The middle of the year brings a lot of things, but we can probably all agree that the most important of those things are lists.
With that in mind, Landon Palmer and I set out to highlight ten of our favorite films of the past six months, but instead of being a straight forward list of the year’s best movies so far we chose to zero in on the great, smaller movies that may have bypassed your radar as they slipped in and out of just a handful of theaters. This factor is most obvious in the absence of Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor from Landon’s selections.
The films we’ve chosen run the gamut of genres and countries of origin, but they share a sense of quality sadly missing from the majority of Hollywood films opening wide in theaters these days. (Although if you have to see a wannabe blockbuster choose Roland Emmerich’s White House Down… the damn thing is dumb as dirt but sweet Jesus is it fun.)
You may have heard of some of the films below, but all of them are worth seeking out at your local arthouse or VOD provider of choice.
Film fans expect something pretty specific when they hear the name Cronenberg, and Brandon has proudly taken the baton of corporeal horror from his father David. Though the younger Cronenberg claims to have seen very few, if any, of his father’s films, the signature Cronenberg sensibility is available in full force in this story about celebrity “consumers” who seek to infect themselves with diseases shared by the renowned.
Like a Videodrome for today’s plastic celebrity culture, Antiviral follows a rogue functionary (Caleb Landry Jones, perfectly emaciated) whose side business of black market celebrity diseases comes to a quick halt when he acquires the terminal ailment of one of this alternate universe’s biggest names. His body and his knowledge of the world endure grotesque and fascinating changes, and provide ample opportunities for biting, timely satire.
One would think it would be annoying and predictable for the son of a famous filmmaker to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps, but Brandon Cronenberg both delivers on the family name and shows ample panache of his own. Antiviral proves that old adage: you can never have too many Cronenbergs. - LP
Where can you see it? Antiviral had such a limited theatrical run as to not even register on the box office map, but it is still available on VOD.
Berberian Sound Studio
British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s sophomore feature is both a pained love letter to Italian giallo horror and a potent journey into the deep, dark world of sound production. Toby Jones plays a meek sound designer who labors at practical foley effects for a gory horror film overseen by an eccentric director and a dictatorial producer. Besides a killer beginning credit sequence, we never see a frame of the film in question. Instead, Berberian Sound Studio lends its most detailed focus to Jones’s character’s process, which involves using a variety of fruits, vegetables and cooking materials to evoke the gruesome sounds of anything ranging from scalping to stabbing to acts best not mentioned here; our mind, and Jones’s pained reactions, fill in the rest.
The film eventually gets into our beloved sound designer’s psyche, and that’s where Berberian Sound Studio soars from an expertly executed exercise in film form to an innovative, no-punches-pulled journey into the subjectivity of a character for whom any prior divisions between reality and cinema are rapidly torn apart. - LP
Where can you see it? Berberian Sound Studio is currently available for rent on VOD, and is slowly expanding its limited theatrical run.
The History of Future Folk
You’d be forgiven for taking a single glance at the poster or images from The History of Future Folk and deciding that it just plain looks too goofy to watch, but you’d be making a big mistake all the same. And that’s not to say the movie isn’t goofy, an adjective that applies in spades, but instead the film manages something special with a light-heartedness that just makes you feel good even as it details a story about an impending alien invasion and the music that might save mankind.
Co-directors John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker have made a spiritual cousin to the films of Japan’s Yoshihiro Nakamura in their blending of humor, emotion and melody to tell a small-scale tale that’s ultimately about humanity as a whole. - RH
Where can you see it? This future low-fi classic is available on DVD and VOD.
Tied with Something in the Air as my favorite film of the year, young (24!) French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan’s nearly three-hour character study is a dazzling cocktail of gender transgression, fantastic period costumes, affecting melodrama, and addictive pop music. Tracking the decade-long ups-and-downs of a couple in love as Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) realizes he must become a woman, Laurence Anyways uses the framework of a classic love story to articulate a detailed, layered depiction of fluid gender identity in a rigidly gender-specific society.
Despite its ambitious running time, the film moves seamlessly from one life event to another through a novelistic structure and tonal grace, staggeringly realized by Dolan’s incredible, seemingly innate eye and ear for cinematic style as an anchor for substance. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Poupaud’s Laurence and sometimes girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) who bring humanity, specificity, chemistry, and nuance to a set of complex tensions and issues often relegated to near-invisibility.
The film’s US release came about on the tail of DOMA’s repeal, and Laurence Anyways is a necessary reminder that there’s still a long ways to go in queer politics – there’s a lot more to the LGBT acronym than those first two letters. - LP
Where can you see it? Laurence Anyways opened on 8 screens this past weekend and is slowly expanding through the month of July.
Landon went the highbrow route with his horror choice (Berberian Sound Studio), but as someone with far less class I’m going with one of the year’s goriest and most brutal films instead. Franck Khalfoun‘s remake of the early ’80s slasher should have by all accounts faced the same fate as every other lame horror redo, but instead the film surprises with an excess of style, technical achievement and a truly empathetic killer.
Elijah Wood, he of the big, blue eyes and hairy feet, plays the title character whose POV we experience the majority of the film through, and the result is dangerous, dizzying and disgusting. The story checks all the genre boxes, but Wood’s performance acts as a counter balance to the beautifully rendered but still grotesque onscreen activities. Add to that a score by Rob that that plays like Drive meets the Night Stalker, and you have a film that finds beauty in the monstrous. - RH
Where can you see it? This gory but gorgeous gem disappeared from theaters in less time than it takes Elijah Wood’s hands to scalp a street walker, but it’s still available on VOD. Those of you with region-free Blu-ray players can also pick up the just released Blu-ray from Amazon UK.