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First of all, I’m late. Everyone else did these 2016 film and tv lists in January. It’s February 2nd. So in the interest of not repeating three thousand other lists (and also in being, well, interesting), I’m going to attempt to focus on the 2016 film and tv that you might not be seeing.
Yes, you should all see Moonlight, Hidden Figures, The People vs. O.J. Simpson – basically everything but La La Land (disclaimer: I haven’t even seen it, I just know I’ll hate it). But let’s not forget these lesser gabbed about gems that also made their mark on 2016.
And when it comes to my worst of 2016 film and tv, feel free to take me to town. There’s bound to be some disagreement – is Hardcore Henry the best thing that’s happened to cinema since the long take in Touch of Evil? (it’s not) – but also, I hope, some mutual understanding.
And as always, I appreciate a reason to rethink my initial impressions. So if you’ve got good crit on any of my worst picks (or the best ones), send it over. You just might change my mind.
Yes, you heard me right – there were TOO MANY female directed (written, directed, produced, you name it) projects to list in one post this month. Enter the Fall Television special – wherein we list every bit of tv programming created by women in September.
It’s a big task (YES!), but somebody’s gotta do it.
The true story of three (sort-of) strangers, who’ve sat through all eight episodes of Netflix’s Stranger Things, talked about it, wrote about it, and found out what happens when bitches stop being polite, and start getting…
March was full of sick days and unexpected down time. Terrible for doing work, wonderful for watching as much Netflix as possible, and therefore, providing you with a rather dense and rich list of March Favorites. You’re welcome.
Jessica Jones is just the kind of show I can’t shut up about. Before that, it was three seasons of NBC’s Hannibal.
When I initially thought to write this piece, I thought I’d be talking about the unique female friendship between Jessica and her sister Trish, and the toxic, obsessive relationship super villain Kilgrave has with Jessica. But as I flipped between episodes of Jessica Jones and rewatching Hannibalfrom season one, I realized, what Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have is something comparative to both.
And so today, in the spirit of romance, I’m here to talk to you about male and female friendships – complete with sexual undertones, platonic appreciation, and unnatural obsessions. It’s a #chickflickfebruary TV double feature.
Movie #3 is a dramatic and new choice – today I’m watching writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
I feel like I’m suffocating in the middle of the street and no one can see me dying.
Fact: I don’t watch a lot of straight up dramas. Fact: I watch them even less when they appear to be marketed to my own gender (female). I write them off as sappy. Uninteresting. Formulaic. At their worst, enforcing of gender stereotypes.
I find that terrifying. But also thrilling, because I get to give you another list of everything I’ve been indulging in this January (film and television related – mostly). Favorites this month do not disappoint, as I spent quite a bit of time on Netflix, thanks to a nice refresh on their content (it was getting so stale!), and discovered the benefits of a Hulu Plus subscription (Criterion! Criterion! Criterion!). Shall we, then?
Who doesn’t like a favorites list to round out their month?
Frankly, this is a little (a lot) self-indulgent, but don’t lie – your favorite YouTube and blog series are hauls, round-ups, and monthly favorites, aren’t they?
If you’re not hip to these things (you might be an old person…) maybe you can look at this like Time’s Person-of-the-Year(as if any of you still read Time), except of the month, and including whatever bit of David Cronenberg body horror I’m currently obsessed with. Favorites like that.
So here it is –
The What-To-Watch List:
If you are not watching this show, you are dead to me. If you are not watching this show, you are not only missing out on a cultural phenomenon – real, honest-to-goodness feminism from Marvel and mainstream television – but also tremendous writing, acting, and storytelling, period. I will save my ramblings about Kristen Ritter’s range, David Tennant’s return to the Doctor-Who (but EVIL!) personality-type, and the richly layered relationships between women, both friends and lovers, for a longer, dedicated post. But this Netflix show has dominated my December evenings, and it isn’t even the least bit a guilty pleasure. It’s genuinely great and totally deserving of spot number one in the favorites.
Dark Star: The World of H.R. Giger
If you like Alien, this is a must watch (Giger is the artist and production designer). If you have no idea whether you even care about Alien, but you care about art, this is a safe bet. I have a real craving for these documentaries where filmmakers get to comb through the homes of artists – Giger doesn’t disappoint because he is most certainly a hoarder, but a hoarder of beautiful things of his own creation. Very weird; in German and English with subtitles that occasionally pop-up in weird places (watch it, you’ll understand).
Master of None – Funny, poignant, honest.
Chef’s Table – Food porn, but with Chef-worship.
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson is lovely, this is twee as can be, I’m into it.
On Amazon Prime:
Hannibal, Season 1
We recently acquired an Amazon Prime Video subscription (thanks, Parents!), and even with a zillion new things to watch, I immediately jumped at the chance to re-watch this series from the beginning. My boyfriend has not been witness to my obsession, so it is his first time through (and I get a serious amount of satisfaction watching him enjoy it – weird?). I must say, I am a chronic re-watcher – if I like something, it’s going to be viewed again (and again) – but this is truly one of those shows requiring a second time around. Knowing the ending (season 3 just finished up on NBC), Season one, Episode one feels so much more alive, purposeful, and full of meaning. On the first watch, the show was mysterious, shocking, full of twists. The second time, it is telling, carefully planned, beautifully thought out. Nice to know that screenwriters in television are capable of piecing together a puzzle this intricate (especially for those of us seriously disappointed by the lack of planning apparent in Lost). Highly recommend this Bryan Fuller masterpiece, be it your first time, or your triumphant return.
On Good Ol’ DVD:
I couldn’t shut up about Cronenberg back in October, and I’m not going to do it now. This Criterion Collection edition of The Brood released this past October. It’s an early Cronenberg, releasing in 1979, but it’s already deep in the crazy, mutant, grossly human body horror. Oliver Reed plays one sick psychiatrist, and Samantha Eggar a very special Mother. For all the Freud fans out there, this one’s for you. Find it for 20% off NOW on their site (also Moonrise Kingdom and the entire Criterion library) through December 11th.
*I haven’t gotten around to the theater yet this month – saving up all my movie-going for the Christmas releases. What are you looking forward to seeing in the next couple weeks? What were your December favorites? Leave all suggestions, recommendations, personal vendettas in the comments, please!
Let me start by telling you a sad, sad story about how Netflix dupes me on the daily. Yes, I should have checked to make sure Beyond the Black Rainbow was still streaming. Yes, I should have made sure my queue was in the right order so The Haunting hadn’t showed up two weeks late. But you know what? It shouldn’t be this hard to watch good movies.
So it’s eight o’clock last night and I’m trying to find a suitable Black Rainbow replacement. I realize quickly that every new DVD I have from Netflix this week is a found footage movie, and sort of inexplicably so – like, had I not read the descriptions? I start one anyway, quickly turning it off because nausea. This is 50% of the reason I just can’t with nearly all found footage horror – the camera movements make me physically ill. The other 50% is that I find them unlikable, and well, I’d like the confidence during these 31 days of horror that I’m presenting you with something worthwhile – if not pleasurable viewing, than at least providing interesting discussion. This one wasn’t cutting it for me.
But then I was determined.Surely there’s a found footage option I can get down with. Blair Witch seemed an acceptable choice – but you’ve all been there, done that, right? (also, not on fucking Instant anymore). So I pull up this one I faintly remember finishing a few months back, and I see I’ve given it an unlikely four stars. That’s the money number of stars, I think, let’s do it! The beginning scene is WEIRD! I’m a little freaked out! This is going to work!
And then… it happens. It’s not good. Where have all these stars come from? Was I really anxious that night? Did someone break into my account and re-rate all my movies (an actual nightmare I have). I decide to move on.
To four more Netflix movies. It was a long night of half-watched mediocrity – found footage, narrative, all of it.
When it got very late, I went to the trusty DVD case (no longer trusty, as it’s leaning to the side and ready to fall apart any day now), and pulled out my copy of The Strangers. It’s not found footage. Not even close. But I’m hoping this little pity-party story might help you understand why I’m about to write about The Strangers in comparison to its found footage counterparts. Because I couldn’t get my mind off it.
A terrible story is always made more terrible when it starts terribly. In this case, the most innocuous, cuddly, and sweet of terrible things – a bad breakup. The Strangers begins its reign of terror with a relationship that has just dissolved before our eyes. The horror starts where they stop (yes, I do like that kind of silly, poetic shit – get over yourselves). And there’s that impending sense of doom, growing from the moment we see Liv Tyler tear up sitting in the front seat of the car. More so when she sits, dress unzipped, waiting for the bathtub to fill so she can drown her sorrows.
It’s so full of gloom, and doom, and sadness. I love it.
We already know I’m a sucker for pretty lights and nicely framed pictures. This movie has it in droves, along with a wicked skipping record player soundtrack and HUGE references to the Manson Family murders, which makes my hippie-dippie-60s-obsessed heart go all aflutter.
The atmosphere (like Don’t Look Now) is a lot of what makes The Strangers scary. The house in the middle of nowhere. The fog seeping in. The giant double doors. The masks that look just human enough*. But it’s also about shock.
Found footage does shock. A lot. And I complain about it most often. Someone coming around a corner there, a bang back here, a flash of a guy with no eyes and a disfigured face – it feels a little cheap when it’s the only thing you have to lean on. The Strangers is dependent on the incessant knock-knock-knocking on doors to make you jump, building to a brutal, slasher finish. Same thing, right? So why do I excuse it, even enjoy it, here?
I think it comes down to the camera as narrator. Basically, what kind of storyteller the camera wants to be. Consider that a found footage camera is inherently point-of-view. If the character holding the camera is not explicitly introduced to us, we recognize that there is one because the other characters speak directly to him/her/the camera, itself. This immediately introduces a level of realism that is otherwise up in the air in a lot of horror. The camera becomes a tool, a collector of evidence, an extension of a human being. That’s interesting – but it’s also problematic for those of us who require a little disbelief and a little distance to get a really good psychological, visceral scare. After all, a P.O.V. camera has the same level of knowledge as the person wielding it – and that virtually eliminates the possibility of dramatic irony. And I think to experience art-horror, we need that irony.
Per dictionary.com, dramatic irony is the “irony occurring when the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters…” If the camera is a character, and also our only viewpoint into the story, then we cannot be privy to something the characters are not. Unless that camera is left unattended (i.e. the security camera style footage of Paranormal Activity), dramatic irony becomes nearly impossible.
We also know from Noel Carroll’s work (discussed in this post on Dead Ringers) that art-horror is one step removed from experiencing actual trauma – the ability to observe is key. Found footage doesn’t let you observe, it inundates you in the story yourself. For some, this kind of “horror” may work. I think for those like myself, looking for that sweet little bit of “art-horror,” it takes away the necessary step back that asks us to think about what we’re seeing. The horror is in the thought of the thing, not the thing itself.
In The Strangers, like any traditional narrative film, we are allowed to forget that the camera exists. What we are seeing is what is happening, like the pages inside a picture book, for the characters inside it. They have no concept of a camera recording them, so we don’t either. This allows for an artful use of cinematography and shot design, painting each frame with intentionality, adding another layer to potentially “art-horrify” the viewer.
But then why does The Strangers forsake the Steadicam and employ a shaky, handheld camera style like a found footage movie? (No worries, it’s not nearly enough to make you vomit) There is no doubt that a handheld camera delivers a fallible, human element to the look and feel of a film. Where a found footage film does this ad nauseam (to characterize the camera as a literal part of the action it records), I find that it often eliminates any trace of the type of fear only a God-like, inhuman Steadicam can create – that of an omniscient and omnipresent narrator. The Strangers keeps the traditional narrator type to induce maximum art-horror, but uses the shaky camera artistically to call attention to the very human nature of the monsters responsible for the violence: there is no supernatural element here.
Of course, by sacrificing this post to the found footage vs. traditional horror Gods, I’ve slipped past all the wonderful things The Strangers does that deserve your attention outside my personal struggle. So, let’s refocus a moment…
Kristin left alone in the house when the knocking starts. It’s amazing to me that Liv Tyler hasn’t done more horror movies – her screams are top-notch, and her facial expressions are even better. Girl can make her eyes bug out and jump in fright with the best of them. But I’m even more impressed with sound design – knocks coming from one corner of the house, then another. If we were to assess “The History of Things Banging on Doors” in horror movies, we could make a list pages long. This scene recalls the axe-swings of Jack in The Shining, and the ambient bangs of the ghosts in The Haunting. Even the elegantly carved double doors are evocative of Hill House’s architecture – I find myself staring at them here, waiting for them to swell, too.
But of course, there isn’t anything otherworldly here. And that’s no more apparent than with the appearance of the sack-masked man in the left corner of the frame. While Kristin stares out a window, waiting for the knocks to come again, the man wearing the sack stands in the periphery unnoticed. A man in a ghost costume. He leaves when he wants to.
Other Things to Notice:
The many ways this calls to mind the nature of The Manson Family and their infamous series of home invasions and murders. The folk music on the record player references not only the time period, but the primary occupation of Charles Manson – wannabe folk singer. Also, the nonchalant, haphazard reasoning for the act itself is 99% The Family’s motto – “Because you were home.” The killing is out of curiosity’s sake, because why not? Make chaos, be free – the end of the hippie era would echo the mantra that fueled them in the first place, along with that Sartrean expression, “Hell is other people.”
I see all that embedded in the film here, along with a contemporary warning about just how “safe” our cell phones and supposed connectivity make us. The dissolution of the relationship first is part and parcel to this point.
You’re Next:This was not a personal favorite, but it is brought up so often lately by people I respect, I have to think maybe I missed something. What it definitely does is subvert the home invasion plot in a new way. If you like this premise, I’d suggest giving it a go. *Streaming on Amazon Prime
Bug:This is a home invasion in the sense that something is invading, though whether it’s human, insect, or bad psychology is a little harder to define. This is Friedkin at his best, and Michael Shannon before everybody knew just how good he was at playing crazy.
And finally, a PSA for the Found Footage Society of America (that exists, right?):
I’m sorry I bashed your thing. But let it be known, I think there’s a real argument for found footage. It certainly induces anxiety, and itss scares are akin to falling down the highest drop on the roller coaster- when they work, they work. But let’s leave that discussion for a better day, and a different post, and in the meantime, maybe I can implore all those that love FF to please tell me what I’m missing. Maybe I’m watching the wrong ones. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Enlighten me. I want to understand the subgenre that’s taken over my beloved horror. Gift me your knowledge and your readings – I’ll thank you for it.