Tag Archives: The Witch

March Madness of Movies: Best A24 Films — Round 1

These matchups were vote on by the MovieMinis Staff.

“Best A24 Films” went mostly as expected. The only higher seed to lose out was Locke, but that seems understandable as #6 seed The Spectacular Now is a more popular film and Locke earned its #3 seed based on a few very strong individual votes.

What’s interesting about this round is the matchups it results in. #1 seed Moonlight may be safe, but it would be wrong to deem #4 seed American Honey as easy competition. #2 seed Swiss Army Man is adored by our staff, but as seen by #6 seed The Spectacular Now’s upset, it shouldn’t be underestimated. #1 seed A Ghost Story and #4 seed A Most Violent Year could not be more different, so voting is unpredictable; the same can be said about #2 seed 20th Century Women and #3 seed The Witch.

On the other side of the bracket, #1 seed Lady Bird will take on #4 seed Obvious Child, which worked passed a tie-breaking vote against #5 seed The End of the Tour in the previous round. #2 seed The Lobster, an unorthodox but beloved film, will go head to head with #3 seed Room, a Best Picture Oscar nominee. #1 seed The Florida Project will compete with #4 seed It Comes At Night in a battle of rather different genres. Finally, #2 seed Ex Machina will match up against #3 seed Good Time, two films that range from liked to loved by our staff.

How incredibly tight these matchups were and how unbearably difficult they will be in this coming round goes to show how fantastic A24 has been as a production/distribution studio. There are many different kinds of films on this list, but they all coalesce into a very cohesive sense of the A24 brand.

Stay tuned for the round 2 results, which will be posted next week on Friday, March 23!

 

Featured image via A24.

March Madness of Movies: Introducing the Brackets

Now that it’s March and the NCAA will be hosting its annual March Madness tournament soon, we at MovieMinis thought to have our own tournaments, but, of course, with movies.

In the bracket style of March Madness, we will run through four different topics in what we’re calling the March Madness of Movies.

But rather than stick to general topics, such as Best Superhero Movie or Best Animated Movie, we wanted to get specific, to vote on aspects of film that could potentially make for a much more fascinating tournament.

The four topics we ended up on are:

  • Best A24 Films
  • Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century
  • Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century (cutoff at a $75 million production budget)
  • Best Cinematography Since 2010

In this write-up, we’re introducing the brackets, and in subsequent weeks, we will release the results of each round.

For each bracket, we laid out tons of potential contenders, and after a week of painful voting, we seeded each bracket. We must note that, in working through the seeding process, we were reminded of a terrible reality in the film industry.

In the potential contenders for Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century, with a cutoff at a $75 million production budget, there were only nine films directed by women, many of them with male co-directors. Only one ended up making our bracket, certainly not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. For perspective, there were literally hundreds directed by men, and the men were mostly white. This is a rampant problem in Hollywood. Women and people of color — and above all, women of color — are not only not given many chances, but when they are, failure, in any way, results in horribly unfair consequences; in essence, they’re less likely to get another chance than a white man is. This problem applies to cinematography too. In the potential contenders for that bracket, there was a proportionally similar compilation. While female cinematographers received votes, none made our bracket — again, not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. Hollywood must change, and part of that change comes from not ignoring the problem anymore. We need more big budget films directed by women and people of color, and we need more films, in general, lensed by women and people of color. We need women and people of color involved in every level of pre-production, production and post-production. For more statistics on female directors of big budget films, read Terry Huang’s piece on The Black List blog.

With that in mind, let’s move into how the brackets shaped up:

Best A24 Films

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moonlight and Lady Bird earned #1 seeds. Joining them were The Florida Project and A Ghost Story. Those four films will face off against #8 seeds Green RoomMorris From AmericaDe Palma and Menashe.

The next set of top films, the #2 seeds, were Swiss Army Man20th Century WomenThe Lobster and Ex Machina, which will face off against #7 seeds The LoversWhile We’re YoungKrisha and Spring Breakers.

The #3 seeds were a mix of widely awarded films and incredibly acclaimed genre/indie pictures: LockeRoomThe Witch and Good Time. The #6 seeds that they’ll compete against leaned more toward the indie darling: The Spectacular NowThe Bling RingUnder the Skin and Enemy.

Finally, in the middle of the pack were #4 seeds American Honey, Obvious ChildA Most Violent Year and It Comes At Night, as well as #5 seeds AmyThe End of the TourThe Disaster Artist and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century

This bracket is made up of four subcategories — MCU villains, DC villains, X-Men villains and villains from other properties — and we pulled eight contenders from each subcategory to compete. Instead of leaving them in their own sections, however, we then mixed them up and seeded from there. And we kept it to just eight per subcategory because it seemed more interesting than a likely lopsided MCU bunch had we not had that limit.

And this bracket is not just about performances. It’s about the villain, the character. That involves the writing and the directing of that character too.

With that said, the first three #1 seeds were rather simple to come to: Heath Ledger’s The Joker from The Dark Knight, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger from Black Panther and Ian McKellen’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto from X-MenX2 and X-Men: The Last Stand

Perhaps surprisingly to some who dislike the character, our staff showed strong support for Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, who took that final #1 seed.

Those four will take on #8 seeds Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw from X-Men: First Class, Ed Skrein’s Francis/Ajax from Deadpool, Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico from Kickass and Kurt Russell’s Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The #2 seeds went to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from various MCU films, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, the other Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) from the most recent X-Men trilogy and the second The Dark Knight inclusion, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two Face.

The #7 seeds who will battle these four are Zach Galifianakis’ The Joker from The LEGO Batman Movie, Hugh Jackman’s X-24 from Logan, James Franco’s Harry Osborn/New Goblin from Spider-Man 3 and Michael Shannon’s General Zod from Man of Steel.

Two of the #3 seeds went to the last two Captain America films; Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo from Civil War and Sebastian Stan’s The Winter Soldier (not Bucky Barnes) from The Winter Soldier. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins and Jason Lee’s Buddy Pine/Syndrome from The Incredibles earned the other two #3 seeds. 

Competing against them are #6 seeds James Cromwell’s Professor Robert Callaghan from Big Hero 6, Dane DeHaan’s Andrew Detmer from Chronicle, Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask from X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Sentinels that Trask unleashed onto the X-Men, also from X-Men: Days of Future Past.

In the middle of the pack, earning #4 seeds, were Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow from the entire The Dark Knight trilogy, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from Spider-Man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass from Unbreakable and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther. They’ll match up against #5 seeds Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt/Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger, Brian Cox’s Col. William Stryker from X2, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century

This bracket was split up into four different subcategories. Those were “Superhero Directing” (in the upper left), “Franchise Directing” (in the lower left), “Prestige/Original/Non-Studio Franchise Directing” (in the upper right) and “Animated Directing” (in the lower right). We took some liberties with this. Mad Max: Fury Road is a part of a franchise, but we concluded that it felt more in line with its current group than it would’ve among the franchise contenders.

In Superhero Directing:

Christopher Nolan easily earned a #1 seed; many even believe that he should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for his efforts on The Dark Knight. He’ll face off against #8 seed Tim Miller for the subversive Deadpool.

Coming in behind Nolan in the #2 seed was Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that many believe could become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture.

The #3 seed went to Joe Russo and Anthony Russo for Captain America: Civil War; the Russo brothers also placed in the #7 seed for Captain America: Civil War. James Gunn will take on the Civil War Russos with #6 seed Guardians of the Galaxy.

The middle match-up comes from 2017 films: the #4 seed James Mangold for Logan and the #5 seed Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman.

In Franchise Directing:

Peter Jackson quite easily snagged the #1 seed for his directing job on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He’s the only Best Director winner out of five nominated efforts in this bracket. Facing of against him is #8 seed Martin Campbell for the first Daniel Craig James Bond film Casino Royale.

Sam Mendes, director of another Craig Bond film, Skyfall, made the bracket as the #6 seed. He’ll compete with #3 seed Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Like Bond, Matt Reeves made his subcategory twice, earning the #2 seed for War for the Planet of the Apes. He’ll take on our perhaps surprising Star Wars inclusion, #7 seed Gareth Edwards for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Finally, with some of the most acclaimed films of the subcategory, #4 seed Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will battle #5 seed Denis Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049.

In Prestige/Original/Non-Franchise Studio Directing

David Fincher’s Zodiac has become regarded as on the best films, in general, of the 21st century, so he glided into a #1 seed pretty smoothly. But his contender is a tough one: #8 seed Alfonso Cuarón for landmark sci-fi film Children of Men.

George Miller earned the #2 seed for his masterful work on Mad Max: Fury Road, and will face of against legendary director and #7 seed Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scorsese made this subcategory twice, taking the #3 seed for his directing job on The Aviator. His opponent is #6 seed Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, who also made this subcategory twice, placing as the #4 seed for Inception. He’ll take on #5 seed Peter Jackson for King Kong.

In Animated Directing:

Quite predictably, Pixar dominated this bracket, with #1 seeds Pete Docter and Bob Peterson for Up, #2 seed Brad Bird for The Incredibles, #3 seed Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3, #4 seed Andrew Stanton for WALL-E, #6 seeds Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen for Inside Out and #8 seeds Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for Coco.

But other animation directors made it through with their beloved films. Rounding out the eight were #5 seeds Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders for How to Train Your Dragon, and #7 seeds Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams for Disney’s Moana.

Best Cinematography Since 2010

Even with setting the parameter of cinematography since 2010, there were still an overwhelming number of potential contenders and our votes were widely varied, resulting in a bracket that truly represents a mix of our opinions.

The #1 seeds did stand out, however: Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s lensing of The Master, Andrew Droz Palermo’s work on A Ghost Story, Roger Deakins Oscar-winning efforts on Blade Runner 2049 and Hoyte van Hoytema’s unforgettable photography on Her.

In fact, both Deakins and van Hoytema made this bracket three times. Deakins also earned a #3 seed for Skyfall and a #6 seed for Sicario. van Hoytema’s other two were Christopher Nolan films, a #2 seed for Dunkirk and a #6 seed for Interstellar.

Bradford Young also made this bracket three times, taking a #2 seed for Arrival, a #7 seed for A Most Violent Year and a #8 seed for Mother of George.

But, of course, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki placed more than everyone with four spots: a #2 seed for The Tree of Life, a #3 seed for Gravity, a #5 seed for The Revenant and a #7 seed for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The rest of the bracket is filled with stunning photography. Oscar winner Linus Sandgren earned a #2 seed for his work on La La Land. Other cinematographers of 2016 took spots as well, with James Laxton earning a #4 seed for Moonlight and Rodrigo Prieto earning a #4 seed for Silence.

Work from 2015 films rounded out the #3 seeds: Dick Pope for Mr. Turner and John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road. The other #4 seeds were Luca Bigazzi for The Great Beauty and Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis.

While Hoyte van Hoytema may have two Nolan films on this bracket, Nolan’s former cinematographer, Wally Pfister, earned a #5 for his Oscar-winning work on Inception. Rather recent photography also seeded #5: Rob Hardy for Annihilation and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for Call Me by Your Name.

In fact, a couple of Roberts placed here. Robert D. Yeoman placed in the #6 seed for The Grand Budapest Hotel and the #7 seed for Moonrise Kingdom. Robert Richardson also seeded #6 for Django Unchained, while Robert Elswit was another Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer to place, earning a #8 seed for Inherent Vice..

Finally, the last few contenders are #7 seed Masanobu Takayanagi for Hostiles, #8 seed Darius Khondji for The Lost City of Z and #8 seed Seamus McGarvey for Godzilla.

 

Follow along throughout March as we vote on these brackets and determine the best of each topic!

 

Featured image via Marvel Studios/Warner Bros./A24.

Trial: What is the best horror film of the past 5 years?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the most effective horror film of the past 5 years?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Sanjay Nimmagudda
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘The VVitch’ and for ‘It Follows.’*

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s argument:

Contemporary horror movies are burdened with the stigma of excess. Whether it be excess in the form of jump scares, clichéd storylines or, more often than not, gore, recent scary movies fail to make a lasting impression of pure terror on the minds of their viewers. This is the cinematic landscape into which writer-director David Robert Mitchell introduced his 2014 horror sleeper hit, It Follows, simultaneously reinvigorating the genre while cementing the film’s place as certified nightmare fuel.

What sets It Follows apart is the film’s ability to gradually instill dread into its audience through sheer simplicity. Mitchell builds suspense and conjures up uneasiness via a basic narrative that has far-reaching real-world applicability. Gone are the chainsaw-wielding rednecks, demonic poltergeists and invincible masked killers, but the terror their histories carry with them is here in buckets. The film brilliantly supplants the cheap, and non-lasting, scares that these horror archetypes induce with a more primal and intrinsic fear present in every man, woman and child at some point in his or her life.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

By simply having the ostensible ‘final girl’ Jay (Maika Monroe) relentlessly stalked by an indescribable force of evil, It Follows engages audiences on a more personable, and relatable, level. ‘When was the last time you felt as though someone or something was following you?’ the film posits. This inherently natural and ubiquitous fear is more effective and lingering because it can happen to and overcome anyone. Mitchell does not bog the film down with backstory or pad the runtime with a high body count, no. Instead, both director and production progress with the confidence that the most terrifying things in life are the inexplicable.

That’s not to say It Follows is without its subplots — a staple of the horror movie game — but the fashion in which it incorporates its motifs anxiously underscores the terror which the main narrative produces. The young adults who comprise the main cast are not trite caricatures of teenagers as audiences have come to expect within the genre, but rather, they act naturalistically, organically so to speak, and subtly convey moments of grief, trauma, sexual repression and mental illness on screen as actual teenagers would.

They are shameful, scared and unsure of what to do, but concurrently, they are not just bodies on the screen waiting to be picked off one by one. The realism in their portrayals as well as how well the film intertwines these socially taboo subjects creates an atmosphere of shame and guilt which only serves to emphasize the weight of the situation these people have found themselves in. Mitchell makes these kids likeable, empathetic and real, rendering their predicament all the more personally horrific.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

What’s more, It Follows understands that what makes a horror film truly frighteningly is not simply what’s onscreen (though that is a large part of it), but rather the atmosphere established about the entire film. With a score that is both unbelievably disturbing and a beautiful callback to the iconic sinister tracks in films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, composer Disasterpiece constructs an auditory dialogue between new age synthetic tones and classic horror film melodies which unsettles, intrigues and works beautifully in cohesion with DP Mike Gioulakis’ minimalist cinematographic style. Gioulakis boils down each shot to the bare essentials whether it be a simple car parked in an abandoned lot or the frequent, but no less harrowing, extreme long-shot of a small figure slowly inching its way toward the foreground. This is horror filmmaking without the frills and ostentatiousness of its contemporary counterparts and more terrifying because of it.

By excising the excess of modern horror while ameliorating the trope-ish tendencies of horror past, It Follows manages to deliver an innovative and, necessarily, simple story which harks on the fears and insecurities present in all of us, that never truly leave. It is the best horror film of not just the past 5 years, but of the 21st century.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Robert Eggers’ The VVitch isn’t scary in the traditional sense. But everything about it is unsettling. It is a film that is meticulously designed to flay one’s nerves for 93 minutes by any means possible, right down to the spelling of the title, an aesthetic choice that elicits existential dread from my computer’s spell check software.

The VVitch barely has any jump scares (the ones in the film are damn effective though), preferring instead to escalate the viewer’s sense of unease through the language of cinema. Immediately, we’re introduced to a world drenched in darkness; cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s use of only natural light (or lack thereof) suggests that there is neither a shred of brightness to be found nor hoped for. The visual aesthetic of The VVitch instantly communicates dreariness to the viewer, establishing the unease of what’s to come. This sense of unease is continued when we’re introduced to the farm where the main characters reside. It’s in an open field, completely vulnerable to the sinister, hungry maw of the surrounding forests. We’re constantly worrying that the titular witch will emerge from the woods and descend upon the exposed farm. Additionally, the farm is completely cutoff from society, and the isolation that imbues the film is akin to films like The Shining. In this sense, the world of the film is one that constantly and inherently invites tension.

A24/Courtesy

Of course, setting alone can’t invite the full-scale unease that the film achieves, and that’s where the characters come in. The film centers around a family of 17th century New England Puritans, who experience typical household troubles, which ground them in reality. So when that sense of reality is swept away by the supernatural — literally, when baby Samuel is snatched by a witch and ground to bits — we’re invested in the well-being of the family. Mostly though, we’re most invested in the character of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter, who may or may not be the supernatural source of the family’s troubles. As the film progresses, we see how Thomasin is simply caught up in a family that is slowly caving into itself through their isolation, seemingly without any help from the supernatural. Thomasin never intends her family harm, and when she is consistently getting blamed for the family’s misfortunes, our unease stems from the sense that disaster is looming, despite Thomasin’s innocence.

Then, there’s the music, composed by Mark Korven. Whereas most horror films are content to blast pounding waves of noise, Korven crafts a signature sound for The VVitch by turning to period-accurate instruments such as the nyckelharpa. The string melody of “What Went We” is at once beautiful, but also intuitively evil — not unlike the film’s depiction of Satan himself. The vocal chanting of “Witch’s Coven” likewise bears an inherently sinister quality. This isn’t “avada kedavra,” but something that feels real, as if the sharp, angry chanting comes from a real coven of witches. The music of The VVitch turns an already tense film into an utterly bone-chilling one.

A24/Courtesy

Regarding the religious horror on which The VVitch is based on, there’s something tactile and authentic in the way that the film approaches witches and satanic lore. It certainly comes as no small sign of approval when real Satanists lend their support to the film. The film posits the threat of Satan as a constant one for Thomasin and her family — present in the mundane, the extraordinary and everything in between — which also makes such a threat feel salient for the viewer. When Satan’s influence is posited as inevitable, maybe even condonable, that’s when the viewer truly becomes unnerved.

Ultimately, The VVitch is a thoroughly unsettling experience, one which leverages filmic language and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience of pure dread. If nothing else, the film deserves all of its plaudits for launching the career of Black Phillip, the most talented, savvy and charismatic actor of his generation.  

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s rebuttal:

I have to concede to Harrison that Eggers does implement painstaking detail in recreating the puritanical homestead upon which The VVitch takes place. The mood evoked by the film’s fixation on isolation, familial disputes and the unpredictability of the eponymous witch does contribute to an overwhelming amount of tension that envelops the film as a whole. It’s clear that the film’s existence as a period piece sets it apart from cinematic peers, but I would argue that said peers are not of the horror genre. What the movie accomplishes with the aforementioned plot beats, aesthetic and auditory choices and overall unnerving atmosphere is not necessarily indicative of horror so much as a drama or even thriller. The VVitch is most informed by how it captures the trial of Thomasin as a victim of historical patriarchal oppression.

Thomasin’s ascension to fully-realized autonomy is what drives the film as she is constantly belittled, disparaged and generally disregarded by her family. The film relies on her perpetual disenfranchisement as a woman in Puritan society and a daughter to a distrustful family to achieve its ultimate conclusion. I would assert that the “dreariness” and “uneas[iness]” of the movie, while undoubtedly generating fear, is not primarily meant to do so in service of fear, but rather to elicit sympathy for Thomasin’s plight.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Therein lies the delineation between classifying The VVitch as horror or drama/thriller, while a film may contain all the tell-tale signs of your run-of-the-mill scary movie, those signs are just a means to an end. And unless that end is to frighten, to horrify, to scare an audience, then that film cannot fully be classified as a horror film. The VVitch appropriates elements of horror which Harrison describes, such as Blaschke’s specific use of natural light and Korven’s string-based score, not to directly terrify but rather to emphasize the severity of Thomasin’s indescribably traumatic life.

Though scares do exist within its runtime, The VVitch functions best as a portrayal of the hardships and eventual retrieval of agency of its main character. The frights and scares, while very real, exist as tools to support and accent the journey of its central protagonist. While one might try and accuse It Follows of a similar feat, the difference is, It Follows’ narrative and thematic through lines of sex, disease etc. never overpower the film’s scares. Thomasin’s arc, on the other hand, becomes more compelling and deserving of our attention as the film progresses. It surpasses even the looming threat of the titular witch, that is, until Thomasin becomes her. In fact, when compared to It Follows’ straight-forward narrative, the intricacy of The VVitch’s storyline and the stark lens it casts on the familial dynamic as well as Thomasin’s identity make it a better film. Just not a better or scarier horror film.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Arguing that The VVitch is a better horror film than It Follows is no easy task, especially when Sanjay makes his point as thoroughly as he did. I can’t deny that It Follows is one of my favorite recent films, not least because its simple, atmospheric scares capture the anxiety of being followed, and of teenage sexuality.

Still, I would argue that the scares in The VVitch work in the same ways that those of It Follows do, but more effectively. It Follows leverages Mike Gioulakis camera work to create scares, in particular through the long takes that create a sense of anxiety for the viewer. But The VVitch makes the same play. The final scene of Thomasin walking into the woods lingers on her slow departure, going further and further away from the camera. This shot follows the same methodology as the cinematography in It Follows, but the anxiety of the shot is heightened because of the way that the film consistently escalates tension. The VVitch allows its viewer no time to breathe, no escape from the film’s ever tightening grasp on the viewer. Quite frankly, there’s hope for the characters in It Follows; they have the chance to pass on the specter of death that follows them. Thomasin, in The VVitch, has no such luxury. Her entire world crumbles away, and the shot of her walking into the forest — a climactic moment — only serves to highlight this fact. Sure, she might be better off with the witch’s coven, but nowhere in the film does the viewer not feel tense.

A24/Courtesy

In regard to atmosphere, The VVitch is arguably more hauntingly atmospheric than It Follows. Robert Eggers’ experience as a production designer comes out in full force: the film’s color palette, eerie music, blunt but mysterious approach to the supernatural and utilization of 17th-century aesthetics all create an atmosphere that coalesces to haunt and unnerve the viewer. In this sense, the atmosphere of The VVitch is more unified and purposeful than that of It Follows.

Ultimately though, both It Follows and The VVitch are two of the best recent horror films. Yet, the constant tension and unique aesthetic atmosphere of The VVitch give it an edge that It Follows lacks.

Kyle’s ruling:

The arguments are exactly what I hoped for out of this specific trial. They’re rather different. Harrison focuses on the complexity of production and the viscerally unsettling experience, while Sanjay focuses on the incredibly efficient, effective and simple story. Both are cases made well, cases that show how incredible the horror genre can be and, if all to base a judgment off of, impossible to pick between.

But there’s a clear winner, and it’s because someone shot themselves in the foot in the rebuttals. Sanjay seems to take the route of arguing for why The VVitch isn’t even primarily a horror film in the first place. It’s a bold strategy, but it doesn’t pay off. He makes the case for how the tension and unease are in service of a dramatic idea in regard to the film’s main character, which he believes makes it more of a dramatic film than a horror one. It’s an idea, sure. But I never understood why that meant that The VVitch‘s scares and fright aren’t indicative of horror, of rather good horror. Wouldn’t that make it a better horror film? That its scares and frights are in service of story and character and not just there for horror’s sake? Isn’t that the very idea you present in your own argument for It Follows? That it isn’t cheap? And if It Follow‘s themes are in service of the horror, and not the other way around, wouldn’t that make it cheap?

It was too bold of an attempt, and not one that had to be made.

In Harrison’s rebuttal, he uses the angle that Sanjay does in his very own argument for It Follows to take down that film — talk about effectivity, and how The VVitch is more so.

Winner: Harrison

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different horror film as the best of recent years? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/A24.

Top 15 directorial debuts since 2010

The following list of directorial debuts sets a particularly high bar for first forays into cinema. These directors have created films that offer deeply human portraits of their subjects — films like Fruitvale Station, Swiss Army Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Edge of Seventeen. Some directors boldly push the boundaries of genre, as with some of the horror entries on this list. Some others have simply created works of pure badassery like John Wick. While each of the following directors might seem different from the next, they all accept the challenge of carving out their own space in cinema — a challenge that will inspire many to follow in their footsteps. As Jason Hall make his own mark with his directorial debut Thank You For Your Service, here are our picks of some of the best debuts since 2010:

15. Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Marielle Heller’s debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, remains a wonderfully singular entrance into cinema, a film that candidly explores a girl’s sexual exploration in a balancing act of filmmaking that, as many have pointed out, could’ve easily gone wrong. But it didn’t, and that’s to credit of Heller, whose unconventional approach, intertwining animation into the film, nails a pitch perfect tone that is, at once, audacious, explicit, sensitive and never judgmental. That’s where Heller pulls it off — that she doesn’t ask this story to bend for what most might think it should, and rather commits to telling the story from the main character’s distinctive perspective. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s meant to be, which makes it all the more profound.

— Kyle Kizu

14. Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods

Lionsgate/Courtesy

Genre satire is incredibly difficult to pull off for any filmmaker, new or seasoned. There’s always a threat of jokes and subversion missing the mark, and of tone falling out of balance. Not only did Drew Goddard avoid all of those pitfalls with his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods, he was nearly pitch perfect in all regards. His comedic chops, as well as those of co-writer Joss Whedon, are on full display as the film takes conventional characters and turns their roles and the story’s arc on their heads. But like the best horror comedies, Shaun of the Dead principle among them, this film has its moments of genuine scares. When done right, these types of films become adored cult classics, and it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is on its way there.

— Kyle Kizu

13. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook

IFC Films/Courtesy

The most affecting horror films are the ones that reflect the darkest corners of our own interiorities, and that’s exactly the elevation of genre which Jennifer Kent’s terrifying, emotionally wrenching debut The Babadook accomplishes. The film’s horror finds its epicenter in Amelia (Essie Davis), whose grief over her husband’s death manifests itself in a conflicting mixture of love and resentment for her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This sense of emotional complexity speaks to the humanity of the film — every parent has at some point felt enraged at their child, even though that child is the one person they love most above all else. The Babadook offers reconciliation for this conflict, and it’s all a credit to Kent’s masterful direction.

— Harrison Tunggal

12. Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg gives us a film surrounded by the element of surprise — nobody was expecting a Cloverfield sequel, much less a confined, claustrophobic thriller, much much less one hell of a directorial debut. Arguably, this sequel is an improvement on the original film. For one thing, being trapped in an underground bunker and dealing with its two other inhabitants is a more tension-filled premise than the found-footage story of the first film. More importantly though, Trachtenberg gives us a whole slew of better monsters — specifically John Goodman’s post-apocalyptic creep and the actual aliens that, against all expectations, finally, gloriously show up. As Trachtenberg moves forward with yet another mysterious sci-fi project, we can’t help but expect great things.

— Harrison Tunggal

11. Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen

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The Edge of Seventeen is a coming of age film that’s powerful, controlled and extremely engaging all at once. It’s not just a stereotypical picture within the genre, not just a film that panders to its young adult demographic. The film takes youth seriously, recognizing that the blissful, fun freedom of teens and the awkward, genuinely difficult pains are intertwined. And the execution of this all comes down to Kelly Fremon Craig’s brilliant direction. Her script is wonderful, but not a simple one to translate to screen, and Fremon Craig jumps out of the gate with a seemingly inherent strength in guiding pace, character arc and tone. On top of that, The Edge of Seventeen is also a really affecting study of grief. It’s a film that truly works on all levels.

— Kyle Kizu

10. Robert Eggers, The Witch

A24/Courtesy

With The Witch, first time director Robert Eggers leverages his experience as a former production designer to create a vision of 17th century New England where satanic forces pervade daily life; there’s something evil in the film’s bleak natural lighting, the hungry woods and the restrictive costumes. Beyond mere aesthetics though, The Witch, in every respect, is one of the most unsettling film experiences that horror has to offer. Right from the moment characters speak, the period-accurate dialogue feels off-kilter, and if things weren’t stressful enough, the film quickly dials up the tension to precipitous heights in a scene involving a hag, a baby and a mortar and pestle (no, they’re not making hummus). Of course, The Witch might be Eggers’ first step in a career that is bound to be bright — or rather, dark, like a moonless New England night in the stiff clutches of winter, when witches’ howls pierce the silence and the Enemy stalks the earth — but his real accomplishment is introducing the world to the enigmatic, effortlessly cool Black Philip.

— Harrison Tunggal

9. Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul

Kino Lorber/Courtesy

In his profound first feature, Ixcanul, director Jayro Bustamante creates a uniquely Mayan film — he cast non-professional Mayan actors, wrote the film’s dialogue in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel and shot the film under the looming gaze of the titular Guatemalan volcano. Bustamante’s attention and respect for the indigenous Mayan culture results in a film that is deeply immersive, a film whose realism is akin to cinema verite, but which never ventures into intrusion. For all of the film’s realist qualities, Bustamante ensures that Ixcanul retains a warm humanity — especially through the saturation of color that pervades the film, but most strikingly, through the strength of its protagonist, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy). Through Maria, Bustamante suggests that female agency is the only true linkage between tradition and “modernity.” In all respects, Ixcanul is a triumph of representation in cinema, one that we can only hope continues as Bustamante’s career flourishes.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

The Red Turtle is an 80 minute, almost dialogue-free, two dimensional animated film. However, it’s one of the most profoundly human films of recent memory. There’s something quite jaw dropping about the animation here, simple yet mesmerizingly gorgeous, and filled with lush, stunning colors. And that’s where its humanity comes from: imagery. Cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and we follow our protagonist’s journey by almost purely visual means — how struggle, love, heartbreak, anger, regret, desperation and more are visualized in a story of a man stuck on an island. As we follow along, we realize how our protagonist is humbled, humbled by nature of all kinds and made to realize both that not everything revolves around human beings as well as how that can bring the best out of those very human beings. All of this also comes without mention of Laurent Perez Del Mar’s transfixing score, a soaring, tragic journey on its own.

The Red Turtle stunning and breathtaking, and one not to miss. That it’s Michaël Dudok de Wit’s directorial debut is mind-boggling.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

A fantastical, majestic tale of wonder and joy, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it. Not only is Quvenzhané Wallis an absolute revelation, but the film itself is a spirited triumph of independent filmmaking, a scraps kind of project composed with the utmost brilliance by Benh Zeitlin in his directorial debut. Almost dreamlike in that composition, the film crafts a community so crisply and so lively, and an explosion of a world through the eyes of its innocent protagonist, toned with an overwhelmingly affecting score to create an emotional profundity in its parallels to tragedy-struck communities like New Orleans, where Dwight Henry, who plays Wallis’ character’s father, comes from. In short, the film is poetic and transcendent.

— Kyle Kizu

6. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, John Wick

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy

John Wick might have been the directorial debut for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, but you couldn’t tell by watching it. In an action genre landscape where quick cuts and stunt doubles can get a pass from audiences, former stuntmen Leitch and Stahelski deliver some of the smoothest, most organic fight sequences in years — sure, it comes at the expense of John Wick’s dog, but when Keanu Reeves is kicking this much ass, it’s something we’re willing to forgive. Stahelski later doubles down on John Wick’s clean-cut action in the film’s sequel (one of the rare second installments that improves on the first), and Leitch recently directed Atomic Blonde, and has Deadpool 2 next on his plate, so it’s safe to say that John Wick represents both a landmark in the action genre and a stellar debut for two exciting new directors. Until Deadpool 2 or John Wick: Chapter 3 arrive in theaters, though, we’ll just have to be content with these five minutes of Peak Keanu.

— Harrison Tunggal

5. Alex Garland, Ex Machina

A24/Courtesy

As Ex Machina starts, we can tell that there’s something far more complex beneath the surface. We don’t really absorb it in its entirety until the end, but it’s there and we can feel it. Like many other directors on this list, Alex Garland pulls off that affect because of his composition of tone. There’s a bluntness to his story, a confrontational honesty within Oscar Isaac’s Nathan juxtaposed next to a startlingly direct tenderness in Alicia Vikander’s AI Ava. But that’s all for manipulation. Garland places us, the audience, in our very own Turing test alongside Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb. He positions his camera, his characters and his dialogue in ways that work into our head and manipulate us into admiring Nathan, empathizing with Caleb and believing in Ava. What better way to tell a story about artificial intelligence and consciousness? But Ex Machina also uses those angles to subtly posit an idea of voyeurism and of man’s manipulation of the female body. With seamless, unparalleled visual effects, steely cool production design, Alicia Vikander’s magnetic, landmark performance and a hell of a creepy dance scene, Ex Machina immediately becomes one of the greats of contemporary sci-fi, and it’s only Alex Garland’s directorial debut.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man

A24/Courtesy

In terms of pure singularity, there is no film on this list more imaginative than Swiss Army Man. Dreamt up by the minds of former music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man should be the definition of an original film, unlike anything we’ve ever gotten and ever will — unless they make another. We can see Kwan and Scheinert’s intrinsic music video sensibilities, as scenes of montage or action are, on a technical level, composed masterfully. But what makes the film so special is the human spirit within its veins, or should we say within its farts. Swiss Army Man is about weirdness, about strangeness, about idiosyncrasies, but it’s also about the importance of embracing those qualities. Kwan and Scheinert give us a perspective on these two main characters that allow us to understand their vulnerabilities in the most raw sense. Amidst gorgeous and eccentric production and costume design, we still feel a sense of what drives these people to want to live. In that, Swiss Army Man is profoundly sincere and strangely, hauntingly beautiful in the most awkward of ways.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

Open Road Films/Courtesy

Rarely does a film, let alone a directorial debut, master tone, atmosphere and tension as thoroughly as Dan Gilroy did with Nightcrawler. And rarely does a film blend social commentary — in this case, of the quite literal horrors of video news — and character study so fluidly and so affectingly like Nightcrawler does. In this thriller, Gilroy crafts his setting, Los Angeles, as another character itself, as essential and vital to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom as video news is. The energy within each scene is stunningly pulsating, injected with vigor and vital to the film’s ideas about sacrifice, hard work and persistence. Nightcrawler will make viewers feel uncomfortable and creeped out. It’s an insidious film, and Gyllenhaal’s performance will go down as one of the best of the 21st century. But there’s something so satisfying about its polish, about its razor sharp edge. Like Lou Bloom, our eyes bulge at the progression of events, and like the best films about anti-heroes, we understand what we should come away from it with, while also basking in that insidious deliciousness that is Bloom’s success. There’s are very few character studies before and since that come close to Nightcrawler‘s unsettling brilliance.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Jordan Peele, Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Between the creepy one take opening, the visually-driven social commentary of the Sunken Place, stellar acting and an incisive blend of horror and satire, Get Out is easily one of the year’s best directed films, and a guaranteed staple in any critic’s top 10 list. The fact that Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first feature makes the film even more special, heralding a career that is bound to establish Peele as a modern master of genre, a career that is already taking shape. Right after Get Out’s release, Peele was offered the reigns to a big budget Akira remake, but he turned it down, preferring to work on original projects like the upcoming thriller Black Klansmen (which he will co-direct and co-produce with Spike Lee) and a Nazi-hunter TV drama called The Hunt, which he will produce. After Get Out, we can’t wait to see either of those projects.

— Harrison Tunggal

1. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions/OG Project/Courtesy

With Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler portrays the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who is determined to be the man his girlfriend and daughter need him to be, but is tragically killed by BART police. Coogler’s directorial debut is a story driven by the humanity of its subject, a film that elicits the utmost empathy from the viewer, as only the greatest films can. With Fruitvale Station, Coogler demonstrates a profound, comprehensive understanding of character, something he would continue to explore with Creed, which took the Rocky franchise to new heights and even earned Sylvester Stallone a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As the release of his next film, Black Panther, approaches, we can’t help but be excited for Coogler’s inevitably compelling portrait of the titular king of Wakanda.

— Harrison Tunggal

 

Featured image via Open Road Films.

Independent film studio A24 is a powerhouse that just won’t stop

In 2013, A24 made waves promoting the wild indie film Spring Breakers, even going so far as to launch an Oscar campaign for James Franco with the slogan “Consider this sh*t.” Immediately, they were different. Immediately, they were refreshing.

In 2014, A24 distributed critical gems still talked about today. Most notably among them were Enemy, Under the Skin, Locke, Obvious Child and A Most Violent Year.

In 2015, A24 didn’t just stick its foot in the Oscar door — it shoved it open and sweeped nametags off the table to make a spot for itself. Ex Machina won Best Visual Effects. Brie Larson won Best Lead Actress for Room. Amy won Best Documentary Feature. And they still made other darlings: Slow West, While We’re Young and The End of the Tour.

In 2016, A24 made history, as Moonlight won Best Motion Picture, making it the first film with an all-black cast and the first LGBTQ+ film to do so.

David Bornfriend/A24/Courtesy

Its other films that year continued to expand how we perceive cinema. The Witch further defined the contemporary horror film. Krisha introduced us to Trey Edward Shults. Green Room reminded us of Jeremy Saulnier. 20th Century Women made the word “sublime” tangible. And The Lobster and Swiss Army Man are two of the most fucking bizarre and wonderful movies of recent memory.

And in 2017, A24 looks to do more.

In an age where film is dying in a bland spate of sameness, A24 not only knows to be different, but to have a purpose and to be true. That’s why each film it distributes feels specifically like an A24 film, like a part of the A24 brand. Nothing really feels out of place or, what would be worse, indistinguishable, as the creatives are like gallery curators with little of the stereotypical snob and far more fun.

They go from making a Tinder account for the artificially intelligent robot in Ex Machina to starting a Twitter page for the goat in The Witch, from sending media physical messages in a bottle for Swiss Army Man to opening a shop with ghost sheets for A Ghost Story. And it’s not just out-there gestures like these; A24 hosts meticulously designed plans that place each film in a spot to succeed.

A24/Courtesy

The company also knows to diversify within that brand. This isn’t your Fox Searchlights or your Sony Pictures Classics, where there’s almost too much that’s indistinguishable. With A24, even films seen by only a few feel singular in and of themselves. Free Fire is an action packed, guns-ablazing joy ride, with ravishingly badass posters to accompany. The Lovers is an odd yet deeply realized, deeply felt and deeply funny romantic comedy that’s a bit more friendly to an older crowd, featuring the ever wonderful Debra Winger and Tracy Letts. It Comes At Night haunts our paranoid nightmares, subverting horror expectations and getting people talking. Good Time is a neon trip — a frenetic, chaotic and deliciously addictive crime film with a Robert Pattinson we’ve never met before. And A Ghost Story transcends the dimensions of cinema, glaring into our bodies and our souls like only the most profound pieces of art can.

That’s only what A24 has released in 2017 so far. It would be tough to be evaluative of an upcoming slate, but it’s not surprising that A24 films are the current talk of the festival circuit, as the company has four more that could make their own weird and gleeful stamp on the year.

First, at the beginning of October, comes The Florida Project, from Tangerine director Sean Baker. A testament to diversifying, the film stars children, with the lead, Brooklynn Prince, being merely 7. Critics have already deemed it as one of the great films about childhood with others guaranteeing that Willem Dafoe is nominated for an Oscar.

A24/Courtesy

Nearing Halloween, the more horrific side of Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Lobster, will be unveiled with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. A Cannes premiere like The Florida Project, Sacred Deer has been received with a bit less unanimity than Baker’s film, but the intensity of the divide makes it all the more fascinating. A24 is a distributor that will take chances, a distributor that wants to make “radical work,” and Lanthimos’ picture certainly falls in that realm.

As November comes, something quite special arrives: Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird. An incredibly successful writer and actor already, giving one of her most moving performances in A24’s 20th Century Women, Gerwig is a talent that needs further platform, and for good reason. Premiering at Telluride Film Festival and moving to Toronto International Film Festival, Lady Bird is one of the most lovingly spoken about films to have traveled to one or both of those cities. More than a few critics have deemed it their favorite of the Colorado festival, and as it’s traveled to Canada, some have even expected the film to resonate in a similarly way to the landmark Boyhood, which, in turn, could lead to a legitimate Oscar threat.

Wrapping up the busy year, A24 will release The Disaster Artist, the James Franco-directed-and-uarring film about the making of the iconically trashed The Room, in December. The film visited South by Southwest as a work in progress, and was lauded at the time. Screening as a prepared cut last night at Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness, the film received a standing ovation from the crowd, who stayed on their feet throughout the entire Q&A afterward, something many festival frequenters had never seen before. Maybe with The Disaster Artist, an A24 James Franco awards campaign could have some results. “Oh, hi Oscars.”

A24/Courtesy

No other distributor (and production company) garners buzz quite like this. The Shape of Water premiered to adoration, but no one is really mentioning Fox Searchlight. Call Me by Your Name is said to be one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year, but few go out of their way to talk about it within the context of the Sony Pictures Classics brand. None of this is to put down those films, but it really does make something clear.

A24 isn’t just a vehicle through which its movies are funneled. It becomes a part of the movies themselves, almost as an auteur figure behind them, which is undoubtedly a reason why, by the end of the year, A24 will be the studio that stands out the most. Its films are almost like events nowadays, something previously ascribed only to studio blockbusters.

But most importantly, A24 is making the movies fun again — not just the movies themselves, but the anticipation of them, the promotional and paratextual consumption of them and the discourse created in their aftermath. Movie-going isn’t just sitting in a theater; it’s everything else too. And if companies like A24 keep innovating, the movies might have a chance.

Featured image via A24.