Each week the Lewton Bus gang will get together and write up a brief account of something we’re digging hard on this week. It can be a movie, TV, music, or anything, really! Tell us what you’re digging in the comments.
This week, we’re doing a special halfway-into-2017 check on what our favorite movies of the year have been. We’ve got a ton of great and unique choices to look through, so get ready for some really wonderful and insightful work from our contributors!
Tanner Volz – Hounds of Love
This film is borderline unwatchable. A viciously transgressive violation of the implicit contract we enter into with all films that we shall enjoy some heightening of reality, some abstraction, some distance from awful subject matter.
Hounds of Love doesn’t give a fuck about politesse or ideas about what’s acceptable. Its goal is seemingly simple: Tell a believable story about real people who abduct and murder young women. It’s a knackered old exploitation premise, but thank to its brutal commitment to building its tired story up from its characters rather than working downward from its pitch, Hounds of Love delivers something exceptionally monstrous and affecting.
The lead performances are astonishing, immediately elevating the film well above its grim DTV peers. The central couple, played by Stephen Curry and Emma Booth, are a trashy duo in Perth who lure young women into their home with promises of pot and drink, are alternately horrific and relatable. Curry’s John is familiar sort of villain, consumed by his need to destroy women, unable to function without his partner to enable him. He is a sad, horrible man. Booth’s Evelyn is his put-upon partner, willing to do almost anything to keep John with her. In a grotesque sort of way, Hounds of Love is a love story – a love story between serial killing co-dependent suburban monsters who, for all their repulsiveness, are impossible to turn away from because you feel that you have known them.
It is uncanny and sometimes unbearable. There is some distance between us and the awful goings on in the film thanks to quite formal compositions and aggressively impressionist sound design. I was thankful. This is such an accomplished film, as unwatchably revolting as it is. It does make one particularly terrible music choice, one that I’ve heard countless others complain about so I won’t run on about it here, just watching knowing that at some point you will roll your eyes and/or laugh. I did both. At any rate. Don’t see this film unless you need to exorcise a demon or two. This is why extreme art exists, and it does more harm than good sometimes if you don’t have a legitimate emotional need to put yourself through it.
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, John Wick: Chapter 2, Fate of the Furious, Alien: Covenant
Bee McGee – Get Out
What makes this film infinitely rewatchable for me are the endless little details in all the performances, even for the actors who only have one scene. This kind of stuff is all over the party at the Armitage mansion. During the party, a series of middle-aged white people have awkward conversations with Chris about topics that these people would consider “black stuff”. While at first, this comes off as a series of standard micro-aggressions that rich, old “liberal” white folks who don’t know any better would say, on rewatch it becomes much more sinister. The injured middle-aged Tiger Woods fan wants to use Chris’ body to play golf again. The lone Japanese man at the party is wondering if it’s worth giving up the drawbacks of his own experience in exchange for the drawbacks of Chris’ experience. And, in a stellar bit of dark comedy, the trophy wife asking about the size of Chris’ package is planning on using him as, in the words of Lil Rel Howry’s Rod (which BTW is still the year’s reigning comedic performance), “a sex slave.” New details pop up on every watch of this movie, and if there was any doubt that this movie is already a classic, that element is strong evidence for that case.
Also, I swear that in the shot where Chris is reacting to seeing LaKeith Stanfield at the party, an old white lady in the background is staring at his ass.
The Best of the Rest:
Baby Driver, Okja, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman
Phillip Bastien – The Films of Andrzej Zulawski and Konstantin Lopushansky
A couple of months ago I acquired a Blu-ray of a film, Cosmos, from a cult filmmaker I had never heard of. What I expected was an arty relationship drama and instead got something completely beyond my ability to explain in coherent terms. To explain how this movie works: it’s like someone took your traditional independent romantic drama…a simple story of a law student who goes to a seaside bed and breakfast to study and forms a torrid romantic obsession that goes to some dark places…now if you took that movie and fed it’s performers a metric fuck-ton of sugar and acid and got to perform.
I then ordered every movie that was commercially available from this director.
There is something about the darkness of Eastern European cinema that appeals to me. I have never felt right about a lot of the western drama’s insistence on catharsis appealing to our desire for happy endings. Some endings can be happy, some can be sad. But so long as they look unblinkingly into the consequences of their actions, I enjoy the ending.
The works of directors behind the Iron Curtain were masters of this. The harshness of their reality meant they didn’t want their films to be salves, so they pointed their cameras right into the darkness. Others found gentleness and faith, like the work of Tarkovsky.
Others see only the black. That’s how I came across one of the blackest films I’ve ever seen: Konstantin Lopushansky’s Visitor to a Museum. A movie so utterly dark and twisted that it has left me thinking about it for days. The director made this and his first film in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and it is clearly present here. Social decay, systemic evil, physical mutation and insanity are the only clear things here. It is a bracing in its darkness, unflinching in its problematic display of the mutants (they hired hundreds of people with physical deformities and down syndrome to play the “degenerates” in the film) as well as other problems with the text, but it’s an utterly clear look into a hopeless vision of the future which doesn’t try to add sugar to the bitter pill it feeds us.
If you can find it, it won’t be an easy or comfortable watch. But it’s good to watch films that challenge our expectations as storytellers and what we are willing to experience as viewers. Not all films can be happy and joyous, and going to the other end of the spectrum, the very end, and seeing how dark we can be reveals how wide the human experience is…
The entirety of Visitor to a Museum can be found here, without subtitles, on YouTube.
CJ Robinson – Baby Driver
Without a doubt my number one movie so far this year is the rather new Baby Driver. Edgar Wright is a genius and this film just serves as further proof. Its such a departure from his usual style yet one can still see his fingerprints all over the movie.
We all know that he can write the hell out of some dialogue but in my opinion it can be overshadowed at times by the antics of the other characters in his films. However, with Baby Driver one thing that really stuck out to me was how focused the acting in this movie was. I mean holy shit. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are hilarious and good actors and Michael Cera played Scott Pilgrim exactly as he should have been played, but the direction and acting in this movie (in my opinion) overshadows any of Wright’s previous work. The post gun-deal diner scene is one of the most tension filled scenes I have watched in an incredibly long time. You get the sense that Bats (played by the incredible Jamie Foxx) would kill everyone in the diner without blinking an eye or missing a beat. You get the sense that this is one of the most dangerous people to have ever been onscreen.
That is however, until Jon Hamm’s transformation. Holy fucking shit. He goes from 0 to 100 real quick. The idea that all it took was one thing to have happened for him to become this maniac changes the way you see his character upon later viewings. While Ansel Elgort may have been the star, Jon Hamm stole the show without a doubt. In addition to great acting, so much of this performance goes to the writing and direction of Wright. This movie has stayed in my head like an earworm of sorts. The more I think about it the more stuff I realize about it. In addition to the direction, perhaps one of the smartest moves Wright made was having Baby raised by a deaf man. This juxtaposition of having a man who lives in a world of music being raised by a man who lives in a world of silence is pure genius. This movie proves that Wright is one of the greatest writer/directors of his time and I dare say, perhaps of all time.
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, It Comes At Night
Adam Bumas – The LEGO Batman Movie
The LEGO Movie was a classic of our times, and The LEGO Batman Movie‘s smartest decision is knowing the right ways to follow it. We get the same hyper-detailed, completely block-built aesthetic, the same core of earnestness that grounds all the snarky meta-commentary, and the same surprisingly textured performance from Will Arnett as the title character. There’s a lot to Lego Batman as his own figure, not just as another version of Batman: The way his second-nature refinement clashes with his naive pretensions, the way the innately cool nature of the character is always undercut, but never too much.
But where the original turned into a rousing exhortation, somehow both for and against the last twenty years of pop-cultural development, Lego Batman distinguishes itself by going for something more thoughtful. It’s essentially a cleverly taught comparative literature class, for both the young and young-at-heart: Examining how one of the titans of pop culture can encompass all these contradictions, why that happens, and what that may mean, all framed by the drama that titan’s self-reflection and attempts at reconciliation.
Also, there are no gun sound effects in the movie, the Lego people all just say “Pew pew pew” out loud. That’s great.
The Best of the Rest:
Spider-Man: Homecoming, Get Out, War for the Planet of the Apes, Colossal
Jared Eves – Logan
We’re only halfway through the year and picking five films to highlight as my “best of” so far, let alone a single film as my “favorite”, was a tricky proposition. I landed on Logan (for now) because at this halfway point of the year I still appreciate the tone and scope of the film, which feels relatively small scale, and decidedly personal. James Mangold managed to take 16 years of uneven X-film lore and turn it into something poignant. He acknowledges the events of the past without being slavish to the minutiae, working in only the occasional nod to the on-screen history in ways that feel organic.
Hugh Jackman is not only a beast at the center of the movie, but magnetic as a broken man looking for a purpose in a world that has forgotten him, and that he himself has largely tried to forget. Add to that his chemistry with the indomitable Dafne Keen, and a fragile and affecting performance from Patrick Stewart, and you have a movie that is, despite whatever flaws it may have, a classic of the genre and one of my favorite films of the year so far.
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Fate of the Furious, Wonder Woman
David Daut – Alien: Covenant
There are other films on this list that probably rank higher in terms of objective quality, but no film this year has crawled under my skin and lodged itself in my brain as completely as Alien: Covenant.
Covenant is a weird, messy, mean movie, that takes audiences on a tour through hell and asks us to identify with its metaphorical stand-in for the Devil. Michael Fassbender’s sadistic synthetic David was already the most interesting part of the fatally flawed Prometheus, and Covenant doubles down on this character. It examines the depths of his depravity while also letting us see through his eyes a weird sort of beauty found within his menagerie of monsters.
David is a being obsessed with creation who, himself, does not have the capacity to create life. Instead, he destroys – tearing down the fabric of every living thing around him and assembling the pieces into horrors only a father could love.
Metatextually, Covenant, to an extent, also tears down and reassembles the fabric of the Alien series, something a number of people have taken great offense to. And, you know, I get that. Alien is a perfect, untouchable film – a masterwork of moviemaking that deserves better than to be undercut by a lesser film playing in that sandbox. The problem, though, is that we’ve already had four of those.
Regardless of how you feel about each individual film, every subsequent entry in the Alien saga – yes, even Aliens – has blunted the impact of the original, transforming that first unknowable, unkillable Star Beast into just another space bug to be mowed down by machine guns, shattered by extreme temperature shifts, or turned into spaghetti by being sucked through a hole in the window of a spaceship. Covenant couldn’t possibly ruin the horror of the Alien because that damage has been done long ago. If anything, by making the Alien a bastard offspring of a sterile being, Covenant actually reclaims some of the weirder, psychosexual aspects of the Alien’s life cycle that has been lost in subsequent interpretations.
If Alien must exist beyond the singular, perfect movie it began as, then this off-kilter meditation on the nature of creation is, at least, a far more interesting direction for the series to take than yet another bug hunt in space. And, if nothing else, Covenant deserves celebration in the annals of cinema for giving us a scene where Michael Fassbender assures Michael Fassbender that he’ll “do the fingering”.
The Best of the Rest:
Colossal, Get Out, Baby Driver, Logan
H.M. Flores – War Machine
In recent years, Brad Pitt has opted to paly characters that act as voices of reason in chaotic environments (12 Years a Slave, The Big Short, Moneyball). So seeing him play a well-intentioned but naive U.S. Army general that doesn’t live up to his own hype was quite refreshing. Especially because, in this writer’s opinion, Pitt is at his best when he plays clueless goofballs.
Although the movie is quite a tonal mess, Pitt’s over-the-top and occasionally earnest performance made War Machine a thoroughly entertaining experience. It also earns points for its thesis about biting off more than you can chew in situations where a lot is at stake.
The Best of the Rest:
Zach Luna – Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’ve spent half a decade working as a public ambassador for Spider-Man. I’ve spent my entire living memory prior to that looking up to him. I’ve played Spidey while visiting children’s hospitals, cancer walks, charity events, store openings and red carpets. I’ve served as a Spidey reference model for comic book artists and official Marvel merchandise. I once shook Stan Lee’s hand while he crowed, “THERE you are, Spidey! Good to see you here!”
That doesn’t mean I’m the most knowledgeable Spidey fan in the world, and it doesn’t mean I’m the most qualified person to talk about him. It certainly doesn’t mean that I care more about the character than any of the other legions of devoted followers he’s amassed around the world.
But it does mean that I’ve had a lot of folks personally confess to me how important the character of Spider-Man is to them. It means I’ve seen the look in their eyes when they meet a hero that helped them in dark times and difficult transitions. It means I’ve been on the receiving end of heartfelt admissions of all the good a fictional character can inspire in someone’s life. People love to tell Spidey why they care about Spider-Man, after all. And throughout all this, it means I’ve heard a lot about what people would want out of a new depiction of Spidey on screen, because (aside from the discussion they’re having with me) it’s the closest they might come to seeing him in real life. They share what they loved and didn’t love about how he’s been portrayed before.
And you know what? They almost never focus on costumes or action, shared universes or special effects. They talk about the character of Peter Parker. They talk about a good kid who made some mistakes and is always trying to do better. Who makes the hard choices to help in the ways that only he can, even when doing so makes his own life worse. A bright and funny character born of tragic circumstances. A charming goofball, even though he’s nerdy and sincere. A silly young man who takes things very seriously. To those “kids” of all ages who look for him in my eyes, even while they’re hidden under a mask, this is not just a character. He’s a very close friend. One they’ve been longing to see for most of their lives.
Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers that character. Under the guidance of Jon Watts and using text penned by a half-dozen Spidey fans, Tom Holland creates a fully realized, lovingly-rendered performance that brings your old friend Peter Parker to life in shocking clarity. It’s a triumph of characterization, a respectful adaptation for the modern age that will give a new generation of viewers a live-action Spider-Man that understands exactly why he resonates with people. And that’s why it’s my favorite film of the first half of the year.
There are outstanding scenes I could focus on, jokes that stick the landing, an homage to classic comic panels, big reveals and car rides. But the real triumph is in nailing the character. And that’s best seen in small moments, little pieces of charm and whimsy strewn throughout the film. Like the moment where a street vendor spots Spidey standing on rooftop and yells, “Do a flip!” after Peter clarifies that he is, in fact, that superhero you might have seen on the internet. Spidey obliges, does a small flip and the vendor (played by Zach Cherry) cheers him on. Never mind the fact that I have actually had this exchange occur, verbatim, dozens of times in my own life, it’s the sort of lived-in, earnest moment that sells the warm reality of this world, this city, and this good spider kid. He was being friendly, in his neighborhood. He was Spider-Man.
Ultimately, this film gave me the gift of knowing that from here on out, whether or not I’m literally wearing a fancy red suit, I always can whisper a small simple phrase and feel immediately inspired. “C’mon, Peter. C’mon Spider-Man.”
The Best of the Rest:
The Big Sick, Get Out, Wonder Woman, Baby Driver
R Carson Chastity Patricia S-S – Twin Peaks: The Return
Whether or not this counts as a movie, tv show, miniseries, audio drama, cave painting, I do not care. What is important to me is that my beloved David Lynch, the director I have probably devoted more time to thinking about in total than even the Wachowski sisters, made something new. And not just new, but something bold and experimental and pushing the boundaries of what 2017 culture will accept. Once again Lynch is proving he is the one and only master of a visual language he himself invented, despite decades of imitators. Twin Peaks: The Return is such a brilliant and beautiful finale of a sort to the career of one of my favorite 70 year old white men. It’s a confirmation of so many of my theories about his work, its exciting and new, and its proving once again that Laura Dern and Kyle MachLachlan are the best there ever were.
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, Raw, Wonder Woman (shut up about any flaws, it’s important), Okja
The Worst of the Year:
Kevin Kuhlman – The Transfiguration
As Vyce put it in his review “The Transfiguration is an intensely provocative horror parable that will stay with you long after your viewing.”
This is a film that, for lack of a better phrasing, deeply fucked me up. A story of a young, introverted black teen who retreats into the lore and history of vampires until an abused white girl enters his life, The Transfiguration is one part body horror, one part coming of age, and one part teen romance, all mixed with heaping helpings of social commentary. It’s like if Barry Jenkins directed a version of Let The Right One In based on a script by Abel Ferrera and Paul Schrader. It’s a film with almost an endless number of things on its mind, from race relations as narrow as gang infested neighborhoods and as wide as the economic factors that put them there, to childhood development and psychology, to post traumatic stress — all without ever once feeling stretched thin, overwrought or overpowering the horror elements of the film. This is an unnerving experience unlike anything I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, and I would recommend it to horror and non-horror fans alike.
The Best of the Rest:
Baby Driver, Get Out, Alien: Covenant, The Big Sick
Allen Strickland – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
For my top film of 2017 so far I’m digging Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I count myself as one of the original film’s biggest fans and I found it very hard to believe that James Gunn would be able to top the uproariously hilarious and emotionally honest first installment, but he proved me wrong. Vol. 2 springboards off the themes of family and purpose from the first film to weave a deeply powerful and emotionally resonant story about the importance of the family that we choose, and overcoming the scars and pains of our pasts and allowing ourselves to move forward. No film of 2017 has yet moved me as much as this one. It is by far the most emotionally powerful story in the MCU (and yeah it’s pretty hilarious too) and it’s pending Blu Ray release means that a re-watch will soon be in order.
The Best of the Rest:
Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, John Wick: Chapter 2, Baby Driver
Ryan Roch – Wonder Woman
We’re at the halfway point of 2017, and it’s already an embarrassment of riches, film-wise. It’s reflective of the quality on-screen when the film I’m digging most isn’t even my favorite one so far (that might actually be Alien: Covenant, because I am a sick man). Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman will grow in impact and legacy beyond the already glowing reception it’s received. Holster your side-eye when I say this is truly an important movie, and a genuine phenomenon in modern film.
I’ve heard plenty of people picking apart the craftsmanship of the final act, pitting Diana of Themyscira against her modern male cinematic contemporaries, downplaying the quality and importance of the thematic and character-centered storytelling on display to try to convince us that the Queen’s wardrobe is intangible. But Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins create a heroic legacy that even Christopher Reeves’ saintly shadow cannot eclipse. This should not have worked, given the shoddy foundation laid by Zach Snyder and Warner Brothers. But nevertheless, she persists. It’s a joy to see a film transcend the white-bro blogosphere and connect so fully with an audience. Captain America and Spider-Man are the typical arbiters of filmic virtue, but I was glad to cede the throne to this inspiring, emotional film. With its earnest depiction of feminine power and inclusive camaraderie, Wonder Woman truly transcends the normal vernacular of how we discuss modern pop cinema, and gives us a permanent touchstone in the ever-shifting sands of the next most beloved pop movie. It’s a film that shows us what can be accomplished when you put your whole heart into your endeavors, against overwhelming odds and sub-basement level expectations. When you lift those around you with your example of power, determination, and persistence you can move the hearts of nations. This woman is a wonder.
The Best of the Rest:
Alien: Covenant, Get Out, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Logan
Shannon Hubbell – Colossal
On paper, Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal may sound a bit gimmicky. An unemployed and alcoholic writer (Anne Hathaway) is given the boot by her boyfriend, so she moves back to her home town, where she reconnects with a childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis). Then she realizes she’s inadvertently causing a giant monster to go on the rampage in Seoul, South Korea. With a premise like that, mixing indie dramedy with the suddenly big (rimshot) kaiju genre, there’s a risk of the final product being insufferably quirky and not as clever as it thinks it is.
Luckily, Vigalando is clever as hell. He’s a skilled and thoughtful filmmaker, and in Colossal he’s crafted something hilarious, but also dark and nuanced. Woven in with all the jokes and spectacle are themes of addiction, abuse, male entitlement, and the effects we have on those around us.
It’s a shame that this film didn’t do boffo box office. Vigalando is a great filmmaker and the world is a better place when more people see his work. Luckily, I think Colossal has the makings of a cult classic. But that relies on word of mouth, so go see it and get to mouthing!
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, John Wick 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Raw
Andrew Clark – John Wick: Chapter 2
There is a moment near the end of John Wick: Chapter 2 where Keanu Reeves (as the titular Mr. Wick) flicks a clip so hard out of the M1911 he’s taken off of some poor mook that it flies into the corner of the room. He then slams a new clip home and, with one hand, chambers the first round in the clip. It’s all done in one shot. It’s beautiful. It’s titillating. It’s practically pornographic. I swear to god I bit my lower lip when I first saw it in the theater, and did it the second time too, which was less than 24 hours later. Because that’s the kind of movie John Wick: Chapter 2 is: it makes you always want to come back for more.
Sequels are hard. You have to strike the balance of returning to something that audiences loved about the original while also being fresh and new enough to not feel like you’re retreading the same ground. Action sequels are even harder…especially when you’re the sequel to one of the top three action movies of the 21st century (please feel free to guess what the other two are, though I feel like that’s obvious). How do you top a movie that blew the roof off of action set pieces?
Director Chad Stahelski and his incredible team had a solution: You build a higher roof, and then you blow it to smithereens while setting set pieces on top of the exploding roof.
While that is technically a metaphor, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Chapter 2 is easily one of the best action sequels of all time. While the first Wick was mostly focused on John working his way through an army of woefully overmatched Russian mobsters, this time he’s up against his peers and contemporaries, and it leads to some of the best action in recent memory. The fights between Reeves and Common during the movie are already comfortable snuggled up to some of the best fights in film history, I’m confident in saying.
But action itself is nothing without the filmmaking chops to bring it to life, and John Wick: Chapter 2 proved without a shadow of a doubt that the magic that Stahelski (and his partner, David Leitch, though he was technically off working on his own projects) brought to the first movie was not lightning in a bottle. The John Wick movies show what decades of combined experience making movies and thinking about storytelling through action look like onscreen, and it is glorious. I breathlessly anticipate the next film in this saga, as well as what both Stahelski and Leitch bring to cinema in the coming years.
The Best of the Rest:
Get Out, Alien: Covenant, Wonder Woman, A Cure For Wellness
Whew! That’s a lot! We hope you enjoyed our half-year check in. It’s been a great year for cinema so far, and it’s just shaping up to keep getting better and better. Let us know what movies you’ve been digging in the comments, and let us know what you think of our choices!