Out of all the lists I’ve done for the site, this year’s best-of compilation was easily the most difficult to write. When I first starting thinking about this way back in August, I was hard pressed to come up with five films that I liked, let alone ones that were strictly horror. But by the time we crossed over into December and all was said and done, my tally sheet was much harder to sort through but for a different reason: I had to narrow a list of twenty-two films down to ten, with an extra three as honorable mentions. Even after I had run them through my normal list of criteria of what I think makes a film great, my count-down order changed numerous times, and only one question helped me determine the iteration you’re looking at now: if I had the option to march right back into the theatre after watching any of these to see it again, which ones would I watch first? Immediately, the fight between a killer tire and ballerina had a winner, and my decision as to whether or not a powerful film was worth including if it made me depressed for days afterwards became clear.
The Last Exorcism‘s writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland struck a really good balance between the horrific, comedic, and dramatic elements that make up their gothic yarn. Cotton is a smarmy, though endearing, swindler, dishing out puns and dry humor left and right. And in Louis and Nell (and even her brother, Caleb, to some extent), they’ve created a sympathetic family who lead very tortured lives. And even though the story flip-flops through many different developments and theories, causing character arcs to drastically shift, you have that initial investment through the setup that makes you cling to these characters through their troubles. The atmosphere created by director Daniel Stamm and cinematographer Zoltan Honti is a breath of fresh air, creating tension and several chilling scenes by just walking through a dark room. With a minimal amount of jump scares, and virtually no blood and special effects in the entire film, The Last Exorcism manages to make you uncomfortable for most of its running time ala the horror classics of yesteryear. As for the ending, which divided audiences, I love it and think it was the most appropriate pay-off they could’ve had for the characters.
Like Joe Dante’s The Hole, Rare Exports is pretty much the best Goosebumps book never written. A kid-ish (emphasis on the -ish) horror tale, this retelling of the Santa Claus mythos is a return to fantastical frights (think Lady In White or Lemora), with an opening scene that is more Raiders Of The Lost Ark than anything found in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
It’s weird; sometimes the dumbest/simplest ideas make for the best films, leaving everyone scratching their heads as to why they didn’t come up with it themselves.Burning Bright‘s ridiculous plot (gorgeous girl and her autistic brother stuck in their house with an evil, ex-circus tiger during a hurricane) might be enough to turn people away, but man, is it fun. The story is pretty congested at times, but everything resolves itself, and it’s a tense ride getting there.
Let’s be honest: this is not Scorsese’s best flick, nor is it unpredictable. What it is, however, is the most atmospheric film this year, and a fantastic homage to Val Lewton films. Performances are exceptional across the board, and the New England charms and culture in the film provide for not one haunted house (Ashecliffe), but two (Teddy Daniels’ mind), the latter of which is bolstered by the great director/actor relationship of Scorsese and DiCaprio.
James Nguyen, the self-proclaimed master of the “romantic thriller”, is my new hero. Like Troll 2‘s director Claudio Fragasso, Nguyen has no idea that Birdemic: Shock And Terror is an amazing riff on The Birds, failing on almost every level except the entertainment factor, of which it’s off the scale. It’s kind of hard to narrow down ONE thing that I love the most about Birdemic; the MS Paint birds, hanger fighting, having automatic rifles handy in the back of your vintage 1990 minivan, the overly long master shot inside of a Chinese restaurant (obviously put there to show the audience the entire wall mural)… there’s just so much to choose from. It’s not as close to (im)perfection as a trip to Nilbog, but it’s the most awfully fun movie anyone has made in the last decade.
REC 2 is one of those rare sequels that doesn’t necessarily improve upon the formula as much as it successfully changes it up without making it feel like it doesn’t fit into the same universe as its predecessor – think the Alien franchise. Respectably referencing classics like The Thing and The Exorcist, Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza’s follow-up builds upon the premise of the original, while adding a new explanation for the outbreak, which I never saw coming and, I think, is more clever than what was “discovered” in the first film.
The Loved Ones, in many ways, is as much of a love letter to Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Wolf Creek is. Sure, they’re both Australian productions, so it’s easy to compare them in that respect, but Sean Byrne’s film succeeds where Greg McLean’s failed: it has more than an interesting villain going for it. Byrne spends time with each of his characters, both primary and secondary, giving insight into their world and what was going on with them previous and during Brent’s imprisonment – there’s a brilliant bit of contrast between the film’s protagonist and his friend Jamie, showcased through well-placed intercutting. The violence is brutal and uncompromising, though it never overshadows the story and characters, both of which are greatly fleshed out. If more gore-centric films could strike a great balance like The Loved Ones does, our genre would be in a better place.
Back in 2009, I managed to see Stuart Gordon’s Nevermore, a one-man stage show featuring Jeffrey Combs as the legendary poet and drunkard. I had never actually seen a play in-person before, and while it was memorable in that aspect, I was totally floored by Combs’ performance, and the character immersion I saw before me – as the play goes on, he gets drunker, and it’s completely believable. Much of the same can be said about Buried, which stars Ryan Reynolds as Paul, a government contractor who finds himself buried alive in a coffin with nothing but a cell phone, a few glow sticks, and a canteen filled with water. Not only does the film prove that Reynolds has what it takes to carry a non-comedic film on his shoulders, but it’s a showcase for up-and-coming director Rodrigo Cortes’ talent.
Imagine if David Lynch had directed Jaws with a tire instead of a shark as his villain, and you’d have a pretty good idea of what Rubber is like. But that’s just half of what Quentin Dupieux’s post-modern smorgasbord of Rod Serling inspired bizarreness has to offer. Instead of just stopping at the absurd notion of having a tire blowing people’s heads up, the film throws its audience for a loop, introducing it as a film with a film that ends up crossing over and disrupting reality, resulting in one of the most unique cinematic experiences in quite some time.
Black Swan is, in a lot of ways, a companion piece to The Wrestler; they both feature characters pushing themselves to be their best, and how the journey to get there affects them mentally, physically, and spiritually. Aronofsky’s latest just happens to be more Polanski than inspirational, fitting in with the Apartment Trilogy more than it does any inspirational, feel-good sports flick.
For the record, I didn’t enjoy A Serbian Film, nor would I watch it again or recommend anyone watch it a first time. In fact, I fell into a deep state of depression for days after seeing it at SXSW this past March. I don’t think any of us can properly identify with the trials and tribulations Serbians have been through, but if the way this film made me feel even comes close to their collective state of mind over the past few years, I don’t envy them that much more. I honestly think this is the sort of outrage, confusion, and repulsion people felt when they saw Cannibal Holocaust back in the 80s, and if all horror flicks made me feel this way, I wouldn’t watch them anymore. In other words, this is one of the most powerful and affecting films I have seen, and while I do not relish the thought of sitting through it a second time, it has put images and ideas into my head that I simply cannot erase from my memory, no matter how hard I try.
Because any documentary that puts me on a quest to find a new – to me, anyway – Peter Jackson script (Freddy is a washed-up hobo in dreamland, and gets beat up by kids who intentionally make themselves fall asleep so they can pick on him) is worth a mention.
Everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Tom Cruise was involved at different points in The Killer Inside Me‘s long road to the big screen. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, the film was left to rot in development hell for years after Andrew Dominick left, leaving him to adapt The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. While the story is gripping and many of the scenes left me mouth agape, Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford steals the show and is probably one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. He’s similar to Henry (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer) and Harry Powell (Night Of The Hunter), in the sense that he plays the good-old boy and buffoon quite convincingly, and seamlessly shifts to psychopath at the drop of a dime. All of the aforementioned characters are morally reprehensible, but the small shreds of humanity that exist (or are convincingly faked) in them is what makes them so extraordinary and endlessly watchable.