best first watches of 2019

  • After Last Season

    After Last Season

    ★★★★★

    A midwestern outsider art analogue to something like Weersethakul's "Syndromes and a Century". Meditations on perception and reality through the lens of desolate office parks, malfunctioning office equipment, and disordered Sears craftsman homes. A nightmare and a masterpiece.

  • Time Indefinite

    Time Indefinite

    ★★★★½

    The fact that McElwee has evidently spent so much of his life documenting his experiences means that he can cut between past and present in thoroughly devastating ways. The big stand out here is when Charlene recounts the story of her husband Jim self-immolating in the home they built together, cut with footage of Jim working on said home in happier times. Like the best family drama, "Time Indefinite" highlights the grand tragedy we invite into our lives when we dare to care about other people, but reaffirms the necessity of doing so anyway. It's very rare that movies change the way I think, but this one did.

  • Mikey and Nicky

    Mikey and Nicky

    ★★★★½

    "Mikey and Nicky" has two main advantages over "Mean Streets": 1. The fact that the characters are middle-aged provides a more poignant sense of shared history between the two of them, which makes its "Mean Streets"-ending all the more gut wrenching, and 2. That this was directed by Elaine May makes the depiction of its male gangsters a little less maudlin and a little less sympathetic. The scene in the graveyard in which John Cassavetes tells Peter Falk that he feels like he's the last person in his life who knows about his past is devastating.

  • The Reflecting Skin

    The Reflecting Skin

    ★★★★½

    Southern gothic coming-of-age story that suggests what a Wes Anderson-directed horror movie would have looked like between "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore." The perversity also kind of recalls early Atom Egoyan, though this is decidedly less Canadian. Adolescence is hell and this movie will remind you why.

  • Splatter: Naked Blood

    Splatter: Naked Blood

    ★★★★½

    I commend any movie that actually makes me cover my eyes, which "Splatter: Naked Blood" managed with an instance of auto-cannibalism. Deeply alienated pinkie Cronenberg. A girl psychically communes with a cactus. This is what I want.

  • Midori

    Midori

    ★★★★½

    A staticky dispatch from Hell, like the dream transmission from "Prince of Darkness" or the VHS tape from "Ringu" at near feature length. Maintains a rarefied, haunted quality through it's backstory (apparently one of its only public screenings was solely accessible by following a series of clues, and significant portions of the original cut were permanently destroyed by customs agents) and through the fact that it's only available to watch in watery rip form. Hopefully I'm not revealing myself too much to when I say that I was glad to finally know the source of that .gif of the anime shiba inu getting crushed under a boot.

  • The Seventh Victim

    The Seventh Victim

    ★★★★½

    The other worldly quality of many of the other Lewton-produced films fit the fantastic subject matter perfectly, but it's used to even greater effect when applied to a (comparably) more grounded noir. Palpably evil.

  • The Ox-Bow Incident

    The Ox-Bow Incident

    ★★★★½

    Economical ensemble western about the perils of mob mentality, not completely dissimilar from "12 Angry Men," even excluding the Henry Fonda connection. Like that film, the characters here are not merely archetypes, which makes the complexities of the group dynamics that much richer. Highly affecting.

  • Love Hotel

    Love Hotel

    ★★★★½

    My preferred take on the themes of "In the Mood for Love," if only because "Love Hotel" borrows from the disreputable (and thus more interesting) iconography of the pinku film. The unbearable sadness of desire. Big lesson for the year: Shinji Somai is a master and criminally under discussed in the West.

  • Rock 'n' Roll High School

    Rock 'n' Roll High School

    ★★★★½

    The stupid, anarchic, cartoon humor meshes perfectly with the Ramones' public persona. I die laughing at Johnny deadpanning while putting a "Kick Me" sign on Mary Wuoronov's back, mostly because it feels so authentic. "They're ugly, ugly people." Major blindspot here.

  • Godzilla

    Godzilla

    ★★★★½

    Yeah, I had never seen this. Occasionally falls victim to a problem of the later Godzilla/kaiju movies, in that there appears to be no golden ratio for people-talking/monster-stomping. But the effect here is undeniable: Rubber suit and all, this is a bleak and apocalyptic film, rendered all the more powerful because of its historical context.

  • Who Killed Vincent Chin?

    Who Killed Vincent Chin?

    ★★★★½

    Expounds, vitally, on a cultural moment in which the decline of U.S. manufacturing became entwined with anti-Asian sentiment, as well as the complexity of ascribing a broader cultural narrative to a solitary act of senseless violence.

  • A Quiet Place in the Country

    A Quiet Place in the Country

    ★★★★½

    Giallo-esque gothic thriller about the immutability of desire and creative ambition. The best of the Petri I've seen thus far.

  • Audition

    Audition

    ★★★★

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    Miike's ability to establish pathos is solidified by the fact that when she's jamming needles in his eyes, I feel for both of them. Dating is a nightmare.

  • Hannah and Her Sisters

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    ★★★★

    I have access to opinion columns just like you, and yet I still don't know what I'm supposed to do about the fact that Allen's neurotic, death-obsessed screen persona continues to resonate with me. Though here, he takes a backseat to Farrow's radiating warmth.

  • Brawl in Cell Block 99

    Brawl in Cell Block 99

    ★★★★

    I think people who assert that S. Craig Zahler's movies are "fascist" are basically correct, but only insofar as your average sporting event is also essentially fascist. In this respect, I am a bro: I like movies about people overcoming a series of increasingly intense physical challenges; movies that contain extreme violence; and, maybe most controversially, movies that acknowledge the ugly reality that there are certain situations in which moral aspirations become irrelevant and survival is left to the one with superior firepower and/or body mass. It's not one of my organizing principles, but when I'm confronted with it in art, I feel the distinctive buzz of not being lied to.

  • Bone Tomahawk

    Bone Tomahawk

    ★★★★

    Probably the first movie to (arguably) legitimize the grotesque violence of Italian cannibal movies, and for that, I commend it.

  • The Daytrippers

    The Daytrippers

    ★★★★

    Long Island 1996 inevitably recalls Hal Hartley, though this is more straightforward. A great movie for any family-oriented holiday, in that it slowly reveals the simmering resentments once the niceties are out of the way and the relationships of the characters are authentically tested. Pretty funny, too.

  • This Transient Life

    This Transient Life

    ★★★★

    Nihilism, perversion and solipsism in conflict with morality and asceticism. A beautiful and haunting visual experience.

  • Cutter's Way

    Cutter's Way

    ★★★★

    "'I hate the United States of America'. Yeah. You see the same damn thing the next day and you move up a notch. 'There is no God'. But you know what you finally say, what everybody finally says, no matter what? 'I'm hungry.'"

    Highly paranoid, post-Watergate/Vietnam neo-noir with a wild performance from John Heard.

  • The Last Seduction

    The Last Seduction

    ★★★★

    Linda Fiorentino is very hot and very evil in this nihilistic-but-fun neo-noir/Skinemax movie. Goes completely un-PC at the end which elicited an eyebrow raise- but what good is an erotic thriller without a few eyebrow raises? One of the movies I've thought about the most this year, primarily for capturing the brutality of 1990's interior design (or lack thereof) and articulating what I imagine to be the authentically grim reality of living in upstate New York. (In my mind, everything is still like this up there.) Really something else for invoking the vibe of a Shannon Tweed joint but also being good.

  • California Split

    California Split

    ★★★★

    "You don't throw oranges on an escalator!"

    "Where have you been!?"
    "I'll give you three guesses, but my hat is a very big clue."

    Altman (nearly) dispenses with pretension and makes a fairly straightforward bro comedy, to great effect.

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  • Heavy

    Heavy

    ★★★★

    I will probably never not go to bat for small, personal 90's indie features, and this is no exception. "Heavy" and movies like it take banal but universal emotions and allow us to dwell on them and take them seriously. There's a tendency to take this as self indulgence, and at worst, it is, but I personally find truth and warmth in the triviality. Victor isn't a tragic character but his pain (of unrequited love, of loneliness, of the realities of social class, of body image) are real, and Pruitt Taylor Vince's performance does an excellent job at in inviting us to feel it with him without taking pity.

    Some additional notes:

    -Since the movie is in part about being envious of Evan Dando, someone should really make a music video containing clips of this film over Noise Addict's "I Wish I Was Him," a song about being envious of Evan Dando.

    -I initially learned of this film because I read on Wikipedia that "'74-'75" by The Connells was used on the soundtrack but then got really wired to watch it after re-watching Hal Hartley's "Trust." "Heavy" is definitely FFO the Long Island Trilogy, despite being bleaker and less mannered. FFO The Connells: Please see former drummer John Schulz's directorial debut "Bandwagon."

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  • Pin

    Pin

    ★★★★

    A pulpy, made-for-TV style melodrama about a young Reaganite with an upsetting attachment to an anatomical dummy, "Pin" puts the upsetting psychosexual themes right up front, where they belong. Perfect double bill with "The Stepfather" that also features Terry O'Quinn as a creepy dad. I seriously loved this.

  • Last Year at Marienbad

    Last Year at Marienbad

    ★★★★

    A transfixing puzzle, scarier than most horror movies.

  • Island of Lost Souls

    Island of Lost Souls

    ★★★★

    Doubles well with "I Walked With a Zombie." Campy, but also dark, perverse, and scary.

    "Do not spill blood."

  • My Darling Clementine

    My Darling Clementine

    ★★★★

    Really loose, funny, and character-driven, only ostensibly about the shoot out at the OK Corral and more about the human ecosystem surrounding it. More importantly: how bout this lighting.

  • The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

    The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

    ★★★★

    Strength through discipline and meditation. When you want justice so bad you spend five years in a Buddhist temple preparing to dish it out. Maybe the best martial arts movie I've seen thus far.

  • Noroi: The Curse

    Noroi: The Curse

    ★★★★

    Takes a lot of the iconography of 2000's J-horror and enhances it by putting it in a televisual context and allowing it to breathe at a relatively subdued two hours. Unsettling stuff.

  • Brewster McCloud

    Brewster McCloud

    ★★★★

    The fact that this was Altman's favorite of his movies highlights a fixation with characters who strive and fail in specifically American contexts, the apotheosis of which might be Budd Court reenacting the Icarus myth in the Houston Astrodome. Half baked, or fully baked?

  • The Fan

    The Fan

    ★★★★

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    Desire so ravenous it terminates in cannibalism. Insular and melancholic, set to German synth pop.

  • Osaka Elegy

    Osaka Elegy

    ★★★★

    Somehow both devastating and wistful.

  • Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima

    Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima

    ★★★★

    Significantly easier to follow than the first "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" installment, but still rather anarchic, with yakuza raids shot like the cameraman is using his other arm to shank somebody. Chiba is characteristically electric.

  • Shogun Assassin

    Shogun Assassin

    ★★★★

    I hate the word "badass" but I don't know what else to call this. "Your technique. Is. Magnificent."

  • Pretty Poison

    Pretty Poison

    ★★★★

    In line with Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" in that it feels predictive of the small-town, Americana underbellies of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks". Anthony Perkins truly had a weird body.

  • Out of the Past

    Out of the Past

    ★★★★

    Tinges of Tourneur's shadowy horror movies in noir form. The Tajo/NorCal setting gives this a romantic air in the vein of "Gun Crazy."

  • Real Life

    Real Life

    ★★★★

    A movie satirizing a specific phenomenon 40 years ago is now a satire of most people on Earth. Brooks and Grodin are two of the best comedic actors ever.

  • Typhoon Club

    Typhoon Club

    ★★★★

    Takashi Miike has said that Somai was an important influence, and some of the stranger moments in this mysterious black comedy take on "The Breakfast Club" are quite indicative of said influence. A weirdly beautiful movie, all wet and green and wooden.

  • Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman

    Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman

    ★★★★

    Really the epitome of what an Emmanuelle movie should be, as this lacks the unfortunately damning elements of male resentment in the first one. Emmanuelle just bangs whoever and gets deeply pissed whenever someone suggests she has something to apologize for. I read cult and horror magazines for a long time without sufficient access to the films they referenced and as a result my perception of this series for years was that it was "dull." Having seen several now, I can say that more accurately, what these movies are is "languid," and pleasantly so. The sex isn't quite titillating as it is opulent, and even the "plot" driven scenes are ambitiously composed and quite something to look at. "Vaseline on the lens" is not a put-down for me. Smear that shit on there.

  • My Neighbor Totoro

    My Neighbor Totoro

    ★★★★

    The first Miyazaki I've been able to sit through and, ok, everyone was right.

  • The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter

    The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter

    ★★★★

    Not as finely constructed as "36th Chamber of Shaolin," but the fight choreography is significantly more brutal and more ornate. Concludes with a bunch of monks ripping people's teeth out. Hard as nails.

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  • Mr. Thank You

    Mr. Thank You

    ★★★★

    Captures the restrained sadness typical of source-author Kawabata, while ultimately being more uplifting. Sentimental without being overbearing. A fascinating snapshot of what rural Japan looked like in the 30's.

  • Moving

    Moving

    ★★★★

    The last thirty minutes of this is what motivated me to finally watch "My Neighbor Totoro," as it feels like a live-action version of the most resonant imagery of that film. Having now seen both, I can say that that's accurate. A heartbreaking child-centric view of divorce which concludes in a show-stopping visual metaphor for maturing beyond your years.

  • The Silent Partner

    The Silent Partner

    ★★★★

    Elliot Gould's character suffers slightly from the Awesome Dude Syndrome that I usually hate in movies, but that's the point: Everyone underestimates Elliot Gould, including the audience. Goes all out on the Christopher Plummer character being a full-tilt psychopath. Nothing cooler than Gould saying "Go fuck yourself" into a payphone while making eye contact with a home invader in his own apartment.

  • Ryan's Babe

    Ryan's Babe

    ★★★★

    Truly not that dissimilar from a Coen brothers movie, both in its cribbing from Homer and also its nihilism. Ryan is a passive nobody, ceaselessly pulled along by strangers who all seem to mistake him for someone else; he is an empty conduit for their own motivations and desires, whose only agency comes from the pursuit of a transparently doomed and nonsensical romantic relationship. This theme is of course rendered baffling by the abundant technical gaffes and the overall sense that this could veer into gay porn at any moment. Must be seen to be believed.

  • Emanuelle in America

    Emanuelle in America

    ★★★½

    Between the straight up beastiality and the very upsetting snuff sequences, I’d say this film went a bit far. There’s nothing like watching a movie and having truly no idea where it’s going next, and for that, I commend it. Like Sylvia Kristel before her, Laura Gemser exudes sophistication and grace, all the more impressive because of the next level filth she’s wading through.

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  • The Brain

    The Brain

    ★★★½

    "Videodrome" meets "Re-Animator" in desolate Canada. 100% exactly the kind of fun, late '80's throwback creature feature that I will devour until the end of time.

  • Waterboys

    Waterboys

    ★★★½

    Light, charming Japanese comedy about a bunch of kids who reluctantly start an all-male synchronized swim team. The Japanese genre of "people struggling as a group to develop a quirky skill" is one I've grown weary of, but this one, much like Yaguchi's "Swing Girls," dispenses with the melodrama and focuses on the comedy, to much better effect. There is a great moment in which a kid lights his punch perm on fire in slow motion. I laughed.

  • ...All the Marbles

    ...All the Marbles

    ★★★½

    A jokeless comedy about Peter Falk driving two amazons across Midwestern hellholes to compete in regional wrestling promotions. Has a relaxed and authentic vibe in the vein of something like "Slapshot," though I find this much more palatable. The last twenty minutes is just a wrestling match and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't into it.

  • Pets

    Pets

    ★★★½

    Surprisingly rich exploitation movie in the vein of something Roger Corman would have produced at this time, though much more character-driven. Appears to be in search of a point, but I was never not engaged by the monologuing characters and the melancholic vibe. Also, Candice Rialson is hot.

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  • Bad Ronald

    Bad Ronald

    ★★★½

    Offbeat made-for-tv 70's horror about accidentally committing murder and then accidentally getting permanently sealed inside the wall of your mom's house. I never got over teen angst and thus I love this movie.

  • P. P. Rider

    P. P. Rider

    ★★★★

    Somai's somewhat opaque but visually stunning Yakuza/teen movie hybrid. Feels most explicitly French New Wave influenced of what I've seen of his films thus far.

  • Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America

    Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America

    Not quite ratable, as it's nearly impossible to absorb any individual concept that's articulated here, though that isn't really the point. A frenetic art project mashing up Cold War archival footage with right-wing-informed alien conspiracy theories that leaves the viewer with a physical buzz of unease. Would pair excellently with "Wax: Or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees" for a truly exhausting double feature.