Connect with us

Features

The 100 Best Dance Songs of All Time

Dim the lights, pump up the volume, and join us as we imagine a future where we won’t be dancing on our own.

Staff

Published

on

100 Best Dance Songs of All Time
Photo: Universal Music

80. Anita Ward, “Ring My Bell” (1979)

The epitome of the one-hit wonder, Anita Ward made her mark in popular music with the 1979 hit “Ring My Bell.” Sporting one of the first uses of synthesized percussion on a popular record since Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and a smattering of electronic flourishes, the track is a cutesy, borderline-novelty tune that manages to withstand the battering of time thanks to Ward’s coy vocal performance and R&B producer-songwriter Frederick Knight’s lyrical composition about the perks of domesticity. Cinquemani


79. Andrea True Connection, “More, More, More” (1976)

With a backstory as tawdry as disco itself, Nashville-born actress-turned-one-hit-wonder Andrea True moved to New York City in the late 1960s on a quest for fame and fortune but eventually resorted to pornography for survival. In 1975, she connected with producer Gregg Diamond for the slinky club hit “More, More, More,” a breezy, laidback dance tune (the track was recorded in Jamaica) with an infectious trumpet solo that hit the top of the disco and pop charts a year later. Despite the song’s bouncy cowbell-driven meter, though, True’s cooed vocals—“If you want to know how I really feel/Just get the cameras rollin’/Get the action going,” sung with increasing gusto with each new verse—reveal an underlying sadness and disconnect only a porn star could truly understand. Cinquemani


78. Jomanda, “Got a Love for You (Hurley’s House Mix)” (1991)

The rare first-wave Chicago house producer to find most of his success post-acid, Steve “Silk” Hurley took years to come into his own. One of many self-proclaimed “non-musicians” who helped house become a global phenomenon (his “Jack Your Body” was the first house track to hit No. 1 in England), Hurley’s aim was simple: to replicate the disco that inspired him to make music in the first place. By the late ‘80s, he knew enough to give his work a distinctly plastic pop sheen, and by 1991, he had perfected his craft. Every component of his definitive remix of house girl group Jomanda’s “Got a Love for You,” from the three-note piano riff to the chop-chop-chop-chopped vocal patterns to the obnoxiously fake horns to the fucking bongos (!), is a hook, the perfect realization of how house could be a vehicle to speak to millions. Lead singer Joanne Thomas opens her lungs so wide, it’s like she was born with Aretha Franklin in her mouth. “The first day we met/My heart stood still,” she starts, and by then, you can already relate. Juzwiak


77. Teena Marie, “Behind the Groove” (1980)

Though she was an artist in her own right apart from her unfair reputation as the most high-profile, most musically gifted member of the Rick James harem, Teena Marie’s self-written R&B smash “Behind the Groove” betrays Marie’s tutelage under the Motown funk sultan. The rattling, snapping backbeats, the aggressive popping bass, and the aphrodisiac deflection of horny energy onto the abused keys of a severely thrashed piano are all in James’s debt. Teena Marie’s shortlist of hit singles ranges widely, and almost no other artists discussed for this list generated as many viable candidates (certainly no artists we had slated for a single slot, anyway), from the double-time disco of “Square Biz” to the proto-Saved by the Bell pop of “Lovergirl.” “Behind the Groove” simply stands in for all the Rick James songs we didn’t even consider. Now who’s in whose shadow? Henderson


76. Orbital, “Halcyon + On + On” (1992)

Maybe it’s because of its perfect structural and allegorical design, but it was always this song that would soundtrack my exhausted bus ride home after a night of clubbing. Designed for our starved imaginations, if not exactly our dancing feet, this life-as-trance classic by brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll of Orbital used metronomic beats and a touched-by-an-angel vocal to approximate the calm and surrender of the insomnia drug prescribed to their mother. Like Halcion, the song guides us gently into sleep but not before inducing a lucid connection to the beauty of our immediate, seemingly mundane modern surroundings. It’s the oddest thing in the world: an eye-opening, sleep-inducing dance song. Gonzalez


75. Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, “Can You Feel the Beat” (1985)

The angular, carnation-and-slate ‘80s was the decade of cold excess. More specifically, it was the decade of shoulder pads, feathered hair, and Venetian blinds—the kind a scorned Lisa Velez peered through after throwing away her estranged lover’s neckties in “Can You Feel the Beat.” “I looked and saw my heart just overrule my mind,” she sang. The hit “I Wonder If I Take You Home” may have put Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam on the musical map, but their marginally less successful follow-up (also produced by Full Force, whose influence was so pronounced that they were even mentioned in the album title), was a much cooler, propulsive, club-ready concoction. LL’s vocals are uncharacteristically calm and collected, at times so disaffected you wonder whether her heart is even beating at all, but given the juxtaposition of the song’s pulsating beat and lyrics about a passion that gives its victim a cardiac arrhythmia, it’s not surprising that, despite her insistence that her “love won’t grow cold,” she would be left in a near-comatose state. Cinquemani


74. Debbie Deb, “When I Hear Music” (1983)

Discovered at a Miami record store by electro producer/drug dealer Pretty Tony, 16-year-old Debbie Deb was the voice and lyricist behind the high-tech “When I Hear Music,” one of the biggest ‘80s freestyle dance songs (the genre is allegedly named after Pretty Tony’s group of the same name). Early freestyle only had hints of the full-bodied rhythms and melodies of Latin music, and “When I Hear Music” is no exception. Instead, the track is heavily influenced by electro, featuring robotic vocals and strict, syncopated rhythms inspired by Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock.” Cinquemani


73. Daft Punk, “One More Time” (2000)

And on the seventh day, two robot gods did not rest but instead brought the filtered disco craze of the late ‘90s to its star-spangled apex. Body-glittered pink cherubs brought to their neon lips a chorus of trumpets, the chosen people congregated at the foot of a luminescent temple, and the world was either baptized or skull-fucked by a most tumescent bass kick. No room for little fluffy clouds this high up in the stratosphere. So it was written, so it has been done: “It’s Christmas in Disco Heaven, every single day.” Henderson


72. The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette, “Justified and Ancient” (1992)

The KLF might have one of the strangest backstories in dance music history: Fisherman-turned-punk Bill Drummond teamed up with musician Jim Cauty to form the hip-hop group the JAMS (Justified Ancients of Mu Mu), which was almost immediately disbanded after the infamously stingy Swedish group ABBA refused to grant them permission to use samples of their music, forcing the duo to destroy the remaining copies of their now-unsellable album. After burning the album in a field outside ABBA’s recording studio, Drummond and Cauty—who simultaneously formed the Orb with DJ Alex Paterson—adopted the moniker the KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front) and went on to blaze a trail for both ambient and stadium house in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. On the heels of hits like “What Time Is Love?” and “3 A.M. Eternal,” a new version of their 1992 single “Justified and Ancient” kept them riding high on the club and pop charts, effectively turning country singer Tammy Wynette into a temporary club diva. The genre-bridging song’s own backstory can be found within the lyrics: “They called me up in Tennessee,” Wynette sings, “They said, ‘Tammy, stand by the jams.’” It was an offer she couldn’t refuse. There are numerous versions of the track, with various vocalists, but it’s the late Wynette’s distinctive delivery that gave a patently American voice to the KLF’s quirky, utopian mythology of the Ancients of Mu Mu and their global peace-touting ice cream van. Cinquemani


71. Was (Not Was), “Wheel Me Out” (1980)

The psychotronic, bass-popping first single from the endlessly performative eggheads Was (Not Was), “Wheel Me Out” rushes in with its relentless wall of rock guitars, shimmering percussion, and sci-fi dialogue snippets about a scientist who discouraged his young, female protégé and now, presumably, will live just long enough to regret it. The inscrutably funky hipster ditty now feels like one of the most galvanizing examples of every disparate niche genre of the moment coming together like Dr. Funkenstein’s monster. Such was the scene in Detroit, where P-funk had recently turned slop into a cosmic initiative and where very shortly A Number of Names would unleash “Sharivari” and, with it, techno. Henderson


70. Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” (1981)

“What cha gonna do when you get out of jail?” “I’m gonna have some fun!” The opening lines of Tom Tom Club’s toss-off “Genius of Love” are worth isolating for being among the most bizarre calls to the dance floor. But then the entire TV Party-era song is blissfully, petulantly off its rocker: a disjointed, stream-of-consciousness smoke signal from a lovesick club girl tearing her ears away from Bootsy Collins (and her nose away from the white lines) just long enough to ask if anyone’s seen her “genius of love” boyfriend lately. Former Talking Heads bandmates Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (and a disparate cast of Caribbean musicians, including the same “Sly and Robbie” mentioned in the lyrics, borrowed from Grace Jones) didn’t seem to actually write the song so much as channel its juicy/sweet guitar-driven energy into a compact diorama of the disco-friendly vitality of New York new wave. That which borrows is, in turn, borrowed from, and “Genius of Love” became a charter samplers’ paradise, showing up in songs by artists as diverse as GrandMaster Flash and Mariah Carey. Henderson


69. Mr. Flagio, “Take a Chance” (1983)

Before I-F provided the great public service that was the 2001 DJ mix Mixed Up in the Hague, “Italo” was a dirty word, signifying either piano- and sample-based early-‘90s house (a la Black Box) or the brand of European mid-‘80s soulless post-disco that, in fact, wasn’t very disco at all (think synth-based footsteps to Stock Aitken Waterman beneficiaries Bananarama, Rick Astley, and early Kylie Minogue). Thank God, I-F set us straight, focusing his definitive Italo mix on the genre’s early offerings and their permutations, including A Number of Names’s “Sharevari,” Klein & M.B.O.’s “Dirty Talk” (both on this list), and especially 1983’s “Take a Chance,” among the most loved Italo disco track of all time. A remake of the Nona Hendryx-voiced Material song, “Take a Chance” provides the dance floor with everything but blood. One minute a chorus of excitable Europeans have things shrill and dramatic, the next it’s impossibly cool, as an icy robot voice generates sweet nothings over a grinding bass line. It’s the sound of the future, decaying. Juzwiak


68. Mr. Fingers, “Can You Feel It” (1986)

In the beginning, there was rhythm—the tubular, fluid flow of the 303 bassline, the clicking and tapping of primitive drum machines. But with 1986’s “Can You Feel It,” house went deeper, thanks to Larry Heard (a.k.a. Mr. Fingers), a jazz musician among insects. The Chicago classic, with a looming, pre-ambient melody and sheets of hi-hats, sounds like the hard rain of God’s tears. The spiritual potential of “Can You Feel It” was underscored in the song’s subsequent incarnations—a gospel-tinged version sung by Robert Owens, a revamp featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and, maybe most famously, the song-as-sermon version featuring Chuck Roberts’s much-sampled rant (“In the beginning, there was Jack and Jack had a groove,” it starts, laying out house’s genesis). But the moral of Roberts’s story—“House is a feeling!”—had already been conveyed by Heard’s original, wordlessly and perfectly. Juzwiak


67. Klein & M.B.O., “Dirty Talk” (1982)

For a bunch of Italians, Tomas Ramierez Carrasco and Mario Boncaldo knew shit about talking dirty. That the lack of effective sex banter doesn’t at all hinder 1982’s “Dirty Talk” is a testament to the wonderfully nonsensical charms of Italo disco. Helping make this one a camp classic are Rosanna Casale’s shrill, dippy-blond vocals. The percolating rhythms, though, were nothing to laugh at—that tubular bassline sounds suspiciously like a 303, and even if it wasn’t, “Dirty Talk” provided more than a few footsteps to house. Juzwiak


66. ABBA, “Lay All Your Love on Me” (1980)

ABBA’s entire canon, at once corny and exhilarating, is notable for sounding as if it’s being kneaded by the glamorous hands of disco on one side and the sticky fingers of glam-rock on the other. It’s this dreamy, boxed-in sense of in-betweeness that probably explains why the Swedish group’s music so easily appeals to desperate housewives and hipsters of the world; theirs is pop music for people living in the closets of their own frustration. Sexy and poignant, “Lay All Your Love on Me” is a song about love and regret, made when the group’s dynamic was at its most frayed. Pitch-perfectly grafted into the urgent, slip-and-sliding sounds of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s organ-infused production, the disaffected vocals by Agnetha Fältskog and Frida Lyngstad evoke a sad state of affairs between these former lovers. It’s the group’s take on Bergman’s relationship-on-the-rocks dramedy A Lesson in Love. Gonzalez


65. Giorgio Moroder, “From Here to Eternity” (1977)

From ABBA to Zhané, it seems as if our entire history of dance can be traced to the fruit of Giorgio Moroder’s innovative work with Donna Summer. But to ignore the Italian-born producer’s own solo work would be a dangerous oversight. With its dirtied combination of 4/4 kick drum, passive female sopranos, and Moroder’s own commanding baritone, the song’s forceful masculine subjectivity immaculately complements and interlocks with the ferocious sexual agency of Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Consider “From Here to Eternity” the Adam to the Eve of “I Feel Love”; to listen to these songs today is to behold the creation of electronic music. Gonzalez


64. Grace Jones, “Pull Up to the Bumper” (1981)

The symbiosis between disco’s superstar divas and the clubgoers whose songs they entranced was in almost every case a two-way street. The former group delivered to the latter blissful sonic hedonism in regular, 12-inch installments, and the latter returned the favor with unyielding fervent worship. This circuitous relationship breaks down each and every time when it comes to singer-model-virago Grace Jones, who, once she got disco-Broadway kitsch out of her system in her first few albums, seized control of her image and commanded respect and fear, and carried herself as someone who frankly couldn’t give a fuck whether you worshipped her or not because, clearly, plenty of others already did. “Pull Up to the Bumper” allegedly isn’t a song-length metaphor for anal sex, at least according to interviews Jones has given since its release, but that sure doesn’t mean she didn’t snatch an audience member up on stage at a live Paradise Garage performance to, quoting the Village Voice review, hump his bumper. Henderson


63. The Emotions, “Best of My Love” (1977)

Backed by Earth, Wind & Fire at the peak of their pop crossover power, the Emotions hold their feet firmly planted within their gospel roots throughout most of “Best of My Love,” keeping their melodies sweet, holding the vocal tenor of that titular love discreet, if not downright chaste. But when that last bridge comes sweeping in, their high notes start arpeggiating, and their interchanging interjections get husky. And then, just before the chorus, they allow themselves to get swept up in the physical sensation the rest of the song had already been taking listeners. And then…“Ow!” Alicia Myers’s transgressively holy-horny “I Want to Thank You” made the pursuit of sexual fulfillment nothing less than a spiritual mission statement, to beatific effect, but these one-time church choir girls managed to best her with one single note. Henderson


62. Basement Jaxx, “Breakaway” (2001)

Latin, dub, disco, electroclash, purple music: No style seems beyond Basement Jaxx’s grasp, but if there’s one track that seemed to announce the arrival of the duo as a genre unto themselves, it very well might be a non-single track from the Rooty album: “Breakaway.” Anticipating the heady overkill that marked Kish Kash (while still avoiding that album’s oxygen-deprived lack of space), “Breakaway” is simultaneously a Paisley Park throwback (that very well might be Camille providing the helium-sucking vocals) and a blazing broken beat workout juiced out of Earth, Wind and Fire’s aggressively polytonal “Lady Sun.” Check out how they manage to make the simple descending bassline progress from twangy naked funk to a deep, fiery whirling dervish. Henderson


61. Yaz, “Situation” (1982)

Vince Clarke, the fairy godfather of dance music, began his illustrious career of reinvention as a member of Depeche Mode and today pounds out the synths for Erasure. In between outfits, he and former Screaming Abdabs member Alison Moyet created Yaz, the short-lived but successful electro-pop group whose album Upstairs at Eric’s remains surprisingly fresh. For “Situation,” Clarke dipped Moyet’s soulful vocal into a dense sea of prickly synths, chants and iconic laughter, creating a wave of ambi-sexual heat and here-there-and-everywhere momentum that continues to cast a shadow over today’s bleak dance music landscape. They don’t make them like this anymore—and they never will again. Gonzalez

Advertisement
Comments

Features

Every Daft Punk Album Ranked

In honor of the electronic duo’s nearly three-decade run, we’ve ranked all five of their albums.

Staff

Published

on

Daft Punk
Photo: YouTube

Electro-enfants terribles Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo announced the conclusion of their 28-year musical partnership in true Daft Punk fashion, with an eight-minute video titled “Epilogue,” which depicts the French duo—dressed in their iconic racing suits and robot helmets—parting ways with explosive finality. Daft Punk carved out a unique space for themselves in the electronic music world in the late 1990s with hits like “Da Funk” and “Around the World.” The group’s 2001 album, Discovery, and its accompanying nü-disco hit “One More Time” proved they were more than a French techno curio, while 2013’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories cemented Bangalter and de Homem-Christo’s status as EDM legends. In honor of Daft Punk’s nearly three-decade run, we’ve ranked all five of their albums. Sal Cinquemani



TRON: Legacy

5. TRON: Legacy Original Soundtrack (2010)

Instead of the menacing, body-ravaging textures Thomas Bangalter gave the soundtrack to Gaspar Noe’s predatory Irréversible, and instead of the even more brain-meltingly monolithic assault beats Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo perpetrated on his side-project Crydamoure label, Daft Punk’s cues for TRON: Legacy are safe, tamed, and domesticated. Instead of their previously faultless ear for yesterday’s synthetic textures that should’ve plucked the baton right from Carlos’s neo-prog fingertips, we get the same old half-Wagnerian, half-Carmina Buranic pulsations, with heavy, plodding orchestrations, chugging string section riffs, and Hans Zimmeresque tribal drums sweetened only occasionally and very stingily with the cheapjack distortions and squelches you know and love (most notably in “Derezzed” and the end titles). It’s all too clear Disney wanted the cachet, not the daft nor the punk. Eric Henderson



Human After All

4. Human After All (2005)

With Human After All, Daft Punk demonstrated that they were willing to defend their status as practically the only French pop-house act—no, make that the only pop-house act anywhere—capable of shaping solid, unified dance music albums. And, in some inscrutable act of mercy killing, they were willing to defend it to the point of disregarding every aspect of the process that isn’t album-oriented. Human After All is a capital-A Album that somehow fails to be just about anything else: a) a collection of danceable jams, b) an act of pop artifice that, like 2001’s Discovery, also manages to work spectacularly as pop sincerity, or c) music. But, by God, there’s an LP ethos here, albeit one that seems to depend on having tapped into Discovery, the cheez-whiz blend of early-‘80s trash-rock, MOR nattering, and streamlined post-disco funk of which still proved visionary enough that its own creators apparently deigned to reimagine the brew in a masturbatory act of satire. Henderson



Random Access Memories

3. Random Access Memories (2013)

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, simultaneously the most narcissistic and selfless gesture of their careers, is a painstaking mission statement. With shades of soul brothers in bemused detachment Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the album hops between genres in a way that threatens to satisfy fans of none of them, dissecting the elements of each and filling the room with the sour odor of formaldehyde. Their music here is as unnervingly stiff and rewardingly labored as Steely Dan’s later albums, and also as rewardingly fussy. No one would dare dispute their bona fides, but their genius seems directed at too-cool-for-school deconstruction, musicianship sublimated to presumptuous but mesmerizing instructiveness. Fagen and Becker were dedicated mixologists obsessing over the flavor profiles of their homemade bitters, but refusing to let the base spirit of any cocktail assert its own innate character. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter are cake bosses sculpting layers of neon fondant into stiff peaks simulating meringue, selectively editing out the cake itself. Henderson



Homework

2. Homework (1997)

Daft Punk threw their collective dick down on the dance floor with the thick house jam “Musique,” which basically repeated the same word and filtered sample ad nauseam, almost daring you to counter that it wasn’t what its title claimed it to be. Their first LP, Homework, proved that endurance wasn’t going to be an issue. Their indescribably funky blend of fat house beats, squelching synthetic compression tricks, on-the-cheap veracity, and borrowed Studio-54 sheen would wear you out long before Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were ready to finish roll-calling their teachers. From the loopy disco of “Around the World” and the deep, syncopated rhythms of “Revolution 909” to the roaring momentum of “Rollin’ & Scratchin’,” Homework is pure, distilled club essence. Henderson



Discovery

1. Discovery (2001)

Disco never really died, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to be resurrected. And while it certainly didn’t lack for prominent advocates during the ‘90s and ‘00s, perhaps the earliest and most important champions of disco’s rebirth were the rascally robots in Daft Punk. Discovery was a surprise not just because Daft Punk was using their post-Homework cred to resuscitate a much-reviled genre, but because they also chose to embrace its cheesier sounds: the gossamer harp on “Voyager,” the strings on “One More Time.” “Yes, we love disco,” they said. “We love it big and gaudy, covered in melting makeup and glitter, ecstatic and wistful and magical. So should you.” Dave Hughes

Continue Reading

Features

The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now

These films show us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed.

Staff

Published

on

The Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson


The Endless

10. The Endless (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless first shows the appeal of commune living—everyone eats healthy, follows their blisses, and drinks copious craft beer—so that it’s all the more unnerving when the amiable façade falls away. Throughout, there are plenty of hints that something’s up, and the filmmakers excel at crafting an unsettling atmosphere through images of multiple moons in the sky, the daylight that flickers to full-on night and back again, the flocks of birds flying in ring formations, and the fired bullets that are flattened as if by a force field of invisible brick. The Sacrament recalls Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (and the Emidio Greco’s 1974 film adaptation starring Anna Karina), in which a scientist records what’s meant to be a perfect weekend on a remote island, then projects it three-dimensionally on an infinite loop atop the locations where it unfolded—a vision of what cinema (and home movies) could be if untethered from the screen. But here, the characters aren’t recordings, and they’re at least partially conscious of their imprisonment, consigned to live out the same events in perpetuity. As such, knotty, unlikely philosophical issues are raised, and if there’s any disappointment here, it’s that the film settles into Spielbergian Hollywood clichés about how divided families come back together. Henry Stewart


Snowpiercer

9. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen


Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen


Safety Not Guaranteed

7. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)

More focused on emotion than adventure, Safety Not Guaranteed teases out the possibilities and perils of time travel without embroiling itself in the confusion inherent to the subject. It also avoids most of the usual sci-fi clichés, with a suburban mad scientist who’s part man child, part Morel, using his invention as a means to heal adolescent scars. Played by Mark Duplass with just the right mixture of oblivious eccentricity and simmering hurt, the deft handling of this potentially ridiculous character is one of the many nice touches in this surprisingly poignant comedy. The film’s ending does seem to conflict sharply with its “you can’t go back” message, with the sudden appearance of special effects signaling an abandonment of the emotional and narrative verisimilitude exhibited so far. But it’s easy to excuse the film for going for the happy ending, considering how balanced it’s been up to this point, crafting characters that aren’t defined solely by silliness or sentimentality. Jesse Cataldo


Hardcore Henry

6. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Ed Gonzalez


Midnight Special

5. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray


Mad Max

4. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen


The End of Evangelion

3. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole


A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Jeremiah Kipp


Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley

Continue Reading

Features

The Best Horror Movies on Hulu Right Now

We’re spotlighting our favorite movies currently streaming on Hulu.

Staff

Published

on

The Best Horror Movies on Hulu Right Now
Photo: Neon

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Hulu. Budd Wilkins


Coherence

10. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

Beginning as a more earnest Night of the Comet before swiftly morphing into an episode of the Twilight Zone without sacrificing its you-are-there vérité, Coherence is a low-budget chamber drama that firmly puts the psychological screws to its characters. It gathers four couples at a dinner party the same evening a comet passes Earth, an occurrence that promptly severs cellular communications and cuts electricity. But when the group realizes that a house down the street still possesses power, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian), adhering to standard scary-movie convention, go sleuthing. Once they return, however, the narrative, which had been building slowly into a haunted-house attraction, with menacing noises at the door and ominous stories about Siberia’s Tunguska Event of 1908, realigns and turns diabolically quizzical, reimagining Mike Cahill’s Another Earth as a taut parlor game of possible parallel lives. Nick Prigge


Mom and Dad

9. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor, 2017)

Writer-director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad invests a hoary conceit with disturbing and hilarious lunacy. Unfolding over the course of a long day, the film follows parents as they’re driven to kill their children in a mass outbreak of violence. Doubling down on the horror genre’s propensity for chaos, Taylor eliminates the gradual escalation that characterizes the average thriller. There’s no sense of benevolent normalcy in Mom and Dad, or of a control state that’s to be eventually restored or at least fought for. The filmmaker suggests that casual hostility within the family unit is the real normal, buried underneath an ornate series of social pretenses. Photographed by Daniel Pearl, who fashioned the sun-cracked landscapes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film’s images have a similarly gritty sense of overexposure. The editing fuses multiple timelines while parodying the internet-surfing ADD of the modern world, propelling the narrative forward while fostering a tone of cheeky debauchment. Taylor stages violence with an unmooring sense of bodily concussion—which is rendered all the more disturbing by the film’s nasty comic streak. Chuck Bowen



The Dead Zone

8. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of one of King’s best novels displays a working philosophy that will characterize the filmmaker’s future interpretations of “difficult” books by William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo: He finds the thematic center of the source material, pruning or changing whatever’s necessary to heighten it. In this case, Cronenberg softens King’s kink and gore, honing the narrative to entirely reflect the yearning for “normalcy” that hounds Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) as a car accident and prolonged coma transform him from a meek, gawky schoolteacher into a tormented, decidedly Walken-esque eccentric who resembles a rock star and proceeds to alter people’s futures. Walken’s playing a classic Cronenberg protagonist: a gifted, temporarily empowered man who’s altered in a fashion that allows him to wrestle, tragically, with the differences between his internal and external selves. There’s a memorably lonely, unsettling image of a long, gray tunnel that encapsulates Johnny’s straddling of two worlds: the conventional world, and the “dead zone” that he accesses when calling on his new power. Bowen


A Quiet Place

7. A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)

A Quiet Place, like John Carpenter’s The Thing before it, contributes a strikingly original monster to the genre of horror films focused exclusively on surviving an invasive threat. The big bad at the center of John Krasinski’s film is a species of flesh-eating hellion that happens to be blind, and thus its potential prey can successfully evade capture by being silent at all times. When the bonds between the Abbotts are tested by the external threat of the alien invaders, the viscerally physical ways in which they protect each other from harm are powerful, and it becomes clear that these characters have had to learn different and perhaps more subtle methods of communication due to the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves. The pleasure of the film is in Krasinski’s commitment to imagining the resourceful ways in which a family like this might survive in this kind of world, then bearing witness to the filmmaker’s skillfully constructed methods of putting them to the ultimate test, relentlessly breaking down all of the walls the family has erected to keep the monsters out. Richard Scott Larson



Cujo

6. Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983)

Lewis Teague’s gallingly underrated adaptation of an equally underrated novel embraces the unwavering, visceral brutality of King’s writing in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The book’s central conceit—of a rabid Saint Bernard as a metaphor for unchecked addiction—is softened by narrative trimming, but the chaos, violation, and sheer velocity of King’s vision are still allowed to break through. Teague beautifully builds to the carnage, allowing us to feel sympathy for Cujo even as he devolves into a monster, emphasizing the heavy heat of the dog’s body as it grows deranged by disease, and, later, the piercing sun as it bakes a mother and son trapped by Cujo in their broken-down car. That car is a significant touch: King’s interest in addiction may be dulled here, but his understanding of the apocalyptic fear gripping those with money problems is accorded full prominence. As Cujo’s prospective victims, Dee Wallace Stone and Danny Pintauro give performances of such naked, panicked urgency that the viewer feels as if they’re eavesdropping on something privileged and primordially awful. This is the film that Mary Lambert’s misbegotten Pet Semetary wanted to be. Bowen


The Host

5. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Scott Wilson’s deliciously hammy presence as the American captain in the opening scene indicates that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is, in the broadest sense, a politically charged diatribe against both American and Korean political cover-up machinations of misinformation. But that aspect is rather bland in comparison to what else the film has to offer. For, like any great monster movie, this isn’t a film strictly about a monster—or, for that matter, the monstrous countries that spawned it—but about something else: the significance of sustenance. That is, The Host is a film chiefly concerned with food: who, how, and where we get it from, what it is we choose to eat, and why we eat it at all. Ryland Walker Knight



Possessor

4. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg, 2020)

Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is obsessed with tensions between mind and body, and old and new technologies. An analog man in a digital world, Cronenberg invests a narrative along the lines of his father David’s eXistenZ and Christopher Nolan’s Inception with psychedelic imagery and jolts of gouging, bone-splitting, unambiguously in-camera body horror that rival anything in modern cinema for tactility and pure outrageousness. In the process, he imbues Possessor with a disturbing irony: The film’s violence serves as a kind of relief for its perpetrators, who’re displaced by technological doodads and come to long for tangibility, corporeal terra firma, no matter how perverse. Bowen


Unfriended: Dark Web

3. Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco, 2018)

No genre is better at processing our contemporary anxieties than horror, and perhaps no film has more fully captured the modern paranoia of living under constant surveillance by our own technology than Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web. In ways both terrifying and ludicrous, the film explores how such essential modern tools as laptops, phones, and Skype can be turned against us by unseen forces. Like its predecessor, the film plays out in real time, only this time it drops its main character into the darkest corners of the internet, where life is cheap and everything’s a game. Susco makes full use of the restrictions of the film’s format, employing multiple windows and digital glitches to juice up the suspense. If certain plot points require some fairly significant suspension of disbelief, the film’s vision of a world in which we’re all being manipulated by our cherished products nevertheless rings chillingly true. We aren’t, as the ubiquitous Microsoft commercial would have us believe, living in the future we always dreamed of, but rather in a nightmare of our own design. Keith Watson


Let the Right One In

2. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Ed Gonzalez


The Tenant

1. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando Croce

Continue Reading

Features

The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now

These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.

Staff

Published

on

The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
Photo: Universal Pictures

Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.

Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”

At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins



Under the Shadow

10. Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016)

Like an Iranian take on The Babadook, writer-director Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an emotionally direct and realistic horror story centered around a socially isolated mother and child who are terrorized by eerie supernatural events. Living in Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during Iran’s long war with Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) feels the world closing in on her, a suffocation that comes to feel almost tactile through the specificity with which Anvari details her day to day. The paranormal happenings are very likely a combination of the mother’s hallucinations and the child’s way of making sense of the violence the mother perpetrates as her sanity ebbs and flows, but Anvari keeps things creepy in part by leaving open the possibility that there really may be something supernatural gripping his milieu. Elise Nakhnikian



Cam

9. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber, 2018)

When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard



The Blackcoat’s Daughter

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Oz Perkins, 2015)

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Chuck Bowen



His House

7. His House (Remi Weekes, 2020)

In writer-director Remi Weekes’s debut feature, His House, the unresolved trauma that strips away at an immigrant family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol (Sope Dirisu) is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa. As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film. Derek Smith



1922

6. 1922 (Zak Hilditch, 2017)

In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen



The Invitation

5. The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan



Unfriended

4. Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014)

The computer screen to which we’re exclusively moored throughout Unfriended belongs to Blaire (Shelly Hennig), a popular high school girl who likes to while away her evenings listening to Spotify while she Skypes with her oft-shirtless boyfriend. One night their video chat is intruded on by several of their classmates—along with a pictureless mystery caller. It soon transpires that the caller in question is Laura Barnes, a former friend of Blaire’s who committed suicide after an embarrassing video went viral, apparently back from the grave to take digital revenge. There’s a ripped-from-the-headlines quality to all of this, but the purpose isn’t merely to sensationalize; there are very real, very relevant contemporary anxieties coursing through this story, lending the horror a provocative charge. More impressive still is how effectively Levan Gabriadze illustrates Laura’s brutal reckoning: When the genre-film spectacle arrives, it’s in full force, and the strictures of the framing device manage to amplify, rather than suppress, the impact of the shocks and scares. The result is a staggering thing—that rare breed of horror film to invent a gimmick and perfect it all at once. Calum Marsh



Before I Wake

3. Before I Wake (Mike Flanagan, 2016)

Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen



The Guest

2. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)

The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen


The Blair Witch Project

1. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)

Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick

Continue Reading

Features

IFFR 2021: Friends and Strangers, Bipolar, King Kar, & Sexual Drive

A number of notable films at IFFR this year are concerned with our digital lives and people trying to survive in a fractured world.

Ben Flanagan

Published

on

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
Photo: IFFR

Cautious optimism is the guiding principle of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, which has opted, like other festivals since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for a “hybrid” model. As the film industry at large continues to fret over its survival, this festival known for its focus on cutting-edge media art has slotted into its program a number of films conspicuously concerned with our digital lives and people trying to survive in a fractured world. Perhaps inevitably, their ruminations on the challenges faced by physical communities and the very need for physical spaces will feel especially resonant to those watching these films from the (dis)comfort of their homes.

James Vaughan’s feature-length directorial debut, Friends and Strangers, is a highlight of the festival’s Tiger Competition. The film begins as a fairly well-worn tale of millennial angst, with a pair of Sydney-sider acquaintances, Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz), agreeing to camp together on their way back from a trip to Brisbane. Whatever potential for romance drew them to a shared tent in a beautiful patch of nature is scuppered when a few awkward conversations with locals make them realize that they have very little in common. While Ray hopes for a quick rebound after being recently dumped, Alice can’t even muster a smile as she takes a dozen selfies in the woods. If would seem that, mentally, they’re still stuck in Sydney, but home doesn’t exactly suggest a kind of Eden, given how they’re thrown into chaos when, upon their return, the metropolis is revealed to be a den of miscommunication.

The film’s Sydney is all popping colors and steely surfaces, with cinematographer Dimitri Zaunders skillfully homing in on its labyrinthine streets (he’s also attuned to the still heat of Australia’s east coast). This literalizes the impression of Ray and Alice struggling to navigate an internal maze of manners. Across a set of encounters between upper middle-class people, relationships become increasingly fleeting and mutual understanding more elusive (shades of Hong Sang-soo). As a generic Aussie bloke, Ray is read by everyone he meets as a schmuck, and his painful earnestness and eagerness not to offend results in quite the opposite.

The characters here always seem to know each other’s gossip, and they all seem to live most fully in the world of social media. There’s no greater transgression in the world of Vaughn’s film than going cell-free, as not calling ahead or filling each other in on their movements constantly gets someone in trouble. In a vignette where a battle of attrition between warring neighbors is effectively won by someone who owns the biggest, most obnoxious sound system, we see how waves of technology place barriers between people, and how for these well-to-do characters, their joie de vivre is derived from causing drama.

Pop music and tech culture has caused invisible barriers to insulate people in Queena Li’s Bipolar. Chinese singer-songwriter Leah Dou, daughter of musicians Dou Wei and Faye Wong, plays a Gen-Z singer who, in a spin on the Orpheus tale, is attempting to return a rainbow lobster to the sea. We’re given little backstory about Dou’s protagonist, whose name even eludes us. Throughout, flashbacks make the most of the actress’s rock-star cool, with wide-angle shots that sweep up and down bodies, zipping across clubs and staircases, as if trying to explain away her character’s past life as a blur of hedonism. As she steals the lobster from the restaurant of a Tibetan hotel, convinced of its magical properties, and travels to its supposed resting place at Ming Island, meetings with others seem of little value to her.

The film, as she encounters an assortment of colorful characters, suggests its floating in and out of dreams. Sometimes she moves unnoticed through sequences as though a ghost, and as she crosses Tibet, she becomes increasingly alienated from her own self; everything from her outlook on the future to her gender expression to responses to the behavior of men is constantly shifting. Li’s filmmaking is beautifully moody, as in her use of color to show the main character’s soul opening up (weaved into the monochrome frame, beams of purple, red, and blue crawl from the skyline like tendrils), but it’s hard to shake that it’s not only been influenced by the work of Terrence Malick, Federico Fellini, even Abel Ferrara, but that it’s pitching itself to the tastes of festival audiences. Despite the main character’s desperation to return to a kind of primal state, the digital, hyper-real landscape of the film feels unintentionally at odds with that quest, that Li’s imagined poetry, the stuff of the modern world, is something that Dou’s character must overcome in order to find something “real.”

King Kar

An image from Renata Pinheiro’s King Kar. © IFFR

The influence of more than a few giants of Western cinema is present, too, in King Kar, which envisions Bolsonaro’s Brazil, namely the city of Caruaru, as a corporate-friendly dystopia, where technology will make empty promises about environmental well-being. At the center of Renata Pinheiro’s sci-fi film, a kind of riff on Stephen King’s Christine, is a young street urchin, Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.), who can communicate with cars. With the help of his uncle (Matheus Nachtergaele, in an extraordinarily physical performance), they fix up old cars that have been banned in Brazil, retooling the write-offs as the ultimate smart cars. And at the center of the film is the “king car” taxi that Uno was born in, whose malevolent aura is accentuated by its power of speech. Tongue as silver as Audrey II, it not only manipulates others to kickstart a populist revolution against capitalism, it also steals the uncle’s girl (Jules Elting).

King Car takes her to a make-out point overlooking the city and she dances for it before straddling its roof. The scene de-centers pleasure away from her and onto the object, by showing her gyrating in double vision, and in the moment it seems as if we’re seeing through the machine’s eyes. An oddball vision for sure, King Car is also crass, particularly as it gets into a subplot about a city being regenerated through people’s renewed interest in nature, in a gesture toward green new deal politics that amounts to empty window dressing. The lure of the automobile as a sexual object also seems quaint when you consider that Ridley Scott had Cameron Diaz ride a bonnet in The Counselor, and that David Cronenberg, with Crash, made the definitive statement on the relationship between the cold machine and the warm body without landing as hard as Pinheiro does here into exploitation-leaning themes.

By contrast, Yoshida Kota’s Sexual Drive is an anthology film that explores sexual fetish (of the culinary kind) without showing physical intimacy. One sequence of tofu being prepared is literally shot like a porno, with guitars comically shredding on the soundtrack and close-ups between panting faces watching a sizzling wok. “It’s ready,” grins the chef. It isn’t only food that forces the characters into submission. In one segment, a businessman receives an anonymous phone call, taunting him for, among other things, his mistress’s poorly kept Instagram page. Sitting at the bar of a restaurant where silence is mandatory, his airpods act as a vessel for the devilish voice in his head. The entire system of aspirational lifestyle goods has brought the characters in Sexual Drive to this point. In its close-ups on ordinary objects like shoes and seatbelts, shot with the same carnal expectancy as the food, it reappropriates sexual dynamics for a locked-down culture that sees the same domestic objects day in, day out.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from February 1—7.

Continue Reading

Features

IRFF 2021: Tim Leyendekker’s Feast and Selim Mourad’s Agate Mousse

Both films, part of the festival’s Tiger Competition, bask in philosophical and erotic consequences of illness.

Diego Semerene

Published

on

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
Photo: IFFR

Premiering at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, visual artist and photographer Tim Leyendekker’s feature-length directorial debut, Feast, is a chimera of a film, one in which every sequence borrows from a different essayistic tradition, from re-enactment to more formally radical methods. These distinct grammars are connected by a sustained detachment as we accompany a group of bareback-loving gay men accused of injecting HIV-infected blood into their chemsex partners without their consent.

The film, based on true events that rocked Holland in 2005, is a welcome reminder that the boundaries between wanting and not wanting are often unclear, that sexual desire’s tacit agreements are generally bound to be misunderstood by systems built on a logic of rationality. In other words, desire makes a different kind of sense, one that’s often antithetical to the demands of the law, an argument that the film seems to be slowly making throughout.

Each of the film’s seven vignettes drops us into a world that appears to exist in a liminal space between aesthetic modes, and the effect is discombobulating. In the process, Feast exposes the impossibility of untangling fact from fiction. This leaves us with only one feeling to nibble on: a sense that these fragments, all of which highlight the complex relationship between consent, sexual practice, and queer kinship, will eventually pay off philosophically, not emotionally.

We aren’t waiting to see if the accused get convicted, or reveling in descriptions of days-long bareback orgies. We know, early on, that the law makes no room for the ambiguities, contradictions, or self-destructive propensities of desire. It makes no room for eroticism or feelings. And the film embodies that stance, as in a scene where a latex gloves-wearing female officer empties a bag belonging to one man and announces its contents—dildos, poppers, anal beads, baggies of drugs—with the clinical disaffection of Martha Rosler in Semiotics of the Kitchen. The only thing Leyendekker eroticizes in the film is coffee, in a sequence where one of the accused makes espresso and froths milk with the most delectable of frothers.

Otherwise, Feast follows a cerebral approach that recalls, in addition to Semiotics of the Kitchen, Doria García’s Segunda Vez, a cryptic essay film supposedly driven by the ideas of Argentinian psychoanalyst Oscar Masotta. In Segunda Vez, we’re forced to experience a succession of sequences like a sleuth searching for a conceptual through line. Both Garcia and Leyendekker’s films revel in the confusion of fact with fiction, enactment and re-enactment, metaphorical dialogue and theoretical diatribe. And while Feast is much more forthcoming about its plot, it ultimately simmers in the abstract concepts that have brought it to life, not in the narrative itself. Yet only rarely does the dialogue feel pedagogical, as the philosophical musing is allocated not only to speech but to the unstable aesthetics of the film itself.

One of the most jarring, and poignant, moments in Feast takes the shape of a traditional documentary sequence that teases out the poetic and life-affirming dimension of viruses. A female scientist working with plants makes the case for the symbiotic relationship between viruses and the bodies that host them, arguing for the many benefits of harboring, and even transmitting, a virus. Most significantly, she addresses the way plants can accept the symptoms caused by light viruses so that by the time the plant is infected with higher viruses it will carry on as normal, working with the pathogen in a sort of collaboration. It’s obviously a commentary on queer ways of understanding the relationship between HIV-positive people and the virus that not just inhabits their bodies but that co-authors their lives.

Agate Mousse

An image from Selim Mourad’s Agate Mousse. © IFFR

The allegory becomes a little too literal when an off-camera voice, presumably the filmmaker’s, asks the expert if the infected plants try to infect their neighboring flowers. The sequence quickly retreats into more figurative terrain, though, as the lab worker demonstrates a lab infection using petals, a virus-filled syringe, and a pestle and mortar. She explains that when the plant gets sick it communicates to the others, by air or roots, to let them know that there’s an infection nearby. Then the neighboring plants will start boosting their immune system so they can be prepared for the disease before surrendering to it.

Selim Mourad also plays with ideas around the diseased queer body by weaving divergent visual grammars in Agate Mousse, channeling Guillaume Dustan’s fearless indecency, Hervé Guibert’s radical vulnerability, and Joaquim Pinto’s diaristic essayism. For Mourad, as is often in the work of Dustan, Guibert, and Pinto, the artist is naked and the artist is sick—the price to pay for acknowledging self-implication in the artifacts one creates. And, like the infected flowers in Feast, the artist basks in the philosophical and erotic consequences of illness.

Mourad’s body is shutting down, as he’s discovered a lump in his testicle and an abscess in his mouth. We see him lying on a hospital bed, being told that he needs to lose one testicle in order to save the other, trading necrosis for prosthesis. The film’s video diary aesthetic quickly breaks into a series of melancholy musings as Mourad starts to speak directly to the camera, and eventually trembles naked on the floor in a kind of performance art. “All I do now is love my parents as I wait for them to die and for me to be knocked out by it,” he tells us.

The greatest pleasures in Agate Mousse come from simply watching the film change registers, digging further into or moving refreshingly away from its core concept: the perverse ecstasy of suffering. In many ways, this is a textbook example of an essay film in that it tries out many costumes (“I dress up in screens,” Morad declares in the voiceover at one point), but always goes back to savoring the magnificence of language: words printed on screen or spoken as lamentation. Unspeakable words, useless words. Words for words’ sake. Words that prop up and carry the film, stitching together the usual suspects of essayistic filmmaking in chameleonic fashion: a self-ethnographic gaze, intimacy rendered public, exposure of cinema’s apparatus, aesthetic playfulness, including a Meliès-esque circular framing of images, and a litany of artistic references, from Andrea Mantegna to Chris Marker.

International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from February 1—7.

Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Richard Kelly on Southland Tales As an Ever-Evolving Work in Progress

Kelly discusses the so-called “Cannes cut” of Southland Tales and his desire to incorporate new material into the film.

Marshall Shaffer

Published

on

Richard Kelly
Photo: Dale Robinette

“Movies are like haircuts,” David Fincher once quipped. “They seemed like a good idea then, and you just don’t want to see a picture of it later.” Richard Kelly would likely beg to differ. He’s never far removed from tinkering or overhauling one of the three movies he directed in the first decade of the 2000s—Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, and The Box—each of which faced some struggle or interference in making the leap from script to screen. If he doesn’t like the way his films look, Kelly isn’t afraid to keep playing around with them until they meet his satisfaction—even if a cult fandom has sprung up around the rough-hewn imagination on display in their shaggier original versions.

Nearly 15 years after it bombed in spectacular fashion at the Cannes Film Festival, Kelly’s sophomore feature, Southland Tales, can finally be seen as originally intended, courtesy of an Arrow Blu-ray release. But don’t call this restoration a director’s cut, as the so-called “Cannes cut” is still unfinished. This version of the film still leaves intact some rickety visual effects and doesn’t attempt to impose any further intelligibility on his ambitious saga of post-9/11 paranoia and panic. Southland Tales is better left unexplained (if it can even be explained), just experienced as a collage of spectacularly staged aughts-era anxieties.

Getting the Cannes cut of Southland Tales in front of fans is just the latest step in Kelly’s long-gestating desire to “complete” the film, which may require him to envision and create a transmedia project the likes of which audiences have never seen. It’s a prospect that excites more than it daunts Kelly, who spoke to me last week about the arrival of the Southland Tales Cannes cut on Blu-ray and his desire to incorporate new material into the film.

How would you introduce Southland Tales to someone who doesn’t know its backstory?

Well, first I would say that it’s still a work in progress. It might be better to start with the theatrical version because it has both more narrative information and less. It’s set up as chapters four-to-six of a six-chapter story, where the Cannes version is set up as much more dreamlike but has a complete narrative arc because it has more scenes and character development. But it’s also unfinished. It’s sort of like two companion films that are both unfinished. That’s what I’d tell them on a technical level, but on a thematic level, I would tell them it’s a portrait of the aughts, the aftermath of 9/11, and a kaleidoscope of paranoia.

Are your films, or the ideas behind them, ever finished?

Well, I would love to be able to properly finish a film one day! [laughs] I say that with humility and gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given. I was very lucky to have been able to start directing movies at the age of 24, which is when I sold Donnie Darko, and 25 when I made and edited the film. That’s very young to start making movies. I definitely didn’t have the budget that I needed on the first two films to do everything I wanted to do in terms of visual effects. Really, on Southland Tales, we needed to make about six hours of story. We needed to make two big movies to tell the whole story. We needed a lot more resources, visual effects, animation—all these things that just didn’t exist in 2005 when we shot the film. There’s always a chance to expand on these stories. With Southland Tales, so much has happened in the world in the 15 years since that it just feels like the world of the film is worth revisiting. I’ve done so much work to expand the story, and there’s a graphic novel prequel series to the film. It just feels like now’s really the time, if we’re going to do it, to try and engage with expanding the story and really finishing it with all the resources we have today. I think my first two films, and especially my second film, were kind of just built to be expanded upon.

Is there something psychological that keeps drawing you back beyond the mistimed or mismanaged releases to the films? You seem like an outlier among directors in your willingness to hold onto a project for so long.

Hollywood has always been obsessed with sequels. Growing up, part of me always wanted to be either a novelist, a political cartoonist, or an architect. As a filmmaker, I get to be all three. To be a novelist requires a great deal of patience and commitment. It’s an enormous challenge to write a big, sprawling novel. There are two books—well, there’s many books—that you see in Donnie Darko. One of them that you see being read by Donnie’s parents is It by Stephen King, one of his longest novels. In my mind, some of the films that I’ve made would just be one chapter in a much bigger novel in my head. The best version of a sequel that Hollywood can make is a better chapter in a novelistic story, and it’s something that feels necessary, justified, and organic to the material. At the start of my career, especially with Southland Tales and the graphic novels, I was making part of a novel in my mind. That’s my version of a sequel. Southland Tales is a prequel and a sequel sort of all baked together in a dual timeline narrative. That’s what I envision for the six-hour expansion that I’m hoping to shoot.

You’ve mentioned that Southland Tales, if released today, might make more sense as a limited series or a two-part movie. But given how you want to incorporate graphic novels or other intersecting forms of media into the film, it seems like you might need something even bigger. Have you seen any transmedia projects that you see as a potential template, or are you going to have to invent the wheel here?

It’s a new template for what I’m trying to do, and I don’t think it’s exactly been done before. Obviously, a lot of longform films are being made with the same director, screenwriter, and crew. I think what Scott Frank just did with The Queen’s Gambit, a limited seven-chapter story that was very contained and had a singular vision, is an example. You’ve also got something like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology of five films with five separate storylines. Also you got what the Coen brothers did with The Battle of Buster Scruggs and, obviously, Zack Snyder’s cuts of his prior work. With Southland Tales, I’m wanting to create a whole new film and shoot new footage that would integrate into the existing one to make a big double feature. It’s just a question of whether there are streaming platforms that are amenable to these ideas, open to letting filmmakers present expanded narratives and sequel-ized narratives in a way that’s revisionist and forward-thinking in how we’re digesting narrative in the streaming world. I think there’s a new frontier that we’re able to explore now because so many people are watching movies at home, and they’re watching them on their computer screen. They’re watching them in chapters. And as much as I love the theatrical experience—and if I do get to finish my two big Southland Tales movies, I would love for them to play in theaters at some point if possible. I’m just very cognizant of the fact that a lot of people are going to be watching things at home. That’s just the nature of the way the world has evolved.

You’re very clear that the Cannes cut is by no means a “finished” version of the film or even a “director’s cut.” When you’re able to finish it, are you going to be approaching it from trying to return to your mindset circa the mid-aughts? Or are you going to let all the insight you’ve accumulated over the last 15 years guide you?

I think I’ll try to do both. There’s an aesthetic, tone, rhythm, and style to Southland Tales that I would very much want to maintain. That’s part of the challenge of doing a project like this: You have to build a time machine and travel back into the past. If I’m using animation to create a prequel narrative that leads up into the existing story, which is the 2008 timeline, I’m going to make sure that it’s fluid—that it flows directly into the existing timeline and the style, technique, and the delivery of the story is consistent. That’s a challenge, but you also have the gift of the footage that exists that we captured in 2005 as a companion, guide, and style rubric. That’s very exciting. And then there’s the opportunity to look into the future and the sort of nesting-doll narrative that exists inside, which is Boxer and Krysta’s screenplay looking forward to the year 2024. It’s exciting to think of things that were teased in the existing film. When you see Boxer and Krysta [Dwayne Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar] discussing their script, they’re going into great detail, very excited about the roles, and what the world’s like. Again, it’s very obedient to the rules and laws set forth by the existing material.

When you’re writing something ahead of its time like Southland Tales, are you keeping in mind the audiences of the time? Or are you writing it for posterity?

I like to think that I’m more mature today than I was in 2005. And I’d like to think that I’ve grown a lot as an artist, that I’m a more organized person in terms of my skills as a screenwriter in planning and mapping things out. My films have never really gone down easily in terms of their reception. Southland Tales was received in a very disruptive, polarizing way at Cannes. The movies definitely suffered because of that. We weren’t even allowed to bring The Box to a festival. My movies have never been particularly audience-friendly, but they’ve aged well with the test of time. That’s challenging, and not really a way for me to sustain a long career. I do need to connect with regular audiences immediately. I’ve been really focused on writing, for the most part, over the past 10 years and building an arsenal of projects. When the floodgates finally open, I’ll hopefully be directing for a long time. This new world with streaming platforms, you’re not as beholden to the risks of theatrical box office revenue. That’s a treacherous world to live in because you’re judged and sometimes condemned based on an opening weekend or a per-screen average. That’s ultimately not the filmmaker’s fault, but rather the marketing strategy. On a streaming platform, you don’t have to spend all this marketing money and play the lottery of which weekend you release it.

I’m curious what you make of this ret-conning of the George W. Bush administration? Watching Southland Tales recently, I think what I found most striking is that it takes place in an alternate America that actually grapples with the psychic toll of the Iraq War in a way that I don’t think we as a nation ever did.

The Trump presidency was just such a big and traumatizing event for so many people. We just went through a four-year Twilight Zone episode in a lot of ways. I think the whole world feels like it was in this surreal dream world, and that we’re all still kind of waking up from it. I think we’re kind of trying to come back to a sense of normalcy. But I will always kind of go back to 9/11 as another catastrophic, seismic event that just altered the course of history. Southland Tales is very much a post-9/11 piece of art that’s a product of that aftermath. It was made in that aftermath, four years later. It was made in 2005, completed in 2006, and even a little bit into 2007 in terms of trying to finish the theatrical version of the film. It’s definitely looking back further, much earlier than Trump. But, again, there’s a cause and effect. You can look at cause and effect all throughout history, and how this led up to that. [Many] catastrophic events occur either on the day of a presidential election or the immediate aftermath with the policies and events that occurred in their shadow. If I’m ever visiting or looking into the past, I’m always trying to take note of what were the events that got us here. What would be the seismic events that transformed the world and made us who we are? How can we analyze the recent past to make sense of the present tense and even into the future? It’s always really important for me to keep looking back. Boy, will we be studying those four Trump years for a long time in history books, but it’s really important to keep looking back. Particularly in 21st-century studies, because I’ve really been only doing this since the year 2000.

Was there any backlash toward setting the film in 2008? There’s something perverse and unsettling about having it be the site of social decay rather than hope, which many people saw given that it was when the Bush presidency was ending?

Listen, this was a film about doomsday, but it was intended to be a therapeutic portrait of doomsday. Literally, as we were shooting the film, the Katrina disaster was unfolding. Things weren’t looking good. We were in a dark place. And I think even when we brought the film to Cannes, people were exhausted and angry. There wasn’t hope yet on the horizon. I don’t think we even had a glimmer of an idea of who would be our president in the 2008 election. We hadn’t even gotten to that point yet, the light was pretty far down at the end of that tunnel at that point. I think opening a film with nuclear bombs exploding in Texas isn’t necessarily a pleasant idea; it’s a terrifying idea. Our intent was to put you into a situation where you think, “Oh, this could be so much worse. What if this became so much worse?” And then let’s flash-forward into this dream world with all of these candy-colored, fun, joyful performers that you remember. And let’s try and be therapeutic about doomsday, make sense of it, and go on this bonkers journey together. Try and find resurrection, salvation, and some kind of paradise on the other side. So that was always our intent. It was a lot to digest back then. But, now, maybe it feels like a meal that we’re ready to really sit down and devour six courses of it.

Boxer and Krysta’s script is set in 2024. Think we’ll have something just before then like the original release of Southland Tales?

I’m just trying to get this off the ground and get it done before everyone gets too old! There’s an expiration date on all of us, but a lot of us are still in our prime. I would just love, more than anything in my whole career, to be able to finish this project. We’re working really hard to figure out how to pull it off. 2024 sounds like a great deadline, and I would love to meet it. I hope we’re all still here and in a much healthier place by then.

Continue Reading

Features

The 10 Best Electronic Albums of 2020

If the journey’s half the fun, then these 10 albums are certainly worth the trip.

Staff

Published

on

The Avalanches
Photo: Grant Spanier

The year’s best electronic albums drew on influences far and wide, excavating the origins of humanity (Disclosure’s Energy) and looking inward (Arca’s Kick I and Caribou’s Suddenly) or up to the heavens (Sufjan Stevens’s The Ascension and the Avalanches’s We Will Always Love You, the latter of which likely would have made our list of the 50 Best Albums of 2020 had it been released just a few weeks earlier). Twenty-twenty taught us that the answers to these quests aren’t always simple or clear, but if the journey’s half the fun, then these 10 albums are certainly worth the trip. Sal Cinquemani



2017-2019

Against All Logic, 2017-2019

Nicolas Jaar’s 2012 – 2017 was as propulsive and joy-inducing as it was dense. Follow-up 2017 – 2019 had a lot to live up to. The album’s tone is more distressed, the songs more minor-key than those on its predecessor, which sometimes featured melancholy moments but whose prevailing spirit was triumphant. 2017 – 2019 finds its creator processing a crisis, while still not leaving the dance floor entirely. Jaar packs as many dissonant, clanging noises—boiling tea kettles, angry guitar feedback, surging alarm signals—as he can into the music without losing the rhythmic threads he’s teasing through each track. The aesthetic is industrial and modernist, with metal-on-metal percussion and a gloomy pall hanging over everything. When the title lyric of “If You Can’t Do It Good, Do It Hard” barges in, it sounds like a mantra for Jaar’s harsher but no less cathartic intentions. Charles Lyons-Burt



Apple

A.G. Cook, Apple

A.G. Cook is best known as a producer for Charli XCX, the label head of PC Music, and one of the figures most responsible for ushering in the “hyperpop” moment, which took hold in a major way in 2020. Cook released two projects of his own last year: the manifold, two-and-a-half hour colossus 7G, and the more approachable Apple, which is still an oddity in and of itself. The album finds Cook laying his vocals, overcorrected with jarring pitch shifts, on top of adventurous beats full of diabolical rug-pulls and assaultive hailstorms of synthesizer. Your mileage may vary, as Cook is almost caustically sincere, and he’s certainly operating in a zone of dichotomies, cemented by the lyric on closing track “Lifeline”: “Melody with no notes/DNA with no bones/Artificially grown.” It’s the work of someone who might cite both DEVO and Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” as influences. But the album retains a sense of mystery in its polar energies, intentional excesses, and violations that make you want to keep sifting through it. Lyons-Burt



Kick I

Arca, Kick I

Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Lyons-Burt



We Will Always Love You

The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You

In 1977, NASA launched gold-plated phonograph records, representing a sort of time capsule of life on Earth, on board the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. The little green men who are fortunate enough to discover the images and sounds contained on each record, including a 90-minute selection of music, can delight in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, whale singing, and a recording of brainwaves of a human being in love. You could reasonably mistake the records’ contents as samples from an Avalanches album, and indeed, the Australian electronic group’s third effort, We Will Always Love You, contemplates the spiritual and cosmic implications presented by these records. Though not as technically jaw-dropping as their 2000 debut, Since I Left You, or its belated follow-up, 2016’s Wildflower, both of which are said to employ upward of 3,500 samples apiece, We Will Always Love You is undoubtedly the Avalanches’s most conceptual effort to date. Sophia Ordaz



Suddenly

Caribou, Suddenly

The narrative arc of Dan Snaith’s career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007’s Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Suddenly takes family as its central theme—the title comes from his daughter’s obsession with the word—with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters. Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. “Lime,” for instance, boasts the peppiness of a Röyksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and it’s a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration. Seth Wilson

Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Glenn Close on Hillbilly Elegy and Respecting the Vance Family’s Plight

Close discusses coming to understand Mamaw as a person, her views of politics in film, and more.

Alex Arabian

Published

on

Interview: Glenn Close on Hillbilly Elegy and Respecting the Vance Family's Plight
Photo: Netflix

Glenn Close thrives on personal relationships, the heart and soul of her industry, not on accolades. But don’t let that stop you from imagining what a Close Oscar acceptance speech might look like. Perhaps it would include a quote from a letter that Katharine Hepburn sent her after Close and a select few of her peers helped honor the four-time Oscar winner for a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1990.

“A great big hug for your sweet contribution,” Close read via Zoom at SFFILM Awards Night on December 9, 2020. “I’m glad I persuaded you when you were a mere child to join this terrible profession, this terrifying profession, and, let’s face it, this delicious way to spend your life. With affectionate thanks, Kate Hep.” It was a full-circle moment that encapsulates the importance of healthy industry relationships and continued commitment to the craft of acting beyond awards. “This delicious way to spend your life,” Close wrapped up her speech after receiving the SFFILM Award for Acting, “that’s what you’re awarding me for.”

For Close, SFFILM Awards Night was an early warmup for the arduous awards season ahead, one undoubtedly tamer this year as a result of an unprecedented pandemic. At the event, Close’s Hillbilly Elegy co-star Amy Adams presented her with the honor. “She is a seeker of truth, of compassion, and of deep empathy,” explained Adams about Close’s exploration of her characters. Indeed, even with characters as severe, abrasive, and sometimes appalling as Mamaw, Close manages to find the truth, compassion, and empathy in them.

Before Close “took the stage,” so to speak, I had an opportunity to sit down with the screen legend via Zoom about the role of Mamaw in Hillbilly Elegy, coming to understand the character as a person, her views of politics in film, and more.

How did Matthew Mungle and Martial Cornville, with whom you worked on Albert Nobbs, help you physically ease into the character of Mamaw?

Matthew took a mold of my nose, and I played with my hair to emulate Mamaw’s frizzy hair in pictures, which Martial used for the wig.

You are known for your physical transformations on screen. With Mamaw, that transformation is evident in your gait, facial tics, and vocal intonation. Did you bring your own personal quirks to the character?

I don’t think so. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time with the Vance family, and everyone had all these amazing stories about Mamaw. She was so loved and fierce. She always had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

Aside from family stories, what did you pick up from archival footage?

[I emulated how] she sat, held her cigarette, wore her baggy clothes, what her voice was like.

You’ve mentioned that Mamaw is toned down for the film. How so?

She was very loud. Some terrible things came out of her mouth. She liked to shock people. A man who was an extra on the street where we filmed in Middletown, Ohio, who knew her when he was a little boy, said that they loved her and they were afraid of her. [laughs] These two boys went into her house once, I guess, and she thought they looked at her girls wrong, and she chased them out of the house with her gun. I mean, she always had a gun. And she had used it.

So, she just was this larger-than-life character in everyone’s life. And to put that on film without people saying, “Oh it’s a caricature,” or “You’re going overboard,” I really think that we did a very good job in telling the Vance family’s story, and they’re moved and proud of it. So that, to me, was what we wanted to do. We wanted to create, especially with Mamaw, somebody to honor this woman, who’s so extraordinary.

That scene during which you ask the Meals on Wheels delivery worker if you can have more food is at once a dent to your character’s pride and a revealing example of a reality that so many Americans are living in. What were the conversations like with Ron before this scene about how he wanted to portray this?

It was really important to show her dignity. She wasn’t begging. She was asking. She had called them. She did tell them that she had her grandson. But then you find out that she couldn’t pay for her meds that month. That’s what people do. I read in the paper just the other day how parents are giving up their food in order to feed their children in this country. So it’s a reality that that’s what people do. And if you’re a mother, if you’re a grandmother, there’s no question what you do. You do it for your child. You do it for your grandchild.

This is a film that tells the story about family through one particular bloodline. There are universal themes like generational trauma, but politics have, especially in this moment in time, inevitably become intermeshed in the film. Do you think that the film’s themes ultimately outweigh the politics in and around it?

I do. I think politics, right now, in this country keeps people divided, which is tragic, because we have so much in common. I think, as a country, we have to learn to look at people with empathetic eyes. We have to learn the “why” of their behavior even in extreme cases. That’s our only salvation. And the privilege of trying to get under the skin of a woman like Mamaw taught me a lot about this skewed idea that many of us have about individuals like the Vances. I think, I hope, I pray that we keep telling these stories, that people realize that it’s about what unites us as human beings, not what separates us through politics.

Continue Reading

Features

Interview: Aaron Sorkin on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Steven Spielberg, and More

Sorkin discusses what a present-day Abbie Hoffman would look like, Spielberg’s patronage, and more.

Alex Arabian

Published

on

Interview: Aaron Sorkin on The Trial of the Chicago 7, Steven Spielberg, and More
Photo: Netflix

On December 9, 2020 at SFFILM Awards Night, Aaron Sorkin received the Kanbar Award for Storytelling. Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Abbie Hoffman in Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, presented the writer-director with the award, and during his speech, the actor and comedian even referred to Sorkin as “our Shakespeare of modern cinema.” That’s because Sorkin, a political junkie, if you will, often focuses on structures of power and matters of state, societal prejudice and injustices, gender roles and deconstruction, and hierarchical corruption, among other sociopolitical themes, throughout his work.

From The West Wing to The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, Sorkin is no stranger to dissecting the politics of corporate competition and depicting fortuitous moments in American economic history. With The Trial of the Chicago 7, the filmmaker scrutinizes, among other things, the shortcomings of our democratic institutions. “It’s a story that’s as relevant today as it was in ‘68, the story of systemic racism, the story of unequal justice, the story of what kind of country America will be, what kind of world we will live in,” said Cohen, who believes that Sorkin’s continued dissection of American politics throughout his storied career attests to his desire to challenge us to be better citizens of the world.

That storied career includes one Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and six Emmys. But Sorkin learned during the nascent stages of his career that low expectations and a lesser fixation on accolades allow for the most growth and productivity in his chosen industry: “For most people, it’s an honor just to be nominated. In my family, it’s an honor just to be overlooked.” One could argue that this humility keeps him at the top of his game.

Before Sorkin accepted his award at SFFILM Awards Night, I had a chance to sit down with him via Zoom and discuss what a present-day Abbie Hoffman would look like, the relationship between the leftist firebrand and Tom Hayden, Sorkin’s own relationship with Hayden, and Steven Spielberg’s involvement in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

How would Abbie Hoffman fit into present-day leftist politics?

In the film, the struggle between Tom and Abbie is very much a reflection of the intramural struggle that you see today between the left and the further left, between people who’re looking for bipartisan work, compromise, and a middle ground and people who’re tired of incremental change and looking for revolution. So that Abbie would fit in fine. But he would be a Bernie Sanders supporter, and you’d have to convince him to come over I’m guessing.

Would the Chicago Seven be as impactful in today’s sociopolitical climate?

I was just thinking about this. If you were to ask me who would the Chicago Seven be today, my answer would be, “I don’t know, but at least four of them would be women.” Maybe it was because of the draft that the leaders in this protest movement were men. But we’ve already seen that so many of the leaders in movements, the ones that I care about today, are women.

You wanted to explore three things with this film: courtroom drama, the evolution of the riot, and Abbie and Tom’s relationship. You already touched a little bit about Abbie and Tom’s relationship. What about these three elements intrigued you?

You hit it on the head. There was a long period of research. There was a lot that I had to learn about the Chicago Seven. About a dozen good books have been written on the subject, some of them by the defendants. It’s a 21,000-page trial transcript. Most critically, I got to spend time with Tom, who was alive back in 2006 when I started this whole thing [and] passed away a few years ago. And it was Tom that gave me the look into that friction between him and Abbie.

But after the research process comes the period of climbing the walls and pacing around and driving around not having any ideas, trying to figure out what story you’re going to tell. What’s it going to look like? And as you said, it organized itself into three stories that I was going to tell at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of the riot, and the friction between Tom and Abbie, two guys on the same side who plainly can’t stand each other, and each thinks the other is doing harm to the movement. And it was a combination that seemed to work.

Steven Spielberg originally brought this project to you, as you’ve mentioned before, and remained a mentor since you became attached to the production.

It all began with Steven. Steven was the one who came to me and said, “I want to make a movie about the Chicago Seven,” and then he became a producer of the film and Paul Greengrass would direct it. And then he was producing the film where Ben Stiller would direct it.

At what point did Steven begin to consider you as a director?

It went like that for years until Donald Trump was elected president and began getting nostalgic at his rallies about the old days.

I remember that. It was the day before the Nevada caucuses, at a Vegas rally. Many people don’t realize that he was referring to the 1968 Democratic Party Convention. Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis required a stretcher after he was struck in the head with a billy club. Trump said some awful things.

When they carried that guy out on a stretcher, Trump said he wanted to punch him right in the face and beat the crap out of him. And by then I had directed Molly’s Game, and Steven was sufficiently pleased with it that he thought I should direct The Trial of the Chicago 7.

What advice, if anything, or insight did he have for you while making this?

That whole way he remained a big supporter, a great source of advice. Sometimes he would give a note that I wouldn’t understand, but I was able to pass it along verbatim to the editor. And like when he would say, “In this scene, I think if you desaturate it 30%, you’re going to like what it looks like,” even saying that to you now, I’m not sure what I just said. But I am able to talk to Alan Baumgarten, our editor, and say, “Steven says we should take this section and desaturate it 30%.” So often it was advice like that.

Look, he was hard on the first cut. He really was, and I’m glad that he was because it was an instance where I implemented every one of his notes and, unsurprisingly, they all worked. So I was very grateful for that, and I will never forget one particular day—my muscles still haven’t relaxed from that one day he visited the set. And we happened to be shooting a scene in the courtroom that had the entire cast in it. So there’s nothing quite like directing some of the greatest actors in the world while Steven Spielberg’s standing behind you.

Continue Reading

Trending