Though genre films thrived in 2018 (thank goodness for streaming services), the year proved to be a bit of a lackluster one at the theater. That being said, there were a handful of films that I liked a whole lot. Below are ten of them (plus a few more).
10. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
Few filmmakers boast the intellectual creativity or visual inventiveness of Joel and Ethan Coen. Since bursting onto the scene with their violently lyrical neo-noir Blood Simple in 1984, they’ve provided one uniquely twisted, boldly artistic offering after another. Auteurs of the truest sense, they’ve worked as writers, directors, producers and editors on a few of the most inimitable and captivating movies of the past thirty-plus years (Fargo and No Country For Old Men among them). While watching one of their films is pure bliss, the period spent waiting for their next offering can sometimes seem insufferable.
The virtuoso filmmakers have worked to appease that languishing period in a way with their newest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Given a limited theatrical run before being released on Netflix, the movie features six stories: each depicting life in the old west and each unique in scope and artistry.
Up first is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (played by Tim Blake Nelson), a quick-triggered cowboy who enjoys singing nearly as much as he does drawing his six-shooter. Buster eventually meets his match in a black-clad buckaroo. James Franco portrays a cowboy who can’t escape the noose in the segment, “Near Algondones,” and Liam Neeson gives life to a disgruntled carny who trades in his limbless partner for a counting chicken in “Meal Ticket.” A cantankerous prospector (Tom Waits) explores a flower-spotted valley in search of gold in “Old Gold Canyon,” and a pair of angels of death (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) escort a trio of travelers in their rustic stagecoach to a foreboding hotel in “The Mortal Remains.”
In the most compelling segment titled “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) travels by wagon train across the prairie to meet up with her fiancé and the prospect of a better life. She falls for the chiseled cowboy who leads their migration before succumbing to the threat of savage Indians.
Moving at a deliberate pace, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a tightly wound, masterfully constructed journey through the American frontier. Containing the Coen Brother’s signature blend of dark humor, hyperbolic violence and impressive cinematography, it adds support to their command of the craft.
9. LET THE CORPSES TAN
Let the Corpses Tan plays like the grandiose dream of a Euro-crime fan. An uber-stylized mixing of spaghetti western motifs with elements of poliziotteschi and giallo films, its retina-popping visuals both attract and repel in equal measure.
The sky blazes blue, the sun beats relentlessly upon the golden sand, Rhino (Stephane Ferrara) and his gang of thieves make off with 250 kilograms in stolen gold to an abandoned town. When a pair of unwanted cops foil their plan, the Mediterranean pallet is decimated by a chaotic onslaught of red.
Like in their previous works Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani spare no effort in their attempt to capture the surreal style and lurid associations of Italy’s Eurosleaze period. Drawing influence from the crude and gruesome giallo cycle, they utilize a vivid arrangement of colors, invasive camera movement and a majestic score to create a visceral and challenging viewing experience. Their use of an illusory story structure unfolding atop calculated set pieces drips with genre expressionism.
Short on plot but overflowing with style and confidence, Let The Corpses Tan is exploitation filmmaking of the highest order. Brimming with gonzo energy and fashioned with enthusiastically devoted hands, it is the best “WTF am I watching?” movie of the year.
I’m a huge Tom Cruise fan. I think the love affair started with Top Gun. That “too-cool” attitude, the tough but caring disposition, the killer leather jacket: I wanted to be Pete Mitchell.
Good old Cruise is back. And by old I mean there’s not enough cake to appease the candles. Dude is fifty-six. He steps into the shoes of everyone’s favorite US special agent, Ethan Hunt, for a sixth time. He first played the role in 1996. That was over twenty years ago. The standout action sequence in that film saw Cruise hanging for dear life from the front of a train while an out-of-control helicopter swayed just inches from his face. Advertisements for the sequel boasted an image of Cruise dangling from a cliff side without the use of a harness. In Mission Impossible: Fallout, Cruise hangs with wide eyes and shaking limbs from the landing skids of a helicopter. You watch with unchecked glee as Hunt bounces from stunt to stunt while at the same time feeling genuine concern for the aging actor portraying him. With a seventh outing on the horizon, Cruise’s insanity shows no signs of abating.
This time out, Ethan and his team must square off against a terrorist organization known as The Apostles in an effort to capture a trio of plutonium cores and save the world. Surprises abound thanks to the kinetic direction of Christopher McQuarrie and the exuberant performances of the cast. Blending genre formula with stunning visuals and a witty script, the movie provided the most fun experience at the theater I had all year.
Horror movies employ the fantastic in an effort to shine light on the real-life fears and anxieties of society. Creature features of the 1950s played on the ultimate fear of nuclear war, golden-age slasher flicks tapped America’s distrust of government. In Cam, the latest existential horror pic to come out of Blumhouse Productions, America’s distrust of digital technology is on display.
At its center is Alice (Madeline Brewer), an erotic webcam performer who discovers her online identity has been stolen by a mysterious doppelganger intent on ruining her life.
Teenagers today are so attached to their phones and computers that they fail to make real connections with others. They gain attention and sometimes money by posting revealing photos of themselves on social media sites or playing video games on video-sharing pages. Cam shows the internet is a dangerous place where information is stolen and secrets are revealed. Alice maneuvers without anxiety or worry while the seemingly safe online world she’s created caves in on her.
There is an unsettling familiarity to the proceedings. Deliciously shot and edited, you leave the movie feeling both titillated and horrified. Katelin Arizmendi’s digital photography casts an eerie spell over the viewer, her use of reds and pinks suggesting something impure lurking behind the insightful performances and psychological plot twists.
6. LEAVE NO TRACE
At its best, the minimalist approach and dreary atmosphere of Leave No Trace reminds you of Debra Granik’s previous effort, Winter’s Bone. Like that picture, Leave No Trace features a young, unknown actress in a star-making role.
Harcout McKenzie plays Tom, a thirteen-year-old girl who dwells with her widowed father Will (Ben Foster) in a tent deep in the woods of Portland, Oregon. A veteran and trained survivalist, Will knows how to live off the land. Tom is aware of her father’s inability to connect with modern society and surrenders her desire for a normal life to be with him. When police intervene though, their lives are sent into a tailspin.
A lush canvas of virescent vegetation and serene river waters set the mood for the bleak narrative. There is a melodious quality to the forest: the narrow, twisted trails chocked with brambles, the dense canopy of green, the warm, yellow glow of the sun barely touching the matted floor. Tom and Will move silently through the trees, an unexpressed intimacy between them, an understanding that doesn’t require words. When social services sets them up in a two-bedroom rancher, Will struggles to adapt. The frenetic activity of the contemporary world drives a wedge into their relationship.
There’s a point in the film where Tom attempts beekeeping. She places her father’s hand over a hive to feel the warmth. She’s come to realize she needs the fellowship of others. Will, however, will never feel the warmth.
A sad yet hopeful meditation on post-traumatic stress and familial relations, Leave No Trace advances Granik’s filmography and is one of the best pictures of the year.
5. A QUIET PLACE
A Quiet Place is a horror picture wrapped around a family drama and developed for mass consumption. It’s tightly paced, skillfully directed and propped by the impressive performances of Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. Starring as Evelyn and Lee Abbott respectively, the on-screen couple dedicate their lives to the protection of their children. They guide them and nourish them and watch in anxiety as gigantic creatures fight to rip them limb from limb.
Depicting emotion is a challenge. To explore and exploit real-life experiences for the sake of a character requires special skill. To cry for a person who isn’t real, to laugh because a few lines of script call for it, to sacrifice yourself for someone you have no personal attachment to: these are things only a great actor can do. Blunt and Krasinski sink into their roles. Worry rests on their lips and across their brows. Apprehension resonates with each step they take. The promise of mysterious creatures lured audiences to the theater to see A Quiet Place, but it’s the suffering of the film’s characters that capture the affections of viewers.
They hide in silence from sightless beasts that pursue with force anything that makes noise. What’s more impressive is that they draw you in without the use of speech. They rely on body language and facial expressions to communicate.
Horror is a communal genre. It’s best appreciated kicking and screaming with a theater full of frightened fans. The absence of dialogue in A Quiet Place is extremely unsettling. I saw it for the first time with a near sold-out crowd. Everyone was frozen to the spot. No one wanted to move for fear that they would interrupt the cinematic magic. Krasinski’s understanding of film grammar is remarkable. He blends b-movie stylings with the chilliness of modern horror to create 95-minutes of gut-wrenching tension. Stylish and original and as frightening an experience you’re likely to have this year.
Despite Blumhouse’s lack of female directors, women filmmakers have been killing it in horror in recent years. From Ana Lily Amirpour’s hip and engaging vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, to Julia Ducournau’s lurid cannibal flick, Raw, female artists have been contributing fresh and inventive visions to the unsettling genre. Recently celebrated for her brutally beautiful rape/revenge thriller, Revenge, Coralie Fargeat is the latest to captivate audiences and critics of horror cinema.
Jen’s (Matilda Lutz) and Richard’s steamy vacation is interrupted when Richard’s morally depraved friends show up and demand a piece of the young beauty. The situation quickly escalates to bloody mayhem when Jen is assailed and left for dead. Unfortunately for her attackers, Jen survives and returns, intent on giving the transgressors a taste of their own medicine.
Rape/Revenge films often bask to an extreme degree in the physical suffering of their heroines before allowing them to seek vengeance, thereby diminishing the underlying feminist themes that inform their stories. In Fargeat’s film, however, the outline is flip-flopped. When Jen is attacked, the onslaught is as distasteful as it should be, but it’s quick, and captured mainly through sound. The viewer is forced to experience the horror of the incident from behind a closed door rather than in close-up.
Lutz is as beautiful as the compositions Fargeat uses to capture her. She radiates with an energy that makes her irresistible. You cheer for her with unchecked enthusiasm as she exacts her gleefully gory revenge. Buckets of slippery red stuff are splashed at the screen with aesthetic delight.
Stylish and inventive with a powerful sound design, the film is viscerally terrifying without being overly cruel.
Alex Garland’s follow-up to the sensational Ex Machina, Annihilation is a luxuriously bizarre meditation on the destructive power of grief. At its start, we are introduced to Army Special Forces operative Kane (Oscar Isaac) and his unfaithful wife Lena (Natalie Portman). Kane disappears while on an expedition to a quarantined zone on the southern coast dubbed “the Shimmer.” Lena, a former officer herself, agrees to join a team of scientists in an exploration of the mysterious area.
Both confusing and fascinating in equal measure, Annihilation unfolds like a hallucinogenic nightmare. Dripping with atmosphere, the movie attacks the mental faculties of viewers via a steady stream of retina-dazzling visuals and heady themes.
A psychedelically colorful sphere of energy looms over the cordoned off area. Inside, Lena is confronted by mutant reptiles, plants that have morphed with the decayed bodies of dead persons, and a bear whose growl mimics the cries of her missing friend. Along her journey, the grief surrounding her misplaced husband and marital disloyalty manifests in the form of a mystical doppelganger. She must square off with the supernatural creature if she is to overcome her mental suffering.
A visceral attack on the senses, Annihilation barrages viewers with rapturously beautiful imagery, assails them with hypnotic sounds and enchants them with fits of symbolism and mise en scene. It’s a wonderfully strange sci-fi fantasy that bolsters Garland’s budding filmography.
2. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Controversy surrounding the films of Lars von Trier has polarized audiences into groups for and against the Danish filmmaker’s work. His latest project, The House that Jack Built, will do little to buck the trend.
The film follows self-avowed psychopath Jack (Matt Dillon) through a series of elegantly-composed killings. He hunts a mother and her two boys through a flower-specked pasture, plays a perverse game of doctor with a naïve girlfriend and straps a widow’s body to the back of his van.
The film wavers between ruthless terror and grim humor while cleverly probing the relationship von Trier has developed with audiences throughout his career. A frightening and consistently inventive horror story, it shows that artistic criticism can be just as painful as a run-in with a psychopath.
Jack acts as von Trier’s murderous alter ego allowing him to explore the connections artists form with their work along with his own failings as a filmmaker. Jack is awkward and clumsy at the start. His desire to make everything perfect nearly leads to his undoing. He ultimately decides that no one is paying attention.
Von Trier has been making ambitious movies for the better part of his career. He’s been labeled a narcissist and a misogynist. With The House the Jack Built, he seems to be asking if an artist should be branded a monster simply because he fabricates them for the page or screen.
David Bowie sings about the ups and downs of fame on the soundtrack while Glenn Gould, Albert Speer and other unorthodox artists are featured in stock footage.
1. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Each year, there’s that difficult to catch title that eludes audiences. You Were Never Really Here premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2017. It did not see a theatrical release in the states until a year later. Poetically violent and powerfully performed, the picture was well worth the wait.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a despondent hitman hired to track the daughter of a New York senator. Compelled by the demons of his past, he plunges wholeheartedly into the case setting off an uncontrollable chain reaction of violence and brutality.
You Were Never Really Here is a cynically gripping thriller, daring in its narrative and both hypnotic and unnerving in its approach. Blending genre fare with arthouse stylings, the movie unfolds with a ferocity not often matched.
We first meet Joe gulping the last bits of air from within a plastic bag, his eyes focused on the golden sparkles of dust dancing before him. He flashes back to his tormented youth before ceasing with the act of self-abuse and cleaning up his most recent job.
It’s been seven years since Lynne Ramsay released the acclaimed, psychological drama We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was happy when it was announced she’d be following up that effort with an urban revenge thriller. Her films are often stylish to the point of abstraction. You Were Never Really Here artfully blends the surreal imagery of Joe’s memories with his grim and gritty reality. There is a haze over the entire picture, a sheen that evokes a nightmarish quality. It is a visual symphony of color and carnage that shouldn’t be missed.
I ALSO REALLY LIKED: Apostle, First Reformed, The Rider, The Sisters Brothers and Terrified