“Trash entertainment” is a phrase that has meant different things at different times and to different people. Most think of the term in relation to high and low culture, and how low culture (the trash) imitates high. It’s also usually what people mean when they say something is so bad that it’s good. More recently, though, it has almost become something of a term of endearment.
Trash is now quality, and it’s more than just putting some shine on a piece of crap. No longer do people treat Scandal or Arrow like guilty pleasures – they are appointment entertainment, not worth missing because everyone will be talking about it at work or school the next day. Trash entertainment is so well-made and crafted because standards are so high, and it is now the dominant form of television and, increasingly, film. Trash culture runs the zeitgeist, so here are some cinematic trashterpieces to get into the headspace.
Lucy (2014) | Directed by Luc Besson
The best action film of last year (it was a close race, John Wick) was Luc Besson’s ridiculous and outrageous Scarlett Johansson powertrip, with a movie that embodies the term “trashterpiece”. An absolutely ludicrous premise is dealt with exactly how you’d hope: all in. This is a fun, breezy, tongue-firmly-in-cheek thriller that consistently goes further than you expect it to, leading to the entirely batshit finale which feigns deep-thinking but is really just going confidently insane. Scarlett Johansson, who has been unstoppable recently, is strong here, especially in the scene when she phone calls her mother and everything stops for just a minute to appreciate this moment of undeniable power. It’s all euphoric to watch, genuinely crafted (aesthetically, it’s above and beyond most films last year period) with trippy visuals and winking jokes, becoming a schlocky brilliant time.
Braindead (1992) | Directed by Peter Jackson
Another form of trash cinema is the low-budget, low-expectation horror flick. One of the best is Peter Jackson’s Braindead (sometimes known as Dead Alive), which is perhaps the most absurd zombie movie you will ever see. The humor is sharp, the body horror is disgusting, and it combines charm with the macabre better than Tim Burton ever does. This is sick and maybe a little monstrous, but it exhibits the best of trash with its high energy, unbridled inventiveness and refusal to ever stop.
Cruel Intentions (1999) | Directed by Roger Kumble
This is a gloriously bizarre film that intends to provoke and push your buttons, but somehow never comes off as if it’s trying too hard. It is also Peak 90s, from the soundtrack (Counting Crows! The Verve! Placebo!) to the fashion, which also automatically makes it Peak Trash. Ever so loosely based on Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the reappropriation of bratty 1700s French aristocracy to 1990s bratty New England high school teens is either like throwing sludge on a masterwork of 18th century literature or an “honest” way of revealing how seedy the story was in the first place. Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Reese Witherspoon all nail their roles, taking them just far enough over the top. Far too often, stories that are sensational and well aware actually lose steam from that awareness, but Cruel Intentions is shocking but in a cute way. The kind of thing you watch late at night every night for a week.