The reason I really like year-end list time? It's a time for heated conversations and petty provocations. And of course to find a few gems I may have let go by un-noticed. Below I've listed some very worthwhile fare that may appeal to HBW readers, but doesn't quite fit in the smallish HBW box so won't be part of the discussion in the favorites of the year. Well, now they get their own list...
The Fits - Anna Rose Holmer - Starting with the fare probably least likely to have otherwise been included on this blog as it's not remotely crime-centered. It's the story of a young girl coming into her own through participation in a community youth center's programs for competitive dance and boxing. It's a mesmerizingly sensual little film that relies little on its sparse dialogue and heavily on its star's face and physicality(newcomer Royalty Hightower) to tell its story. Why it makes this list - it may not be a crime story, but it reminded me acutely of the work of one of my favorite crime writers, Megan Abbott. In fact if you remove the crime and noir elements from her books Dare Me and The Fever and somehow mashed the two together and adapted the results to film... probably look a lot like The Fits. Also - it's short, like under 80 minutes - that's big in its favor. Interested to see what's next for Holmer.
Hardcore Henry - Ilya Naishuller - The 2013 music videos for Biting Elbows' The Stampede and Bad Motherfucker, a two-part, first person-POV action flick about a bunch of black suit wearing motherfuckers trying to kill a slippery, elusive motherfucker for control of a teleportation device, was such an inventive, high-energy blast of cinematic blood letting somebody threw director Naishuller a bunch of money and a dare to do a feature length version. Naishuller then dared audiences to sit through it and I for one am damned glad I did. Specifically, I'm glad I did it at the theater where the impact of the giant screen was maximized and made for some nausea-inducing sequences of shaky-cam bloody mayhem. Yeah, it made me a little cross-eyed, but it's the most formally-inventive action movie since The Matrix - like an ultraviolent Looney Tunes episode that just keeps upping the chuck and I was more than a little titillated and knock-kneed afterward. I remember exactly fuck-all about the plot, and a lot of the humor falls flat, but every single action sequence felt like the big over the top finale of any other action flick and that's more than half the battle. It doesn't quite fit in the HBW sweet spot because of the science fiction elements, but holy shit it was one of the greatest movie-going experiences of my decade.
He Never Died - Jason Krawczyk - This one doesn't fit the typical HBW fare because of a latent supernatural element, but it is one of the most conceptually satisfying vampire tales I've ever seen. It holds horror, humor and un-humanity in such a masterfully balanced execution of tone and timing I can't believe I'd never heard of writer/director Krawczyk before - dude has some serious chops. And fucking Henry Rollins? Damn. The perfection of his performance can't be oversold here. It is at once melancholy and hilarious, resigned and seething, nihilistic and sweet. Run, don't walk, to watch this one and then watch it again like I have.
I am Not a Serial Killer - Billy O'Brien - Based on the YA novel by Dan Wells this story of a high school student who believes he is psychologically pre-disposed to sport killing and hopes he is not pre-destined for infamy is an icky mix of morbid elements that bounce between clever and darkly funny to merely off-putting. The best thing about the picture is its intention to treat the subject matter as realistically and emotionally honestly as possible. It's not what I think when I hear YA novel adaptation, but it sure helps make this a remarkable experience, especially as the film morphs into supernatural horror. Solid performances help too.
The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos - If you, like me, were worried something would be lost when the director of Dogtooth and Alps started making English language films with movie stars, breathe a big sigh of relief, 'cause The Lobster is every bit as fucked and headscratchy as his previous work and even has new and welcome elements of warmth and John C. Reilly. Fuck yes, please. Why would this warrant mention at all on HBW? Fuckin totalitarianism has never been more relevant to the noirish nightmare we're living in now... oof. Don't forget to register.
Midnight Special - Jeff Nichols - Michael Shannon plays the father of a young boy he's apparently abducted and is on the run with, along with a friend, Joel Edgerton and later the boy's mother, Kirsten Dunst. On the run from whom? First, from the cult led by Sam Shepard, who worships/exploits the boy, and second from the government agencies (given face by Adam Driver) with an interest in controlling/weaponizing him. The boy's got abilities you see. Strange abilities that aren't easy to peg (or control). All of this can be gleaned from watching a trailer for the film, but I still feel a little dirty revealing that much about the plot because the film slowly peels back the layers of plot to reveal character and give context to the action we've already witnessed so expertly, so precisely and subtly, it's a pleasure to be in the hands of a film maker this in control of his medium. And it's exactly that acknowledged level of control that can make Nichols a thorny topic because as with Take Shelter, many people will have difficulty reconciling the end of the movie with what's come before. Does it ruin the mystery? Does it spell things out too clearly? If he's as terrific at everything that came before then you have to accept that he's made exactly the film he intended to even if it doesn't end up being the one you were hoping for. I've got my own issues with the way the final moments play out on screen, but I can't deny the power of everything that came before and I can't wait to watch it again. Nichols also gives the least likely cast members some of the best moments too, my favorite example here being Bill Camp as Shepard's henchman preparing to do something terrible and pausing to reflect on how he arrived at his station in life. Easy to peg this alien among us, big-hearted thriller as another Spielberg's-80s homage along the lines of Super 8 or Stranger Things, but it's so much more (and better) than any of those.
Mongrels - Stephen Graham Jones - This tale of a family of werewolves living in the shadows of America, nomadic along its southern and mid-western regions, is one of my favorite books of the year for its sharp take on lore and for lending fresh blood to the coming of age format with its structure and the ferocity of its feeling. Yeah, it's a werewolf book, but it's also a crime novel of sorts, as the clan make a fair amount of their living off of liquor store holdups other crimes of that stripe. Exciting stuff.
The Neon Demon - Nicolas Winding Refn - The first Refn film outside of Valhalla Rising that I couldn't quite squeeze into the crime picture category for the ol' blog is another brick in the wall of what is going to be an untouchable body of work at the end of his career. His commitment to his calling as 'a pornographer' is inspiring as the images so carefully and purposefully crafted are arousing and of premiere importance. Sound too. Holy shit, the sound. And editing. Another visceral theater-going experience I'm sure loses a little in the transition to smaller, lower-quality viewing mediums, it's far from my favorite among his films, but it's undoubtedly fun to watch an artist at the peak of his powers give no fucks for commercial concerns even as commercial concerns are clearly on his mind. Are you food or sex?
Skullcrack City - Jeremy Robert Johnson - Begins as a white-collar crime novel that quickly unravels in a dozen dizzying directions - drug-addled dystopia, paranoid conspiracy thriller, grotesque body-horror, bloody funny science fraction - and wraps up surprisingly satisfyingly without being too neat. Neat trick.
The Wailing - Na Hong-jin - The Yellow Sea and The Chaser are simply two of the best crime films of any era, so I was definitely on board with whatever Hong-jin did next sight unseen. Turns out it doesn't matter what you know about this one before going in, you won't be prepared for it. This is the most bat-shit horror film I've seen in a long damn time (I'm just leaving it at that - I can't remember anything more bonkers off the top of my head... Fire Walk With Me?) and I'm going to need a couple more turns to wrap my simple mind around it. Whatever the fuck just happened, I feel spent. Korea is still killing it.