Thursday, October 31, 2019

A History of Found Footage Horror

I've written plenty of times (and probably will again) that one of the major cinematic stories of the last decade has been the New Wave of Independent Horror. While major studios have been content to put out the same demonic possession movie every year and spin-offs of The Conjuring, the focus has been on an impressive influx of powerful and well-made independent horror films from all over the world, often with resonant social commentary. The Babadook, It Follows, Get Out, Most Beautiful Island, Cold Hell, Tigers Are Not Afraid and many others have taken the first steps in the long, arduous process of restoring mainstream credibility to the genre. But as a new era begins, an old one ends. This Halloween, I decided to take a look back at the "found footage' subgenre.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "found footage" typically refers to films where the story is told through in-universe cameras. The premise is often that something mysterious has happened and watching the footage shot by one of the characters may help us unravel what's going on. It can also take the form of a "documentary," with interviews and archive footage mixed with the main storyline. More recent examples have tapped into the video streaming boom by telling stories that unfold on a single computer screen. It's a storytelling style with huge potential and you can see why it attracts filmmakers working with a small budget. The lack of professional polish is an advantage when you're trying to convince an audience that what they're seeing really happened.

While initially acclaimed, the format became as ubiquitous as the slasher movies were in the 1980s. So many uninspired examples were shoveled into theaters that fans grew tired of it. The time was right for a new direction. In many ways, the new wave's attention to vivid production designs and elegant cinematography seems to be a reaction to found footage and its adopted amateur style. There will be much more to say about them but for now, let's look back at the history of found footage and highlight the best movies done in the style.


Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Yeesh, I always regret doing a google image search for this movie. One of the most notorious horror films is also one of the most influential. The apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the Italian cannibal subgenre had an innovative structure that spends the entire first half with an anthropologist searching the Amazon rainforest for a missing film crew. The viewer expects him to be attacked by the natives, but he is respectful of the cannibal tribe and trades some modern world goodies for the crew's film reels. The second half of the film is comprised of that handheld-camera footage and it reveals that the film crew tormented and provoked the natives for the sake of more sensational footage. They're ultimately torn to pieces in the hideously violent finale that is still disturbingly realistic.

In fact, it was so convincing that upon the film's release, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested by the Italian police and the actors had to show up in court to prove they weren't actually killed on camera. Part of the reason it fooled the authorities was that animals were killed on camera in lengthy nauseating detail. It's unforgivable, especially for a movie that often criticizes the exploitation of violence, and it's the albatross that will always keep this film from being recognized as one of the greats. Several "animal cruelty free" cuts exist and prove how unnecessary it was - the movie still packs a nasty punch without them.

Morality aside, this is the granddaddy of the entire found footage style. But only hardened viewers should consider seeing it. And if you're not hardened, you will be.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This is obviously not a horror film. However, many directors were experimenting with the "fake documentary" idea in the 70s and 80s and this is the most prominent example. While poking fun at glam rock and hair metal, the film alternates between interviews with actors in character and staged "concert footage" of Spinal Tap performing songs like "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." The techniques used have been copied by many other films in a number of genres.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter's ambitious tale of the apocalypse is mostly in line with the typical 1980s horror style...except for its most frightening scene. The characters dream of a transmission from the year 1999 where a dark figure emerges from a church on scratchy videotape footage. The sudden introduction of realistic imagery in a film otherwise full of elaborate effects is chilling and a great early example of what the style was capable of.

Tales From the Crypt - "Television Terror" (1990)
One of the best episodes of the popular anthology show is still being ripped off decades later. Talk show host and demagogue Morton Downey is basically playing himself as an obnoxious television host who explores a haunted house during a live broadcast. Nobody in the crew believes the place is actually haunted but the viewers know better. It's a brilliant half hour, filled with crass and cynical fun up until its show-stopping ending. Other episodes of TFTC played with this format but this is definitely the most dramatic example.

Man Bites Dog (1992)
Three directors from France and Belgium shot this hugely influential film entirely on black and white handheld cameras. A serial killer named Ben has allowed filmmakers to follow him around on his daily business of murdering people and hiding the bodies. The crimes get more depraved and the crew gets more involved, but eventually Ben messes with the wrong people and the walls begin to close in on him and his new accomplices. The abrupt manner in which the film ends is just as important to this subgenre as any scene in Cannibal Holocaust and was copied in at least a dozen movies in the years since.

Ghostwatch (1992)
This British made-for-TV movie upped the ante and created an entire fake news broadcast. Actual fake news, not today's "fake news." Like "Television Terror," it was a live exploration of a haunted house that frequently cut back to the hosts for commentary. A malevolent ghost terrorizes the reporters and eventually the TV station itself. Although it was produced in advance, it was presented as a live broadcast and starred actual newscasters familiar to the public. Much like the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, British viewers were completely fooled and the BBC reportedly received 30,000 calls from people freaking out just after it ended. The tabloids and talk shows had a field day and there was much condemnation thrown at the producers for scaring the crap out of the UK. These days it's more fondly remembered.

First Wave

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This low-budget phenomenon was the moment that found footage came into its own as a subgenre rather than just the occasional gimmick. Three filmmakers wander the woods of Maryland to explore the local myth of the Blair Witch and are never seen again. A revolutionary viral marketing campaign convinced many moviegoers that this "lost footage" was in fact real, the last time a feat like this could be pulled off. This movie is sometimes credited with inventing the found footage concept, but hopefully by now it's clear how influenced it was by earlier films. As a movie, it demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this format. The hair-raising ending is very effective but the film itself is padded out to feature length with repetitive scenes of the characters bantering and arguing.

The Last Broadcast (1998)
It actually beat Blair Witch to the punch by several months, but went almost unnoticed in its initial release. Made on a budget of $900, there are superficial similarities but the releases of the two films were too close together for one to have influenced the other - just one of those weird coincidences in movie history. The hosts of a popular public access show disappear while wandering the woods in New Jersey and the only remaining crew member is charged with murder. While the protagonists pore over the missing footage and try to restore other corrupted data, the real truth is revealed. Unlike Blair Witch, this one ultimately downplays the supernatural elements in favor of a commentary on narcissism and the pursuit of fame. The super low budget was made possible in part by shooting in digital video, one of the first films to do so.

Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Japan took a shot at the found footage idea and the results were pretty magnificent. Once again, a paranormal investigator disappears and another character looks over the footage for clues. Several disparate threads of the missing man's work are all tied together by appearances of a strange presence with a distinctive mask. The formula was already getting worn even at this early point, but the movie is still terrific - rich in detail, intelligent and very creative, even replicating Japan's insane game shows for a key scene. Despite its European origins, the found footage era has unfolded primarily in the United States. We may have missed out on some intriguing possibilities because of that.

Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
The influence of Man Bites Dog is very clear in this witty parody of the slasher genre. Leslie Vernon is hoping to become the next great masked killer and invites a local news crew to follow him around as he prepares for his big moment. In fact, most of the movie is meticulous preparation, with funny explanations given to the silliest cliches of slasher films. This one has a bit of a twist - once the final confrontations begin in earnest, the style shifts back to a more traditional cinematic approach.

REC (2007)
The first found footage movie to apply the format to a zombie movie, which would be done many more times in the years since. Reporters doing an otherwise routine story on the local fire department find themselves locked inside an apartment building where a viral outbreak is turning the residents into crazed monsters (it's one of those movies that doesn't want to use the word "zombie," but come on they're zombies). It's taut and suspenseful with a pants-shittingly terrifying final scene featuring a hideous monster played by human special effect Javier Botet. REC proved to the world that a scary creature can look even more frightening filmed in blurry night vision.

Second Wave

Paranormal Activity (2009)
This one again. I've written about it in detail before, but you can't do a history of found footage without the low-budget hit that brought forth a tidal wave of imitators once studio execs saw the box office returns. For now, we'll just note that it displayed a new level of ingenuity when it came to working with almost no money. The audience stares at the surveillance footage of the young couple sleeping in their haunted condo and gets worked up over even the slightest movement. The marketing campaign was also pretty brilliant, with one-off screenings in various places for years before the official release and commercials that showed audiences in night-vision jumping in their seats.

"Marble Hornets" (2009)
Found footage and YouTube are a match made in heaven. God only knows how many amateur productions are in the site's library but this series is stunning in its effectiveness. While filming a student film in a seemingly nondescript forest in Georgia, the presence of the mysterious Slender Man upends the lives of everyone involved. Hollywood has made two unsuccessful attempts at a film featuring this beloved internet character, but this series understands that less is more. Over the course of numerous brief episodes (some are less than a minute), the viewers are trained to start searching every frame for Slender Man, whose appearances are often extremely subtle. "Marble Hornets" received acclaim that isn't typical for a YouTube show, even getting props from Roger Ebert.

Lake Mungo (2010)
Australia tried out found footage with this fake documentary and the effect is so well-executed it would easily fool viewers watching it with no context. After the sudden death of a teen girl named Alice, her family begins to suspect her ghost may be lurking in their home. The story unfolds slowly with considerable restraint and after several unexpected twists and turns, the family discovers that the answers might be at the archaeological site of the title. It’s an involving film that’s difficult to classify, avoiding most of the hallmarks of the horror genre but delivering a handful of overwhelmingly frightening moments. Those looking for something more traditionally scary will be frustrated but those who are receptive to it have a powerful experience in store for them.

Trollhunter (2011)
It was Norway's turn and they opted to update some of their mythology with a story of a film crew following a grizzled man who hunts trolls for the Norwegian government. We're talking actual trolls here, not whiny babies pissed off about a Ghostbusters remake. As with REC, the low tech aesthetic actually makes the monsters look more convincing then they might have been in a typical Hollywood production. It's also funny to see even the silliest aspects of troll lore played straight, like how they can smell the blood of a Christian man (what happens if you decide to be an atheist on the spot?). The setting also helps the film avoid a typical problem with found footage. The scenes of mundane conversation that help make the footage convincing can also bore an audience, but in this case the breathtaking scenery of Norway steals the show whenever the trolls aren't onscreen.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
The second Paranormal Activity film was a letdown, a fifteen minute story stretched to feature length by repetitive surveillance footage. The third one, however, struck gold by going back in time to an era before digital cameras. Like the first film, the characters want to document possible demonic activity in their home but in this case, they need to rely on cumbersome old technology. Dennis is trying to find a way to monitor the large living room/kitchen area and eventually gets the idea to strap the camera to a rotating fan. This leads to several scenes where the audience's point of view shifts from one side of the room to another. It's just so clever and could have supported a film that was completely independent of the series.

VHS (2012)
Concurrent with the found footage boom was a revival of anthology horror films, which have been a part of the genre since 1924. This movie, the first in a series with rapidly diminishing returns, showcases five tales all done in this style. It's more consistent than most anthologies, but the first and last segments are the clear standouts. "Amateur Night" is about a group of loathsome pick-up artists who cross paths with a deadly succubus. "10/31/1998" is a bravura tale of trick or treating friends who wander through a haunted house. It's primarily a showcase for exceptional special effects, all the more impressive because it's basically done in one take (or at least with the cuts disguised by static).

The Sacrament (2013)
The idiosyncratic horror director Ti West restages the Jonestown Massacre in the modern era, with journalists from the "VICE" documentary series traveling to South America to investigate a strange commune. The interview with the leader known as "Father" (the amazing Gene Jones) is tense but otherwise things seem okay. Well, everyone knows where this is going and when it turns bad, the results are utterly horrifying and unflinching yet you can't look away. The fact that it all really happened with only minor details changed makes it even worse. It's brilliant but painful.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
There was a strange trend of movies featuring the full names of characters, perhaps to make it seem more credible as a "true story." Audiences were invited to witness the fates of Emily Rose, Molly Hartley and Michael King (among others) but the most memorable person to show up in the title was Deborah Logan. Played by Jill Larson (who honestly deserved an Oscar nomination), Deborah is a woman suffering from early Alzheimer's symptoms who agrees to have a graduate student document her condition for a thesis project. Her mind deteriorates with startling speed but the crew realizes there also may be something supernatural at work. The strength of the movie's themes is that it's hard to tell the difference. While there is some gnarly imagery near the end, none of the demonic possession stuff can compare to the horror of losing your identity.

Unfriended (2014)
The next major innovation in found footage was telling a story entirely from the perspective of a computer screen. A movie called The Den was the first one to try this, but it wasn't especially plausible and they really botched the ending. Unfriended was the one that nailed it. A group of friends is chatting via webcams when they're targeted by the malevolent spirit of a girl who killed herself after being brutally bullied. The format allows otherwise routine web browsing and instant messaging to become an ingenious method of conveying information to an audience and to set up some good scares. Whatever becomes of found footage in the future, I suspect that this approach will become more common. It's already been used in last year's missing person drama Searching.

Hell House, LLC (2015)
As far as I know, this is the last great found footage horror film. It's nothing new in terms of concept but damn did they execute it well. Beginning with a mysterious tragedy at a haunted house where several people died, investigators attempt to figure out what really happened. Most of the movie is footage of the haunted house crew preparing their event as weird things start happening. The house they used is such a good setting and the scares are so clever that you're just as likely to grin as you are to jump. Good stuff. They made two sequels but they were both awful so don't worry about those.

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you're wandering an abandoned building with your digital camera and you start seeing a lot of static, get out of there!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Tales From the Crypt: Season Six, Part Two

Staired in Terror: A fleeing criminal (D.B. Sweeney) hides out with a mysterious old woman (Rachel Ticotin) in a house she claims has a cursed staircase. Meanwhile, the local sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) is determined to get inside. It's not scary but it's very clever and it's nice to get an old-fashioned ghost story after several more grounded tales of crime. B+

In the Groove: Miguel Ferrer returns for his fourth(!) appearance on the show as a pissed off radio host whose show basically consists of him pretending to have sex. Following a long ratings struggle, he meets an ideal co-host (Linda Doucett) who brings out his repressed anger to a potentially dangerous extent. Ferrer is brilliant and Doucett is subtly effective as the sweet little devil on his shoulder. Slash from Guns N Roses also has a small role as a rival DJ, for no other reason than it's the 90s and Slash has to appear in accordance with the showbiz laws of the era. A-

Surprise Party: Ray (Adam Storke) defies his father, who had tried to keep him from inheriting a farmhouse on a valuable piece of property. With the old man gone and the will unchanged, he arrives at the place to find that there's a party going on. But what's the occasion? Well it turns out Dad had a good reason for trying to keep him away. The writing is pretty bad but there are some nice makeup effects near the end. B-

Doctor of Horror: Two put-upon security guards (Hank Azaria and Travis Tritt) working at a mortuary make a deal with a mad doctor (Austin Pendleton) conducting some very unorthodox experiments. It's funny but also very dark and has a great cast. Pendleton gives a creepy and charismatic performance while Ben Stein shows up to call the guards "lowlife shitheads" before getting killed. Considering how uninspired much of this season has been, it was a delight to see the episode totally go for broke in the climax, where the Re-Animator influence becomes very clear. A

Comes the Dawn: Before 30 Days of Night, there was this episode about poachers hunting bear in Alaska and finding vampires instead. Michael Ironside plays a former colonel who enlists a mysterious tracker (Vivian Wu) to help find a grizzly, but someone...or something got to it first. It's effective and the vampires look good, but some of the acting is just strange. Ironside is a pro but Wu uses two or three different accents and I don't even know what to make of Susan Tyrell in a brief but bizarre role as a bartender. B

99 & 44/100% Pure Horror: Say what? Is this an episode or a wi-fi password? It's actually a play on an old advertising slogan for soap, which makes sense for a story about a wimpy executive (Bruce Davison) who runs a soap company and his spoiled bitch wife (Cristi Conaway) who designs the advertising. When the Board of Directors decides they want to go in a new direction, he's forced to fire her and I think we've gone through enough of these episodes to know what's coming. Still, there's a fantastic payoff, but gory and darkly humorous. Meanwhile, the Cryptkeeper is training himself for the "Diecathlon." B

You, Murderer: Like the comic it was based on, the season finale is shot entirely in first person. Director Robert Zemeckis changes the protagonist to a criminal who, to elude the police, had plastic surgery to make himself look like Humphrey Bogart. Although he had been dead for over a decade, Bogart shows up for a few shots via manipulated archive footage, the same technology that Zemeckis had recently pioneered in Forrest Gump (which the Cryptkeeper makes fun of in the intro). The director attracted an excellent cast that includes John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini and Sherilynn Fenn. It's a gimmick in search of a story, but it's nice to see some true ambition in a season where that often felt lacking. B+

That's all for this year, kiddies! Join us next October for the final season!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Tales From the Crypt: Season Six, Part One

Hello kiddies! We all know October is the best month. Beautiful foliage, seasonal festivals, apple crisp...and for the purposes of this blog, Tales From the Crypt! Let's get right into it.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime: Catherine O'Hara plays an amoral attorney who gets arrested in a backwater town for a dispute over her license plate. With the help of her hapless public defender (Peter MacNicol with a ridiculous wig) she hopes to beat the rap because the sentencing in this town is very harsh. "Cruel and unusual" doesn't even begin to describe it. It's an irreverent take on crime and punishment that, because it's the 1990s, shoehorns in a reference to frivolous lawsuits. Thankfully, the infamous McDonalds hot coffee suit isn't mentioned. B

Only Skin Deep: Not to be confused with "Only Sin Deep" from Season One, this is the story of a serial abuser named Carl (Peter Onorati) who meets a masked woman (Sherrie Rose) at a party. He ignores all the red flags, including that she's in no hurry to take off the mask. You can probably already see where this one is going, but Carl is such a bastard that the audience is very excited for him to get what he deserves. Rose gives her character a nice spooky edge that sets the whole mood. B+

Whirlpool: Frequent Stephen King collaborator Mick Garris directs this meta episode, which unfolds mostly in the offices of EC Comics in the 1950s. After submitting a subpar story for Tales From the Crypt, the writer (Rita Rudner) is fired by her tyrannical boss (Richard Lewis) and finds herself in a weird time loop. It's a quick and entertaining half hour but it doesn't really make much sense. Is there any connection between the Groundhog Day stuff and the comics? Doesn't seem like it. I would have rather seen more of the Cryptkeeper getting frustrated during a house renovation and installing "scare conditioning." C+

Operation Friendship: Tate Donovan plays a meek programmer named Nelson who even gets pushed around by his hyperactive imaginary friend Eddie (Peter Dobson). As the phantom interferes with Nelson's romance with a psychologist (Michelle Rene Thomas), the first half of this episode feels like a totally different show. But then we get an idea of just how evil Eddie actually is. It's all pretty interesting if you try and determine exactly what's going on in Nelson's head, but despite having a psychologist character the episode isn't at all interested in that perspective. B-

Revenge is the Nuts: A facility for the blind is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless tyrant (Anthony Zebre) who plays cruel games with the residents, even rolling marbles down the hallway when they're trying to walk. The group of blind protagonists (including Teri Polo and Isaac Hayes, who naturally gets to make a Shaft joke) is finally pushed too far and some righteous revenge follows. It's a good episode with interesting ambiance that casts most of the proceedings in an eerie dark blue light, but these more grounded tales of vengeance are getting a little old. Hopefully we'll get some more monsters at some point, that would really be "the nuts." B

The Bribe: Terry "The Stepfather" O'Quinn plays a straight-laced fire marshal with a grudge against the strip club that once employed his daughter (Kimberly Williams). He dismisses their bribery attempts but when that same daughter badly needs money, he heads down a dark path. It's well-acted and well-shot with a sensational double twist ending that is classic EC Comics. The Cryptkeeper begins this episode by doing a pretty good impression of Richard Nixon. I'd be curious to hear his Trump impression, although if we're being honest, he looks more like Kellyanne Conway. B+

The Pit: A dumb but somewhat amusing riff on Bloodsport. Mark Dacascos and Stoney Jackson play cage fighters who are constantly harangued by their showbiz girlfriends (Debbe Dunning and Marjean Holden) who were once fighters themselves. The guys are friendly rivals but the girls absolutely hate each other. So once they're roped into a "Malaysian death match," they wonder if maybe the women ought to be doing the fighting. The actual fight scenes are quite good (not something I thought I would say about a Tales from the Crypt episode) so it's strange that the finale is left unresolved. The episode doesn't so much end as simply run out of time. B-

The Assassin: Of the EC Comics stories I'm familiar with, this is not one I imagined would work for an episode. It's told entirely in first person narration and is essentially one scene. The writers must have agreed and so they wrote a completely different story while holding on to the name. It didn't turn out so well. In this version, a crew of asshole FBI agents barges into the home of a housewife (Shelley Hack) and are convinced her husband is actually a deadly assassin. It's a total mess with a twist that's easy to see coming (and far worse than the one in the comic). At least it gives Cam Clarke a chance to do another uncredited voice over so that's something. Maybe it was all because the Cryptkeeper was distracted, as the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) turns up at his tomb. "He drinks all my liquor and all he talks about is himself!" D+

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Horror of War

There are times where a few different things come to my attention at once that all have a similar theme. In the last month or two, it's been World War I, the subject of both a new Sabaton album called The Great War and the excellent book Wasteland, which connects the early days of horror films to the trauma inflicted by the war.

Sabaton, who have made a career out of translating epic historical events to heavy metal songs, seem ambivalent about World War I. The album is a mix of darker songs about battlefield terrors and upbeat tales of war heroes like Sgt. Alvin York, T.E. Lawrence of Arabia and Francis Pegahmagabow. It's understandable. Unlike World War II, where the sheer villainy of Hitler and the Nazis made it easy to place the conflict in the context of good vs. evil, there was nothing particularly noble about World War I. It began when Serbian terrorists assassinated a visiting archduke from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the two nations went to war, both of them guilt-tripping allied nations into joining in. Four years later, 20 million people were dead and the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires had all fallen.

The "war to end all wars" label was pitifully inaccurate, with WWI being immediately followed by years of brutal regional conflicts and another world war twenty years later. Even today's violence in the Middle East has roots in the Great War. With the Ottoman Empire gone, the region's future was uncertain. Lawrence of Arabia, who spent years in the region and understood the tension between the various ethnic identities, tried to convince his superiors that allowing the Arabs to decide their own future was the best choice. They ignored him and instead drew lines on a map that they felt protected their interests, remaking the region with no consideration of how the people who actually lived there felt. There's been unrest there ever since.

Wasteland isn't really about the politics of the war. It doesn't need to be. Frankly, just the sobering descriptions of how it destroyed so many lives are a strong enough statement. Deadly inventions like tanks, mustard gas and machine guns made their first appearance, destroying the human body in ways that were unthinkable. Cinema was in its infancy during this period and the book demonstrates how this carnage came to be symbolized in scary movies in ways that are still used today. Lon Chaney's famous makeup in The Phantom of the Opera was so horrifying to audiences in part because it resembled the maimed faces of returning veterans. The remorseless machine that runs the city in Fritz Lang's Metropolis was an effective stand-in for the machines of war that had scattered so many soldiers across the landscape with little effort. There are many more examples. Horror (in all its incarnations, not just movies) has always been a strange part of the grieving process that follows calamitous events. In public we eulogize, we make pledges to do better, we build monuments and lay wreaths. But the darker feelings like terror, despair and frustrated rage, the ones that we keep to ourselves for the sake of other people's comfort, need somewhere to go.

Here's an excerpt that I wish I could read out loud to everyone I know, but this will have to do. Slight edits for clarity.

"Horror did not begin with the Great War, although the sheer weight of diabolical celluloid unleashed on the world after 1918 makes it seem like it did. However, something did change after Passchendaele, Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. On a geopolitical scale, the world would not suddenly be set right...the world changed and so what frightened us changed. Horror became our fundamental approach to the world. Too much death and suffering, on a scale unimagined before, unhinged us. The piles of bodies, an entire generation wiped out, could not be forgotten. Much of the entertainment we consume - romantic comedy, action, superheroes - are efforts to hide from these realities. Horror, even at its most escapist, brings us to the edges of the last century's wastelands.

The malignant, festering wound of the Great War holds our attention still. Like a series of images in a nightmare detached from sensibility and chronology, the smoke, mud, blood and dismembered bodies of the trenches flicker behind the images of our films, the color and tone of our art, and the need to read books that unsettle us deep into the night. The horror that has come to nest in the center of our culture grew out of this history. It's a horror that paralyzes us like a night terror even as it has become part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry.

The corpses in the wasteland of past and present haunt us...we cannot awaken from history."

The controversial horror comics of the 1950s have a similar relationship to World War II. The atomic bomb and Godzilla. Vietnam and racial violence of the 1950s and 60s were reflected in Night of the Living Dead and a golden age of horror that lasted for the next decade. The torture-themed horror of the mid-2000s and Abu Ghraib. Even something as noxious as A Serbian Film is a product of barbaric war crimes perpetrated against civilians in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Pennywise the Clown is back for an era in history where the President of the United States is a psychopathic clown determined to hurt children. Okay, maybe that one is a stretch but you can bet our current national mood of Nazi nostalgia and concentration camps for kids is going to produce some truly ghastly movies in a few years.

People often say "Why do we need horror? The real world is scary enough!" Yes, that's the point. A generation of Europeans saw their homeland bombed into smoking mud pits full of corpses. You can't fix that with yoga and positive thinking. It needs to be processed. It needs to be reckoned with, even if the creators and/or the audience aren't totally aware of the connection. So if the movies still bother you, you should probably tell real life to take it down a notch.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Sometimes, Books Are Better

The scariest thing in the world is not a serial killer, zombies or a demonic clown. It's losing someone you love. Stephen King knows this and that's why Pet Sematary is the most heartbreaking and terrifying book he's ever written.

(Spoilers - you can't really talk about a book like this without them)

I. The Book

After I was finished with It (which I have already written a great deal about), I was eager to read some of King's other work and Pet Sematary was a title I had heard often. While only about one third of the length of that doorstopper, Pet Sematary has an even more profound emotional impact. There were times when I stopped mid-paragraph just to marvel at the power of what I was reading. I guess you could say it resonated on a personal level, but in theory it would resonate with anyone who feared the death of their loved ones. It's a great book that I'll probably never be able to read again.

A doctor named Louis Creed moves to rural Maine with his wife Rachel and his two children, Ellie and Gage. They look like an ideal family but both parents are struggling. Louis is having visions of a young man who died during his first week at work and Rachel has spent her adult life dealing with the trauma about her older sister Zelda, who died of spinal meningitis. Their new neighbor is a kindly older man named Jud Crandall and when Louis saves his wife after she has a heart attack, Jud wonders how to repay him. He gets his chance when the family cat Church is run over by a car on the busy road in front of their house. There's an old cemetery where kids have buried their lost pets (spelled "sematary" of course) and in one special area, animals can be returned to life. Church is resurrected and the kids are none the wiser, even though the cat is acting a lot less friendly.

So a surly cat doesn't sound all that scary, but what happens if a person is buried there? The horrible temptation presents itself when Gage is killed by a truck. The aftermath and funeral are given much attention which does a lot to establish Louis's fragile state of mind. Jud knows what he's thinking and warns him against it, sharing stories about other people who tried to resurrect family members with nightmarish results. But grief gets the better of Louis and Gage returns as a murderous little abomination. By the end of the book, Louis has gone completely insane and his own death is imminent. A lot of King's novels have a bittersweet ending but not this one. He twists the knife in every way possible and it's pure horror.

I think it works so well because it tells a truth that is rarely spoken aloud. Think about how movies typically portray grief. People are sad but a main character won't give up. How many times have you seen a movie or a TV show where someone grieving goes back into work earlier than expected? The co-workers whisper to each other and the boss brings them into the office and tells them they can take more time off if they need it. But the character will say they "just need to work." How American is that, huh? "Get this grieving stuff out of your system so you can start making us money again." And sure, this does work for some people. But I respect this book a lot for having the guts to say that there are some tragedies that are so terrible that things will never be okay. It's a scary thought, but it's reality.

The story goes that Stephen King finished this book and was so horrified by what he had written that he didn't think it should be published. He tucked it into a drawer and only took it out again when he was falling behind on his contractual obligations. It makes one wonder if there are other tales hidden away...

II. Pet Sematary (1989)

The first cycle of movies based on Stephen King books was already in full swing by the time Pet Sematary was published in 1983(we're in the midst of another one now). The first movie came out six years later and it has its share of fans. There's even a straight to video documentary about its production - I've seen it and it's pretty enjoyable considering I don't like the movie. While it may be a decent horror film on its own, I don't think it's a good adaptation of the novel and I've heard from other readers who felt the same.

To be fair, it has a few things going for it. Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall was brilliant casting. I have family in Northern Maine and I've met dozens of people who look and sound almost just like him. He's the best part of the movie by a long shot. The makeup effects are also very good, with the Zelda scenes in particular being especially frightening. The song by the Ramones that plays during the end credits is delightful...if completely inappropriate.

In fact, that's the whole problem with this movie. I love 80s horror but this is too much of a typical 80s horror movie for this material. It just doesn't feel...serious. Some of the most emotional moments from the book are rushed and silly. While it doesn't shy away from the dark plot points, much of the impact is just not there. Take the final confrontation between Louis and the evil resurrected Gage. In the midst of this brutal denouement, Louis takes a moment to tell the aggressive Church to "fuck off, furball."

Wow. All that's missing is Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing the cat away with a shotgun and quipping "De cat will NAT come back de very next day."

I was pissed off the first time I saw this movie. As the years have gone by, I've come to a more measured opinion of it. It definitely could have been worse. Still, I really hoped for a remake that would get it right. And then last year I heard there was one on the way.

III. Pet Sematary (2019)

On the whole, I would say this one is a mild improvement. The gloomy atmosphere is closer to the mood of the book and there is welcome attention to Louis's character arc, the man of science who thinks he's comfortable with the idea of death but seeks a mystical solution as soon as death hits home. The evil burial ground itself is a hell of a lot creepier looking, almost like something out of a German silent film. John Lithgow plays Jud Crandall more subtle, which is more in tune with the overall film but I missed the accent.

The first half is really very good and I was all set to come back here and write about how impressed I was. But then the second half started to go off in an ill-advised direction. In an interesting change, it's Ellie rather than Gage who gets killed. This itself was not a deal-breaker even though I think it was mostly done for practical reasons (i.e. not wanting to go through the hassle of trying to get a toddler to cooperate for the camera). But things continue to diverge from the novel up until the ending, where the entire family is dead and resurrected. On the surface, it sounds darker but it really isn't. I'll explain that in a minute.

The film is done mostly in the Blumhouse style where every scary sight needs to be punctuated by a loud metallic noise. I can't really blame that on the other movies of this era, not when so many outstanding horror films have been made in the past several years. It Follows didn't need any of this banging noise shit. Yet despite how grim and bloody the movie is, it is reluctant to fully embrace the emotional horror of its source. The actual scene where Ellie dies hits hard, as it should. But the movie clearly isn't comfortable sitting with that tragedy for long. The new ending seems to be a way to soften the blow, perhaps unintentionally. The family may be undead abominations but at least they're together. That's not nearly as scary as going on alone.

It's the same instinct that made Stephen King initially hide the book away. The thought that the public just can't handle the reality of a devastating loss like this. In the movie business when millions of dollars are on the line, this reluctance is even more pronounced. I think the popularity of the book shows that we can handle the truth (sorry, Colonel Jessup). I'm not sure a big studio movie will be able to really capture this book, but it's always interesting to watch them try.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Oscars 2019 Educated Guesses

A love/hate relationship is inevitable when you follow the Oscars year after year, but lately it looks like these feelings are also held by the Academy itself.

It's like the Oscars are embarrassed by themselves. But not because of the La La Land/Moonlight debacle or giving Best Picture to The English Patient. They've gotten themselves upset that the show remains a fairly niche event and not the inescapable cultural juggernaut that the Superbowl is. On one level, I get it. I gave up talking about the Oscars with people I didn't completely trust, just because I found it discouraging to keep hearing person after person tell me they don't care about the Oscars. If I did that every time someone mentioned sports to me, I'd never have time to talk about anything else. Unlike the wise decision to expand the list of Best Picture nominees from five to between five and ten depending on enthusiasm, this year's proposed changes were disastrously ill-advised.

First there was the suggestion to create a "Best Popular Film" category, which was a demonstration of the exact type of snobbery they were worried about exhibiting. If they took the time to fairly evaluate films from genres more popular than "biography of famous artist" and "tone-deaf drama about race," they would find plenty that deserved a nomination. And honestly, they needn't have worried. Last year, Get Out was the first horror film in 20 years to be up for Best Picture and this year Black Panther is the first superhero movie to ever compete for that honor. Expanding Best Picture mostly did its job when it came to this issue so chill. After a backlash, they decided to scrap this idea.

Even dumber was the idea of removing some categories from the live broadcast altogether. Best Cinematography and Best Editing might not have much drama from year to year but the idea of excluding them from an event about movies just boggles the mind. It was borne out of concern about the long length of the show, which indeed never ends on time. After another backlash, they decided to scrap this idea. But if you're worried about the length, you have options. Every year there's a handful of "magic of the movies" montages that are hardly essential. There's also at least one gimmicky song or dance number paying homage to some past classic. One year they had this Sound of Music tribute that was like 10 minutes long. I understand that movie is classic but was that really the best use of time?

Or here's another idea. Maybe just accept that the Oscars are long, they will always be long and that people who are interested will watch anyway. Nobody cares if the Superbowl goes into overtime, so stop worrying about whether this once a year event is cutting into the midnight weather report. And if you want one more suggestion to save time, maybe don't have a host. Oh wait, they're already doing that. It's for the best. Hosting the Oscars is one of the most thankless jobs ever, the person gets shit on by the media every year without fail so yeah let's drop that.

On that note, people may wonder how political the Oscars will be this year. Honestly, I don't think there will be much of that because you don't need to be dramatic to make a point anymore. We don't need a Michael Moore-esque broadside because we're in this strange era of American history where any assertion that people should be kind to each other is implicitly taken as a rebuke to Orange Caligula. There will be people endorsing empathy. Someone will say we need to build bridges and not walls. Probably nothing stronger than that since it doesn't do much good anyway. We can chase a comedian off Twitter for making racist jokes but we can't get a psychotic racist maniac out of the White House. Oh well, what's nominated this year?

Best Animated Feature
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Who Will Win: Normally you bet on the Pixar movie in this category. However, The Incredibles 2 doesn't have the same magic as the original and there's another movie that's been racking up other awards. Into the Spider-Verse went way beyond expectations and is light years ahead of the last several Spider-Man films. Isle of Dogs could be a contender since the voters typically like stop-motion films but it came out almost a full year ago. Ironically, it looks like the first Marvel superhero movie to win a major Oscar is one not even made by Marvel Studios (Sony has retained some of the rights to the character and has been busy with spin-offs, including the much less acclaimed Venom.)

My Choice: This was not a particularly great year for animation, so the standout is clear. Into the Spider-Verse had a striking visual design that looked like comic book art rendered in 3-D, along with an exciting and well-paced story. Definitely the strongest of the bunch.

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons

Who Will Win: The biggest shock of this year's nominations was not in Best Picture or any of the acting categories. It was the absence of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. All of us who follow this stuff thought it would win easily but now it's a close two-way race between RBG and Free Solo. While they didn't break out the same way, both of these were fairly popular in their own right. It could go either way, but my sense is that RBG has gotten this far because of affection for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rather than the quality of the movie itself. Meanwhile, Free Solo captures the beautiful backdrop of Yosemite National Park and El Capitan with impressive artistry. This is a crowd receptive to strong cinematic technique and that will likely decide the race.

My Choice: Ginsburg is a national treasure but RBG is only a so-so documentary. There are moments so fawning that I wondered if it was made for the judge herself rather than a mass audience. I'd totally go with Free Solo. Everyone makes a big deal out of Tom Cruise doing supervised stunts in the Mission: Impossible movies but try climbing a 3,000 foot cliff without ropes or safety gear.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk
Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters for A Star is Born

Who Will Win: I don't think Black Klansman will go home empty-handed and this is the best chance for a win. Spike Lee and the others started with the memoirs of the real "black klansman" Ron Stallworth and nicely integrated it with interesting moments that don't initially feel like they belong but contribute to a striking overall picture of the cyclical nature of racial violence in America. Whether it's the KKK's terrorist activities in the 1970s, a monologue about the violence following the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, or the concluding footage of the Charlottesville riots, the awful truth about the United States becomes inescapable. If Lee manages to get up to the mic at any point during the night, he'll make sure everyone knows what he was getting at.

My Choice: Black Klansman was one of my favorite movies of the year and I'd enjoy seeing it win. Would also be happy for Barry Jenkins since If Beale Street Could Talk deserved more nominations.

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for The Favourite
Paul Schrader for First Reformed
Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly for Green Book
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Adam McKay for Vice

Who Will Win:
Green Book could pull it off, but that's a middlebrow movie in a typically highbrow category. I think the voters will go with The Favourite, which mixes layered commentary on power and class conflict with profane one-liners that make it feel like an episode of "Veep" produced by Merchant Ivory. A long-shot winner is Paul Schrader, the veteran screenwriter and director whose major claim to fame is the script for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. First Reformed was worshiped by critics but not so much by the Academy since this is its only nomination. The Favourite is the f...the one most likely to win.

My Choice: The Favourite is a fine choice. Most of the original screenplays I really liked this year aren't in the lineup.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in Vice
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
Marina de Tavira in Roma
Emma Stone in The Favourite
Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Who Will Win: This one is tough. Regina King won the Golden Globe for her complex performance as a mother trying to keep her future son-in-law out of prison. However, she was left out of the Screen Actors Guild awards which are usually an accurate precursor to the Oscars. Whoever they chose instead might have offered some insight into who would win but instead they gave it to Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place. I think that's an awesome choice but Emily Blunt's not on this list. I'm going with King but it's not a done deal. Amy Adams has never won despite six nominations but Lynne Cheney is the type of role she could do in her sleep. The two Favourite ladies will cancel each other out and are both a mild case of category fraud since there are really three leads in that film. Marina de Tavira is the true wild card as nobody expected her to show up in the nominations. While it's a good indicator of the overall support for Roma, I don't see her winning. So Regina King it is.

My Choice: Emily Blunt? I don't have strong feelings in this case but Regina King was very good and deserves the win.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Green Book
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Sam Elliott for A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell in Vice

Who Will Win: It looks like Mahershala Ali will win his second Oscar in just three years for his performance as the musician Dr. Don Shirley. It could also be an award for handling the various Green Book controversies with grace. The real Dr. Shirley's family loathes the movie but have still said they are rooting for him. A possible dark horse winner is Sam Elliott, a veteran actor who has never actually been nominated until now.

My Choice: There are four great performances in this category...and Sam Rockwell, which is just stupid. Josh Brolin was the superior George W. Bush. Anyway, I'm rooting for Adam Driver. There was a scene in Black Klansman that felt surprisingly personal to me when his character is reflecting on his experiences going undercover in the KKK. He says "I never used to think about being Jewish. Now I think about it all the time." I've felt very similar about my Polish background this year for various personal reasons. The scene still haunts me. I hope it's the clip shown when they're reading off the nominees.

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Glenn Close in The Wife
Olivia Colman in The Favourite
Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Who Will Win: No actor has as many nominations without any wins as Glenn Close, who is on number seven this year. That should change this year and Amy Adams will probably wind up breaking her old record soon enough. Originally, people thought Lady Gaga was going to win but they may have realized that playing a young woman who suddenly becomes a world-famous singer isn't exactly a stretch for her. Besides, she's guaranteed to take home the Oscar for Best Song. Then Close had a pretty epic Golden Globes speech and seemed to seal the deal. Her toughest competition is Olivia Colman, who gave the best performance in a movie full of very good acting.

My Choice: Maybe I just like underdogs, but I would love to see a win for Yalitza Aparicio, the preschool teacher who is now nominated for her first role as the put-upon housekeeper in Roma. These other nominees have plenty of experience with award shows but it just seems so much more special for someone who is a true outsider. But Glenn Close has the "overdue" narrative on her side, which is just about impossible to beat.

Best Actor
Christian Bale in Vice
Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen in Green Book

Who Will Win: Is Bohemian Rhapsody the real life? Nah, it's mostly just fantasy. But the other nominees are going to get caught in a Rami Malek landslide, no escape from reality. The success Malek has enjoyed so far is surprising given the controversy surrounding the film. In what is becoming a distressingly common new awards season trope, a damning expose about years of sexual assault and manipulation committed by the director Bryan Singer dropped right around the time Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. The publicity campaign has decided to just pretend the film directed itself out of thin air, but the reports that Malek feuded with Singer during production actually seem to be working in his favor. The only real competition is Christian Bale, who underwent one of his signature physical transformations to play Dick Cheney. An actor playing a villain hasn't won this category since Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood and in this case, I think the Oscar voters would prefer to honor Freddy Mercury rather than try and stick it to Cheney by giving Bale another chance to call him "Satan" on live television. But if they're feeling salty, who knows?

My Choice: I hope that Willem Dafoe eventually gets a role that he can win for. But for this year, I was pretty amazed by what Christian Bale and his makeup team pulled off. He honestly looked exactly like Cheney and even though the movie obviously thinks little of the former vice president, Bale managed to show a little bit of humanity perhaps in spite of himself.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Adam McKay for Vice
Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War

Who Will Win: The newer members of the Academy are really flexing their muscles in this category, which passed over some highly favored American directors for arthouse Europeans like Lanthimos and Pawlikowski. However, the story here is the continuing domination of Mexican directors in this category. Hollywood still loves Cuaron and his impressive long takes, giving him the telltale Director's Guild win that foreshadows a second Oscar for Best Director. You'll likely be seeing Cuaron a lot during the evening as he's also nominated for Cinematography and Foreign Language Film. Mexicans have won this category in five out of the last six years, which is as good a reason as any to stop talking shit about immigrants.

My Choice:
Alfonso Cuaron is great but Spike Lee is overdue. He hasn't been able to achieve that inevitability which will help Glenn Close. There must be some reason. Oh, it's because this is his first nomination. Sure, that must be it. He's been stuck with the reductive "angry black man" label for most of his career when his best work (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour and more) is much more versatile, combining snappy dialogue with righteous moral clarity. If he did win, it would probably be enough to elevate Black Klansman to Best Picture (like with Scorsese and The Departed in 2006). Maybe he should do some more long takes.

Best Picture
Black Klansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
A Star is Born

Who Will Win: I've had some trouble with this category for the last few years. It's been tough to predict how the influx of new members into the Academy changes the usual patterns. In hindsight, the Best Picture nominees have reflected the clashing tastes of the old voters and the younger, more diverse voters. It's this tension that leads to a weird movie like The Shape of Water actually being a consensus winner. It's also become quite clear that a significant controversy is much more of a deal-breaker than it used to be.

On that note, we can rule out a few nominees right away. The Academy may enjoy Rami Malek's performance, but Bryan Singer is still way too toxic for Bohemian Rhapsody to have any shot at the win. Green Book is also likely to be undone by the various controversies. It would have been unbeatable in the 1980s or 90s but it's become harder to reconcile the optimistic outlook of movies like this with the real world. Vice is also much too polarizing to manage a win.

Moving on to the upper tier. There was all sorts of Oscar talk for A Star is Born when it first opened but voters seem to have decided that it's a well-made drama and not much more. Black Panther's nomination is the happy ending to a story that began ten years ago when The Dark Knight's absence from this category sparked a backlash so intense that the Academy moved beyond the usual five films approach. It's been nice to see but the movie won't win. The Favourite has its champions but in the end it's probably a little too caustic and skeevy for Best Picture. Like I said earlier, Black Klansman could have had a real shot if Spike Lee was going to win Best Director but it doesn't seem to be his year.

So that leaves us with Roma. It's quite unusual for the consensus pick to be a Netflix-released black and white movie that's entirely in Spanish, but that's where we are. Nobody really expected it to get this far but when the nominations came out there were some surprises (Marina de Tavira being the biggest one) that made it clear there was wide support for the movie. Watching it is a memorable experience - the first hour is naturalistic to the point of boredom but it turns out you're being set up for the kill. The second half is a potent series of unforgettable, intense sequences that can turn a viewer into a sobbing mess. Enough emotional power can help someone get over the anomaly of giving Best Picture to a film on a streaming service or that's also nominated in the Foreign Language Film category. It might very well win both, which would certainly be a first.

My Choice: Black Klansman > Roma > Black Panther > The Favourite > A Star is Born > Green Book > Bohemian Rhapsody > Vice. I suspect I've said enough about Black Klansman that summarizes why I would like to see it win. It's wishful thinking at this point so I'll add some more - I'd like to see the Oscars at peace with themselves. We'll all have our complaints (I'm going to be pissed off about The Act of Killing's loss for at least another decade) but they've honestly tried to do better and we're seeing the results each year. Don't skip categories, don't add stupid new Appease the Plebs categories, yourself.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The 4th Annual Perfect World Awards

Time for another round of my alternative Oscar nominations. I typically try to get this done the day before the real ones come out, but I almost forgot this year and am now typing faster than a thin-skinned bro after watching a commercial for razors. I hope you can forgive the self-indulgence of this whole thing but it really is a fun little activity. You should try it!

Best Picture
Black Klansman
Cold Hell
Eighth Grade
The Hate U Give
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Quiet Place
Scream For Me Sarajevo

Plausibility: Black Klansman is the only sure thing. If Beale Street Could Talk has a good shot too. Eighth Grade would be a surprise but it could happen. Annihilation certainly had good enough reviews but is probably too out there for the Oscars, who prefer their science-fiction to be light on the fiction. Believe it or not, some pundits are predicting A Quiet Place makes it in. That'd be cool but I'll believe it when I see it. The lack of awards attention for a powerful drama like The Hate U Give is just baffling. Blindspotting deserves a nomination but its release was just too small. Documentaries never show up in Best Picture, but if someone were to adapt the powerful story of Scream for Me Sarajevo into a narrative feature it might do pretty well. If you saw my top ten, then you know my choice would be Cold Hell, a roller-coaster ride with an incredibly relevant story. Not gonna happen, it would have to at least get a Blu-ray release first.

Best Director
Panos Cosmatos for Mandy
Alex Garland for Annihilation
Tarik Hodzik for Scream For Me Sarajevo
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Stefan Ruzowitzky for Cold Hell

Plausibility: You know you've gone out on a limb when the person on your list most likely to get nominated is Spike Lee. He's overdue but there's a case to be made for everyone here. Alex Garland did wonders with a mid-size budget in Annihilation. Tarik Hodzik elegantly shuffled between past and present in Scream For Me Sarajevo. Stefan Ruzowitsky combined the bright colors of the giallo with modern techniques, although he at least already has an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film for The Counterfeiters). When it comes to a singular aesthetic experiences this year, however, I think of Mandy right away. In only his second feature, Cosmatos created a totally unique world for his surreal story to unfold in. Or maybe it's just because so many of the backdrops look like metal album covers.

Best Actor
John Cho in Searching
Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting
Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
David Howard Thornton in Terrifier
John David Washington in Black Klansman

Plausibility: Ah ha ha ha ha! I would pay good money to see the reactions of those old Oscar voters if they actually sat down and watched Terrifier. Even though extreme gore is not everyone's thing, Thornton gave an amazing, completely wordless performance as the unspeakably evil Art the Clown. John Cho should be a no-brainer, but none of the various Oscar controversies have made it any easier for Asian actors to get any respect. Daveed Diggs and Ben Foster were both great in small independent films that will likely be overlooked. The best shot here is John David Washington, son of Denzel and the star of Black Klansman, a movie that's looking to do pretty well tomorrow.

Best Actress
Toni Collette in Hereditary
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher
Violetta Schurawlow in Cold Hell
Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give

Plausibility: I was iffy on Hereditary. The hype was just out of control and mostly based on a single and admittedly shocking scene. The rest of it was pretty familiar stuff, but no demon-worshiping cult is anywhere near as scary as watching Toni Collette's character slip into grief-driven madness. She was incredible and there's been plenty of talk about her breaking into the final five at the Oscars. I suppose it's possible but I have a feeling we're in for a repeat of the whole Essie Davis/Babadook thing. The other one with a feasible shot is Elsie Fisher, who embodied that familiar middle school confusion where you think you should be acting like an adult but you don't really have any idea what that means. Definitely on the bubble but she has a much better chance than the rest. Maggie Gyllenhaal was great but the movie had a small Netflix release (if you're not Roma, this is still a pretty hard sell for the Academy). Amandla Stenberg hasn't shown up in this awards season, maybe because she's been overshadowed by Elsie Fisher and two teenage nominees is unlikely. Violetta Schurawlow kicked all sorts of ass, but (no pun intended) Cold Hell's flicker of a release in the Western Hemisphere, plus being a horror movie, plus being on a streaming service...yeah, you get the idea.

Best Supporting Actor
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk
Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Rich Sommer in Summer of '84

Plausibility: Adam Driver will probably get a nomination. Michael B. Jordan might too if Black Panther gets a wide sweep. A stronger than expected showing for If Beale Street Could Talk would be good news for Brian Tyree Henry, whose character gave a haunting monologue about the indignities of prison life. Rich Sommer as the police officer who may or may not be a murderer is the main reason why Summer of '84 worked. My top choice would be Russell Hornsby as Mav Carter, the charismatic, hotheaded and noble father from The Hate U Give.

Best Supporting Actress
Nadia Alexander in Blame
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place
Shayna McHayle in Support the Girls
Debra Messing in Searching
Gina Rodriguez in Annihilation

Plausibility: Forget Mary Poppins, this was the 2018 Emily Blunt performance that will be remembered. Nobody who saw A Quiet Place will forget the scene where she has to give birth while trying not to make a sound. She just might get nominated too. Everyone else here doesn't have a chance unfortunately. Gina Rodriguez made her character's paranoid meltdown super intense. I didn't know Debra Messing was capable of the type of performance she gave as a police detective in Searching. Nadia Alexander's final scene in her movie was one of the most emotional moments of the year. The biggest mystery might be why Support the Girls, a "dramedy" in tune with modern anxieties, has been shut out of the awards season. They usually love this kind of thing.

That's all for now. I'll be back in a month or so to predict the results of the real (and surely less interesting) nominations.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Top Ten Films of 2018

My self-imposed deadline for these lists is the weekend of the Golden Globes. In the past, I've had a hard time meeting that goal but not so much in the last several years. With more streaming sites popping up eager for "content," many movies that otherwise would have gone straight to obscurity are easily accessible. There were just a lot of movies in general - two movies about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two movies about gay conversion "therapy," horror movies named both Terrifed and Terrifier, two documentaries directed by Morgan Neville that profile creative geniuses, you get the idea. I still didn't manage to see a few of the year-end films - I really wanted to get to If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest film from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, but I just didn't have the means - but there were many other movies to keep me busy.

There are two parallel stories that sum up the movies of 2018. The first is a major influx of films in all different genres that focus on the types of people who rarely get this sort of attention. Most of these films also had directors who knew the experiences depicted in the films firsthand. The activist and social media fueled push for diversity in our entertainment is bearing fruit and if these films are an indication, this is absolutely the path to continue on. The other notable trend is the explosion of independent horror films. I've been talking about this for most of the decade, but this year may have been the peak. This genre is thriving in a way I've never seen. I suppose with all this in mind, it's not a surprise that my top pick is an illustration of both of these developments. Let's get started.

10. A Quiet Place
In this taut and suspenseful horror film, Earth has been overrun by blind, fast-moving creatures that attack anything that makes noise. Krasinski and his real-life spouse Emily Blunt play parents who have managed to survive by communicating in sign language and maintaining almost compete silence in their home. The mother is also pregnant, which is borderline suicidal given how noisy infants are. The long stretches of quiet make any sudden noise into its own special type of jump scare and the tension reaches a fever pitch when the creatures invade the home just as she is about to give birth (Blunt’s performance is seriously intense). In addition to being very frightening, the attention to the relationships between the parents and children (especially the deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds) adds a layer of affecting drama. The cinematography and sound design are also top notch.

9. Free Solo
It would be difficult to find a movie with a more arresting opening shot than Free Solo. A downward view of El Capitan, the towering 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, with one man hanging precariously without any ropes or safety gear. This hit documentary follows professional climber Alex Honnold as he trains for years before attempting to climb El Capitan in the absurdly dangerous “free solo” style. The directors put a lot of effort into profiling the eccentric Honnold while still keeping the focus on the impending climb and reckoning with the chance that they might be inadvertently making a snuff film. The knowledge that Honnold completed his climb (there wouldn’t be a movie if he hadn’t) is easy to forget during the final ascent, which looks so difficult it’s almost beyond comprehension. Along the way there is also plenty of beautiful footage of Yosemite, an area that can outdo any computer-generated landscape in terms of grandeur.

8. Mandy
An otherwise familiar revenge tale is rendered in vivid colors and powerful imagery. In the year 1983, woodsman Red Miller (Nicolas Cage, giving his best performance in who knows how long) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have found a peaceful life in rural California. When a bizarre cult led by a failed musician (Linus Roache, giving the strangest performance in a movie full of them) upends their lives, Red begins to hunt them all down. The trance-like pacing and droning soundtrack owe a lot to David Lynch, but Lynch never made a movie where a man fights demonic bikers with a steel battle axe. This one has divided audiences but I found the wild production design and unique tone to be absorbing and quite satisfying to watch. 80s character actor Bill Duke has a cameo.

7. The Hate U Give
The late Roger Ebert once described movies as "a machine that generates empathy." This is especially true in the case of this drama, although the people that most need to see it probably won't. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in two worlds - her poor black neighborhood and a posh private school. The boundary between those separate lives collapses after she witnesses her childhood friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer. She is reluctant to take on the system but the callousness and bigotry illuminated by the shooting pushes her into activism. It’s a movie of immense emotional power and honesty and despite the countless real-life examples that give context to the story, only one or two scenes ever feel forced (there's one conversation in particular that feels like it was cut and pasted from a social media argument but it's easily forgiven). Stenberg guides her character through a fully realized arc and leads a large cast of interesting characters. Russell Hornsby is particularly good as Starr’s hot-tempered, righteous father.

6. Eighth Grade
For most people, eighth grade is their first experience with fascism. Kayla (an exceptional performance from Elsie Fisher) only has to get through one more week but it won’t be easy. She is kind and intelligent but has been cowed by the daily abuse from her classmates, using her spare time to post videos of herself giving the sort of advice that she rarely takes. Her doting father (Josh Hamilton) tries his best to communicate with her but he can’t do much to help Kayla deal with the pint-sized brownshirts. Times and technology may change, but adolescence is still a hellish time where kids are constantly seeking the approval of peers who will either ignore them or dump shame and humiliation on them. It’s not the first film to explore this difficult time, but it’s one of the better ones thanks to the authentic performances from the teen actors and the distinctive synth soundtrack.

5. Blindspotting
A movie stuffed with heavy themes about gentrification and identity that still manages to be frequently hilarious and entertaining. Daveed Diggs gives a charismatic lead performance as Collin, who is on probation following a year in prison (he got into a fight with a hipster and accidentally set him on fire). With his probation almost over, Collin tries his best to stay out of trouble despite witnessing a police officer shooting a fleeing black man and the antics of his loose cannon best friend Miles (Rafael Casal). The real-life friends Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay based on their own lives growing up in Oakland, which is becoming a very different place than they remember. It’s funny, involving and bursting with life as the two leads interact with a variety of interesting characters (Wayne Knight as a nerdy artist, and Utkarsh Ambudkar who hilariously recalls the incident that got Collin thrown in jail) and occasionally busting out improvised rap verses. There’s real anger about police violence and gentrification in this film but it balances the social commentary with buddy comedy for a very effective result.

4. Black Klansman
Yes, I know there is an extra "k" wedged in there but that makes my eyes hurt so I'm leaving it out. Gimmicky title notwithstanding, this simultaneously rollicking and sobering movie draws sharp parallels between the 1970s and the 2010s. Spike Lee hadn’t changed his approach much in the 30 years since he made Do The Right Thing, one of the definitive films about race in America. However, the culture at large has gone back and forth in terms of how his work has been received. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, America had convinced itself that we had come far enough on race issues that we didn't need a confrontational filmmaker like Lee. Better to explore the problem with subtler, more even-handed dramas. That didn't work out. Overt racism has enjoyed such a resurgence that Lee was sorely needed and we ought to be grateful he's still willing to bring the fight. Based in part on a true story, detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in order to expose their violent plans. However, as Stallworth is black he needs Jewish officer “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover in his place. Lee doesn't get enough credit for how fun and entertaining his films can be, but he still doesn’t let the audience off easy and concludes the film with footage from the instantly notorious Charlottesville white supremacist rally of 2017. Progressive film buffs will also appreciate a righteous takedown of the vile silent film Birth of a Nation. On a more personal note, I am greatly looking forward to seeing people try and pronounce "BlackKklansman" at awards shows.

3. Annihilation
A hypnotic, visually stunning film that takes the premise of H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Colour out of Space" and expands it into a very ambitious film that leaves viewers pondering the weighty matters of life. Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is shocked when her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns after being presumed dead for a year, following an investigation into a bizarre environment created by a meteor impact. Lena and a team of other scientists end up exploring the place themselves and what lies within is best left unspoiled for those who haven’t seen it. The production design owes a great deal to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, although generally more engaging and with a wider variety of moods - for example, this is not a horror film but has one of the absolute scariest scenes of the year. The truth of the “shimmer” evokes the reality that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, our own world (and us with it) will change beyond recognition. The gravity of the story and the wondrous images the filmmakers created with a mid-tier budget make this an unforgettable experience to watch.

2. Scream For Me Sarajevo
I may get accused of bias, but this moving documentary gives a triumphant example of how powerful music can be in the right circumstances. After the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the city of Sarajevo was besieged by Serbian soldiers for years. In 1994, two United Nations personnel in the city invited Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson (who was estranged from the band at the time and releasing material with different musicians) to perform. Dickinson accepted, not totally understanding that this was one of the most dangerous places in the world during those years. The concert may have inspired the film, but Dickinson doesn't even appear on camera until about a half hour in. This is foremost the story of the people of Sarajevo who lived through Hell and found a true light in the darkness at a metal concert, if only for one night. The director Tarik Hodsik elegantly shifts between past and present and while there are harrowing stories told in the interviews, the film ultimately ends on a triumphant note as Dickinson returns to the city over 20 years later and the participants reunite and marvel at what they managed to survive. It's highly emotional, with just about everyone who gets interviewed fighting off tears at one point or another. A story like this can appeal to anyone, but those who enjoy this sort of music will find the experience of watching this film almost transcendent. If you've ever cried listening to "Tears of the Dragon," just wait until you see the final scene.

1. Cold Hell
A serial killer targeting Muslim women stalks the streets of Vienna, Austria. Ozge (Violetta Schurawlow), a taxi driver of Turkish descent, witnesses one of his murders and finds herself targeted. However, she’s an aspiring kickboxer with a lot of unresolved anger and will not go down easily. That’s the simple setup of this thrilling movie that delivers exceptional suspense while offering a weighty subtext about how women and minorities (especially people who are both) get treated by the system. With its colorful production design and the occasional use of digital video to add immediacy during the action scenes, the movie is like an Italian giallo shot by Micheal Mann. Schurawlow is awesome in the lead role, turning Ozge into a heroine the audience cheers for even though she acts like a surly grouch most of the time. Given how great this film is, I really wish it was easier to see. It's not yet available in America on DVD or Blu-ray and I originally saw it on Shudder, which has quickly become the premiere streaming service for horror fans thanks to savvy acquisitions like this one. In a year full of white guys acting like complete psychopaths over immigration, a movie like this is immensely cathartic. The changes happening in the world can't be stopped and if you can't deal with that and keep acting out, not everyone will put up with it forever.

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
12. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead
13. Searching
14. Roma
15. Sorry to Bother You
16. Leave No Trace
17. Black Panther
18. Support the Girls
19. Blame
20. Terrifier

Happy 2019, everyone. Well, I'd honestly settle for just a decent 2019 at this point.