2016 Recap: Honorable Mentions, Special Recognition, and Favorite Documentaries
I’ve tried to post links to where films are available for purchase or online streaming and/or rental wherever possible, but there are so many VOD outlets that I’ve mostly just stuck with the major ones (Amazon, Google, iTunes). If films are available on Vimeo VOD directly from the filmmakers, I’ll always post that link first since it’s nice to know your money is going directly to support them.
Ten Honorable Mentions:
Harvest Lake is unquestionably a much different beast than the typical indie zombie or slasher movie. This is a low-budget horror movie not afraid to include moments of eerie calm, and its commitment to practical creature effects is admirable and exciting. Ultimately, this is more proof that Scott Schirmer and his collaborators at Bandit Motion Pictures are capable, passionate filmmakers willing to take chances and deliver something unexpected. They released a slightly more traditional horror film titled Plank Face in the fall and are currently preparing to shoot their next feature, a sci-fi sex comedy called Space Babes from Outer Space. I can’t wait to see it, and wherever they might go from here.
General consensus seems to be that listening to someone talking about their dreams is insanely boring. I personally find dreams endlessly fascinating — I love talking to people about their weird dreams. So the concept behind Collective: Unconscious was tailor-made for me: five filmmakers wrote statements based on dreams they had, and then all traded them amongst each other to adapt into a short film for this anthology feature. The results are really interesting and unsurprisingly wildly disparate in form and content. They’re creepy, funny, uncomfortable, and often all of those things simultaneously. Your tolerance for indecipherable weirdness will probably largely dictate whether or not you’ll be able to sit through this, but I’d love to see it become a regular thing with a new round of filmmakers every year.
The erotic thriller is all but dead, with mainstream attempts failing at either the “erotic” or “thriller” part of the equation, or both — I’m looking at you, The Girl on the Train. Justin Kelly’s King Cobra is an invigorating take on the formula, drawing on Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway’s true crime novel Cobra Killer as source material. Christian Slater plays Stephen, webmaster of a gay porn clip site that launches young “Brent Corrigan” (Garrett Clayton) to superstardom. James Franco plays a hustler who launches a competitor to Stephen’s “King Cobra” site along with his boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen), and when Stephen and Brent have a bitter falling out the stage is set for a violent conflict. King Cobra is defined by its four spectacular lead performances, but Christian Slater in particular gives one of the best performances of his career. It’s bleak, but it’s also sexy and surprisingly funny while maintaining a level of emotional insight that this type of film rarely achieves.
Catherine Sweeney is an independent filmmaker trying to get her zombie horror romantic comedy feature off the ground. It’s not going well. One produer, Derek , insists she put a talking dog in it to make it more marketable, and another extremely suspect producer Nathan agrees. Catherine bickers with Kevin, the leading zombie in her screenplay, about making the film and maintaining her artistic integrity. Who’s a girl have to kill to get a movie made these days? Egomaniac is a super low-budget DIY feature from filmmaker Kate Shenton, who drew on her own experiences working in independent film. This is pretty vicious satire, not just of the predators willing to take advantage of Catherine but of her own issues with ego — hence the title. Nic Lamont is fantastic in the lead as Catherine, and it’s often very funny but it turns very dark in the final act. It definitely feels earned, though, and Egomaniac is one of the best independent horror films of the year.
The evil hybrid human/animal Doctor Mindskull has been waging war against humanity, and his development of a secret superweapon is poised to tip the struggle in his favor. Desperate to stop him, the head of Earth’s military forces sends another hybrid creature to assist a human strike force. But when they uncover the secret of Mindskull’s ultimate weapon, the chase is on into the forbidden wastelands where Mindskull hides. Nova Seed is a fun, fast animated sci-fi feature informed heavily by Heavy Metal and the art of Moebius. It would be fun enough as it is, but the fact that director Nick DiLiberto made the entire film with only a handful of other people (a few people make up the entire voice cast) is seriously amazing. It’s action-packed and slyly funny in addition to its impressive design. The use of vocal sounds instead of sound effects only adds to the handmade charm of the film, which feels like the sketchbook of an imaginative teenager sprung to vibrant life.
On some level all art is self-indulgent, which frequently makes knocking a film for this characteristic pointless. There can be no better example of this than Todd Rohal’s Uncle Kent 2, a film that is outrageously, unapologetically, hilariously masturbatory. Kent Osborne plays “himself,” desperately trying to convince Joe Swanberg (also as himself) to collaborate on a sequel to their 2011 film Uncle Kent. Osborne plans to go to a big comic convention, but his doctor (Steve Little) believes he has a neurological condition that requires closer observation. Blowing off the doctor’s orders, Osborne goes to the con where he tries to connect with Uncle Kent co-star Jennifer Prediger (playing herself) to convince her to join Uncle Kent 2 and maybe get laid while he’s in town. Reality begins to collapse in on itself, possibly due to Osborne’s neurological problems… or maybe the Singularity? Uncle Kent 2 is even weirder than Rohal’s previous feature The Catechism Cataclysm, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear. If that sounds unbearable you can comfortably give this a pass, although you might still want to check out the novelization. But probably not.
There’s probably at least one great book of popular culture and film criticism examining why two different films about the story of Christine Chubbuck were released the same year, four decades after her tragic public suicide. Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine engages with Chubbuck in a much different mode (more on that later), while Antonio Campos’s Christine takes a more traditional approach to the story. Like Simon Killer, Campos’s previous feature, Christine is an unsettling and carefully observed portrait of an individual hovering on the edge of violent antisocial behavior. But Chubbuck’s story is more tragic, not least because it’s based on an actual person whose life was cut short. Rebecca Hall gives a perfectly modulated performance as Chubbuck. Campos spends a lot of time on the world of early 1970s with a wealth of period detail (most notably in its heartbreaking final moments) including a nearly obsessive preoccupation with video technology of the era.
Despite rumors of trouble behind the scenes and extensive reshoots, Rogue One does not feel like a film that has seen too much tinkering. Even Michael Giacchino’s score — famously composed in a month after the film’s original composer left the project — is completely of a piece with the scores of the previous films. Giacchino took cues from those films’ familiar themes and gave some of them a slight twist, which is exactly what the screenwriters and director Gareth Edwards have done with the Star Wars formula. As dark as it often is, Rogue One tells a story not just of great sacrifices made in the name of a worthy cause, but one of hope. Andor tells Jyn that “rebellions are built on hope,” but he tosses it off casually. When she echoes the same sentiment later, it means something more to her and to the Rebels who join her mission. It may be a bit on the nose, but this is exactly the Star Wars movie the world needs right now.
Conspiracy theorist Willem Koda (George Basil) is having a tough time getting his message out into the world. His speaking gigs are getting smaller, and he’s growing increasingly frustrated. His friend Todd (Andy Rocco) suggests they make a movie together of Willem’s story with Todd’s home movie camera. Willem balks, but then he discovers later that Flossie (Pamela Fila), the cheerful new waitress at the diner he frequents, is an aspiring actress. He impulsively asks her to be in his movie, and after she agrees they start shooting soon after. But Willem and his collaborators don’t exactly have the same view of what it is they’re working on, and it’s possible Willem’s crazy story about encountering aliens underground may be less crazy than it seems. Anchored by three great lead performances, Man Underground walks a tricky line between oddball comedy and darker psychological terrain. It’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but it also endears its characters to the audience to the point that it’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch when there is inevitable conflict between them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m credited as an “Associate Producer” on this film. The reason for that is simple: Henrique Couto has proven to be consistently one of the most entertaining filmmakers working on the microbudget independent scene, and I’m always going to watch whatever he’s working on. If I can help make it happen in any way, even better. So I contributed to the Kickstarter for this film just as I did with his previous campaigns for Making Out and Awkward Thanksgiving. He may be best known for his horror movies, but his personal projects like these have been steadily improving each time out.
That certainly holds true for Nothing Good Ever Happens, which is pretty easily Couto’s best work to date. The ensemble of actors he’s been building for the last few years really comes together perfectly here, the sharp script playing to each of their individual strengths. Josh Miller stars as Neil, who accidentally drinks bleach while mourning a devastating breakup. Everyone thinks it was a suicide attempt, so Neil is assigned to post-hospitalization therapy and helped by some unlikely friends. It’s really funny and also genuinely touching, capped off by a beautiful cameo by Al Snow (who did great work in Couto’s western Calamity Jane’s Revenge). As always, I’m eager to see where Couto goes from here.
Fraud is the ultimate found footage horror movie, but in a way that no one could have expected. Imagine if someone had access to all of your family’s home videos, hours and hours of special occasions and mundane moments alike. Now imagine this person edited those videos together in such a way to make it convincingly appear that your family committed insurance fraud. Director/editor Dean Fleischer-Camp found a family’s Youtube videos and expertly assembled Fraud from hundreds of clips, fashioning a fiction narrative from real home videos. And it’s definitely a narrative, although Fleischer-Camp’s approach (and presumably his intent) is closer to experimental cinema. In a world where people post their entire lives online, it’s entirely possible that someone else can take that life and mold it into something much different. As interesting as the film is in its approach, the actual experience of watching it is not terribly compelling — this is, after all, still ultimately a compilation of home video clips.
In case you couldn’t guess from his name, Saint Doctor Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan seems to have a pretty high opinion of himself and his abilities as a filmmaker. He credited himself with 30(!) different jobs on this film, his third starring vehicle. While some egomaniacal filmmakers crank out odes to their own genius, Lion Heart lands much closer to Ed Wood than Tommy Wiseau. There’s an irresistible, infectious “let’s put on a show!” energy here that was missing from his previous Stateside release MSG: The Messenger. That film had entertaining stretches but was bogged down by a distended back half that descended into flat sermonizing and kills all forward momentum, a problem especially lethal for a 3+ hour film. Lion Heart runs a comparatively svelte 120 minutes and is packed with papier-mâché UFOs, awkward CGI monsters (and elephants!), crazy action scenes, and the perpetual grin of “Guru Ji” always at its center.
There’s an element of potentially dangerous fanaticism in the man’s real-life affairs — MSG: The Messenger 2 never made it to U.S. screens after international news outlets picked up the story of an investigation into allegations that he manipulated 400 of his followers into being castrated. However that investigation turns out, his films offer a unique perspective on the man and his beliefs that no one outside his circle could hope to achieve. Whether that means they will be viewed in the future from a “Jonestown massacre recording” standpoint or something closer to If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? remains to be seen.
Michael (writer/producer Charles Agron) and Jenny (Lauren Shaw) are celebrating something and go to a remote mountain town. Once there, Michael immediately ditches Jenny and goes to a local bar (tended by Lance Henriksen) to hit on super obvious femme fatale Olivia (Briana Evigan). Then people start saying weird stuff and cloaked people show up and what the hell, you guys? Monday at 11:01 A.M. is clearly a vanity project for star Charles Agron, who is in nearly every shot of the movie. It comes off less like a mind-bending supernatural thriller than “Tommy Wiseau’s The Shining,” with a ploddingly obvious Twilight Zone twist and a lot of really inexplicable character behavior and line readings. It’s not After Last Season — what ever could be? — but it’s about the weirdest thing I’ve seen in a theater since then. Opportunities to see stuff this wonky in a theater are rare, and I was very happy to catch it on the big screen twice during its one-week theatrical run earlier this year.
Five Favorite Documentaries:
For cinephiles who love exploitation and adult films, Wakefield Poole will probably always be best remembered as the director of the groundbreaking Boys in the Sand (1971) and Bijou (1972). However, Jim Tushinski’s brilliant documentary traces Poole’s entire life and career, from his childhood singing on the radio to the triumphant return of Boys in the Sand to a Fire Island film festival in 2010. Like Tyler Hubby’s Tony Conrad documentary also from this year, Tushinski gives Poole a lot of screen time to just talk about his life and work directly to the camera. It’s a simple approach but it’s utterly compelling to listen to Poole, an intelligent and passionate artist and a person who is just a joy to spend time with. Whether or not you’re familiar with Poole’s films, I Always Said Yes is a fascinating and deeply moving portrait of an incredibly important artist.
Calling Deborah Stratman’s The Illnois Parables a “documentary” may not be exactly accurate, but the word and its connotations probably land closest to describing whatever it actually is. In a series of eleven vignettes, Stratman tells stories from the history of the titular state that vary from a re-enactment of a court re-enactment of a police raid on Chicago Black Panthers in the 1970s to a story of the early days of Mormonism presented largely in paintings. The whole thing was shot on gloriously grainy 16mm that gives its already strange atmosphere an extra layer of creeping dread. It never tips over into outright horror, but there are stretches of The Illinois Parables that are among the most unsettling moments of any film this year.
In the last movie theater screening 35mm prints in Mumbai, the last handpainted poster artist and his assistants create huge billboard murals to draw in audiences. The business seems to be on its last legs, though, and it seems the art of film projection and poster painting is doomed. OriginalCopy follows the staff of the Alfred Talkies theater as they struggle to keep their doors open and keep the classic experience of moviegoing alive. Watching the process of creating one of the billboard posters is amazing, although it’s a little tough to tell how much time passes in the film to get an idea of just how long it takes to paint it. The interviews with the managers and artists are fascinating but also sad: it’s clear everyone has an enormous amount of love for the theater and for movies, but it’s also just as clear that it’s an uphill battle for them to stay afloat.
In 2011, documentary filmmaker Mia Donovan met with her stepbrother Matthew for the first time in 18 years. In the early 1990s, Matthew’s father had hired Ted Patrick to “deprogram” Matthew, who was listening to heavy metal and acting out. The process left Matthew traumatized. Donovan began to investigate the history of “deprogramming” and discovered that Patrick was in fact the inventor of the concept, having began work in the early 1970s when parents all over the country feared their children were being brainwashed by cults. Deprogrammed traces the history of Patrick and his process, interviewing not only Matthew and Ted Patrick himself but a number of others who Patrick “deprogrammed” in his decades-long career and some of his fellow “cult experts.” Donovan takes a remarkably objective look at Patrick and his work, which raises many troubling questions that have no simple answers. While his methods were obviously questionable and his process caused irreparable harm to many people, it’s also clear that some of his “patients” had better lives as a result of deprogramming. Donovan’s film takes an in-depth and personal look at a very strange time in recent history, a time in which the generation gap seemed to some people more like an actual war than just some misunderstanding between parents and children.
Kate Plays Christine (USA, dir. Robert Greene)
Robert Greene’s documentary feature Actress gained him a lot of attention and critical accolades for its uncomfortably intimate portrait of former television actress Brandy Burre as she considers a return to acting while her marriage and domestic life disintegrates. Kate Plays Christine is also focused on an actress and is similarly intimate, but is much more structurally audacious. Greene follows Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Christine Chubbuck for a film project that only exists as the catalyst for this film. Greene follows Sheil as she travels to Florida to research Chubbuck’s life, meeting with people who worked in local television with her and even visiting the gun store where Chubbuck purchased the weapon she used to kill herself on live television. Despite the nature of the film within the film — played almost as an early Todd Haynes-style take on Chubbuck’s story — Sheil takes her preparation for the performance very seriously. She discusses her process and how portraying characters leaves a lasting psychological impact, and as she comes to feel a kinship with Chubbuck the final moments of the film loom ominously. That scene, which the whole film inevitably works toward, is brutally confrontational in a way few films (documentary or otherwise) are willing to be.