Kevin Monahan is the artistic director of the Boston Underground Film Festival and co-founder of Dispatches from the Underground, a monthly screening series at the Somerville Theatre’s microcinema. BUFF will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this March at the Brattle Theatre. For more information, visit bostonunderground.org.
1. SUPER DARK TIMES (dir. Kevin Phillips, USA)
I tend to gravitate to debut features for my top spot (Julia Ducournau’s Raw was my #1 for 2016), and nowhere was there more an assured first-feature than Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times. Set in Upstate New York in the fall of 1996, the film hits all the right nostalgia buttons, but isn’t trying to score any feel-good points by doing so. Chronicling the lead-up to and aftermath of a gory after-school accident, Super Dark Times is a tight little thriller with echoes of such teen films as River’s Edge and Stand By Me.
2. LET THE CORPSES TAN (dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Belgium)
Never let it be said that Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are filmmakers overly concerned with narrative cohesion. The duo behind the Giallo-flavored Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears turn their sights on the pulpy Eurocrime genre and deliver what may be the most plot they’ve ever offered up to this point, but who needs story when the style is so realized? Every frame is absolutely gorgeous.
3. BAD GENIUS (dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya, Thailand)
Imagine a heist/caper film, but instead of hardened criminals knocking over banks and stores, it’s teenagers taking tests. When honor student Lynn is given a scholarship to an exclusive school populated by wealthy kids, she quickly learns there is money to be made in the cheating racket in this white-knuckle nail-biter.
4. GET OUT (dir. Jordan Peele, USA)
The near-unanimous success of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut can be attributed to the incisive social satire it serves up, since genre fans are reluctant to classify this as either a comedy or a horror film. Such is the power that genre tropes can have, especially in the hands of a comedian as clever as Peele.
5. PIN CUSHION (dir. Deborah Haywood, UK)
Another first-time feature director, Deborah Haywood crafts an emotionally wrenching tale of a mother and daughter drifting apart amidst school bullying. Some may find the film’s look a bit too twee for such a devastating tale, but Haywood pulls it off with the help of veteran actor Joana Scanlan as Lyn, the hunchback mom.
6. HOUNDS OF LOVE (dir. Ben Young, Australia)
Here’s where the true crime aficionado in me comes out. In yet another debut feature, Australian director Ben Young crafts an intense fictionalization of the crimes of David & Catherine Birnie. Ashleigh Cummings shines as the kidnap victim as Emma Booth and Stephen Curry ratchet up the tension as her tormentors.
7. THELMA (dir. Joachim Trier, Norway)
This is what happens when an arthouse filmmaker tackles genre fare– and the results are breathtaking. An impeccable stylist, Joachim Trier fashions a supernatural allegory when a young woman from an oppressive religious household discovers her sexuality along with potentially devastating paranormal powers.
8. COLD HELL (dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky, Germany)
Everyone likes a good serial killer flick, right? This one, from the director of Anatomie, follows a young Turkish immigrant who sees something she isn’t supposed to see while driving her taxi through the dark streets of Vienna. A superbly crafted thriller.
9. THE SQUARE (dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden)
Maybe because I work in a museum in my day job, this one hit a bit close to home for me. A chronicle of people with their heads planted firmly in their own asses, this is a masterpiece of cringe comedy.
10. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (Yorgos Lanthimos, USA/Ireland)
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow up to The Lobster is a much more even-handed and assured work. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are excellent, but the revelatory performance comes from newcomer Barry Keoghan as the disturbed teen Martin.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: My Friend Dahmer; Jupiter’s Moon; Baby Driver; Bodied; Revenge; John Wick: Chapter 2; I, Tonya
NEGLECTED TO SEE*: The Shape of Water; Call Me by Your Name; Good Time
NOT INCLUDED BECAUSE IT IS A TELEVISION SHOW: Twin Peaks
*I reserve the right to amend this list upon seeing these films. Boston Hassle is under no obligation to publish my revised list.