Oh hey, I didn’t see you there!
Guys, I had a hard time with my year-end “best-of” list. It’s not that I didn’t see enough horror movies that I loved enough this year to make the cut (though unfortunately that’s almost true). No, it’s just that there are six movies vying for pole position that all appeal to me in very different ways.
Sure, I know that some films are “better” than others. There’s one film on here that I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it got some Oscar love. The remaining five? Well, I’d be shocked if they did. Would I place The Innkeepers above Martha Marcy Mary Marlene? No. But depending on the type of thrills and scares you’re into it might be a much better fit. Are either one of them as kinetic, chaotic and invigorating as You’re Next!? Nope. But that’s what makes horror great! It’s a surprisingly diverse genre with more to offer than most casual viewers give it credit for.
Are these my absolute six favorite films of the year? Well, almost all of them would be in my overall Top Ten along with The Descendants and Young Adult. But we’re not here to talk about those films, so hit the jump for my favorite horror (ish) films of 2011*.
*In no particular order. Also, I’m not seeing Kill List until next month in case you’re wondering about its absence.
You’re Next! may very well be my favorite of the horror films I’ve seen this year, at least on a visceral level. It’s at times uneven and angular, but it’s never less than invigorating. And to be fair, the unevenness never stems from a lack of quality, but an abundance of it. The film’s highs are so soaring that the lows have to settle for merely being “really good”.
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have crafted a movie that somehow manages to combine a warm nostalgic embrace of genre with a thrilling subversion of it. Sharni Vinson’s Erin is perhaps the most pro-active final girl in the history of horror and many of the character’s choices connect with you on an epiphanal level. The film reaches back into your memory of everything you thought a victim may have done wrong in any given home invasion movie and corrects it.
While the budget of You’re Next! occasionally steps in the light of its ambition, it’s never less than a blast. And I suspect it works far better because of its limitations rather than despite them. Also worth noting, the fact that the film brought The Dwight Twilley Band’s “Looking For The Magic” into my life – albeit in a more menacing context than it was conceived.
Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block might be the most fun horror film of the year. Despite its “R” rating, and the gore and language that earn it, it feels most at home alongside films like Gremlins, recapturing much more of the Amblin vibe than even the rather good facsimile of Super 8. It features a great ensemble, enough commentary on the disparate classes of its protagonists to get by, and a fantastic sense of geography to its action scenes.
The truly unique creature design utterly shames recent, overly-complicated creations as well. In another case of a smaller budget begetting better ideas, most of the work here was done via rotoscoping as opposed to pure CGI. Exec-producer Edgar Wright’s influence is felt most strongly in Cornish’s airtight and economical screenplay – but the voice is separate and less overtly referential. Attack The Block reveals Joe Cornish to be an expert craftsman, it’ll be nice to see where he heads next. I can only hope that rumors of a sequel prove to be unsubstantiated – unless they can successfully make the tonal leap that Gremlins 2 made from its predecessor it hardly seems worth messing with near perfection.
James Gunn’s Super isn’t technically horror. I know. I’m not sure what genre it belongs to actually. But I do know that its gore and visceral intensity more than qualify it for coverage on this site. And out of all the films I saw in 2011 that I could possibly write about on Bloody-Disgusting – it had the greatest emotional impact on me. And certainly in the specificity of the way it spoke to me, it surpassed every film this year regardless of genre. While I’m not unfortunate enough to relate to Frank D’Arbo’s plight in every conceivable way, there are many elements of the film that spoke to me. Super‘s rage at the normalcy with which the social contract is violated in every conceivable way combined with its take on the trauma of a failed relationship is a potent mix that I found alarmingly cathartic. It’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” for a wounded audience as opposed to an indifferent, affluent one.
The film is alternately funny, ugly, gross, touching, and ultra-violent. It’s also inherently kind. I know that may seem like an odd adjective for me to lobby at it but it’s true. For all of its violence I don’t find the film nihilistic in the slightest. It maintains a remarkable compassion for its characters – which is why it will have far more staying more than the more immediately gratifying Kick-Ass. Some folks claim that Super‘s denouement is unearned – I couldn’t disagree more. That ending is the film.
Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene may be the most austere film on this list, more easily embraced by the conventional moviegoer. But that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. What initially looks like the most aesthetically pleasing mumblecore film ever made (complete with super loud grilled cheese mastication) quickly reveals itself to be a tightly crafted thriller. It’s anti-mumblecore. Every syllable is there for a reason. And you don’t know how wound up this thing has you until you finally begin to exhale during the end credits. Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes and Hugh Dancy are all magnificent.
From my initial review, “I imagine the people that will reject this film will do so with the reasoning that it “is too slow”. My response would be to suggest that, as with any film this assured, their mistake was to not place enough trust in it from the outset. As human beings we seek out and put our faith in capable, assured partners. As filmgoers we should give ourselves the gift of seeking out and putting our faith in capable, assured filmmakers. After the (mostly) endless series of flashy one night stands that was this summer, it’s time that we settle down into something more human and rewarding. Sean Durkin’s ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ is both of those things.”
I actually like Ti West’s The Innkeepers more than House Of The Devil. His deliberate pacing is put to better use in the tale of Claire and Luke’s fateful, final night of employment at the Yankee Pedlar Inn. I’ve gone on record as calling The Innkeepers adorable, but I don’t mean that as a slight at all. The film’s innocent vibe allows West to ratchet up the scares in the final two reels without going fully over the top. It’s a balancing act of comparative restraint that truly pays off.
Not only does West elicit a remarkable performance out of Sara Paxton (something I didn’t even know was possible until now – perhaps I need to reevaluate her), he also makes his one location completely cinematic. His depiction of the Yankee Pedlar Inn shifts remarkably from warm and homey to cold and uncaring, a decision that neatly accompanies the film’s transition out of “Goosebumps” land and into The Shining territory. Though it lacks the latter film’s thematic heft (The Innkeepers feels oddly anti-thematic), West’s ability to oscillate between temperature and intensity allows him to render some moments almost as terrifying as that classic (even if they don’t linger as long in your consciousness).
I suppose all of this is a fancy way of trying to say that The Innkeepers is the best haunted house movie in a damn long while. If there was one movie on this list to recommend for any kind of Halloween gathering – it’s this one.
Lucky McKee’s The Woman*. Oh boy, I suppose this could be an exercise in what hasn’t been said before. Or at least beaten completely into the ground. I mean you’ve heard about Sundance, the controversy, the brutality, the rape and the general depravity, right? The wannabe politician protesting in the hallways after being ejected from the Q&A… we’re all up to speed on that stuff.
Okay then, The Woman is actually a refreshingly smart, black-hearted satire with an empowering feminist statement at its core. The Cleek family is somewhat Lynchian in the contrast between their external behavior and their internal dynamic but McKee’s voice is much more narratively driven. Yes, there’s gore and torture and a grisly comeuppance, but none of it would mean anything without the beating heart of this family at the core of the film. Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Lauren Carter, and Zach Rand all deliver performances that ground us in the film’s sick reality. The whole thing may end up playing on an absurd grand guignol stage – but the film’s message is crystal (and entertainingly) clear.
*Yes, this is a Bloody-Disgusting Selects title. It would be on this list even if it wasn’t.