzfeldt’s most visually ambitious work to date and Episode 3 did not fail on that: it plays with the z-axis to give physical depth to these stick figures. It also adds a new fatalist visual layer for gags on top of bringing more clutter and detail to the world-building. If nothing else, this entry really put the World in World of Tomorrow in a way I didn’t even realize it needed.
2. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart, Ireland/Luxembourg/USA/UK/France)
Cartoon Saloon already pretty much nailed the use of two-dimensional shapes resembling Celtic art aesthetic with The Secret of Kells and based on their subsequent lovely but unrevelatory features, I was starting to feel they had hit a stop on where to develop the style from there. Wolfwalkers was beyond my dreams of what they were capable of. Moore and Stewart and the other animators transform folk art into something actually malleable to code the dichotomies in its story at war: placing blocky shapes against relaxed round elements in order to visually compliment its unexpectedly rich screenplay basically at its core about resistance as independent feminine nature vs. masculine violent urbanisation in the form of two girls’ friendship within a hostile world (with the threading of the complex discommunication between father and daughter). By the time we got to our first instance of seeing the pencil sketch lines remaining on certain character designs and point of view shots (adding a roughness that gave the visuals further amiable character), I was convinced that Cartoon Saloon was the best animation studio working today.
1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
And from one period piece that uses its own portrayal of a developing society to comment on the world as it is now to another. And there’s really nothing within First Cow that Reichardt hasn’t been exploring all throughout her career – what with its central oddball friendship to muse on where quiet tenderness has its place in masculinity and its quiet implication of capital and class as a source of hierarchical exploitation of both people and nature – but it’s done with a silent confidence that gets to have its shagginess without feeling lazily put together by Reichardt. It’s ambling and patient stuff that only yielded more depth the deeper it sinks into its time and place as an ambling state of mind and earns the emotions of its unexpected final beats without stressing it in the slightest. I know I said nothing I saw all year earned five stars from me, but maybe on a rewatch this movie and the two runner-ups (Wolfwalkers and World of Tomorrow Episode 3) would creep up to that.
Alright, that’s it. I’m done. Let’s move on to our next shitty year.
It has been 32 years and I don’t think cinema has ever produced something as incendiary as Do the Right Thing since its 1989 premiere at Cannes. Definitely nothing in the mainstream American cinema, sadly nothing writer-director Spike Lee has made since (even with the ambition he threw 3 years later behind Malcolm X), and the closest analogues I can think of – Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables – are sadly written off as “French Do the Right Things”. The fact is that the fire lit by the Do the Right Thing is still burning enough to keep us heated all these decades later and honestly given the state of American society as it is today, it is sad but true that that fire has to keep burning. And the brightness of that fire has of course scared a-plenty of viewers at the time of its release fearing that the movie was genuinely dangerous and was going to cause race riots on the streets from its content, a modern-day Rites of Spring. And even when that fear was unfounded, the movie’s lack of interest in providing a straightforward answer regarding the issues it casually depicts apparently struck enough of a nerve with viewers to engage less in the conversation that Do the Right Thing was inviting and more in a desire to validate their own pre-existing notions.
Maybe it’s simply the charged energy of the picture that truly took audiences aback before the fiery climax even occurred, since Do the Right Thing opens on one of my favorite opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen – bombastically providing what looks like a studio-set version of a Brooklyn brownstone set with black shadows between green and red lighting and dynamic cutting for one of the film’s actors, Rosie Perez dancing with aggression to the angry declarations of Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power”. One could absolutely see how a movie providing such bold imagery and rhythm from its very first frame, not even giving us a breather, could intimidate an audience and get them outside of ease before Lee begins weaving us through the variety of charged stories that take place in Do the Right Thing‘s Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant or Bed-Stuy for short.
The film famously portrays a day and change in Bed-Stuy, except it has a particular distinction of being the hottest day of the summer. Insofar as the movie has a protagonist, it would be Mookie (Lee himself) as he starts another day at his job delivering pizzas from Sal’s (Danny Aiello) restaurant, a cornerstone of that neighborhood for a very long time. And as Mookie heads on down his deliveries to his leisure (occasionally one leading him to his girlfriend Tina (Perez) and their infant son Hector), we meet and hang with several different characters on that street: the local drunk Da Mayor as he occasionally disputes with the matriarchal Mother Sister (played by real-life couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee respectively) being one of the more important strands for us to pay attention to, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who alienates everyone with the large boom box he carries around blasting the same Public Enemy song from that opening credits being another, but mostly doing its relaxed best to sift through Bed-Stuy as a place of diversity that’s not entirely welcome: the tension between Korean shopkeepers, West Indian immigrants, and Puerto Rican folk among all the born-and-raised-in-Brooklyn Black Americans already brings about a nervousness to the energy this movie starts with without adding in the Italian-Americans and police presence intruding on a neighborhood that the movie takes care to note are not from there. While Do the Right Thing is about watching that tension just continuing boiling in a pot over and over under the hot sun above before the pressure just blows the lid right off, the fact is that most of the racial antagonism was there from the start and the movie wants us to know it: one of the first incidents is a low-scale explosion where Da Mayor – one of the film’s most lived-in and agreeable characters – blows up on the Korean family and delivers some racial remarks simply for not having his brand of beer.
If there is any real inciting incident to the picture, it’s the moment where one of Mookie’s friends – the outspoken Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito – there was a time where this movie and Breaking Bad were my only conscious exposures to Esposito and it was outright impossible to reconcile Buggin’ Out and Gustavo Fring were played by the same actor) – dares to challenge the Wall of Fame in Sal’s pizzeria and how it only has Italian-Americans and no black people on it. And yet it escalates from the temperaments of both Sal and Buggin’ Out so quickly that shortly after Sal steps out from behind the counter with a baseball bat simply from Buggin’ Out’s loaded question and has to be held back by his openly racist son Pino (John Turturro) as opposed to his more black-friendly son Vito (Richard Edson). And that sort volatility is revealed before the halfway point of a two hour film: so what we see is just characters letting the heat get them soured enough to spit invective in any which direction and it seems like the only character who has not a single antagonist hostile bone in his body is the DJ who occasionally describes the state of affairs before his giant window in his air-conditioned radio booth, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), to the point that he personally interrupts a centerpiece sequence of four different characters spitting the most venomous racial remarks in direct address with an accelerated wide-to-close-up dolly that really grinds our nose in that hate. Everything that happens by the explosive end of Do the Right Thing was a brewing a long time in the hearts of the characters, even while it all comes as a mixture of shock and disappointment and Spike delivers it all with a rage that shakes the viewer violently.
Anyway, the thing about Do the Right Thing – at least the takeaway I’ve had in the 12 years since I first saw it – is that it is a movie about NOT knowing everything, even and especially when you’re under duress both environmental and social. And more particularly an attempt to subvert the camera eye as something so omniscient towards its subjects but providing a story that has absolutely no easy answers and even impishly gives conflicting attitudes about its own things: it ends with two contradictory quotes by the late civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, characters whose dichotomy we are constantly reminded of by the disabled character Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith) and his attempts to sell pictures of their handshake to people who just aren’t interested. Do the Right Thing is a very cinematic picture with its choice of camera movements by the great Ernest Dickerson such as those afore-mentioned direct address dollys or the placement of the actors in the grand space of the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in a way that plays well with how often Dickerson seems to decide one type of scale per shot is not enough (the Radio Raheem “Love-Hate” monologue swaps from profile to its own direct address and then back to profile; a long-take boombox battle between Raheem and the Puerto Ricans switches back and forth in tight close-ups before visually announcing the victor with a grand rise of the crane; another interior medium pulls out into an exterior crane late in the film). It’s also just as cinematic the rapid way Barry Alexander Brown switches between tangeants like a continuous thought to the point that some scenes cut in the middle of a character’s last word, sometimes in association like when a delivery from Mookie to Señor Love Daddy leads to a needledrop that catches the attention of the Puerto Rican boys leading to their conflict with Raheem. And it’s of course most intense when it comes to actual heated conflicts: the climactic ones between Raheem and Sal are shot in bizarre canted angles that look like medium shots with the direct focus of close-ups so the intensity of Sal and Raheem within the frame gives the sense of big emotions with physical smallness.
And that’s just in regards to what Do the Right Thing does with its visual ambition to communicate the sense that we are looking all over the people of Bed-Stuy in a novelesque way. There’s another function to the movie-ness of it all: because Do the Right Thing has to feel real fucking hot and just cramping up interiors with fans or drenching the actors with screen sweat won’t just cut it, Dickerson and the color editors have seen fit to favor the reds and oranges that remind us of that hot sun above (and I don’t remember if there’s even a close-up of the sun, meaning that it’s through that color that we are meant to live in the heat with the characters) while in the meantime, the lights seem positioned specifically to favor the brightest white spots on the heads of the actors like a negative chiaroscuro so that we understand exactly what that temperature is falling on. The walls of the neighborhood and the costumes fill in as much white and blue as they can while still playing along with that color temperature serving as the visual translation of the REAL temperature.
It’s of course to be expected that someone like Spike Lee – whose open film scholar-ness isn’t discussed on the same level of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, but absolutely reaches their levels – would be happy to engage with the extent to which he and the crew can move the camera around to the sweet jazz score of Bill Lee and watch these characters bake in the summer. Him pouring his love for the movies (lest we forget that Raheem’s “Love-Hate” monologue is pretty much an appropriation of a similar monologue in The Night of the Hunter amongst other cinematic quotings sprinkled throughout) is just one of several areas that makes Do the Right Thing an obviously personal film: it’s practically a family affair on the level of The Godfather with Bill Lee being Spike’s father (who was also responsible for Davis and Dee getting cast) and Spike’s sister Joie playing Mookie’s exasperated sister Jade, Spike being a longtime native to Bed-Stuy and portraying the neighborhood with the sort of loving intimacy only someone so close to that place could have (to the point that even the constructed pizzeria and Korean shop feel well integrated), and even inching in an anti-Celtics joke with a cameo by John Savage. It’s basically indulgent in the ways that somebody pouring their heart into a depiction of a place and an issue that matters deeply to them would have to be, casual enough to be a pleasant watch but not to undercut the urgency of the climactic violent moments that probably most horrified viewers of all sorts.
And it feels hard to discuss Do the Right Thing without discussing the ending, which I’m trying not to do for anyone who might want to run to see this movie immediately after reading this (and you should have been running to it yesterday) but basically SPOILER ALERT: that climax is where Spike as a writer lays all his sucker punches while portraying how easily the thread can snap for people and a combustion can be catalyzed. It’s not all that much a surprise to the right viewers that Sal turns out to be a racist just the same as Vito is, but we did spend an hour and 40 minutes in his company watching him happily chat up Jade or Da Mayor or letting the kids in after hours to have one more slice before he leaves for the night (the fact that those same kids are behind Sal when Raheem and Buggin’ Out confront him during closing time and then turn around in shock when Sal throws out the n-word is indicative of how well embedded he was in Bed-Stuy as a community and how easy it was for him to betray that). And it’s not just Sal who has a rapid shift, Mookie is relatively placid during the movie when Buggin’ Out is causing a scene with Sal (though that may just be Lee’s… lack of acting ability. It works though!) and yet once he sees Raheem dead on the ground is when he recognizes action must be taken and throws that garbage can through the window of Sal’s pizzeria in another long take. Or the manner in which a community that frequently mocked or confronted with Raheem and respected Sal throughout the movie is willing to put all that aside in solidarity against Sal in recognition that he caused Raheem’s death at the hands of the police (who characteristically leave scot-free). Or simply the fact that ML (Paul Benjamin) – after holding a verbal grudge against the Korean grocers (Steve Park & Ginny Yang) – is inches away from invoking his own violent wrath on their store in the heat of the riot receives clarity at the last second and leaves them be. In any case, the chaos of that climax is where Do the Right Thing pulls the curtains back on what all the characters were truly feeling and lets it sprawl on the streets like a wildfire.
And if Spike decided to just leave us in that emotional sprawl, maybe I’d get why audiences were scared of this movie to the degree that the Oscars ran all the way in the other direction that year to award Best Picture to the cravenly placating Driving Miss Daisy (a move I’m certain Lee considers a personal insult with all the critical acclaim and discussion Do the Right Thing was getting that awards season). But this is a movie about a place he loves and that we can assume he doesn’t want to see torn down and it’s telling that the next morning’s final sequence is not just the character recognizing they’re still standing but Mookie and Sal specifically still standing and at a mutual recognition with each other. It starts hot – a shot-reverse shot that involves Mookie and Sal’s heightened emotions regarding Mookie’s pay and what happened to Sal’s pizzeria – but it ends by the end of it with the wide two-shot that could only come once the two of them got it all out of their systems and walk away not friends but not at each other’s throats either. That Lee saw fit to allow Sal that dignity as opposed to any other character in the film is telling, a mood of restoration that is essential if Mookie or Sal or the rest of Bed-Stuy is gonna be able to survive last night with the memory of Radio Raheem strongly surrounding it, a memory invoked by the last spoken line of the film by that one calm, cool, collected voice of reason Señor Love Daddy.
Anyway, none of that final cool down stopped audiences from feeling that this movie was dangerous and I agree that it’s dangerous. Just not dangerous in the same way that people realize. It’s the last dangerous picture, not no Joker that has nothing social to really say or agitprop films that try way too hard to deliver THE POINT. Do the Right Thing is dangerous because it’s ostensibly about people just living in one spot for 24 hours and it just builds up in an organic way to the violence it depicts: a violence that indicts systemic imbalances and horrors that remain relevant and grave to this very day and age, a violence that comes with a righteous rage that was on 11 from frame one, and a violence that interrupts an otherwise survivable but hot day in a very vibrant and colorful place lived-in by vibrant and colorful people whom we don’t have room to hate (outside of the police and Pino). It’s a movie full of humanity that ends up casualty to that violence, constructed and depicted as a realistic place amplified by the movie’s craft. And that craft may be the subject of Spike’s indulgent and compromised perspective on Bed-Stuy in an ostensibly “Day in the Life” overview of the characters, but somehow all that indulgence and compromise and inconsistency just piles into the humanity of Do the Right Thing to make it not only that dangerous movie that people feared but an unexpectedly perfect object – arguably the only PERFECT movie of a filmmaker who is not interested in perfection and never pursues – and in turn the greatest American movie of the 1980s. In my humble opinion you see, for if there’s one thing Do the Right Thing teaches me, it’s that I don’t know everything.
Writer-Director (among other things) Jordan Peele is perhaps the most sought-after creative in film and television from the past decade with nearly every piece of work he puts his name on being an instant-hit, a seat that is well-deserved in my opinion. So Peele is not particularly someone who needs folks running to his defense, yet nevertheless I feel so particularly protective of Us when it comes to its place in his rise from tv comic to producer who has no trouble fast-tracking any project he chooses to back. Despite being a smash hit like his debut feature, Get Out, it didn’t get any of the endless awards attention that its predecessor received and all of its successes financially and critically feel dwarfed by the giant splash Get Out got… out. Particularly, there’s a contingent of the audience that found the movie’s logic or themes either hard to parse or not entirely as well-baked as Get Out.
Which is of course where I step in and confess that I am glad I rarely care what movies are about. It is definitely the case that Us is about something – class is the major target for the picture and Peele is intelligent enough to make that impossible to even folk like me trying to avoid it – but the major reason that I consider Us so astronomically better than Get Out is just so much more simpler: it’s scarier. And I mean honest to God, make-the-horror-creep-up-into-your-conscious frightening. Get Out is definitely scary and smart and funny, but it has training wheels on and a devotion to being a message movie that Us has little use for. Instead, Peele looks to flex out all the stylistic attributes of horror movies he’s been practicing in a career of hilarious parodies throughout the sketch show that boosted him to household name status, Key and Peele.
The story all of that style is in service to belongs to Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry as a child, Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and speaking of awards this should have received… Nyong’o’s snub was among the biggest frustrations of the last Oscar season) as she takes a trip with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz. This bothers Adelaide intensely from a dark moment in her childhood experienced on the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk that we have revealed to us bit by bit. Just after she opens up on the experience to Gabe, the lights go out in the house and just outside the front door stands a foreboding nuclear family in crimson. When they make their way into the vacation home and corner the Wilsons near the fireplace, they are revealed to be doppelgangers of each member of the family and that’s only the tip of the scope behind what’s going on in Us which just expands on that instant mix of fears between an unknown entity so familiar to you and the violence of having your domestic space intruded upon to something just so much more draining.
From there on, it’s a mix between the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ shadows of a living nightmare as the family are terrorized by their own villainous mimics, all three supporting actors giving their own version of a guttural non-verbal performance while Nyong’o’s own Red communicates to us with a gnarled whisper as she moves in unnervingly unnatural ways. Alongside the way the makeup truly distresses Nyong’o, Duke, Joseph, and Alex’s faces to just sap the humanity out of their doppelgangers’ faces, matching well with their primordial body language and vocal utterances. Which makes it all the more impressive that the central family (and we shall later see the rest of the supporting characters encounter) deliver two distinct performance styles: one character that is of course frustrating and flawed in all the human ways and the other being latching on to one particular trait of that character with a tenacious viciousness that propels the Tethered being – for that is what the doppelgangers are referred to – to its violent acts in a natural way.
But Us doesn’t simply get to being one of the scariest movies in a long time simply be being a perfect acting showcase for every cast member’s range. It has jump scares, perfectly timed ones with Nicholas Monsour’s pacing giving it just the right amount of pregnancy to make us jolt the way a calibrated shock should make us (and indeed the fact that my initial viewing of Us had the best audience possible – tuned in the way a great horror movie audience should be and freaking out proper – makes me nostalgic for the days of full-house opening weekend theater viewings). It has disturbing images as I brought up just the way that alarming dark red of the Tethered’s uniform costumes by Kym Barrett looks in the darkness of the Wilson’s home especially when punctuated by the rare scenes of bloodletting. The mixture of those dark blacks and reds is a big part of what brings Us this heavy mood that all the best horror movies are expected to be thick with.
Us practically drowns in that mood, only bobbing for the surface with Peele’s characteristic ability to add some dry humor to the proceedings that also let us appeal to the Wilsons as characters (Gabe’s obsession with his boat being a notable connection to that class theme while also a Chekovian device). Because Peele is such a horror buff – the very first shot of the film includes video cassettes of Night of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., and A Nightmare on Elm Street visible; Thriller and Jaws appear on t-shirts; the location is consciously the same as The Lost Boys; a deformed character is almost certainly named after one in The Hills Have Eyes; and there are so many visual quotings of horror classics – he knows exactly the right ingredients to appeal to the home invasion thriller that this starts off as and then lets the disorienting existential horror of facing your cruel self expand like hot air to at least a scale that is just inescapable and leaves the characters trapped.
Probably the most notable element of the filmmaking that lets these chills slide down smoothly is Michael Abels’ score, indulging in all of the stock horror sounds like the screeching strings and thumping drums without feeling too much like a generic score. Particularly the manner in which it adopts a leitmotif out of the Luniz song “I’ve Got 5 on It” to turn its key down as low as possible so that the beat just translates to an occasional shudder and makes for the perfect punctuation to most of the scares to come once Us goes full-throttle throw its lightning pacing.
So it’s the tools rather than the message that truly engages me with Us, something that is the case for most pictures. It is impossible to pretend that the same broad strokes Peele and company take to give us a pure work of terror aren’t the same broad strokes that embolden its message on class and the violent divide it brings (again… it uses “I Got 5 on It” as a leitmotif and one of Nyong’o’s first scenes as Red involves her croaking a dark fairytale about a shadow receiving worse than table scraps in attachment to her body) and so you cannot take one without the other and I’d claim that Us is all the richer for having that depth beneath the surface (literally given the descent to a crypt-like tunnel that makes up the third act). It’s even understandable that Lupita Nyong’o’s ability to play both monster and hero and the unexpectedly twisted way in which Peele’s writing moves around those roles within the third act truly gets to play both sides of that presentation, including the fact that Nyong’o’s delivery of a late monologue that is in my opinion the weakest moment of the film salvages some of atmospheric cruelty of the whole picture. In any case, it’s not what I come to Us for or what I exit it praising most. I don’t care where the Tethered come from or why they are doing what they do. I only admire the way it all combines – Monsour’s cutting, Abels’ score, Gioulakis’ shadows and framing, and Nyong’o’s performance – to a heartpounding balletic climax at the end of a particularly draining horror movie experience, one that lost very little of its initial power when I saw it in theaters with a likewise frightened crowd when I re-watched it in the blackness of my living room alone.
Within the past week I’ve revisited Freddy vs. Jason, the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, and our subject here: the 2009 remake of My Bloody Valentine. And it’s evidently a small sample size of 2000s slasher cinema and reliant specifically on intellectual property with a pre-existing fanbase, but if there’s one major connection one can make of the three (as well as the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, and the Hatchet series*): the 2000s were not for want on slasher movies that had the proper attitude that that subgenre is meant to have. At the prime of the subgenre in the 1980s, they were all just filled with mean attitudes using the plot and characters simply as vehicles to deliver elaborate death setpieces that flex out their gore effects budget and artistry. They are happy to walk the exploitation walk all the way through.
Their achilles heel however is the fact that they came out in the 2000s and thereby are subject to the sort of polished clean digital look that removes the sort physical visual griminess that these previously often independent, frequently low-budget pictures were forced to have and in turn gave the subgenre a rawness to its craft that horror cinema was kind of moving to in the wake of respectability that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were bringing. Film stock and the primitivism of that low-budget resource that allowed these films to pop out a dime a dozen in the 1980s was the source of most of the best examples of the form feeling like wallowing in grub. And try as the cinematographers of these 2000s production could, you just can’t have the same honesty with digital filmmaking.
My Bloody Valentine takes advantage of that by going the other way: it indulges in that vanguard of 2009 cinema, the very same year as Coraline and Avatar. It indulges in 3D, thereby allowing us to refer to this remake as My Bloody Valentine 3D for the remainder of this review to distinguish it from the original Canadian picture.
Which to be fair, Todd Farmer and Zane Smith’s screenplay (with a credit given to Stephen Miller for story) does quite a lot to try to pull from John Beaird’s original screenplay from 1981 but in overly complicated ways that end up making the plotting of the film at once extremely dizzying. We still certainly have a mining town by the name of Harmony (this time shot around Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh or Armstrong County with not nearly the amount of edge-of-the-world coastline personality that Sydney Mines brought to the original film) and we do have an inciting accident that traps five miners with a single homicidal survivor by the name of Harry Warden (played by either Richard John Walters or Chris Carnel), sans the added sensationalist treatment of cannibalism (this time Warden killed the men simply to preserve more oxygen for himself). This time, however, the writers decide to cut out the middleman and make our ostensible young protagonist the worker whose negligence led to the methane explosion that caused the tragedy, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles, the first of the two stars of the show Supernatural that amusingly starred in a slasher remake in early 2009; Jared Padalecki would follow his lead into Friday the 13th the very next month). Hanniger happens to be the son of the mine’s owner, a little bit of nepotism that evidently got him into an unqualified position and also probably keeps the entire town from lynching him over their considerable resentment for the tragedy he caused.
Doesn’t stop Harry however, who went into a coma immediately after his rescue only to wake up a year later and massacre his whole hospital wing in search for revenge from Tom. He finds Tom in the middle of a Valentine’s Day party being thrown at the same mine he was originally trapped in, which probably didn’t help his vengeful mood any further as he kills every teenager he runs into at the party: it’s only through Warden’s single-minded hunt for Tom that Tom’s girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King), their friend Axel (Kerr Smith), and Axel’s girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue) are neglected by the bloodthirsty miner and it’s only by Sheriff Burke’s (Tom Atkins) sudden arrival and shooting of Warden that Tom makes it out by the skin of his teeth.
That funneling of the major plot points of the original My Bloody Valentine gets us barely 20 minutes into My Bloody Valentine 3D – partly because the mining accident is mostly registered by a montage of ridiculous newspaper headlines during the opening credits – and yet it still doesn’t hasn’t yet re-used of the love triangle from the original movie. For you see ten years later (a fact humorously communicated by a voiceover newscast saying “it’s been nearly ten years” EXACTLY when “Ten Years Later…” fades in on an aerial shot of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge), Tom came back after being gone since the attack to ostensibly sell the mine now that his father is dead and finds that Sarah is now married to Axel with a son (it is frankly laughable that Tom’s father is not at all a presence in the movie to substantiate his daddy issues, only appearing in the form of his ashes container. Sarah and Axel’s son is barely more of a presence with a frustratingly contrived moment of menace towards him that does not pay off). Meanwhile, Axel happens to be Harmony’s Sheriff and that leaves him in charge of investigating the horrifying murders that coincidentally started just when Tom arrived back into town: murders commit by somebody resembling Harry Warden in their miner’s getup and pickaxe weapon of choice.
Honestly, the structuring of this story makes it feel like the makers wanted to frame this as remake AND pseudo-sequel of the original (including the fact that one of the final shots in the 10 years ago prologue resembles the very last shot of the original movie, watching a wounded Miner retreat into the darkness of the mines). This is not the only area where Farmer and Smith’s script gets way to convoluted to find the long way around recycling the same story, but I don’t think you need to dive that much further into its weirdly shallow psychology of characters who are ostensibly grown ass adults with domestic lives and matured experiences still acting like teenagers to see just how frustratingly poorly put-together it all is. Frankly, My Bloody Valentine 3D is not a good movie by any metric: contrived writing only being the tip of the iceberg when faced with the extremely CW level acting talent (and it’s not like the original actors playing TJ, Sarah, and Axel were all that much better but at least they still lend a genuine humble presence to the small-town that these soap opera-esque leads just can’t meet), and Lussier as a director just does not have any sophistication or inspiration to offer to a sequence that does not take feature gore or 3D, especially obvious when it comes to the moments that rely particularly on tension… character-based tension worst of all.
But fortunately this IS a gore-filled movie and it IS one that’s in 3D. And I am sorry to suggest to anyone that this movie mirrors Lussier’s lack of offering to anybody who attempts to watch it in 2D, but that is certainly the case. Yet the 3D is absolutely the element that keeps me coming back to My Bloody Valentine 3D in the way that it happily indulges in any possible moment to have blood splash every which way through the screen or put us in the perspective of one of the murderous Miner’s victims so we’re consistently watching the pointy end of that threatening pickaxe jam right in front of us. Sometimes both at the same time as in an early moment where we watch the pickaxe-through-the-back-of-the-head-popping-out-an-eye kill from the original movie lovingly recreated as a little peek-a-boo moment that gets me giddy as a schoolboy when I see it. In fact, to My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s credit, a lot of kill styles get their own reenactment in this remake just for the sake of having Lussier, cinematographer Brian Pearson, and stereographer Max Penner play around with how to give it a smiling kitschy to its visceral imagery. It’s not like the revolutionary work of Avatar here but instead whole-heartedly treating 3D as the sort of gimmickry that it was back in the 1950s and that honestly seems the perfect sort of marriage to the purely junky motivations of the slasher genre to begin with. It also allows for even the most blatantly computer generated of the bloodiness to be forgivable in how the 3D gives the chintzy look more artistry on top of feeling more fun.
And that fun is something that My Bloody Valentine 3D gets to accomplish without falling into that oh too popular trap of being winking or self-aware. Sure, Lussier and company know they’re making trash and even lean quite into it with an extended rampage in a seedy motel that largely involves Rue spending most of her total screentime running around a parking lot wearing absolutely nothing but high heels (credit very much to Rue for being so bold; less credit to Farmer for writing himself a short bit part as the guy who she has sex with at the beginning of her commando run here) but they’re still taking it seriously and sincerely without the slightest hint of parody. The bones of the story obviously don’t earn that seriousness (and at around 10 minutes longer than the original, I even start to get exhausted at that po-faced mystery shit and the predictable direction it’s going before it ends), but I don’t go to this genre for narrative indulgences – just purely for exhibition of cheesy carnage and the 3D extravaganza and I like to imagine I’ve made clear how well this has delivered on both so that the 3D Blu-Ray has just ended up one of my guilty pleasure comfort foods. You’re not going to see what I see if you try to watch it in 2D. I am unashamed to say that My Bloody Valentine 3D does not need to function at any aspect to justify that placement – and it does not, it is admirable and dedicated but still a complete piece of shit movie – just as long as it gives me the satisfaction of watching a pickaxe point at me through somebody’s perforated skull more than once.
*I have not watched the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street since its release (which may be soon to change – I just finished a Friday the 13th binge, why not initiate a Nightmare binge?) and I will refrain from making a declaration on that one.