Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Movies of 2009... That I Actually Managed to See

Not looking to do much analysis, just wanted to note that I saw a rather large number of good 2009 releases, and wanted to list the films that I would legitimately consider great. Of course, this is about a month and a half too late to mean anything, and there's still a shitload of movies that sound good that I haven't caught up with. So this is hardly a definitive or meaningful list. More of a diary entry that can hopefully offer up a few recommendations to people who read this.

I honestly don't have a clear favorite from last year and don't feel the need to rank these, so it will be in alphabetical order:


After seeing Exotica early last year, I got a full-on evil robot chubby for the films of Atom Egoyan. I've read critics who don't like the fractured-timeline method of storytelling that he often employs, saying that it makes his stories unnecessarily convoluted. I feel that his style is to restructure his narrative in such a way to make it more compelling than it would have been if told chronologically, plus it encourages the viewer to actively participate in his films and not simply passively accept them. Adoration ranks with his best work, foregoing some of the movie sensational aspects of some of his other movies for a more down to earth, moving story exploring different aspects of identity: personal, familial, racial.


It's too bad that Greg Mottola's sweet, perceptive coming-of-age-for-grad-students comedic drama was sold in trailers as a laugh a minute, spiritual sequel to his Superbad. I don't think people knew what to expect, and probably felt let down when the movie amused them but didn't make them bust a gut. Adventureland perfectly captures that feeling of post-collegiate ennui, when the once seemingly infinite possibilities the world offered you shrink considerably, and you find yourself living at home once again because you can't afford to pay rent. Don't get me wrong, I love Superbad to death, but not being a cog in the Apatow machine has freed Mottola to put a little more visual craft into his filmmaking, and to make something that feels more personal. Good use of pop music to establish an era and a tone. Also, I knew I liked Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Thomas and Martin Starr, but who knew Ryan Reynolds could drop the sarcasm and deliver a performance this good?


I've mentioned this one enough already, so no need to regurgitate here. Did you hear that some Danish video game company is planning on making a video game spin-off/sequel? How the fuck does that even make sense? Where is there left to go with these characters or with this story?


I almost feel like a dick for heaping praise on the highest grossing movie of all time, you know? It's been rewarded enough, so I won't ramble. I really did love the movie. Yes, I agree with everyone that it does not have a great screenplay (although, you know, I do think it's efficient and reasonably well structured). But the filmmaking brought the spectacle and the movie magic in spades, two things I am very fond of. Case in point: the wonderful moment during the finale when big blue Zoe Saldana sees Sam Worthington's human body for the first time and cradles him in her arms is a potent combination of romance, excitement, strangeness, and mindbogglingly perfect special effects. Moments like that only come along so often.


As the one person on the planet who doesn't much like A Nightmare Before Christmas, no one was more surprised than me that Henry Selick would make a movie I'd connect so strongly with. Besides the obvious visual pleasures, and the fact that Coraline is shockingly dark and unsettling for a children's film, I like the fact Coraline the character is something of a weirdo and bitch (though still likable), in stark contrast the insufferably cute protagonists we typically get in movies like this.

The Girlfriend Experience

I dig that Steven Soderbergh tires something new with each movie, but it means his output is hit or miss. Last year's The Informant! had a great performance by Matt Damon and some weird twists on the corporate thriller genre, but seemed a times slackly structured and was surprisingly ugly looking. The Girlfriend Experience was more of a risk but I thought produced a greater reward. Starring a porn star and a cast of unknowns, with a fractured timeline and a slightly lethargic pace, it's not exactly his most accessible work, but it's a thoughtful and moving examination of the intersection of sexual, social and economic attitudes in post-Bush America.

The House of the Devil

Take a look here for my thoughts and jump in on the discussion below.

The Hurt Locker

I did a long post back in the summer outlining what I loved about this movie; I haven't seen it since and it really begs for a repeat viewing. I wouldn't say it was my favorite of the year, but I am kinda hoping that Kathryn Bigelow gets the Oscar for her work, if only because I'd like to think it would mean some sort of retroactive recognition for Point Break.

Inglourious Basterds

So, Quentin Tarantino has apparently climbed entirely up his own ass at this point and into a fanciful land of make believe, making movies whose context only involves other movies, with no relation to real life. Still, as much as I'd like to see him crawl out of himself and make a movie with more of a basis in reality, I thought that Inglourious Basterds has been the best of his movies-about-movies period. Although the film clearly has several themes it returns to (interrogation, psychological warfare, deception/performance, revenge/poetic justice), I don't believe Tarantino was trying to make any sort of statement about war, or about revenge turning the Jews into Nazis themselves. I just think the film, like his others, is essentially amoral and is more about Tarantino trying to entertaining, amuse, and enthrall his audience by flexing his cinematic muscles. Scenes exists to be great scenes, not to carry a coherent statement or worldview. And on those terms, the film is glouriously successful (forgive the pun). The drawn-out, nearly half hour suspense sequence in the basement bar is up there with the sniper scene in The Hurt Locker for the best crafted piece of cinema in '09.

The Limits of Control

Although I recognize that this is not a film for all tastes, I'm still a little surprised at just how negative its reception was. Were people seriously expecting Jim Jarmusch to deliver a traditional crime thriller and not, you know, a Jim Jarmusch movie? The Limits of Control is a further distillation of the sparse, meditative style Jarmusch has explored in movies like Dead Man; its use of crime/gangster movie iconography makes it something of a spiritual sequel to his Ghost Dog. I think its the best movie he's made since that one, and probably the best looking film he's ever made (thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle). Other attributes include Jarmusch's typical offbeat humor, a deconstruction/stripping down of crime movie tropes, something of a self-reflexive commentary on art and on Jarmusch's style, and heap loads of mysteriousness and mind-over-matter mysticism. Check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's brief appreciation of the film here, where he aptly compares it to Le Samourai and Point Blank.


No, I guess its not Miyazaki's best film, but that doesn't make it any less of a great film, feel me? He's back in little kid, My Neighbor Totoro mode here, and this tale of childhood friendship as eye-poppingly beautiful, narratively engaging and emotionally reassuring as his best work. We've come a long way with computer animation, but I treasure the fact that Miyazaki has been a holdout for hand-drawn animation. There is something of a tangible, sensuous quality to his work that is maybe lacking in modern animation.

A Serious Man

Right up there with their best work, the Coen Bros' latest marries the oddball, precisely scripted humor of comedies like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona with the melancholy, existentialist inquiries of their more "serious" films such as No Country For Old Men or Miller's Crossing. The result is a film that feels the most heartfelt of their filmography, and provides the most elegant expression of their worldview. For filmmakers often accused of condescending to their characters, the movie creates a lot of empathy for its protagonist, a Jewish science professor in the 1960's who finds himself questioning the meaning of existence, while his life slowly falls apart around him. The result is both hilarious and depressing. The Coens may be cynical atheists, but I think A Serious Man also confirms that they are humanists as well.

A Single Man

I've never been a big Colin Firth fan, but left the theater very impressed with his work after seeing this one. His role, as a closeted homosexual in the 1960's mourning the death of his long-term lover, seems like the kind of role where he'd get a bunch of big "Oscar" moments; impassioned speeches and crying and the like. But one of the things that was so great about this film and Firth's performance is how his depression is internalized; his carefully honed exterior only gives the briefest glimpses of the interior turmoil. First time director Tom Ford (best known as a fashion designer) makes this into a powerful sensory experience... perhaps its gimmicky, but I like the way he films Firth in muted tones, except on rare moments when Firth finds himself reconnecting with other people in his life, and brighter colors suddenly find their way into the palette.

Still Walking

I don't really follow the Oscars, but if I were to personally hand out the award for best director, I would be inclined to give it to, or at least have nominated, Hirokazu Koreeda. The material he works with in this film is dark and depressing in places, involving a family observing the anniversary of the accidental death of the oldest son. Yet Koreeda's complex, deep focus staging, and precise, controlled (almost disciplined) framing add a life and beauty that might not have been there otherwise. For a movie about loss, regret, and the ways family members inflict emotional violence on each other, it's surprisingly lively and enjoyable.

Two Lovers

Everyone was so busy focusing on Joaquin Phoenix's (probably fake) meltdown last year that no one noticed that he gave one of the best performances of his career. I had seen one other film by James Gray before this (We Own the Night), a beautifully crafted cop thriller with a silly, stupid storyline. This one marries Gray's obvious technical abilities with a more down to earth, heartfelt story about a depressed young man who finds himself torn between his affections for a sweet girl-next door-type and a bad case of l'amour fou with a high strung nutcase who actually does live next door (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, also great here). Like some of the other films on my list this year, Two Lovers seems like it could be a slog, but instead is often funny and lively, almost effortlessly straddling humor and heartache the whole way through.


It was a great year for animation, wasn't it? The latest in a long line of great Pixar flicks, Up continues the Ratatouille trend of being a secret action movie on top of being a delightful comedy, a touching character drama, and a magical visual experience. It was also the only movie I've ever seen that had the entire theater crying within the first 15 minutes. That's got to be some sort of record, or something.

You, the Living

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson's precisely shot, kinda surreal, cynical satire of modern society suggests some sort of unholy alliance between Jacques Tati and Luis Bunuel, although that description doesn't quite do it justice. Suffice it to say that I've never seen another movie quite like this one, and I'd call it hilarious if it wasn't so fucking bleak.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

2009 Horror Movie Postmortem PART III: DAN'S DEAD - THE FINAL NIGHTMARE


I know I talked before about remakes being the predominant theme in horror movies these days, but I realized I was wrong. For some reason, 2009 was all about killer children movies. I already mentioned Children of the Corn and It's Alive in the remake section; It's Alive wasn't half bad, but the best movie about a flesh-eating baby to come out last year was Grace. What I liked about Grace was that it was a rare horror movie with complex female characters, dealing specifically with feminine themes. It has an evil baby in it, sorta, but mostly its about how far a mother is willing to go to protect her child.

I believe Ghost House released two kid themed horror pics in '09: The Children and Offspring. I can't really recommend Offspring, about a pack of savage children who go around disemboweling people and stealing their babies, to anyone besides gorehounds. But it does have the distinction of being the most violent horror film I saw last year. It's passable but forgettable, and I guess worth seeing if you're just looking for something that makes you go "ewww!" every few minutes. The Children is a little bit more fun: some sort of virus turns kids into homicidal maniacs, turning on their families, so their parents end up having to kill them to save themselves. I have the same problem with both movies, though: children aren't a credible threat. The movies are kinda fun in a fucked-up, can-you-imagine-having-to-kill-a-child sort of way, but they aren't for one minute scary, because you don't believe for one second that some little rugrat would be able to take you in a fight.

All five of these movies that I mentioned have their moments, but leading this pack of snot nosed brats was the woefully underrated Orphan, probably my #3 favorite horror film of the year. What looked in previews to be a lame, generic collection of "boo!" scares turned out to be the most awesomely manipulative thriller of the year. This movie pushes some fucking buttons. Children are constantly put in danger, or forced into psychologically traumatizing situations. The heroine is distrustful of the titular orphan, but of course no one believes her and thinks she's the one losing her shit. There may be some sexual tension between the orphan and an adult man. The film is tightly-crafted and engrossing while also being completely ridiculous. It stars Vera Farmiga and Peter Saarsgaard, and they actually get to play a flashed-out, believable, sympathetic married couple. The critical drubbing the film received is a sign to me that mainstream film critics don't like or don't understand horror films; the only ones they praise are either horror comedies, or postmodern gimmicky crap like Paranormal Activity. I'm not saying there aren't reasons to dislike Orphan, but the reviews paint it as kitschy trash, when I would argue that its a skillful exercise in audience manipulation.


One of the incidental leitmotifs on my blog has been my bias against ghost/haunted house movies. Which isn't to say that there haven't been many excellent movies in the genre, I just find that, more often than not, making the bad guys ghosts encourages lazy storytelling, plot holes and lots of arbitrariness. 2009 was a... typical year for these kinds of films. Unborn and 100 Feet were your usual cavalcade of nonsense, both with ghosts that are seemingly all powerful and yet can't defeat a single, unsupernatural woman (100 Feet, for example, has a ghost that's strong enough to break every bone in a man's body, but at another point loses a seemingly physical (?) altercation to Famke Jansen). It's hard for me to give a shit when the rules aren't consistent from scene to scene.

Of course the big ghost flick of the year was Paranormal Activity. Allow me to be positive here for a second. I think it's great that a film of such humble means went on to be one of the year's big box office winners. It's just too bad that it's a shitty movie. Let me just say it: I don't get it, guys. What was the big fucking deal about Paranormal Activity? It's a movie predicated on an overused gimmick, executed even less artfully than these movies usually are. Even the fans of this movie don't seem to have much to say in defense of the filmmaking. Apparently some people found it scary; I found it too repetitive to be particularly effective, and often times hokey (i.e. a ouija board catching on fire... the filmmakers expect me to take a fucking Parker Brothers toy, best known as a way to scare your gullible younger sibling, seriously?)

At least the ghost/monster thingies in Seventh Moon are kinda cool looking creepy, white, naked people. I appreciated that part, but not so much all the incoherent shaky-cam cinematography and strobe-light editing. It's difficult to feel scared when you can't clearly see what the hell is going on.

The Thaw was an acceptable giant bug movie with some fun gross-out special effects and a Val Kilmer cameo. But the problem is that I'm going to forever remember it as "that horror movie with the heavy-handed, completely inappropriate global warming message." I like it when horror movies try to work in a little commentary, be it social or political or whatever, but it needs to be done shrewdly, in a manner well integrated into the narrative. By about the 8th time one of the characters in The Thaw needlessly interjects a comment about mankind's responsibility to take care of the planet, you're going to turn on all the lights in your house and leave your car running in your driveway just to spite the filmmakers.

Serious horror movies like Dead Birds and lame horror-comedies like Undead or Alive have tried the whole western-horror blend before; it's an intriguing idea but I feel often an awkward fit. The iconography of the two genres maybe isn't compatible; who wants to see a strong, incorruptible Western hero type in the vulnerable teenage girl role? John Carpenter probably has mixed the two the best, but his trick has been to set his films in contemporary times or in the future, and not make them actually westerns. That said, The Burrowers combines the two genres in about as satisfactorily a manner as you could hope for: cowboys vs. monsters. If that premise appeals to you, then I would think you'd like this movie.

I can't quite put my finger on what didn't work about The Broken, although that's at least in part because my memory of it is already fuzzy. My recollection is that it was a horror movie heavily dependent on atmosphere over story, but that the atmosphere was not well executed. The story involves people being killed and replaced by doppelgangers, but it was never clear to me where the doubles came from, what motivated them or what the "rules" governing them were... and a (somewhat predictable) twist near the end further confused matters for me.

Finally, although it didn't really have any ghosts or monsters, I needed somewhere to stick Thomas Jane's directorial debut Dark Country, sort of a horror movie take on old cheapie films noir like Detour. It's short, sweet, agreeable and features a memorably sexy performance by Lauren German.


Haha, hey, remember back in the first post when I was bitching about how I hadn't seen The House of the Devil? Well, that was like 3 or 4 weeks ago when I started writing that shit, and in the mean time it came out on home video and I saw it. And what I suspected from what I had read about the film was true: it and I are a match made in heaven.

I saw Ti West's Trigger Man a few months back, and it was the kind of film I admired more than I actually enjoyed. I said in my post:

"It took balls for West to make a horror film so dependent upon silence and stillness (something I hear he goes for again in House of the Devil, reportedly to greater effect) and I respect that. I bitch a lot about horror movies that skip right to the payoff and aren't willing to take the time to build a moment. Trigger Man is not one of those movies. It is serious about earning its thrills and is committed to its style. And the result is only moderately effective."

I'd like to think that Trigger Man was a stepping stone to The House of the Devil. West has figured out how to delay gratification until the last possible moment, while making the build-up just as entertaining. It is tied with Antichrist for my favorite horror film of the year.

The House of the Devil has everything that I've long been bitching about other modern horror movies lacking. It's deliberately paced, meaning its willing to let itself breath, to take its time to build a moment rather than rush headlong towards the payoff. It's scary, but in a fun way, not in a brutal way. It pays homage to a certain era/style of filmmaking, while retaining a sense of originality. It's concerned more with suspense than with titillation. And, though this may be a polarizing issue, the storytelling is streamlined to its essentials.

One thing that I often find that can sink a horror film is an overabundance of plot. Fear is kind of an elemental thing; you don't want to overexplain it. A complicated story can work some times, but more often than not its a distraction. When a strange noise wakes me up in the middle of the night, that's enough to get the adrenaline flowing a little bit; a complex backstory won't add to my fear.

The story of The House of the Devil is simplicity itself. It's about a young girl all alone in a big scary house. For my money, that's all a horror movie needs for a premise. All the rest of the details help add to the potential scariness in the premise. The heroine is a likable college girl with understandable motives (she needs rent money to move out of her shitty dorm, so she takes a babysitting job at a creepy, secluded house), so we give a shit about what happens to her. The homeowners are kind of creepy, but in a genial way, so a mood of menace is established but also plausibility that the girl wouldn't leave. Much of the movie is a slow tightening of the noose, as the girl (and the audience) only gradually understand the danger that she's in. Shit only hits the fan in the final 10 minutes or so.

I'm not going to ramble on about the rich, early 80's atmosphere of the film only slightly touched with irony, of the strength of the performances, of the film's masterful use of sound and score, or the careful, playful way it slowly doles out creepy details (and occasional bursts of violence) to draw the viewer in. Just know that The House of the Devil gets my highest recommendation. It's a must-see for all lovers of horror movies.

And that, my friends, officially makes THE END. See you in 11 months or so when I round-up 2010.

Monday, February 8, 2010

2009 Horror Movie Postmortem PART 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH


So like I was getting at in the last post, I think within the next few years we're going to see horror start to trend back towards a more fun, funny style. And to prove my point, I think we had a decent crop of horror comedies in 2009. Most notable of course was Sam Raimi's long awaited return to the genre, Drag Me to Hell. I don't think it holds a candle to his Evil Dead series, and I still wish it had gone for a gore-tastic, hard R-rating, but it was a breath of fresh air: an exuberant burst of energy in dour times. Something of an updating of Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, Drag Me to Hell is a countdown-to-doom style horror movie that derives great pleasure in toying with the audience's expectations. Raimi is something of sadist and enjoys heaping punishment not only upon his heroine (Allison Lohman, who I must say successfully plays the Bruce Campbell role of abused protagonist) but upon the audience. The thickness in which Raimi lays on the ending, piling happy ending upon happy ending until everyone in the audience realizes that something truly awful is imminent, is worth the price of admission alone.

If I'm cheating by lumping in David Twohy's A Perfect Getaway with the horror comedies, then fucking sue me. For a tense thriller it damn sure has a witty screenplay. In fact, while not the best horror screenplay of the year, it is definitely the most clever, not only because of its big (and somewhat predictable) plot twist, but also because of some nice structural touches (such as a flashback extended to the point of brilliant absurdity) and amusing self-referential humor about said twist. I am also quite fond of the way the film's slow-burn atmosphere combusts in the final 15 minutes and it becomes a nutty, over-stylized action/chase movie.

Overrated but still fun was Zombieland, essentially a comic riff on the modern fast-moving zombie movies. On the positive side of things, Zombieland has a great cast, some real laughs, and an agreeably goofy and energetic visual style (what with the screen captions, gratuitous slow motion, etc.). But why this film was the breakaway horror-comedy hit of '09, and not Drag Me to Hell, I will never understand. Except that zombies are the zeitgeist now, and Raimi horror films are a relic of a bygone era. The zombie horror comedy subgenre has brought us some true classics (say, Return of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead)... does anyone believe that Zombieland lives up to the legacy of those films? Maybe I'm being unfair in making the comparison, but I think my preference is because the other movies I mentioned work both as comedy and as horror, where as Zombieland wants to be fluffy and likable to the degree that it doesn't even have the balls to kill off a major character.

Okay, I think I already made a brief allusion to not being a Diablo Cody supporter in the last post, so I'm not going to harp on it here. Truth is, I don't dislike her work thus far either and Jennifer's Body, while mostly being a bad movie, at least had a handful of memorable jokes. There aren't enough horror movies made by women, so I want to credit Cody and director Karyn Kusama for making a horror movie about teenage girls that doesn't condescend or dumb itself down for the When a Stranger Calls crowd. But the film doesn't have enough ideas to sustain its bloated 102 minute run time, Kusama never manages to craft any memorable set pieces, both of the hypothetically satisfying conclusions are underwhelming, and it's beset by unnecessary structural flourishes that serve no purpose (i.e. the film is told in flashback for no reason, and late in the film there is another flashback sequence that explains information that might as well have been given to us from the get-go). Juno, for its problems, is a good and funny movie, and reasonably well-crafted. This feels like an incomplete screenplay with a few funny ideas.

Trick 'r Treat, by one of those dudes who wrote the Brian Singer X-Men movies, was a highly amusing take on a subgenre I'm quite fond of: the horror anthology. Although none of the stories are as tightly crafted, and none of the endings as bitterly ironic, as they could be, there's a playfully dark humored spirit on hand here that reminded me somewhat of Tales From the Crypt. Highlights include a LOT of children getting murdered and an agreeably convoluted Magnolia-esque style of storytelling.

I learned about the horribly titled Murder Loves Killers Too from Outlaw Vern, and while I admired its ambition (trying to do a low-budget slasher take on De Palma-esque theatrics), I just don't think the execution was solid enough. On the one hand, I want to praise the film for trying some stylistic flourishes, and some potentially amusing structural surprises (killing off characters earlier than you'd expect, going off on an unexpected tangent during the final act) on a tiny budget. On the other hand, I think it's that very budget that prevents the film from realizing its ambitions. De Palma's films succeed in large part because of their fluidity; Murder Loves Killers Too is too often awkward and stilted. Add to that the fact that the film's best moment is stolen from Sergio Martino's Torso, and you're left with a film I just can't get behind.


Meaning that these movies are cruel. Not sure if that comes across. It was the best title I could come up with.

When it comes to movies, I'm not much of a moralist. I rarely, if ever, get offended by violent or sexual content, or socio-politcal content, or moral messages in films. If I ever get offended, it's usually when I feel like a movie is condescending to me. When it comes to the other stuff, I'm a lot more concerned with the execution of a film and not so much about whether or not its message conforms to my own personal beliefs. So when I tell you that there were two horror films this year, Deadgirl and Eden Lake, that really rubbed me the wrong way, please understand that I'm not going all Jonathan Rosenbaum on these films and acting holier-than-thou.

s problem is that it employs a very serious matter (rape) for shock value, but then cops-out of actually dealing with it. By making the rape victim be a zombie. Yes, this movie is about teenage boys imprisoning and raping a zombie. What I think bothers me here is that, by making the victim a fictional monster, it takes the victimization out of the rape. There is no emotional toll in this story, it's content to leave it at dude, pretty fucked up that they're raping a zombie, huh? As much as this premise doesn't sit well with me to begin with, something interesting could have been done with it as an exploration of amorality and viciousness amongst teenage boys. Instead, the film never finds any insight, preferring to turn its villains into Snidely Whiplash types, before descending into just another zombie bloodbath.

Eden Lake, interestingly enough, is also about cruel teenagers. Unlike Deadgirl, I think it has more courage of conviction and actually makes an attempt to explore its themes. It's in the execution where things go wrong. The film is about a 30-something couple that is initially harassed, and then eventually assaulted and tortured by a gang of teenage creeps. The filmmakers are not without skill, and the early sequences did a very good job of making me uneasy. As it plays out, however, the film both becomes less and less credible as a thriller yet also more and more sickening in its violence. Now, I get it, a movie like this is supposed to be unpleasant. I don't have a problem with that, I've enjoyed many movies like that. My problem is that as the movie becomes more absurd, the violence seems less and less fitting to the material. There's a wide gap between the grimness of the violence and the cliched contrivances of the plot, and the violence becomes bothersome for the wrong reason: because the film doesn't earn it.

Okay, the whiny, crybaby, Roger Ebert portion of this post is over with, because I saw a disgusting, miserable, vicious horror film last year that I'm actually enthusiastic about: Martyrs. I'd describe the plot, but it seems pointless as the movie defies easy description and the plot completely changes directions every 15 or 20 minutes. I'm not sure, piecing the whole thing together, that the story really makes a lot of sense, but the abrupt shifts in story are part of what makes the film unique; it is impossible to guess where it's going next. Although perhaps a little roughly put together visually in a few spots, Martyrs is a consistently strange, disturbing and tense horror film that combines elements from different subgenres (revenge film, monster movie, torture porn, psychological thriller) in a one-of-a-kind way.

Less successful were Shuttle and The Collector. Neither was a particularly good film (although both had their moments, I suppose) but both get a pass if you have nothing better to do. Shuttle, about a group of people abducted by the guy driving their airport shuttle has a few nasty surprises up its sleeve and some decent atmosphere, but most of the suspense is sabotaged by its creaky plot, which has to do way, WAY too much contriving to keep its characters in danger (seems like they should have had a much easier time escaping). The Collector, about a serial killer who likes to set elaborate traps in the homes of his victims, the directorial debut of one of the dudes who co-wrote the last few Saw movies, suffers from the same problems in tone I've noticed of a lot of horror movies these days: is it trying to be fun or is it trying to be disturbing? A scene of someone getting graphically tortured will be followed by a presumably comic sequence of a cat accidentally tripping a trap and meeting a goofily gruesome end. Each moment undercuts the next, and all that's left is some mildly entertaining gore effects. And as far as those go, The Collector does have one classic moment: a girl trips and falls into a room full of bear traps.


I've noticed a trend amongst some horror movie fans to reject, almost as a rule, serious-minded horror films in favor of the more pulpy genre fare. Now, I'm a big tent kind of guy. I love my art, and I love my trash, and if you want to mix the two together, even better. So it irks me to see horror movies outright dismissed by some fans as "pretentious" just because the films take themselves seriously. That's what happened to my tied-for-favorite-horror-movie-of-2009 Antichrist.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of valid reasons not to like Antichrist.
The film is longish, slow, sometimes confusing, deliberately obscure and goes so far over-the-top in places that, if the film isn't working for you, it probably seems laughable. It's the kind of film where if you don't submit yourself totally to its over-saturated atmosphere/mood, it will likely be a tedious experience punctuated by a few moments of crass provocation.

But from some of the comments/critiques I've read out there, you'd think that director Lars Von Trier was an asshole just because his movie strikes a serious tone, has a few recognizable themes (grief, therapy, misogyny), and some slightly arty trimmings (some uses of black and white, slow-motion, and some heavy handed symbolism). Like he shouldn't be ambitious. There's almost a knee-jerk reaction some folks have to this sort of thing; they assume that Von Trier thinks he's smarter than them, so instead of meeting the film on its own terms, they try to out-condescend Von Trier and insist that his movie is meaningless trash. If you're going to hate on the movie, then that's cool, but this is totally the wrong track.

Personally, I don't think Antichrist has a deep message or is an "important" movie. I loved it because of its heavy, doom-laden atmosphere, its ability to disturb, the power of its imagery, the strength of its performances, and the genuine suspense/fear I felt during the final act. It's a skillfully made, nightmarish mood-piece that effected me on an emotional level, more akin to a Nosferatu than a slasher movie.

It takes a special kind of skill to make a movie so fucking bad that it pisses away all the goodwill that a beloved cult film like Donnie Darko has earned you, but Richard Kelly managed to do just that with Southland Tales. Well, I'm happy to say that The Box serves as something of a redemption. It is not a great film, and the last chunk of it is a mess, but it feels more like the movie he should have made after Darko. It's set in the same world of mundane middle America, as a profound weirdness slowly but surely inserts itself into everyday life. The best parts of The Box happen in the first 2/3rds; Kelly has proven himself a master of the "what in fuck's name is going on here?!" style of suspense, as subtly strange details pile on top of each other in the most unnerving manner possible.

Not up to snuff with his best work but still more remarkable than most films of its ilk, Park Chan-Wook's Thirst was an intriguing, darkly funny combination of earnest morality play/religious inquiry, and vampire grand guignol. Almost every one of Park's films features an abrupt shift in tone, but I thought Thirst's was less successful than others. Perhaps this is because movies like Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance go from fun to serious, whereas Thirst does the opposite. I can't deny how entertaining the final act of the film is, but it does feel like many of the more serious themes from earlier are dropped in favor of a stylized blood bath.

To be concluded in Part 3.... whenever I get the chance...