Halfway through, it’s obvious that this year has so far been a trove of genre filmmaking. Looking at the list our writers have voted as the Best Movies of 2018 (So Far), it’s clear that things have changed a bit since our last go at this. Gone from our list are the big-budget blockbusters like 2017’s Logan and Kong, or even some of the slicker sequels like Alien: Covenant, and in their place we find a host of small horror films, psychological thrillers, and neo-noir (with maybe a cuddly bear thrown in for sanity’s sake). For a film section dubbed ‘Sordid Cinema,’ this is of course a welcome trend, and one we hope continues through December.
It’s also interesting to note that despite a host of sci-fi and superhero movie fans on our staff, some of the biggest ticket sellers of the last six months didn’t make the cut — no Black Panther, no Avengers: Infinity War. We’ll see if that becomes a trend, but in the meantime, if you haven’t seen any of the gems below, please consider giving them a shot — they’re some of the best of 2018!
Editor’s Note: This list is in alphabetical order. While there are plenty of films we wish we could have included, our rules require each movie to have been released theatrically and/or on VOD in 2018. In other words, many of the great films we have seen at film festivals are not eligible.
Alex Garland’s beautiful, uninviting, cold, pulsing journey into the nature of change and destruction is the sleek, streamlined antidote to recent bloated sci-fi. Like the best of the genre, Annihilation is less concerned with giving answers than asking questions, wisely using its time and technology to explore actual humanity instead of the mere facade of it. As former soldier-turned-biology-professor Lena (Natalie Portman) and her squadmates wander deeper into The Shimmer, a patch of swampy forest strangely encased by an opalescent bubble that is continuously expanding, they discover a mutating world full of dazzling beauty and terrible horror — from which no one has returned. Tasked with finding the source of the disturbance (and beholden to their own motivations for accepting the mission), the five women are forced to confront demons from without and within; but what does it all mean?
Like its protagonist, Annihilation offers few explanations willingly. Characters withhold information, often lie, and due to the nature of the phenomenon on display, even what we see can’t always be trusted. It’s certain that there are real psychological issues being tackled here, but what they are is open to interpretation, inspiring the best sorts of post-viewing conversations. Despite occasionally wallowing in its ambiguity, however, the film never loses focus on what’s important, what the real draw is. It knows that even in a story with suspicious meteors, genetic anomalies, and hybrid monsters, humans can still be the strangest, most fascinating creatures on screen.
The rotten dread permeating every aspect of the screenplay is wonderfully reinforced by mesmerizing visuals, but Garland refuses to get lost in them. His direction is consistently inventive, luring audiences in with imagery that entices as much as repulses, but it’s all in service of the characters — not the setting. Still, it’s hard not to be sucked in by such gloriously cinematic compositions, patient editing, and expert use of effects. Add to that a surging, hypnotic score, and you’ve got something that reminds us what makes movies still so special. Tense, captivating, and bold, Annihilation is proof that there’s still life in the sci-fi movie universe. (Patrick Murphy)
It can be hard to see the beauty and good in this world full of filth and depravity, but with blinders on that becomes an even tougher task. Push the universe away enough, and eventually it will push back. Cold Hell (Die Hölle), a taut thriller from director Stefan Ruzowitzky, recognizes that hell may be other people, but it’s also the absence of them — so you better make some friends.
After spending nights ferrying drunken louts around Prague in her taxi cab, fending off insults from macho pigs and evading the leers of sleazy businessmen, it’s easy to see why a Turkish immigrant wants to retreat a bit from society, to fade into the darkness. She is thrust back into the light, however, upon witnessing the results of a grisly murder in the building across from her bathroom window. She does not see the killer’s face, but he sees hers, and so a taut game of creepy cat-and-mouse begins to play out, giving the first half of Cold Hell the feel of a serial killer story where gloom and death lurks around every shadowy corner.
It won’t stay that way for long. Thanks to extensive kickboxing experience and a chip on her shoulder, this young woman knows how to take care of herself, and the latter half of the film becomes more of a tense thriller, awaiting a vengeful confrontation that will surely determine the fate of its hero’s soul. Along the way viewers can check Prague off their travel list, with Ruzowitzky depicting only the grimiest, neon-lit underbellies the city has to offer. Throw in some gruesome murders, and the Czech Republic’s tourist board must have been nervous. To top it off, Cold Hell offers up one of the more satisfying conclusions the genre is capable of, a catharsis worthy of the masterful ticking bomb that precedes it. (Patrick Murphy)
In 2012, the two-man filmmaking machine of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead shot Resolution, a low-budget brain-teaser that few privileged souls saw. But with The Endless, a film that works entirely on its own merits, Benson and Moorhead return to and expand on the world they previously created — and this time, in addition to directing, writing, producing, lensing, and editing, the two also star.
With so much control and involvement, the amount of love these directors have for the process of indie filmmaking is self-evident, but its also obvious on screen. The Endless feels like a film made by people who have fun making films, and for whatever gripes one can summon about the end-product (pretty hard to do), that’s an infectious and commendable quality. (Emmet Duff)
You will be left feeling cold and alone by the time Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, ends. It’s a movie that demands you go back into it and mine beneath the surface, as it’s more than just a man having a conflict of faith — it’s a man holding onto a dark past, coming to terms with a dark future, and contending with a dark present. First Reformed is a deeply moving film that wallows in its moodiness; equally atmospheric and thought provoking, there isn’t much room for joy in Schrader’s misery — just a constant sense of personal insignificance.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his greatest performances ever, and surrounded by a small, dependable cast, he burrows deep into the role of a reverend at odds with his beliefs while hurting himself and trying to guide others through their own troublesome thoughts. Hawke feels barely alive, on the verge of collapse throughout the entirety of First Reformed. Place him up against Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, and there’s a kindness to him that fluctuates between genuine and appeasing to her innocence. Put him next to her significant other, and you feel his powerlessness. Hawke runs the gamut to anchor Schrader’s exploration of despair and eternal sadness.
Schrader tackles heavy subject matter with an importance that could endure for a very long time to come. The damage we do to ourselves can be just as damaging as what we do to our planet, but it takes the love of others to give pause to that damage. And that’s just one of many ways to look at First Reformed — a movie that will undoubtedly reveal more of itself with every viewing. (Christopher Cross)
In a year already brimming with a bevy of solid horror efforts, Hereditary is the film that has garnered the most chatter and discussion by far. Even in a genre as divisive as horror, rarely has there been such a split between audience reaction and critical opinion. Of course, this isn’t necessarily without precedent, as some of A24’s other films (most notably The Witch) have drawn similar divides.
However you view Ari Aster’s directorial debut, one would be hard-pressed to find a more shockingly original horror film in 2018. Focusing on the death of the family matriarch and the ripple effects this event has on her surviving family, Hereditary dives deep almost from the outset. It’s a very deliberately paced film, which can make it frustrating at times, particularly when compared to your average genre fare. Those who are patient will be rewarded with one of the best twists in years and a final half hour so relentless that you’ll find your fingernails digging into your armrest if you’re not careful.
With some truly terrifying analogies to the things that our parents can pass along to us, Hereditary is a deeply unsettling film anchored by some of the best performances of the year, particularly from relative newcomer Alex Wolff and a never-better Toni Collette. You might see a better film in 2018 yet, but this writer doubts you’ll see one that lodges itself so firmly in your mind. (Mike Worby)
Isle of Dogs
Director Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is his second stop-motion animation feature foray, following 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a dexterous play between dark comedy, perilous action, and the suffering caused by power-hungry politicians. When all of the dogs of Nagasaki, Japan are sentenced to be quarantined on Trash Island following an outbreak of dog flu, a little boy named Atari is separated from his beloved guard dog Spots, and soon launches a solo scheme to rescue him. After crash-landing his small plane, a ragtag group of dogs band together to help him find his pet amongst the trash and disease. In doing so they grow closer, battle government corruption, and learn to care for others from different walks of life.
The sterile, minimalistic interiors of the human world versus the grimy, hazardous landscapes that the dogs must traverse because the humans have cast them aside look technically brilliant, along with the meticulous animation of the dogs’ hair blowing in the wind and the subtle emoting of their faces. The straightforward storytelling distracts from the fact that like most Anderson fare, Isle of Dogs succeeds because of the eccentricities that are allowed into character design and dialogue. These merge with the immense talent of the acting ensemble to create a charmingly powerful collaborative force. It doesn’t feel like a tested product cobbled together to grab the attention of a certain audience, but instead matchless output made by some of the best artists working today.
Anderson’s usual suspects (Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban) are buoyed by the addition of Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, and Courtney B. Vance this time around. This storyline isn’t limited to or made strictly for the minds of children — mass casualties, questioning authority, and friendship enduring extreme trials all factor into this absorbing world. Isle of Dogs also speaks to the abuse of the weak and voiceless under repressive regimes, and how resistance is necessary to effect change. The powerful will not police themselves but take all that they can if not checked. The impressive animation intertwined with an acute attention to complex emotions makes for an emotionally and artistically fulfilling film. (Lane Scarberry)
Lowlife is best described as this generation’s Pulp Fiction. Equal parts absurd comedy and surrealist crime thriller, Lowlife is a shocking and often-hilarious story about a beloved luchador named El Monstruo, employed by vicious crime boss Teddy Haynes, who runs his underground crime facility below his fast-food restaurant, harvesting the organs of undocumented immigrants while pimping out underage women. Lowlife is at times hilarious, but for the most part, it is an extremely bleak film addressing current issues surrounding racism, immigration, and drug addiction. Director Ryan Prows manages to not only create a commentary on the current state of affairs for illegal immigrants under a presidency that continually preaches anti-immigration sentiments, but also addresses the horrifying process behind organ harvesting, human trafficking, and the black market. In this world, the cops are often on the wrong side of the law, and everyone else is desperately trying to survive in a place that seems like it’s falling apart around them.
Lowlife is modern exploitation done right, and a film destined to find a cult following. It’s unbelievably entertaining, outlandishly funny, and sincerely touching — and that is what ultimately separates it from Tarantino’s classic. Lowlife truly has heart, and somehow finds the humanity in situations that go from comedic to horrific to over the top within a few frames. Don’t be surprised if you shed a tear or two in the film’s denouement. (Ricky D)
In a world ridden with meanness and cynicism, Paddington 2 is a breath of fresh air. The best film that Wes Anderson never made, it’s also the best demonstration of the virtues of kindness that you will see all year. While the first Paddington was simply an amusing and well-received origin story, Paddington 2 is a flat-out masterpiece and the surprise of the year, managing to turn its central thesis of goodness into a rollicking, very British adventure.
This sequel improves on the first film because it doesn’t have to explain where Paddington came from, simply setting him free to work his benevolent charm on everyone he comes into contact with. It truly puts into practice Aunt Lucy’s statement that “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” by placing the Peruvian bear in a prison cell (falsely accused, of course) and somehow turning it into a jolly summer camp. Coming in the wake of the devastating Brexit vote, it is a celebration of the positive forces of immigration, and a rebuke to xenophobia everywhere.
It also gives Hugh Grant the revival we never knew he needed. While the 00s saw him relegated to playing the same romantic comedy lead over and over again, Paddington 2 recasts him as an extremely camp villain. In a self-effacing role that sees him turn into a master of disguise, Grant pokes fun at his own legacy while clearly signalling that his career is far from over. This is a movie you want to stick around until the end for, because its unlikely we will see a better scene all year than his show-stopping rendition of “Listen to the Rain on The Roof” from Sondheim’s Follies.
I’m not the only one who was bowled over. With a 100% rating from 198 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Paddington 2 is technically the best-received movie of all time. That’s some result for a talking CGI bear. (Redmond Bacon)
A Quiet Place
It’s a rare film that can shut up a modern movie theater audience, with viewers so accustomed to irreverence in the church of cinema; if nothing else, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place deserves thanks for bringing some much-needed silence to the masses. Luckily, this monster movie also succeeds in many other ways, showcasing some masterful scenes of suspense that elevate its Twilight Zone plot above some inconsistent logic.
A Quiet Place keeps things small, and it’s a welcome perspective: A family of four in rural New York has survived some sort of apocalypse brought on by alien invader bugs that have hyper-sensitive ears — the slightest sound, be it the crunch of autumn leaves, or a poorly timed cough, could bring swift death. Life on the farm has required internal vows of silence and strict discipline, with soft sand paths for walking and sign language the only means of communication. It’s almost inhuman to think that anyone — let alone young children — could pull this off without a peep, but Krasinski’s direction is so strong during the first half of the story that it actually seems believable; quite a feat. His camera captures lovely fall images, but never forgets to remind us of the danger lurking in the forest, as his characters’ eyes dart about like prey, searching for a predator that could strike at any moment. These early quiet scenes create a tension unlike that of most horror films. Lulled into accepting the lack of sound themselves, audiences subconsciously bond with the people onscreen, playing into the hands of a director who can then toy with them by unleashing jump scares that feel more organic — not some cheap filmmaker’s tricks.
When things go south for the family in the second half, so too does the effect A Quiet Place may have on those who demand consistency in their logic, but there are still some wonderfully imaginative sequences to be enjoyed, and an ending that while slightly off-tone, still should prove rousing. Its plot may have been better suited to a half-hour TV episode, but A Quiet Place is best enjoyed in the dark, in the quiet — amazingly enough, in a movie theater. (Patrick Murphy)
Revenge is a timely breath of fresh air in a genre that usually results in controversy. While the rape-revenge film is often used just for an excuse to murder a lot of guys, Revenge is perhaps one of the most economical and deeply affecting. Centered around one woman’s violent crusade against three horrible men, director Coralie Fargeat crafts an exercise in tension and style that manages to never feel at odds with itself. The pulp is there (accompanied by buckets of blood), but it’s when the film aims its sights at the male gaze that it breaks incredibly exciting ground.
Smartly keeping things focused on its female protagonist and not getting too wrapped up in its violence until necessary, Revenge burns brightly at almost every turn. From the moment the titular act kicks in, there’s not a single wasted scene. Tension mounts and mounts until each inevitable, bloody outburst. Satisfaction is even more palpable when it arrives because every frame works towards amplifying that feeling.
Revenge is one of the leanest, boldest, and most important films of the year. Fargeat does a lot of what you expect, but does it with such zest that it’s hard not to walk away drained by just how much style is present. Aided by incredible cinematography and a synthwave score ready to pulsate in your head for days, there aren’t many films in recent memory that feel this cool. At its core, however, Revenge is still a revenge film; it just carries itself with an abundance of confidence that it feels like someone near the top of their game doing something new and exciting. That this is Fargeat’s debut feature film means I can’t wait to see what twisted thrill ride she comes up with next. (Christopher Cross)
The Rider isn’t a documentary, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just from watching it. That’s because the director and writer Chloé Zhao has assembled a cast of non-actors and given them life stories suspiciously close to their own. It’s fictional, and yet it’s as true as any story ever told.
The eponymous rider, Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), is an expert on the inner workings of horses, in addition to being a rodeo star. Zhao first met Jandreau after he had suffered a skull injury that had ended his competitive career, and his character deals with that same injury in the film. Brady’s family lives on the edge of poverty on a South Dakota reservation (they’re part Lakota); his father sells horses, and his autistic sister requires significant care. Without his rodeo income, Brady finds work as a horse trainer, but even that relatively mild work threatens to overwork his fragile brain.
Zhao’s fictional version of Brady’s life hits so hard because of how indistinguishable it is from his real life. His disagreements with his father and his loving rapport with his sister are shaded by their real-life experiences. It evokes an almost voyeuristic feeling as if we’re seeing something too painful and honest, something that was never meant to be seen by others. In one of the most masterful scenes of the year, Brady goes to visit a former colleague who has been wracked by a traumatic brain injury that has mostly robbed him of his speech and motor skills. It’s a movingly dramatized scene — except that it’s Brady’s real friend, who was injured in real life and will probably spend the rest of his days in a care facility. The intrusion of reality into the traditionally safe fiction of film is almost overwhelming.
Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, has lived in the US since the end of high school, but her knowledge and understanding of the lives of rural people is astounding. Not since the early films of David Gordon Green has a director keyed into their dignity so fully. The Rider is only her second film, but it seems sure to herald great things to come. (Brian Marks)
Like another popular horror film released in 2018 (the chilling Hereditary), The Ritual basks in its mystery as it invites its audience to try and piece together what exactly is happening to its central characters.
Centered on a hike undertaken by four friends in order to commemorate their dead comrade, The Ritual sees this quartet face unyielding terror after they choose to take a shortcut through a dense, uninviting forest. While seeking shelter in a cabin for the night, it becomes abundantly clear that they are not alone in these woods, and that there is a force dead set on keeping them there for good.
Taking inspiration from Scandinavian mythology, David Bruckner’s film improves drastically over his previous work (The Signal, V/H/S) by leaving the terror stalking its protagonists to the viewer’s imagination, holding back on anything resembling an explanation of the horrors being unleashed until the final act.
A chilling and evocative horror effort, The Ritual may not be for everyone, but if you find yourself in its target audience, you’re in for a very special treat. (Mike Worby)
The third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody examines the physical and emotional toll that motherhood can exact. Following Juno (2007), a story about a young woman facing imminent responsibility because of accidental pregnancy, and Young Adult (2011), in which a woman returns to her hometown to the relive the promise of youth, Tully explicates the trials that women still face even when they have “settled down.” The thankless whirlwind of raising children while trying to maintain any sense of self is given multifaceted meaning by Charlize Theron, who consistently continues to bring depth to women who behave outside the box. How stigmatized it is for women to ask for help when anything less than perfect enthusiasm and endless energy for one’s kids is met with private or public judgement is taken to task.
When Marlo (Theron) cautiously accepts her brother’s offer to hire night nurse Tully (Mackenzie Davis), reclaiming time for herself gives way to a reinvigoration of purpose and identity into Marlo’s routine. Most of our screen time is primarily spent with women and their concerns, ranging from the degree that they can achieve balance to how they communicate with each other and themselves. Important conversations about self-preservation, the burden of parenting, and the way relationships can be broken by time are had, but not conveyed in a heavy-handed or overly saccharine way. The complete engulfment of time by children and the loss of control over the postpartum body conveys a sense of loneliness within motherhood that is rarely scrutinized.
The script is remarkable for how a woman is the primary evaluator of her changed body, in addition to giving consideration to the strain under which many mothers operate without having time to separate themselves at all from the beings they’ve brought into the world. It’s not a comprehensive story that offers solutions, but the film does take us through much of the menial and often unrewarding work that mothers do without much exaggeration — save for a twist. Reitman and Cody’s Tully renders women as imperfect, strong, and underappreciated while also in need of care, but craving independence — finally represented as fully human and worthy of the cinematic representation that they have historically lacked. (Lane Scarberry)
After the comforting throwback of Logan Lucky, which saw Steven Soderbergh working in a very familiar ballpark, comes Unsane — an abrasive and confrontational thriller that is as viscerally enjoyable as it is terrifying. Shot entirely on an iPhone, it sees Claire Foy changing tack quite dramatically from her regular stately role in The Crown.
She plays Sawyer Valentini, a woman who, despite breaking free of her stalker, still feels his presence everywhere around her. Is he still there, or is she going crazy? Looking for answers to her own mental state, she goes for a consultation at a mental institution. After signing some “boilerplate” papers, she finds herself involuntarily committed to an indefinite stay. The stakes are raised when she believes her stalker has been tasked as one of her caretakers, leading to a desperate scramble for escape.
While it raises interesting questions about the commercialization of mental illness and the wrongful incarceration of otherwise perfectly well people, Unsane does not dwell too much on them, preferring to lay on the schlock with maximum impact. The use of iPhone imagery works perfectly, giving the film a B-movie intensity that might have been dulled by higher-quality lenses. Its great to see Soderbergh trying new things again, providing his most experimental film since The Girlfriend Experience.
Claire Foy, however, brings this movie to life. We can never be sure whether to believe her at face value, forcing the viewer to interpret the film as it goes along. She is a ball of constant rage, railing against her situation and spitting out venomous insults with delicious bite. In a brilliant conclusion, she confronts her stalker in one of the best and most vital moments you will see all year.
With such a simple premise and with such low-grade equipment, Soderbergh has made the most impactful thriller of the year. It should be an inspiration to indie filmmakers everywhere. (Redmond Bacon)
You Were Never Really Here
There are two Taxi Driver-inspired masterpieces so far this year, First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here. They each have their own unique pleasures, but only one comes at you with the force of a ball-peen hammer to the skull. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsey (only her fourth feature since 1999), the film is based on the short novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames.
The famously mercurial Joaquin Phoenix is at his most focused as Joe, the hammer-wielding searcher. He finds and rescues young girls who have been sex trafficked, all while dispatching their captors with his brutal brand of justice. Joe has seen and done things that flash across his brain like searing lightning bolts. He’s also a product of abuse, and part of his need to save the young girls is to spare them the trauma that he deals with on a daily basis.
You Were Never Really Here is a fascinating thriller made in a strangely effective yet disjointed manner. The story is simple: a man who saves young girls sets out to save another who is the object of desire for politically connected perverts. Yet Ramsey constantly muddles that simple story with lightning bolt flashes of Joe’s past traumas and bits of fantasy. Jonny Greenwood’s bracing score adds to our disconnection; it flits between harsh atonality and funky synthesizers at dizzying speed. We stumble through the film just as Joe stumbles through every day of his existence.
Ramsey’s film owes a great debt to classic film noir. She eschews the typical New York landmarks that might pepper an urban crime film, instead luxuriating in the gorgeous neon light that perpetually bathes the city. But more than anything else, the film is a showcase for Phoenix’s gifts. Ever since his pseudo-breakdown in I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s roles have been scrutinized for any signs of madness. He plays up those connections in order to show us a man just barely surviving on the edge. Any performance by Phoenix is electrifying, but here he invigorates the film with his manic energy, pushing it toward its white-hot conclusion. (Brian Marks)
Ranking Quentin Tarantino’s Films
Tarantino has crafted an oeuvre ripe for debate…
Quentin Tarantino is back with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most unabashedly emotional movie ever— but how does it compare to the rest of his filmography? We decided it might be fun to look back at Quentin Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of 20-plus years helming films and try to agree on what his best film is. It quickly became obvious, this was no easy task.
Before we get to the list we should mention that although Tarantino has contributed to other projects such as Four Rooms, Sin City, True Romance, ER, and CSI to name a few— we’re ranking just the theatrically released feature films he has directed. And yes, while Tarantino does consider Kill Bill one movie, it was unfortunately released both theatrically and on home video as two separate films, and so for the purpose of this list, we are splitting them up (not to mention, it’s still nearly impossible for most people to see them as a single entity).
With that out of the way, please accept our definitive ranking.
Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.
Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character and Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony.
Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see most horror movies. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius. (Ricky D)
9) The Hateful Eight
Less the epic spaghetti western it initially comes off as and more of a chatter-filled murder mystery, The Hateful Eight nevertheless feels grandiose, presenting a sprawling cast of unforgettable characters teeming with infamous reputations and potential lies. And that’s really the draw for Tarantino’s eighth film — just what exactly is the truth, and is anyone telling it?
Though it’s a satisfying enough whodunit revolving around an octet of grizzled manhunters, brutish outlaws, conniving desperados, and mysterious cowpokes snowed in at a remote mountain general store, The Hateful Eight is really a story about telling stories. Everyone’s got one, and they’re used for all manner of things; a sordid tale of a tortuous journey across icy peaks is clearly meant to provoke hurt and outrage, while a former Johnny Reb spins an unlikely tale of accepting a new position as Sheriff of the nearby town in order to gain trust enough to be invited for a stagecoach ride. Bloody Civil War battles are recalled for the sake of establishing camaraderie, and a detailed explanation is offered for the absence of the store’s proprietors in order to allay suspicions. But are any of these intricate narratives true, or just manipulative yarns?
Some may be turned off by the preponderance of lengthy monologues, but those with a love of language and violence will be riveted by this deadly, high-stakes poker game of bluffs and tells. These killers are the stuff of legend, poking and prodding at their opponents with words, before unleashing more gruesome attacks. And never mind that The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s most ‘cinematic’ film by a longshot (despite being handsomely photographed on 70mm film); he makes the most of the rustic interior setting with expertly staged action and brilliant performances, unraveling his story through careful speech and chronological shifts that keep things fresh — all the way to the rotten end. (Patrick Murphy)
8) Django Unchained
It’s hard to describe why Tarantino’s Django Unchained is such an odd and interesting entry into the director’s filmography. On one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Weinstein production: excessive blood and violence, dark and irreverent humor, and a strange sadistic fascination with race and gender relations that overshadows the whole film. On the other hand, the film truly ups the ante and turns all of these narrative dials up to eleven, telling a disturbing story of slavery, interracial violence, and greed to illuminate the depravity of the human condition in the antebellum south in new and inventive ways. Somewhere wavering between these two elements lies the true spirit of Django Unchained: a movie that both screams characteristic Tarantino and yet still constantly surprises audiences with its unorthodox approach to the cowboy film category.
Part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation narrative, Tarantino’s Django Unchained births a new genre with its unique portrayal of American life, dubbed by Tarantino as “the Southern.” While the film’s plot isn’t as complex as a majority of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained relies heavily on the incredibly strong performances from its all-star cast of characters. Following up his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christopher Waltz nails his role as the whimsical and enigmatic Dr. King Shultz, earning himself another piece of hardware for Best Supporting Actor for his talent. Jamie Foxx also does a spectacular job of selling the almost cartoonish superhuman character of Django, being both sternly humorous and deadly serious when the situation requires to bring life to one of the darkest of Tarantino’s creations. Even the interplay between the unlikely duo of Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio serves to elevate the film, and the pair make memorable villains that serve the narrative well.
Although it was relatively controversial with the media because of its subject matter, Django Unchained achieves its goal of making audiences incredibly uncomfortable by viscerally articulating the violence and depravity of Southern slavery in film. Through his portrayal of Django, Tarantino effectively counters this racial trauma with full force, creating a brutal and nuanced character that comes to epitomize the revenge that the audience craves for the wrongs of the past. Within this struggle lies the heart of the narrative, reminding viewers that the wrongs of the past are always present in the social fabric of today and that even fantasy retribution can’t fully cleanse the sins of the South’s forefathers. Watching from cozy California, the film feels like an odd history book fever dream, but from a theater in Mississippi, Django must feel like something else altogether. (Ty Davidson)
7) Kill Bill: Vol. 2
Although Quentin Tarantino intended Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 to release as a single film, there are distinct differences between the two volumes. Where Vol. 1 was a very visceral, action-packed film, the second half of the Bride’s quest for revenge opts for a slower, more meditative approach. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a film that likes to linger on the tragedy of the story; instead of flashing back into an action-heavy backstory, the film dedicates nearly half an hour to Bud’s miserable life after the Vipers’ failed assassination attempt on the Bride.
Through Budd, Kill: Bill Vol. 2 eases into some much-needed emotional reality after the bombastic back-half of Vol. 1. Budd becomes endearing in a way that O-Ren wasn’t, something both Elle and Bill ultimately share. Vol. 1 may have had one great villain through O-Ren Ishii, but Vol. 2 features Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Bill Caradine acting against Uma Thurman in one of her best roles.
The more introspective approach on storytelling doesn’t mean Vol. 2 isn’t devoid of action either. While nothing’s quite as exciting as the Bride’s final duel with O-Ren at the end of Vol. 1 — let alone her massacre of the Crazy 88 — the Bride squaring off against Elle is a magnificently claustrophobic battle, and flashback scenes detailing the Bride’s training help to keep the action a constant presence without needing to elevate the stakes as often as the first film.
When it comes down to it, however, it’s the finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such an incredible conclusion to the Bride’s story. Where the first film ends in an epic sword fight, the second ends with a quiet conversation — the dissection of a relationship, of history, and the duality of man. It’s a philosophical note to end such an intense film on, but it’s to Kill Bill‘s credit, remembering that it’s characters who drive the action. (Renan Fontes)
6) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
In 1994, Quentin Tarantino performed an act of cinematic resurrection by casting a thoroughly washed-up John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and revitalizing his career (if only for a time). It was confirmation that Travolta still had all his talent intact — he just needed the right filmmaker to unlock it. Prior to his latest film, Quentin Tarantino was, if not as down in the dumps as Travolta, at least in a serious and deepening slump. Inglourious Basterds was formally stunning and graced with wondrous lead performances, but the film was flippant in its portrayal of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. Its revenge narrative was as tasteless as it was thrilling. Django Unchained suffered from a similar lack of introspection, but this time the compelling characters he’d become known for never quite materialized. By the time he made his horror Western/chamber revenge film The Hateful Eight, Tarantino seemed to be relying on pure sadism to fuel his vision.
With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it becomes clear that latter-day Tarantino needed a better director all along — in this case, a better version of himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s jettisoned the now-tired revenge plots, despite telling a story that could easily have been converted into a tale of vengeance. But Once Upon a Time also marks the first time since at least Kill Bill — and maybe Jackie Brown — that Tarantino makes his audience feel deeply connected to his characters, and moved by their hopes and failures.
The film reunites him with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, sharing leading roles as, respectively, a formerly successful TV actor whose career has floundered just as he tries to ascend to making films, and his trusty stunt double whose sense of devotion prevents him from becoming bitter at his subordinate status. Margot Robbie fills out the edges of the film as Sharon Tate, fresh off her star-making turn in Valley of the Dolls. Even further on the margins are the festering followers of Charles Manson, who is glimpsed only once.
Once Upon a Time impeccably blends the pleasures of a Tarantino hangout film with a mounting sense of dread, minus the tiring speechifying (which even Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown suffer from in hindsight). There’s also a measurable dose of loss pervading the movie — for a bygone glamorous Hollywood felt by the industry in 1969, for the seemingly limitless possibilities of that area by present-day Tarantino, and for Tate, who would be brutally murdered by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969. All are gone now. It’ll be a terrible folly if Tarantino sticks to his plan to stop making movies after his tenth feature, but if he had decided to call it quits early and stop after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad way to go. (Brian Marks)
5) Jackie Brown
There are few experiences greater for a cinephile than seeing a director they previously knew to be a master produce a follow-up that expands their already considerable talents in stunning new ways. Jackie Brown is just such a film, one that capitalizes on the promise of Pulp Fiction while proving that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a film at war with its own contemporary setting. The movie takes place in 1995, yet it’s filled with vintage cars, outfits, and mannerisms harkening back to the 1970s — Tarantino’s favorite decade for cinema. To a certain extent, it’s intentional and reflects the time-warp status of Los Angeles’ South Bay at the time, but someone watching an isolated scene who wasn’t already familiar with the movie might have trouble pinpointing exactly what decade it was trying to approximate.
As he had rescued John Travolta’s career, Tarantino gave two other ‘70s icons their biggest roles in decades. Pam Grier, of Blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, stars as the eponymous character. She’s a middle-aged single woman who barely makes ends meet as a flight attendant for a third-rate budget airline that flies from LA to Mexico. In order to pad her earnings, she smuggles cash for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a drug runner branching out in gun sales. But when an errant bag of cocaine puts Jackie on the radar of the LAPD and the ATF, she enlists bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to double-cross all involved parties.
After the formal inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wisely chose to adopt a more conservative approach to this crime story. Had he continued in the vein of that previous film, with its short story–like chapters, shifting protagonists, and fantastical touches (the glowing briefcase, Uma Thurman’s air drawn–square), it might have signaled that he was incapable of telling a compelling story without the techniques — that they were crutches rather than garnishes. Aside from some deceptive editing in the bravura mall sequence, he mostly plays it safe. Of course, “safe” for Tarantino still includes complicated shots, expressionistic framing, compelling performances, and virtuosic (if overly verbose) dialog.
What makes Jackie Brown not just an excellent film but one of Tarantino’s best is the obvious compassion he displays toward Jackie. Her fears about having to start over might seem mundane compared to the problems of his other leading characters, but the everyday nature of those struggles makes her more real than any of Tarantino’s other leads.
His newest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems closest in structure and tone to Jackie Brown, which, not coincidentally, is why it’s such an improvement over his other recent films. Whether or not Jackie Brown influenced him anew, here’s hoping he never forgets its lessons. (Brian Marks)
4) Reservoir Dogs
Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Reservoir Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-motion Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated, and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.
At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour, and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Reservoir Dogs may have not been original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. (Ricky D)
3) Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Exploding onto the scene as the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s 4th film, the hyper-stylized Kill Bill was his most ambitious and audacious film yet. The film follows Uma Thurman as The Bride, a betrayed ex-assassin on the hunt for the four comrades, and their leader, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. As The Bride herself later says, she roars, rampages, and gets bloody satisfaction (emphasis on the bloody).
Packed with the snappy dialog, memorable characters, and brutal violence that have come to trademark Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is also home to some of the best fight scenes in the history of action filmmaking. Particularly impressive is the frenetic climax, which sees The Bride face off against 88 sword-wielding criminals in a Japanese bar.
Basically, QT’s love letter to some of his favorite samurai action films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 nonetheless succeeds as its own beast, and is still fondly remembered as one of his best films. (Mike Worby)
2) Inglourious Basterds
Kicking off with a “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglorious Basterds lets viewers know right away that this isn’t really a World War II movie — it’s a Tarantino playland fantasy, where the good guys are cool, steely knights, and the bad guys are rotten, devious ogres to be beaten, shot, torched, and dynamited in spectacular fashion. Yes, it’s in many ways a movie about movies, but it’s also a work of gleeful imagination. Aldo Raine, Shosanna, Archie, the Bear Jew, Bridget von Hammersmark, Hans, and Frederick Zoller are wielded like toys by a director and script that on the surface wants little more than to show good utterly destroying evil in the most awesome and satisfying ways. Which it totally does.
Of course, part of getting to that sweet release is the masterful way in which Tarantino builds up and draws out suspense, often using lengthy conversation duels to withhold longer than seems possible, until finally unleashing his absurd violence in gushing massacres that more than satiate the audiences need for closure. As usual, the stream of dialogue isn’t just there for pacing or self-indulgence, but creates rich, distinct characters that can then (probably) die in unforgettable ways — like in a tavern standoff involving incorrect hand signals, “speaking the King’s,” and a pistol to the groin.
No, Inglourious Basterds isn’t revisionist history. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s pure fairy tale, with darkness and light, feats of depravity and derring-do, and a cast of heroes and villains who all know their place in the story, and are only too happy to fulfill such with a wink and a smirk. It’s wonderfully fantastical entertainment, filled with the kind of vicarious thrills that kids used to get with G.I. Joes, and might just be the most fun you can have watching Hitler explode. (Patrick Murphy)
1) Pulp Fiction
A sensation that helped draw attention to and shape independent cinema in the 90s, Pulp Fiction might not always work as a sum of its parts, but boy have those parts been engrained into the moviegoing consciousness. Taratino’s L.A. crime opus is full of meandering conversations, gruesome encounters, and moments of supercool quirkiness that seem completely besides the point — until you realize that they are the point.
Mixing various intersecting stories via a jumbled-up chronology that serves the film’s dime-novel tone, Pulp Fiction takes a leisurely stroll across the seedier parts of town, never getting too anxious to stop and chat for a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe in the prison-like basement of a perverted pawn shop, a discussion on bedroom furniture when needing to clean up brains and skull from the back seat of a car before Bonnie gets home, or praise for a tasty burger when mopping up a deal gone sour. There are very few awkward silences here; Pulp Fiction is often a symphony of gab. That constant flow sometimes overpowers a budding visual style that eschews the darkness of its subject matter for bright colors and sunny days, but those who pay attention to such things will notice some inventive staging and techniques.
Still, the stories of Vincent, Mia, Marsellus, Butch, and Jules are all about the spoken song. Full of memorable rhythms and shockingly violent punctuation, that symphony never gets old. Since then, Tarantino has certainly gone on to create bolder visions with a more confidant hand at the director’s helm, but despite that increased ambition and polish, few have managed to achieve the iconic status granted to this groundbreaking film. Pulp Fiction injected a shot of adrenaline into the heart of indie filmmaking, courted controversy and acclaim, and inspired a bevy of wannabes, all aiming to be as cool. Few have achieved such. (Patrick Murphy)
‘Ready or Not‘ Derives a Fair Amount of Mileage out of its Simple Premise
A rich family hunt the bride in a very bloody game of Hide And Seek
Making its World Premiere at the Montreal genre festival, Ready or Not is a blood-spattered, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that features plenty of gore and a sense of humour as dark as the terror on display.
Anyone who has seen the trailer is already familiar with the simple premise. What is best described as a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and Clue, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a young bride who marries into the wealthy but strange Le Domas family that made their fortune in the board game industry. When it comes time to consummate the union, the bride is told that the marriage won’t be complete until she participates in an unusual family ritual: before the strike of midnight, the newlywed bride must draw a card from a mysterious box which will dictate which game they play into the night. Grace pulls the one-and-only cursed card that reads “Hide and Seek.” But this isn’t the traditional children’s game we are familiar with; in this deadly version, she is hunted by her soon-to-be-revealed psychotic in-laws wielding heavy weaponry like crossbows and shotguns.
A surreal cat-and-mouse chase ensues, with Alex ostensibly trying to help his bride survive while the rest of the La Domas clan remains dead-set on sacrificing her through the mysterious ritual. Their motive is simple: the La Domas believe that they must kill her before dawn as part of a satanic pact agreed upon years ago, otherwise they will have to repay their debt with their own lives. As to whether or not there actually is a satanic pact is unknown; as far as Grace is concerned, these rich folks are batshit crazy and out of their goddamned minds.
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.
There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions.
I don’t want to oversell Ready or Not; it’s a great B-movie (albeit a big studio B-Movie, but a B-movie nonetheless). The quick pace, simple concept, and terrific performances are what carry it through the 95-minute run time. Ready or Not is simply put, a lot of fun — a horror-comedy that offers a ton of laughs, delivers the action, and cements the star power of Samara Weaving. The best compliment I can give is that I’m ready to see it again. It’s the perfect movie to watch with a group of friends on a stormy night, and a late-summer surprise for genre fans everywhere.
- Ricky D
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 25, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ Celebrates the Ambitious
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ explores what happens when the creative can’t create, and delivers an incredible performance from Cate Blanchett.
From The Before Trilogy to Boyhood to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater is about as prolific of a filmmaker as they come. In one year he could release an experimental indie film, and the next he’s doing School of Rock. Then there are those films in between that feel like personal stories that Linklater just needs to put his mark on. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just that type of movie, and falls somewhere between his more Hollywood comedies and something like 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Much in that same vein, Linklater tells a story of creative people driven from their passions for one reason or another, and in the process of doing so brings to life another fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett as a character both lost and unaware that she is lost.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) spends her days hiding away from people in her big, always-under-construction house, with her only form of contact being between her, her family, the occasional wealthy parent, and her digital assistant that orders things for her from Amazon at a rapid rate. One might look at her life and see things in shambles, as she always seems anxious, stressed, or simply at the end of her wits. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), works at Microsoft, and spends more time at work than he does with his family. Meanwhile, their daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), is preparing to go off to boarding school of her own volition, but wants to go on a trip to Antarctica with her family while they have some time together. No one objects, including Bernadette — a shock to her husband and daughter alike.
What ultimately follows is a deeper exploration of Bernadette’s character, as she tries to wrestle with her anxieties and worries about going on a trip of this magnitude, while also making sure that she doesn’t let her daughter down. Where’d You Go, Bernadette has one large hurdle that audiences will likely have to get over, and that is its affluent main characters. Elgie is a tech wiz, Bernadette is a retired architect, and Bee is going to private school, and somehow the entire family can justify going on a trip to Antarctica with only five weeks notice; they’re the kind of rich that’s absurd, and if this movie was about anything other than creativity and creative types, it would buckle under the knowledge that most problems could be solved by money. In fact, even when a disaster occurs that damages someone’s property, Bernadette throws money at it as a solution. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a movie about rich people that are surrounded by rich people who have normalized being rich people.
Yet once again, even with its characters being who they are, Linklater still mines Maria Semple’s book-of-the-same-name for themes and ideas that can hit hard to the right type of person. As the title (and marketing) suggest, there is a mystery component to Where’d You Go, Bernadette that has other characters exploring Bernadette’s life and why she just up-and-disappears. Surprisingly, however, the movie’s title does not just emphasize a physical disappearance, but also a mental one. Where is the Bernadette that would move the world to create something she so passionately wanted? That question is where Linklater finds something personal to latch on to, and why other creative people will want to explore the quirks of the titular character to find out why she has stopped creating.
Though saccharine to a high degree, the cast and Linklater’s knack for writing engaging conversations and beautiful moments tends to help audiences take in all the sweetness without gagging. It’s a very cute, whimsical film that really leans into it by the time it ends. That tone is mostly what gives the movie its momentum, however, along with some of the neat directorial decisions that help paint a fuller portrait of Bernadette’s family without slowing things to a crawl and sacrificing that momentum. Blanchett provides the right blend of motherly love and manic obsessiveness to carry the entire film on her shoulders, but fortunately Crudup and Nelson give plenty of support, as do some of the briefer appearances from the likes of Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne. Moments that are kind of silly sometimes clash with attempts of being more serious in the scene, but it feels like that’s kind of the point to a certain extent. If Crudup feels like he’s playing the scene more seriously, it’s because his character is attempting to be the serious one in an outlandish scenario.
Those scenes that take the absurdity to new heights or suddenly fall into melodramatic territory are also the most memorable moments, because they often have their tone dictated by the perspective. If the perspective is Bernadette’s, it might lean more on the anxious, tense side of things, where it’s unknown how the scene will end or what a character will do. With Bee it’s often a sweet, loving moment. Almost anything involving Elgie tends to involve a sense of urgency, and takes things far more seriously than the others. Where’d You Go, Bernadette holds a lot of power in the way it presents a side of a story, and walks a very fine line on who is right and who is wrong in any given scenario.
As with any Linklater movie that isn’t experimental in its narrative, there will be those who can’t get behind the sweet, caring portrait of a character often at odds with the rest of the world. He’s proven he can do those characters with films like School of Rock and Bernie, but he’s perhaps best known for capturing a feeling or a time and place. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is fairly straightforward, and won’t surprise many going in (it’s unapologetically heartwarming) but provides an illustration of someone who has a lot to offer the world, and the ways we may inadvertently — and unknown to them — stifle their ambitions.
Beautiful ‘Shadow’ Stands Out
As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.
A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.
This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’
Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.
Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife.
One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.
And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.
They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.
‘Incident In A Ghostland ‘— Pascal Laugier Revisits the Genre that Made Him Famous
‘Martyrs’ director Pascal Laugier takes another stab at the horror genre.
Writer-director Pascal Laugier is well-known for his heady 2008 breakout French thriller Martyrs which is regarded by many as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and took the torture porn genre to untold levels of nastiness. While not his best film (that honor goes to Brotherhood of the Wolf), Martyrs stands as an extreme example of just how twisted French new wave horror films can be.
In 2012 he directed his first English-language feature, The Tall Man, a slow atmospheric thriller about a dying mining town where children begin vanishing without a trace. Despite the star power of Jessica Biel, The Tall Man was both a critical and commercial bomb, and not necessarily what fans of Laugier’s first film were expecting. His latest (and second English-language offering) revisits the grisly torture-porn genre that made him famous but the question going in was, is it any good?
Following in the footsteps of French auteurs Alexandre Aja (High Tension) and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Incident In A Ghostland begins as your typical home-invasion thriller and follows single mother Pauline Keller (French Canadian pop star Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) who relocate to their new home. En route, the trio is briefly terrorized by a speeding ice cream truck before noticing a local headline about a series of brutal crimes sweeping the area. The Kellers haven’t even had a chance to settle in yet and already things aren’t looking too good. Anyone who’s seen at least one horror movie knows what happens next. What follows is a no-holds-barred assault that will leave the audience emotionally and psychologically scarred.
What makes Incident In A Ghostland different than the countless other home invasion thrillers that came before, is that the raid on their house takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film. After managing to survive the attack, we fast forward some years and discover a grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has written a memoir of her family’s traumatic experience that has made her a famous horror novelist. Her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips) on the other hand, isn’t doing so well; suffering from PTSD and reliving that horrible night over and over. It’s here that my plot summary must end in order to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists and turns— but to sum it up, the remainder of the running time jumps between past and present, dream and reality, nightmares and hallucinations and dreams within dreams all while keeping the audience guessing as to what is real and what is in Beth’s imagination.
Like the director’s gory debut, Incident In A Ghostland is light on plot (and even lighter on character development) but extremely heavy on the torture inflicted on the young women who are subjected to unspeakable acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse, both real and imaginary. Like Martyrs, Ghostland dwells on the terror our protagonists experience with the camera constantly closing in on tight shots of their wounds, bruises, and screams as they are kicked, punched, choked, chained and dragged around the house. Needless to say, it’s rather painful to sit through, with each scene stretched out for maximum discomfort. Incident In A Ghostland is the sort of movie in which roughly half the running time consists of women screaming in pain while the other half will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of it all. It’s especially unsettling as Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to acts of pedophilic sadism, and later learning that the then-19-year-old actress Taylor Hickson reportedly sued the production company for injuries suffered on the set. Meanwhile, fans of Farmer may be appalled to watch the French-Canadian idol beaten to a bloody pulp while stabbed repeatedly— and if you have a fear of dolls, I recommend you stay as far away from Ghostland as it features an abundance of creepy doll imagery.
While Pascal Laugier’s most recent offering isn’t as depraved as Martyrs, it’s still an intentionally unpleasant nightmare to watch unfold and while I admire the craft that went into making it, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent watching it. But it is a well-made film featuring stunning cinematography from Danny Nowak (who provides the movie with a sheen polish) and great set design by Gordon Wilding and his collaborators who do a marvelous job in bringing the house to life (so to speak) and making it, as creepy as the villains played by Kevin Power and Rob Archer.
I’ve noticed a few critics online comparing Incident In A Ghostland to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre which in my opinion, is heresy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, a punishing assault on the senses via some of the most extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Incident In A Ghostland brings nothing new to the genre and is just another example of a movie that relies on plot twists and extreme violence to get a rise out of the audience. Whereas Marilyn Burns’ doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory, the hundreds and hundreds of screams heard in Ghostland will soon be forgotten. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever. I’ve already forgotten how Ghostland ends.
Incident In A Ghostland is a Shudder exclusive. For more info, visit their website.
- Ricky D
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