Saturday, November 16, 2013


A kinda likable, but socially awkward and clearly troubled man (writer/director Alex Karpovsky) spends a weekend of hot sex and emotional intimacy with his beautiful coworker. After she tactfully but unmistakably breaks things off with him, he becomes infatuated with her. Soon enough things are progressing from passive-aggressive to manipulative to... worse.

I've seen plenty of these slow-burn thrillers before, about a loner with latently dangerous tendencies, essentially a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off and do something bad. Rubberneck is something of a low-key, microbudget, almost mumblecore take on the subgenre that succeeds by focusing on drama over thrills, and doing a damn good job of it. Although all the performances are strong, Karpovsky's performance is front and center, and he offers a sympathetic take on the character. He plays him as a nice, even sometimes funny guy who unfortunately has some deeper issues that come to the surface when he gets his feelings hurt. Most of the tension is low stakes and social; his misreading of the situation and how he handles it, the ways he begins to try to manipulate the woman without, perhaps, realizing he's doing anything wrong. Tragedy does come, eventually, but it is relatively brief compared to something like, I dunno, May or The Lost. In fact, the tense and sad finale is more of an emotional climax than an action-driven one, and it strikes just the right tone for a film that is more concerned with understanding its disturbed protagonist than it is demonizing him.

Rating: B+

Beyond Dream's Door

A college student begins having increasingly bizarre and vivid nightmares (some of them while he's still awake) that seem to involve someone else's memories. And not only that, but other folks who have vanished may have had the same dreams.

Beyond Dream's Door tries to do hallucinogenic, Lovecraftian horror on a low budget, and though it doesn't exactly succeed, I had to respect the filmmakers' imagination and ambition. The plot is cool and a bit unique, the mystery actually fairly engrossing, and they find a lot of cool visuals in the myriad dream sequences. But the budget and the era keep it from ever really being effective. The acting is awkward as hell, the dialogue tin-eared, the clothing and hairstyles are painfully late 80's/early 90's, the special effects are almost always unconvincing (although they do an okay job of hiding this sometimes). Still, you feel like those involved actually gave a shit and were trying to do something fun and interesting, and if it doesn't really work, it's at least a little satisfying seeing them try.

Rating: C+

No One Lives

A biker gang abducts an out-of-towner and his girlfriend to steal his stuff and money only to find out that, oh shit, he's a vicious serial killer with a young woman held captive in the back of his trailer. When the killer gets loose, this young woman and her knowledge of the killer may be the gang's only hope of survival.

No One Lives is the kind of deadly serious but completely absurd, roller-coaster ride of a horror movie that director Ryuhei Kitamura previously attempted and biffed with Midnight Meat Train. It sets up an already ludicrous premise and continually pushes it further and further over the line, all while maintaining a knowing air of sincerity. I would say it's something like if The Collection had all of its overt humor removed. It's the kind of movie where the killer sneaks into a biker compound by hollowing out a fat man and hiding in his corpse... and admit it, reading this sentence made you really want to see it.

The only major flaw, I think, is the actor playing the killer. I know part of the idea is that we're not supposed to realize he's a killer at first (although it's immediately obvious), so that's why they cast a pretty-boy type, but he is just not convincing when he switches into Hannibal Lector mode. He lacks the required charisma and intensity, and just never feels like much of a threat even as he starts pulling some crazy, brutal survivalist type shit. Luckily, Silent Hill: Revelations star and Michelle Williams lookalike Adelaide Clemens plays his prisoner, and she makes for a great, badass final girl. She may have a great career ahead of her in actual good movies, but for the time being I'm appreciating her as one of the more talented and beautiful scream queens going.

Rating: B


This reasonably faithful remake of William Lustig's infamous 80's sleaze-sterpiece about a serial killer who scalps his victims and puts the scalps on mannequins in his apartment and pretends they are his girlfriends (hmm maybe you had to be there), throws an interesting twist in: most of the film is shot from the perspective of the maniac himself (Elijah Wood), only cutting to a 3rd person perspective on a few brief occasions.

The original Maniac is far from perfect, but it is incredibly memorable for the weird, scuzzy, gritty tone it achieves, as well as some shocking violence and a handful of effective set pieces. So it's interesting that director Franck Khaloun (the underrated P2) follows the story fairly closely, but completely changes the style. Not only does he adopt the intriguing 1st person POV gimmick, but his film is all slick, stylish and professional.

The gimmick itself is basically pointless except that it's well executed from a technical perspective and adds an additional layer of entertainment to a pretty straightforward serial killer/slasher story. I would have preferred if the filmmakers had attempted more long takes and played around more with the subjectivity of the events we are seeing through the maniac's eyes. Yet, if they don't go above and beyond in using the gimmick to do something new, they at least don't fuck it up and instead craft a tense, disturbing horror film with a fully realized central character. It succeeds not so much because of the gimmick but in spite of it, or unrelated to it, and that's okay. I'd take a hundred more movies like this over another "found footage" POV horror movie any day.

Rating: B+


So a bunch of nerdy scientists are playing what seems to be the world's most boring LARP in the science building at their school. The only problem is, there's an murderous baboon on the loose in the building who has been injected with some sort of, I don't know, anger chemical that makes him homicidal.

Well, shit, I am way behind on these posts and am already starting to forget a lot of key details about these movies. So we're going to keep these brief. Shakma is a perfectly acceptable, mildly fun 70 minute monster-movie type dealie, except stretched out to an interminable hour and 40 minutes. What should be quick, to the point and silly ends up being a glacially paced bore with a surprising lack of humor about itself. Most of the second half of the movie is just the main character slowly walking around, discovering the bodies of his colleagues one by one. By the time he finally takes on Shakma mano-a-baboon, all the energy has been let out of the film.

Mitigating factor: Roddy McDowell has a small role.

Rating: C-

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blood Runs Cold

Basically stock slasher plot #12: people partying in an isolated house are attacked by a seemingly unmotivated, unkillable killer. And it's snowy.

Blood Runs Cold is an unoriginal but perfectly acceptable, even kinda fun slasher movie with one weird detail that I can't tell if it helps or hurts the experience. See the film is Swedish, but for some damn fool reason the filmmakers decided to film the thing in English. And although the cast all speak the language well, it's painfully, fascinatingly clear at every moment that not a one of them is a native English speaker. So what's going on here? Are they a bunch of European expats living in America somewhere? Swedes in some weird Swedish town that was originally colonized by the English? Are they all taking a trip to Canada soon and they just want to practice their English? What the hell is going on, why aren't these people speaking their native tongue?

So come for the reasonably well-crafted set pieces and fun gore, and stay for the cognitive dissonance.

Rating: B-

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

In this parody of low budget 50's sci-fi/horror movies, an alien couple with a big pet monster square off against a psychic skeleton to obtain a rare, useful element.

Ugh, we get it, man. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is kinda of amusing for maybe 10 minutes, then it gets pretty damn tedious. It suffers from a one-joke premise that isn't that great to begin with. Old shitty genre movies can be a lot of fun, but the whole point is that they are earnest and don't realize how terrible they are. Make it self-aware and the "joke" is gone; intentionally bad dialogue gets old, fast.

The film works best when it just turns into a more overt comedy instead of a labored-but-ironic homage; a scene with the alien couple unconvincingly pretending to be human is good fun. I'd be on board with a movie more along those lines; take a few calling cards of the genre and spin it out into something new and, you know, actually good. But more often than not the film falls victim to its own self-imposed limitations. At times it's almost too good at evoking these kinds of crappy old movies, in that just like those movies it feels like it can't fill its own brief running time and gets pretty boring.

Rating: C-

Nothing But the Night

The emotionally traumatized survivor of a schoolbus wreck may be the key to solving a series of "accidental" deaths that have happened to the trustees of the school. While her doctors (including Peter Cushing) try to protect her, and a detective (Christopher Lee) tries to piece the mystery together, sinister forces are trying to get to the girl.

More of a creepy mystery that only turns into a horror movie during its (pretty crazy) finale, Nothing But the Night boasts being the rare film, like The Skull, to have both Lee and Cushing in good guy roles. Although I would have preferred to see them more as a team, the film actually seems cleverly structured to make both actors seem more important than their actual screen time bears out. There's a nice fakeout where you are lead to believe a certain character is probably the lead, only to have him bumped off in the first half and have Cushing take up where he left off. So they got a lot of the setup out of the way with the other guy, they can give all the meat to Cushing.

I think the mystery got a little too complicated for me to follow, but the story still moves as though you understand it, so it doesn't matter. It all leads to a twist ending that, although not out of left field, almost feels like the movie switches genres mid scene. In a good way.

Rating: B

The Boogey Man

A soul, trapped in a mirror for reasons not interesting enough to explain, is released after the shattering of the mirror. An asshole in real life, he proceeds to get revenge on the family responsible for his death, and also some random people, too. Actually, pretty much anybody who comes in contact with one of the mirror shards.

Maybe it was just the crappy quality copy of Boogey Man on Amazon, but this certainly felt like a microbudget one. Cheap looking, stiff acting, unconvincing effects, the whole lot. On the upside, it seems like the filmmakers were at least trying, there is some atmosphere thanks to the John Carpenter/Halloween-y music and just the general look of the early 80s. Far from unwatchable, but not very good, most of the big set pieces just involve people getting stabbed by floating objects, which is not very exciting.

Rating: C-


A washed up horror novelist (Val Kilmer, at his Kilmerest) on a book tour stumbles onto a weird mystery in a small town which may serve as fodder for a new book. Only, he also begins having strange dreams which may relate to an older, possibly related mystery from many years before. Dreams and reality don't begin to blend so much as they begin commenting on each other. Oh, also, in his dreams he hangs out with Edgar Allen Poe and talks shop with him.

This is the first of Francis Ford Copolla's newer, comeback-ish sort of films I've bothered to see, and now I'm regretting not checking out the others. Because it turns out he's back in his don't-give-a-fuck, do what I want mode, and therein lies all his genius and madness. Twixt is sort of a love letter to horror movies (where Coppola got his start), and it's not so much a cohesive story as it is Coppola being a show-off. Which I always thought was his best color. Here, he does whatever the hell he wants at any given time, basically just to display the fact that he has the technical chops to do anything.

Twixt is gorgeous and strange and unique. It jumps back and forth between a surreal dreamworld and a real world that, frankly, doesn't feel much less stylized. There is a (kinda complex) story, but most of what happens seems to happen more for effect and atmosphere. Nominally it's a horror film but I wouldn't say it's scary; often it even plays like an offbeat comedy. At one point Coppola just sort of points the camera at Kilmer and let's him improvise a bunch of silly voices for a while. But then you'll get some truly bizarre and compelling imagery in the dream sequences. I thought I detected a weird tone of irony in the air; the dialogue and performances are somewhat stylized, and there at times seems to be a winking corniness to the whole thing. But Twixt has it both ways; it good naturedly mocks the genre (and to some degree, I suspect, Coppola himself) while also believing in its cinematic power. It's like if his version of Dracula played it just a little less straight.

In other words, it feels like a movie made specifically and only for me. Like one of my favorites from 2012, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Twixt peers into the oversoul of of corny genre cinema and finds art, abstracting the story and the visuals and the tone into something weird and beautiful.

Rating: A-

Tourist Trap

Your world is dark. You'll never see again. It's getting hard to breath isn't it? I'm going to seal the last openings. You won't be able to breath but you won't suffocate. Your heart will burst with fright before you lose consciousness.

Rating: A

Watcher in the Attic

A pervert crawls around the attic of his apartment building, using little peepholes to spy on the other occupants. One day a woman, while receiving oral sex from a clown (clownilingus), notices his watching eye... and likes it. This sets the two down a wicked path of violence and perversion, starting with murder and getting increasingly worse from there.

Edogawa Rampo (say it out loud) was a popular Japanese author who wrote in the horror and mystery genres, and often added a little pinch of abberant sexuality for flavor. Based on his story of the same title, with elements of other stories added (most notably "The Human Chair"), Watcher in the Attic is a slow, disturbing, erotic drama that only gradually morphs into something like a thriller. One's enjoyment (if one can be said to enjoy a movie that mainly delights in repelling the audience with extreme perversion) is largely dependant on how interesting one finds the sex on display. I watched this with a group of friends and family ("fun for the whole family"- something no one ever said about this film) and interestingly none of the men (except myself) enjoyed it, but the ladies did.

Partly this might be because these particular ladies were less jaded than these particular men, and could still be shocked/repelled/fascinated by this sort of thing. But I also think it might be because, despite shades of misogyny you can find in a lot of exploitation films (and Japaense ones in particular), it has something of a female sexual empowerment theme at its core. Sexually, it's the woman who has the power for most of the film (the watcher is, until later on, figuratively impotent, only a voyeur). Although her desires are increasingly extreme and evil, she is pro-active and dominant. The film is not shy about female sexuality and pleasure the way so many movies, still to this day, can be.

Watcher in the Attic, though slow, is nicely shot and staged and eventually works its way to at least one accomplished suspense sequence (the old "poison via string coming from the ceiling" gag that I think Rampo might have invented). It's not conventionally entertaining for much of the film, but the perversity on display is genuinely provocative and imaginative, and the thrust of the central relationship (one of those stories about two crazy lovers who fuel their own self-destruction) grows increasingly compelling, right up to its abrupt, apocalyptic ending.

Rating: B

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


In this sequel to 2012's beloved incoherent eye-sore of a found-footage horror movie anthology: a dude gets a camera implanted in his eye and begins to see ghosts; a cyclist wearing a helmet cam (for some reason) gets turned into a zombie; a news crew goes to interview the weirdo leader of a cult and gets way more compelling footage than they asked for; a group of kids must deal with an alien invasion. Oh, and in the wraparound some dude and a lady looking for a missing kid watch some VHS tapes on a computer (?) and then some stupid, inexplicable shit happens.

Huzzah! I am happy to report that V/H/S/2 finally gives us 1 (one) good segment, so the series isn't a complete waste. The story about the cult (co-directed by The Raid: Redemption's Gareth Evans and that guy who did the masturbation/murder tournament segment in The ABCs of Death) is, unlike the other tales, a coherent and satisfying story with a clear and entertaining set-up and pay-off, which actually uses its 1st person camera gimmick effectively. Fuckin' A.

The other segments I would say are, in general, better than their counterparts in the original. But not by much. They display a little more attention to, like, basic film competency and visual coherency, and a lot less fetishism for static and skips and pops and bloops and shit like that. Still, eventually they all turn into the same kind of ugly looking, hard to follow blurfest that makes you wonder why anyone thought this was a good idea in the first place. Most disappointing is Jason Eisener's segment; after his awesome and ridiculous segment in ABCs of Death I thought perhaps he was better suited to short film, but his ugly and anticlimactic tale had me rethinking that.

Rating: C-


After a small, mountainside town in Chile is hit by a devastating earthquake (soon to be followed by a tsunami), a group of survivors (including several American and European tourists who don't speak the language) band together to try to get out of town alive. Unfortunately, they have more than just nature to contend with, as the streets have become flooded with looters, rioters and gang members in the wake of the disaster.

After a too-long setup of our various protagonists partying around Chile (luckily they are less douchey and obnoxious than characters in these kinds of movies usually are; the film even plays like an acceptable low-key comedy for a while), Aftershock kicks into high gear once the earthquake hits and becomes one of the more crazy and effective thrillers of recent years. Eli Roth (cast here as a more likable version of his usual "bro" persona) is credited as a co-writer and producer on the project (it was directed by Nicolas Lopez, a Chilean filmmaker I am not familiar with) and his sensibility is apparent here. Aftershock shares some DNA with Cabin Fever and the Hostel films, with its over-the-top dark humor, its mix of good fun with disturbing violence, its desire to undercut certain cliches of the genre, and its complete lack of pity for its ill-fated characters.

The biggest problem with Aftershock is a slight misjudgement of tone. The film overall, even when it tries to play the disaster aftermath as realistic and disturbing, is good, high energy fun. Shit hits the fan, the characters have to scramble to stay alive, and after that it is basically nonstop action. The problem is occasionally the film becomes a shade too dark and sabotages the fun, especially when it introduces (SPOILER) some gratuitous rape. Aftershock just isn't a serious enough film to subject a character to a fate that rough and deal with it properly. It's a few moments like that where the film slides from grisly but entertaining thrills to a grim nihilism it doesn't really earn.

Still, it's well-made, well-acted, easy on the eyes, has some real laughs and thrills, contains some very effective set pieces and ends on exactly the right note. Those looking for a slightly subversive disaster/thriller would do well with Aftershock.

Rating: B

The Hand

A famous comic book artist (Michael Caine), whose marriage is falling apart, loses his drawing hand in a grisly car accident. Things do not go smoothly as he tries to adjust to his new disability and to put his life back together, and more and more his suppressed anger starts boiling up. And soon enough it appears that his lost appendage, never found, may somehow still be alive, acting out his repressed desires.

An early Oliver Stone film, The Hand is a classically styled psychological thriller with a bit of an old-fashioned monster movie twist. The is before Oliver Stone began developing into a manic film stylist, so visually speaking it's fairly reserved, especially for a horror movie. But don't worry, it's still Oliver Stone, so the film isn't exactly staid, either; in fact the story revolves around the kind of absurd, psycho-sexual hysteria that's been popular in thrillers since at least Psycho.

Weirdly enough, the film's slow burn mix of psychological thriller and horror reminds me more of George Romero than anything else; Romero's earlier Martin had a similar vibe, and his later films Monkey Shines, The Dark Half and Bruiser all deal with the physical manifestation of one's repressed desires in the form of a monster much the same way. I think it's a solid and satisfying hook for a horror movie; the idea that the monster or the darkness is part of ourselves that we try not to acknowledge. The Hand does this well with a central metaphor that is, if you'll forgive the pun, not too heavy-handed. The only problem is (in one of the film's obvious references to Psycho) its insistence on overexplaning everything that happens in pseudo-psychological terms, when leaving it ambiguous, unexplained or purely supernatural might have been preferable. Then again, the final scene puts a spin on this as well.

The film hinges on Michael Caine's performance, and I think it works in part because of his and Stone's unwillingness to soften the character or make him too sympathetic. Caine's character starts off mildly unpleasant and gets worse after the accident; he tries to use his disability to keep his estranged wife with him against her wishes, engages in a seriously inappropriate relationship with a student, harbors resentment against his business associates even though he goes along with their plans, and more or less blames everyone else for his problems. He's not overtly an asshole most of the time, more like passive-aggressive and self-centered... until things get aggressive-aggressive. I was worried early on in the film that we were supposed to like his character and not notice the way he treats people, but by the end it's clear that this violence and anger was always a part of him, and it's only the accident that's brought it all out.

Rating: B

The Skull

So some weirdo phrenologist dude just up and decides to dig up the corpse of the Marquis de Sade one night, steals only the head, strips the flesh off it with chemicals, and... proceeds to immediately be possessed by the skull and kill himself. Nice one, jackass. Many years later, Peter Cushing is a rare items collector who decides to (illegally) purchase the skull despite the fact that it was stolen from his friend (Christopher Lee) who has also warned him of the skull's danger. Soon enough, mystery is afoot and Cushing finds himself under the spell of the skull.

Building from what I frankly thought was a stupid premise, because let's face it we all know this is going to end with a cheesy-looking flying skull, The Skull manages to be entertaining, atmospheric and even a little classy, after a fashion. An Amicus production directed by one of British horror's best and brightest, Freddie Francis, it manages to admirably delay any silly special effects involving a floating skull for as long as possible, instead drawing out the buildup and suspense and playing a bit more on the psychological and mystery elements of the story.

The best stuff involves Cushing slowly coming under the influence of the skull, including a tense & bizarre dream sequence that comes unexpectedly in the middle of the film. In fact, as fun as The Skull is overall, more of this would have been appreciated. More dream sequences, more Cushing losing his shit, maybe even more ambiguity as to exactly what the skull is doing or whether or not it's doing anything at all.

And, you know, the skull floats around at the end if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: B

Friday, October 11, 2013

Chinese Ghost Story 3

After what I believe is a brief flashback to the first Chinese Ghost Story, we suddenly skip ahead 100 years to a new cast of characters involved in a similar story. This time, a young monk (the reliable Tony Cheung), ill-suited to his station in life, must face-off against the fearsome Tree Demon and his legion of sexy lady demons, while starting to fall in love with one of the demons himself.

Before going in I had assumed that Chinese Ghost Story 3 would be a direct sequel to the first 2 films. Instead, it's a loose sequel that's closer to a remake of the original. Again we have a tale of a young man fighting demons and falling in love with one who may be redeemable, with a funny twist: this time the hero is a monk and has taken a vow of chastity. So his romance with the demon is awkward and filled with a lot of humor about his virginal demeanor and his futile attempts to protect his chastity. I've noticed that HK movies can be playfully irreverant about Buddhism; it's hard to imagine a mainstream American movie trying to mine the same kind of humor out of, say, a priest being tempted to sleep with a woman.

As much as I would have liked to have seen a continuation of the previous films (it'd be nice to hang out with those characters again), I can't complain with the final product. Like the others, it's an eye-popping, imaginative, energetic and action-packed comedy/fantasy/horror/adventure filled with crazy monsters, absurd kung fu, crazy colorful flowing costumes, likable performances and a solid screwball-comedy-meets-ghost-story plot. Director Ching Sui-tung is not quit on my list of favorite HK directors (although I love Duel to the Death), but he is one of the most flamboyant, and everything I've seen of his is at least worthwhile, and usually better than that.

Rating: B

Baby Blood

Some sort of ancient but unborn (despite clearly having the form of some little parasite thing) beast from the beginning of time impregnates an abused lion tamer's wife with, um, himself. Pretty soon he's forcing mommy to kill and drink blood in order to feed him and facilitate his birth.

You can chalk this oddball French horror(?)/comedy(?) up as one big WTF. It's a horror movie pitched at a broad, hysterical frequency yet doesn't seem to contain any humor or wit or satire. It's about a pregnant woman with a killer fetus yet contains no interesting childbirth or motherhood imagery or themes. I think there is something going on in regards to it being a story about an abused woman becoming empowered (most or all of her victims are men who mistreat women), but she's so unsympathetic that you're never onboard, and her fetus seems to be male and is forcing her to do his bidding so there's not even an effective revenge motif going on. Every now and then there will be a weird stylisitic flourish (like the camera going inside the heroine's body, floating through her veins and into her heart) for no discernable reason. If I had to compare it to another movie, it would be like if Zulawski's Posession was awkward, tone-deaf and terrible.

Even the novelty of its inexplicableness wears off early on, and the result is alienating and tedious. So far, this has been the biggest turkey of the month.

Rating: D

Hatchet 3

Starting right where part 2 left off, adorable and tiny scream queen Danielle Harris finishes off Jason-esque mass murderer Victor Crowley, then brings his scalp to the sheriff's office to prove he's dead. This gets her promptly arrested (in retrospect she probably should have just gone home), but the investigators digging through the previous evening's bloodbath unsurprisingly find that Crowley is back from the dead (yet again).

The original Hatchet's biggest problem was its bold claim advertising itself as "Old School American Horror." Which was a bunch of horseshit. When a film's opening credits involves the camera whipping around in fast forward to terrible industrial music to show you a bunch of crazy partying 20-somethings, it's pretty clear the film is going to have little in common with classic 70's and 80's slasher cinema outside of superficial details. No, instead it was an unserious, ironic horror/comedy that existed mainly as a delivery vehicle for outlandishly, hilariously disgusting gore.

Once you get past the false advertising, though, that's not a bad thing. The first 2 Hatchet films are dumb, unpretentious fun; a perfectly acceptable way to see some boobies and viscera while sharing drinks with a few acquaintances. And I'm happy to say that Hatchet 3 is exactly as good as the first two, and provides exactly what you'd expect. In fact, they are all more or less indistinguishable from each other.

The only real element of curiosity here is that parts 1 & 2 writer/director Adam Green only wrote and produced this time out, handing the directorial reins to series cameraman BJ McDonnell. Green made the excellent Frozen, but otherwise hasn't really distinguished himself as a filmmaker. And it holds true here because honestly I could not tell any way in which Hatchet 3 looked or felt different from its predecessors. I don't mean to say that McDonnell fails to put a unique stamp on the series so much as Green's template for the series is pretty generic and easily replicable.

That said, so what? With the Hatchet movies, you get a couple of laughs, some awesomely ridiculous deaths, and a reasonably likable cast. Some of us are just the kind of people who want to see Kane Hodder rip out Derek Mears's spine and skull through his stomach, and we'll be happy.

Rating: B-

Tormented (in the hypothetical 3rd dimension)

After a little boy kills a wounded rabbit as an act of mercy, he and his mute, older sister are drawn into some weird nightmare world, possibly of their own making. What proceeds is, I think, maybe the first bunny themed horror movie I've ever seen.

As a noted hater of Shimizu Takashi's Ju-on: The Grude and his contemptable American remake, I'm happy to report that I finally enjoyed one of his movies. Tormented has some of the same flaws as those other movies (a distinct lack of subtlety, silly ideas treated as scary, some obnoxiously over-the-top filmic pyrotechnics) but enough cool stuff going on to mitigate.

First and foremost, this is one of the best looking horror movies I've seen in ages. Shot in 3D by the great Christopher Doyle, Tormented is a real eye-popper, flat-out one of the most visually impressive uses of 3D I've seen. Shimizu and Doyle find all sorts crazy images that look great in 3D, not least of all their brilliant use of an elaborate childrens' pop-up book. Doyle is obviously a master visual craftsman, and he actually seems to understand the visual possibilities of the much-maligned medium. Many shots in the film are packed with multiple visual planes of detail, giving a sort of "deep focus" effect where you can actually focus on different depths in the frame.

I also appreciated that the film was willing to just go for it in the weirdness department. The film is almost exclusively based around silly, unscary ideas, but Shimizu throws caution (and logic and quality control) to the wind and unashamedly makes an incredibly dumb but dead serious film. So you get lots and lots of horror scenes based on a person in an adorable but anthropmorphic rabbit suit, two scenes involving a stuffed bunny coming out of a movie screen for no reason, a quaint fairgrounds type place that I guess is supposed to be sinister, and some of the most stunningly asisine plot twists ever. But unlike The Grudge this stupidness is all part of the fun. Instead of a tedious slog through a bunch of rote boo-scares, this is more like a surreal and trippy galavant through a bunch of ridiculous but awesome imagery.

I don't have much faith in Shimizu as a story teller, but Tormented suggests that I slept on him as a visual stylist and an entertainer. I only watched this because it was one of the few 3D horror movies Netflix was streaming, but now I'd be on board with watching something else of Shimizu's.

Rating: B

The Possession

A young girl picks up some weird looking box covered in Hebrew symbols at a yard sale. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a "dyybuk box," and soon enough the girl is possessed by a Jewish demon, leaving her family to desperately try to find a way to save her.

Essentially a vaguely Jew-y riff on The Exorcist, it's only been a fewThe Possession and I can't work up much to say about it except that it wasn't bad, and as far as mainstream, PG-13 horror movies go you could do a lot worse. Outside the Jewish stuff (which is really just some lipstick they slapped on this pig) it's exactly like every other one of these movies you've seen: creepy kids, CGI bugs, arbitrary special effects, levitating objects, etc etc. What slightly distinguishes the film is A) a very good cast being given to play reasonably fleshed-out characters that you actually kinda care about, and B) solid production credits resulting in a movie that, if not scary, looks nice and makes the set pieces pop out a bit.
days since I've watched

I can't muster much enthusiasm here; The Possession is more professional and competant than, you know, good or memorable. Though in a day and age where a lot of mainstream horror movies can't even aspire to that modest level of accomplishment, maybe that is something of a real compliment.

Rating: C+

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Come Out and Play

In this chilling adaptation of the beloved Offspring song, we see the horror of gang violence on the streets of.... wait, no, that's not right. This is the 2nd adaptation of the novel El juego de los ninos, filmed previously in the 70's as Who Can Kill a Child? (unfortunately not yet the concept for what would be the best game show ever). An American couple vacation in Spain take a motorboat out to a small island village, only to find that all the adults seem to be missing, and the children are acting very bizarrely...

I saw Who Can Kill a Child? several years ago, and although my memory has grown vague, my recollection is that I was not a fan. It was overlong and lacking in atmosphere, with waaaaaaay too slow of a build up to the premise that you already understood before you started the movie (killer kids). Come Out and Play is a better film, but it almost has the opposite problem. It's a half an hour shorter and does a much better job of delivering a spooky and atmospheric slow build up, but it kind of blows it when the action starts in the 2nd half. Director Makinov (yes, just one name) has a good eye for framing, the right sense of pace and gets strong performances from his actors (especially the long underappreciated, radiant Vinessa Shaw), but does not know how to stage an action sequence or maintain energy. After a strong build the movie slowly fizzles out and meanders, with way too much hand wringing before our protagonists finally answer the question the 70's film poses (the husband can, when pushed). By the time they finally fight back against the kids instead of running and hiding, the energy is gone and seeing the wholesale slaughter of children is neither horrifying nor funny. And then it ends on the most painfully obvious "ironic" note possible.

There is one pretty good idea during the disappointing final act. It is pretty creepy and disturbing when SPOILER Shaw is killed from the inside by her own unborn child. What a fucking way to go.

I love killer kid movies (because I hate children), but they all suffer the same problem: children are neither scary nor a credible physical threat. Yes, some of these kids brandish knives (and, eventually, a gun), but most of the time I was wondering why the husband wasn't just punching them in the throat or running them over with the car they found. Stop being so tentative about this, dude, these kids are killers. People are such pussies when it comes to children.

Still, a strong opening and good performances throughout keep this one from sinking, and I'm glad I watched it.

Rating: B-

The Cat and the Canary

In this silent horror/comedy/mystery, the family of an eccentric millionaire gathers at his creepy old estate on the 20th anniversary of his passing to find out who will inherit his fortune. An heir is named, but soon the family is being bumped off one-by-one by a maniac known as "the Cat," most likely a family member trying to get the fortune for themself.

Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary is a hell of a lot of fun, an old-fashioned "bump in the night" type horror tale that mixes bonkers German expressionism-esque visuals with goofy, screwball comedy. Clearly influential on the whole "old dark house" genre of horror films, it gets a lot of mileage from it's deliberately over-the-top style, providing constant matting/visual overlays, gothic set design, exaggerated shadows, stylized performances and more. It's one of the only silent films I've seen that uses the expressionist style for fun and humorous purposes rather than dark, soul crushing misery.

The film feels very ahead of its time, although maybe that's just because I don't give 1920's filmmakers and audiences enough credit for how genre-savvy they could be. It was released in 1927 but already has a perfect understanding of the visual and narrative tropes of horror cinema, and then playfully tweaks and exaggerates them for comic and satirical effect. I try to work in at least one silent movie every October, but this might be the first one I've seen that is just a flat out good time; a knowing, winking take on a film genre that maybe wasn't as much in its infancy as I always assumed.

Rating: B

My Soul to Take

I've already written about Wes Craven's My Soul to Take here, and I'm not sure I have much to add to my intitial drunken impressions. Except that this time (I believe my 3rd viewing) I liked it even more than I remembered.

Craven is (excepting maybe George Romero) the most inconsistant horror director to make some all-time classics. Not only inconsistant in terms of making good and bad movies; his films are inconsitant on the level of technical comptency they achieve, with some of his movies looking downright inept. One of the things in My Soul to Take's favor is that this is one of Craven's better made movies; it looks nice and has more than a fair share of clever shots. That makes the movie feel, to me, less so-bad-its-good and more a combination bad and good in interesting ways.

It seems ludicrous to me that Craven was totally serious about this ridiculous movie, although who knows? The dialogue in particular (a funny mix of witty and [intentionally?] overwritten) clearly tries to be humorous much of the time, which suggests to me that the movie is intended in good fun. And, damn it, I have a lot of fun every time I watch this one.

Rating: B+

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

The famed Dr. Van Helsing (the always great Peter Cushing, playing this role for the umpteenth time) teams up with a martial artist (the also always great David Chiang, doing a good job pretending to speak English) to take on the 7 Golden Vampires, vicious Chinese ghouls resurrected by Dracula who have been terrorizing Chiang's ancestral village for ages.

Here we are, back with this year's YVIAHMMAOIHTNQ, this time entitled "In Space, No One Can Hear Your Vice is a Horror Movie Marathon and Only I have the Netflix Queue."  I look forward to watching a shit ton of horror movie yet again, and blogging about them... for about a week or so, then I'm really going to get sick of writing. But worry not, I shall press on.

I decided to start this year's marathon with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers that attempts to mix gothic horror with kung-fu, as it worked as a perfect transition to this month's festivities. The past few months I've been on something of a Honk Kong movie kick (some might say infatuation), with a particular focus on kung-fu cinema. This in particular means I've watched a lot of Shaw Brothers movies as of late.

I was also excited because the film, while credited solely to British horror stalwart Roy Ward Baker, apparently had scenes directed by the late, great Chang Cheh, essentially the quintissential kung fu director. It appears Baker's action scenes weren't up to snuff, so the Shaws insisted on bringing in Chang to punch up the violence. I've grown to be a huge fan of Chang's over the past few months. The man directed or co-directed nearly a hundred movies in his life (most in a 15-20 year period), and I have seen some 30+ of them. And the amazing thing is: all of them were at least good, pretty much all of them were very good, and probably close to a third were flat out great.

I don't think this really counts, since his contributions were minimal, but this would technically be the first Chang film that I just did not like. Although the Shaw Brothers would have been thriving in the mid 70's, shitting out like a million movies per year, Hammer was in it's waning days, and much of this production feels a bit half-assed. I'm not sure if it was the budget, unfamiliarity with shooting in Hong Kong, or what, but director Baker manages to evoke little of the gothic atmosphere and classiness of the classic Hammer productions. The film is talky and slow despite having nearly no plot, and save Cushing and Chiang the cast isn't very interesting. Chang's action doesn't clash as awkwardly with Baker's style as I might have thought, but from a man who directed some of the best action scenes of all time it's clear that he didn't bring his A-game. There's a nice moment or two, maybe, but mostly it consists of shots of uninspired choreography cut with awkward reaction shots of the British cast not doing cool things.

The vampires themselves, though cheap looking, kind of have a cool design to them, and I liked their weird blood-draining chamber where they tie-up their victims. Other than that, the only part of the film I'd actively praise is that Cushing and Chiang have a genuine chemistry together, and I would have liked to have seen them team up in an actually good movie. Cushing was a weird looking dude probably best remembered for creepy and villanous roles, but I always liked him best in good guy mode, where he could disply his not-inconsiderable charm.

Whatever juice the filmmakers were hoping to get from the culture clash premise isn't enough to get the motor running. They fail to capitalize on using the Chinese architecture and landscape to create any mood or atmosphere, any use of Chinese folklore to add mystery and exoticness to the monsters is superficial, and the fun few ideas (like that Chinese vampires would be vulernable to a Buddha statue the same way European vampires are to a crucifix) don't pay off in any meaningful or entertaining way. In fact, the film is so uninspired and Euro-centric, despite it's location, that the lead villain is actually Dracula (not played by Christopher Lee, who had the good sense not to get involved). Instead we get a particularly dull Hammer film shot on cheap sets and ugly locations (half the movie seems to take place in an empty plain), with mediocre kung-fu scenes randomly inserted.

Rating: C-

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fuck Top 10 Lists: The Best Movies of 2012

I may be a cynical bastard in my real life, but I am a heart-on-my-sleeve optimist when it comes to movies. Don't feel like you saw a lot of great movies this year? Then you didn't try hard enough. I could barely swing a dead cat without hitting something awesome. It was such a kickass year for films that I'm not going to let myself be constrained by the tyranny of a top 10 list. Here are all the fucking movies I thought were great in 2012, because a list of 10 wouldn't cut it.

The Best Films of 2012

What better way to examine the charms and contradictions of small town Texas life than with a gentle dark comedy/drama based on a true crime story that incorporates actual interviews with real people involved in the story but also throws in fake interviews with actors pretending to be real people in the mix, too. Honestly, I have no fucking clue how Richard Linklater conceived of this project, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work like gangbusters. Besides yet again getting career best work out of Jack Black (in a role that both plays to all his strengths while being completely different from anything he's done before), he has crafted a film that takes on dark subject matter with a light touch, that is funny and satirical without being mean, that creates a world that is simultaneously inviting and off-putting, that feels simple and mainstream but contains deep pools of strangeness and mystery. Linklater has long been one of the least showy master craftsmen of his generation, and yet again he conceals great skill and complexity underneath an amiable surface. Once prolific, his output has seriously slowed down in the past 6 or so years, but movies like Bernie are worth waiting for.

Beyond the Black Rainbow
Imagine someone took the only worthwhile 10 minutes from some strange, shitty 80's sci-fi/horror, extracted the plot, stuffed it with hallucinogenic mushrooms and stretched it sloooooooooooowly out to nearly 2 hours and... well, that doesn't quite describe Beyond the Black Rainbow, but it's the sort of movie that defies easy description. It's ostensibly about a girl with psychic powers being held by a batshit crazy doctor in some high tech medical facility, but really it's just about trippy colors underscored by moody, 80's-sounding synthesizers, strange special effects, and the weird evocation of an indescribable mood or feeling. It's like peering into the oversoul of shitty 80's genre films, a version of those films that exists in the back of your mind, beyond logic. Maybe I'm just making it sound like Lava Lamp: The Motion Picture (and that's not an entirely unfair appraisal of the film), but it somehow harvests the accidental surrealism of bad sci-fi/horror, applies some serious filmmaking chops, and turns it into art. Director Panos Cosmatos is son of George P. Cosmatos, who made both seriously cool and seriously shitty action and sci-fi movies in the 80's; Panos has inherited his father's technical skill but married it to a weirdo fucking sensibility to create something new and exciting.

Cabin in the Woods

Let me get my contrarianism out of the way: The Avengers was a lot of fun, but super fucking overrated; it had a lot of snappy dialogue, but that's about it. I love Joss Whedon, I think Buffy is one of the best TV shows ever and that Angel had a pretty amazing run, too (and hell, I seem to like Dollhouse more than even most Whedon fans do), but the guy ain't perfect, and an overstuffed, lightweight Hollywood monstrosity with some great one-liners is still an overstuffed, lightweight Hollywood monstrosity. Yet, we finally did get the Whedon spirit properly translated to film in 2012 for the first time, maybe because this is the first movie to come out of the Whedon camp that isn't a continuation of a TV show or franchise/commercial property. Cabin in the Woods doesn't have any fanbase to play to, it's just a brilliantly conceived horror/comedy that takes a few loving shots at the genre, and has a few wry comments to make about the relationship between audiences and films. Drew Goddard, a long-time collaborator of Whedon's who cowrote the script with him, makes his directorial debut here, and while his filmmaking doesn't excite me much on the technical/visual/audio side of things, he shows himself adept at telling the kind of riproaring, hilarious, smart-assedly post-modern genre stories that distinguished Whedon's TV work.

After an overlong layover in CGI/mocap land, Robert Zemeckis, one of America's finest commercial filmmakers, triumphantly returns to live-action with the kind of movie that gives the mainstream a good name. Like his best work, Flight marries some exciting, blockbustery filmmaking (that plane crash... holy shit) with real, sincere emotion. Denzel Washington gives his best performance in years as an alcoholic commercial airline pilot reluctantly facing his demons. This material could have been shaped into something sappy and feelgood; instead, it examines the notion of redemption in more thoughtful terms than Hollywood is usually capable of. Although it has a mild religious message that surprised me, coming from the man who directed an adaptation of a Carl Sagan book, it's not preachy or sanctimonious; it is compelling, moving, and highly entertaining.

The Grey
This, I was not expecting from Joe Carnahan. Narc was an okay if overrated cop drama; Smokin' Aces tried too hard and ended up underwhelming; I didn't even bother with The A Team because, you know, who gives a shit about some bloated Hollywood remake of a terrible TV show? But The Grey was not the silly action film the trailers made it out to be. Instead, it's a harsh, grim tale of survivalism with a surprisingly emotional, even poetic undercurrent. This is a Manly Movie, yes, but not one full of macho bullshit. A group of men survive a plane crash in the middle of nowhere, are picked off one-by-one by wolves or by the elements, and the ordeal forces one man to come to terms with a conflict within himself. After being saddled with a lot of uninspiring action roles of late, Liam Neeson finally gets another chance to peel back the layers of his unrivaled cinematic masculinity to expose some of the vulnerability, and it's one of his best roles. The Grey tells the kind of nature-as-a-metaphor-for-the-struggle-in-every-man kind of story that Ernest Hemingway or Jack London could have written, and while I wasn't surprised by the skill Carnahan brings to the action of the film, I was surprised by the tenderness he brings to the emotional journey. The Grey also has one of my favorite endings of the year, the kind that chooses to leave the story at just the right moment instead of extending into phony climax. I'm sure the ending frustrated a lot of folks looking for a more standard action film, but it resolves the film's themes in a way both moving and unromanticized, true to the spirit of the rest of the film.

Holy Motors
2012's great big "what the fuck?" of a movie. It could be argued that it's a film about the nature of performance, a film about films, a film about the transition from the analog to the digital era. I don't know. I do know that mostly it's a film about itself, about indulging director Leos Carax's whims, maybe for no better reason than to make something unapolgetically cinematic. And what better reason is there? Art can be intellectual, sure, but it can also be sensual, and Holy Motors is a bizarre, funny, melancholy, perplexing, frustrating, boring, exciting, serious, silly treat for the senses. A man takes on various personas. Kylie Minogue has a musical number, as do a large group of accordionists. Two motion capture artists mime acrobatic sex, which is reenacted by animated monsters. Limousines have whimsical conversations with each other. There is a suburban home filled with monkeys. Let's leave it at that.

The Innkeepers
Though I greatly enjoyed it, I seriously underrated Ti West's The Innkeepers after my initial viewing for no better reason than it wasn't The House of the Devil. HotD may be the high water mark for modern horror films, but that doesn't mean Innkeepers should be punished for only being great instead of being a masterpiece. While The Innkeepers doesn't generate the suspense of West's previous film, it is in some ways the more accomplished film. It is stylistically assured, patient and elegant, and manages to create thick atmosphere without going overboard on the usual audio/visual gimmicks. But the film is also a showcase for West as a writer; the film is really just about two coworkers killing time together, and the relationship he shows is funny, sweet, and just a little sad. Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy are the two most likable, relatable horror movie protagonists as any I've seen, and I know I'm not the only viewer who commented that the film would have remained wonderful even without the horror movie aspects.

Guy Maddin is that Canadian weirdo who makes ironic yet heartfelt, abstract and dreamlike (nightmarish, even) pastiches of oldtimey silent movies and early talkies. His films are like peering into some alternate movie history where film technology never progressed past 1925 and Hollywood decided to hire David Lynch to make all its romantic comedies. His work I've seen has always been hit or miss for me; oftentimes his unique style, so fascinating at first, becomes tiresome at feature length. Yet Keyhole was a bullseye, and for the first time for me, everything Maddin was trying clicked. It's sort of a mashup of old gangster movie and horror movie tropes and imagery, if they showed movies in hell. I can't think of a better actor to anchor this than the perennially underrated Jason Patric, who looks like he could have been a 1930's screen icon but is no stranger to the weird. This replaces The Saddest Music in the World for my favorite Maddin movie, packing a potent mixture of the weird, funny and creepy.

The Loneliest Planet

A young couple, traveling through Georgia (the country) take a long mountain hike with a local guide. Things are normal, and nothing dramatic occurs, until one scary moment when something hard to explain is revealed, and the dynamics of their relationship changes in ways subtle but unmistakable. Not much "happens" in The Loneliest Planet other than the couple (including, hubba hubba, Gael Garcia Bernal) and the guide walking through picturesque scenery, killing time with the kind of amusing and mundane conversations people normally have. And yet so much is communicated about these people, about their lives, how they see the world and how they relate to each other. Part of this is due to the low key but expressive performances of the three, but also due to Julia Loktev's sensitive, unhurried direction. A lot of folks don't dig these kind of movies where there's not much "plot" and long stretches go by without much dialogue or action, and if done wrong even a pretentious twit like me can find it tedious. But Loktev knows what she's doing; this is a film about the way the small details of everyday life sometimes can paint a bigger picture and tell you more about the characters than dramatic histrionics can.

Magic Mike

Sort of a companion piece to Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, which also told a post economic meltdown tale of young people using both their ambition and their bodies to chase that dollar, Magic Mike is a wolf in sheep's clothing. It promises Channing Tatum performing elaborate strip routines (and delivers), but then also gives a surprisingly thoughtful character study that doesn't shy away from some darker themes. Like Flight, this is a great example of what a good artist can do within the mainstream. It's a fun summer comedy, a stylish and sexy dance movie, but also an actor's showcase and insightful essay on modern America. Soderbergh often likes to go for show-offy, stylistic exercises, but when he dials it back a bit as he does here, you can really see his solid technical chops; if nothing else, I thought Magic Mike was one of the best looking, best staged movies of 2012.

The Master

I've had mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson's output after his first two, wonderful films. When he came on the scene, he was the prodigiously talented wunderkind who married the flashy technical skill of Martin Scorsese with the ambitious, interlocking storytelling of Robert Altman. But his style and excess was already getting tired by the time Magnolia came around, and since then he's been bouncing around, trying to develop his style into something new. And I think his style finally crystallizes in The Master, which maintains the ambition and some of the dramatic bombast of his early work, but brings in a new found maturity in visual style that is more gorgeous and powerful while being less in-your-face, along with more rich ambiguity. The Master isn't really the Scientology expose everyone was expecting. Instead, it's a sad and mysterious film about Freddie Quell, a deeply strange and damaged man, and his relationship with a cult leader who seems to both need to control Freddie and... just plain need him. Those frustrated by The Master's seeming elusiveness are advised by me, as the Coen bros once put it, to "embrace mystery." And hell, who needs a clear cut "point" or "message" when the film creates such a palpable sense of longing and sadness. I arranged this list alphabetically because I don't see the need to rank these films any more than I already have; that said, if I had to pick a film from 2012 that most haunted me, it would be this one.

Moonrise Kingdom
Once I accepted the fact that Wes Anderson was set in his ways and was, basically, going to make the same movie over and over again, I started enjoying him more. Moonrise Kingdom might just be his best since Rushmore, which (perhaps not coincidentally?) was also his last film about coming-of-age. Characters in his films tend to come in two forms: precocious children trying to act like adults, and immature adults still mentally trapped in their shitty childhoods. This can grow tiresome, but this time around he manages a warm and funny representation of both groups, getting great work out of the young and old cast alike. (And who knew Bruce Willis would fit so perfectly into this universe?) That, matched with Anderson's ever expanding visual imagination, makes for the rare twee "indie" dramedy that's not only tolerable, but delightful.

Not Fade Away
David Chase's 60's rock 'n' roll coming of age movie hits all the expected story beats of your typical baby boomer nostalgia nonsense, but brings a bit of a darker, more sardonic attitude and a willingness to take some stylistic chances. What else would you expect from the creator of The Sopranos? It captures the excitement of the era, for sure, along with a lot of great rock and roll, but Chase sees his characters with both affection and a cutting sense of satire; this isn't some That Thing You Do-esque romanticizing of an era. This story of a small town rock and roll band may (or may not) be on the kids' side, but Chase isn't sparing us their flaws or their fatuousness, and there are no illusions about the fact that they aren't actually a very good band. It's an entertaining but not simplistic look at the time, that teasingly ends with a scene that deliberately evokes Antonioni before adding in a strange, delightful twist.

Red Hook Summer
My vote for 2012's most underrated film. Spike Lee's best film since at least 25th Hour looked in previews like an unremarkable coming of age movie, but it's much more. Lee's biggest flaw is often his lack of focus; he's got a lot he wants to say and do, but often it doesn't seem like all his ideas should be put in the same movie. But this is a case where his many ambitions coalesce perfectly. Red Hook Summer is a coming of age movie, yes, but also spiritual companion to Do the Right Thing, a questioning look at the nature of faith and hypocrisy, an essay on the state of modern America, an evocation of a certain time and place in New York, and more. And best of all, Lee still takes the kind of chances (both in his style and his story) that I love him for, willing to go on little flights of fancy to make a point, or to upend your feelings about certain characters. Religion does come out to be the dominant theme in the film, and I'm honestly not 100% sure how Lee feels about it, but that seems like part of the point; I don't always agree with Lee's outspoken opinions, but damn if the man isn't great at starting a conversation.

Searching for Sugar Man
This type of crowd-pleasing documentary is not normally the sort of thing I flip for, but when it works, it works. Framed as sort of a mystery, Searching For Sugar Man tells the stranger-than-fiction story of how an obscure, failed American folk musician became a cultural icon on the other side of the world... without even being aware of it. First the film solves the mystery of how in the hell something like this could even happen, and then it introduces us to the man himself, Sixto Rodriguez, who the film paints warmly and with complexity, while still wisely leaving leaving him something of an enigma.

Silver Linings Playbook
The best crowd-pleasing, feel good movie of 2012, but don't let that fool you. This is still a David O. Russell film, and even if he's still trying to prove to Hollywood that he can play nice, his genius still lies in whacked-out, manic energy. Bradley Cooper gives a unexpectedly perfect performance as a bi-polar fuck-up trying to put his life back together after getting out of a mental institution. This would normally be the material of maudlin drama, but Russell finds empathetic humor in Cooper, his equally screwed up family and his budding attraction to a woman maybe even more damaged than he is. No one captures both the terror and hilarity of life spiraling out of control quite like Russell, and here he brings us another heartfelt comedy on par with his Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees.

This is 40
As someone who completely adores Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I've always felt his promise as a director never quite lived up to his debut, even as he frequently scored as a producer. No more. He avoids the (accidental?) sexism of sorta-prequel Knocked Up and the soul-crushing misery of Funny People and finally succeeds to making the hilarious, poignant, serio-comic epic he's been shooting for. If you've seen any of Apatow's previous films, nothing here will exactly surprise you: it's another long comedy with a large supporting cast, lots of subplots heading in every direction, a semi-improvised vibe with the occasional reliance on sitcom plotting. What makes it stand out are the characters and performances, most notably from Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann, who takes her hilariously shrill, bitchy character from Knocked Up and fashions her into a funny, sometimes difficult but ultimately lovable woman. (And finally Apatow gives much of the funniest material in the film to the female characters). There are a lot of movies about mid-life crises (I think middle-aged people find it more interesting than the rest of the world does), but Apatow's blend of crude humor and heartfelt emotion helps this one hit the sweet spot.

This is Not a Film
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been banned by his government from directing any films for 20 years. After being released from prison, he is now on house arrest and unable to leave the country. So he invites a friend over to film one day of his mundane life and allow him to explain what his next film would have been about. This would be unspeakably depressing if it weren't for the way the film paints modern, domestic Iranian life with a certain deadpan humor, and approaches Panahi's ordeal with a certain world-weary fatalism. It's a unique and touching documentary... or is it? There is something so perfect and poetic about the way This Is Not a Film ends that the events may not be exactly spontaneous, and Panahi may be giving a subtle middle-finger to the people who stole his life and work from him.

The Turin Horse
Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse is a hard sell for most folks not on the director's wavelength. It is a slow, dreary, ugly slog through the life of a poor farmer and his daughter as they set about doing mundane, daily tasks like washing and eating potatoes. Day in and day out, their routine is the same, and I can't exactly blame anyone in the audience who would buckle under the crushing tedium. Yet, slowly but surely something sinister starts bubbling under the surface, and by the end this seemingly uneventful film has become terrifying, and downright apocalyptic. The gorgeously ugly black and white photography and Tarr's penchant for long, elaborately staged shots evoke an unbearable, oppressive world gone to hell. It may not be the most exciting story of the year, but it is undoubtedly one of 2012's major aesthetic achievements.

Zero Dark Thirty
As an emotional story, I could use a little more personal interest and a little more life (I much prefer Kathryn Bigelow's intimate approach to the war on terror in The Hurt Locker to the epic, long view she takes here). As a political statement, I think the film tries not to tell the audience what to think, admirably tries not to spare the messy details, but doesn't show us enough of what we don't already know to start much of a conversation. (A more cynical person might accuse the film of strategic ambiguity; after all, we wouldn't want to offend any potential paying customers). So maybe I'm not completely ecstatic for Zero Dark Thirty the way some have been, but I'm not going to deny that it was one hell of an exciting procedural. This is over 2 1/2 hours of pure, forward momentum, turning the hunt for Bin Laden into a complex and nerve-wracking thriller. I'll be honest, I think I prefer Kathryn Bigelow the action movie director to Kathryn Bigelow the Oscar winner, but her technical and storytelling gifts are in full effect here, and you're not going to see many more compelling, highly watchable films any time soon.

Oh but wait, there's more. Not every movie is a home run, but we still need to celebrate the triple-plays. The following movies may not reach the levels of excellence that the above films did, but are awesome, must-sees none-the-less.

The Next Best Films of 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man - What seemed like the year's most superfluous films (a new Spiderman origin film only ten years after the last one) turned out to be one of 2012's most welcome surprises, thanks in no small part to a perfect cast and some exciting action sequences.

Argo - Although Gone, Baby, Gone remains, by far, my favorite of Ben Affleck's directorial works, Argo is a highly entertaining, slick Hollywood thriller that doubles as a love letter to the artifice of movies and as a metaphor for the unsung heroes behind the scenes of our favorite films.

Casa De Mi Padre - An inspired, single-minded work of genius. Will Ferrell plays a Mexican, speaks in Spanish, and plays it completely straight, along with a cast equally skilled at not winking at the audience, deadpanning through an absurd melodrama. The most unique comedy of the year.

Damsels in Distress - A welcome, long overdue return for Whit Stillman, who give us his most stylized and delightful comedy to date.

The Dark Knight Rises - Not the punch in the gut, instant classic that The Dark Knight was, but a highly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

The Deep Blue Sea - Gorgeous, witty melodrama that finds Rachel Weisz in top form as a depressed woman in postwar London reeling from her breakup from the man whom she left her husband for. It sounds dreary, but it ain't; for a tearjerker about some somber shit, it's full of vigor and humor.

Django Unchained - Inglourious Basterds set the bar so unreasonably high for QT that this almost couldn't help but feel insubstantial in comparison. But lightweight it may feel at times, that doesn't take away from how entertaining the damn film was.

Footnote - An uncomfortable, sorta comedy/drama from Israel about rival father and son Talmudic scholars doesn't really sound like my bag, but this is an observant, emotionally brutal work of satire that's about people, not religion.

Headhunters - This white knuckle thriller pushes the thrills and brutality past the realm of the ridiculous and into brilliant, delightful dark comedy.

The Hidden Face - This offbeat Columbian thriller is almost Almodovarian in the deviousness of its plot twists, here where a seeming ghost story turns into something far crazier.

I Wish - Another charmer from Koreeda Hirokazu, whose films are technically impeccable, easily accessible and yet tap into all sorts of complex emotions.

Killer Joe - As far as I'm concerned, Friedkin and Betts should stay collaborators until the old guy kicks the bucket; after the horrifying Bug, here is a wonderfully grotesque and cynical dark comedy that plays like a parody of stereotypes about the American South.

Let the Bullets Fly - Gloriously over-the-top, ceaselessly clever Chinese Eastern/Western, Action/Comedy epic.

Life Without Principle - Johnnie To takes on the financial crisis in the form of an off-the-wall semi-thriller of interlocking stories.

Michael - Harrowing, deadpan tale of a mild-mannered man who keeps a little boy locked up in a room in his basement for sex. Although not particularly graphic, this is not one for those with delicate temperaments; it will rip your soul out.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - This meditative, haunting art-crime film about the search for a dead body was one of the year's most atmospheric films. I almost gave this the benefit of the doubt and put it on the Best list, but I think I need to see it again to fully suss out my feelings.

Paranorman - Highly entertaining animated children's horror/comedy and winking love letter to horror movie nerds, with just a touch of sadness, makes it feel like the kind of movie Tim Burton is always trying to make but only occasionally pulls off.

The Raid: Redemption - Breathless, bone-crunching action film may lack the elegance of the director and star's previous team-up, but makes up for it with nonstop kinetic energy.

Red Lights - Skeptics unite! Rationality bumps heads with the unknown in this provocative, perfectly cast thriller that will delight and piss you off no matter what you believe.

Resident Evil: Retribution - I could never defend this as a good movie, but I think I need to take a hard look at myself, and finally admit that I don't hate the Resident Evil films, in fact I love how ridiculous and terrible they are. Provided about as much fun as I had at the movies all year.

The Road - Not the Cormac McCarthy adaptation, but a richly atmospheric Filipino horror film that I thought packed some real scares in it's first part, and some good twists and turns down the, uh, road.

Savages - So long as we accept that Oliver Stone is playing nice from now on and probably doesn't have another JFK up his sleeve, I can appreciate his latter-day work for what it is. In this case, a wickedly fun crime/thriller only marred by the casting of two vacant, charisma-voids in the lead roles.

Seven Psychopaths - The film I most wanted to be on the Best list, Martin McDonagh's follow-up to the great In Bruges is like 85% brilliant, a hilarious and endlessly creative riff on movie violence, that unfortunately botches the much of the final act, especially the major confrontations the whole film has been building to. Luckily, it rallies for an incredible ending and post-script.

Skyfall - The best of the Craig-era Bond films, methinks, which brings back more of the fun of classic era Bond without tipping over into the excesses and silliness of the worst of them. And finally, after like 7 of these fucking things, Judi Dench is finally given some good material to work with.

The Tall Man - Pascal Laugier's follow up to his pretty awesome but also pretty overrated Martyrs displays a similar knack for keeping the audience off-balance, while bringing in a more elegant visual style, a stronger emotional edge and more room for nuance. It also strongly suggests that I have been seriously underrating Jessica Biel as an actress for all these years.

Wanderlust - Though not a one-of-kind masterpiece like David Wain's Wet Hot American Summer, or the laff-a-minute triumph like his Role Models, Wanderlust is still classic Wain, jam packed with jokes that rewards multiple viewings, with all sorts of weirdness bubbling under it's seemingly mainstream surface. Don't miss the "Bizarro Cut" extra feature.

Special Shout Out

I wasn't sure it really fit, but I didn't want to close this post out without acknowledging Everything Is Terrible, the found-footage artists who comb through hours of god awful VHS footage to cull the weirdest, most delightfully shitty things they could find. They released two fantastic "features" this year, Doggie Woggiez Poochie Woochiez (which claims to be a remake of The Holy Mountain using only footage from shows and movies about dogs) and the Holiday Special. Both are a little under an hour, and are basically crazy, unrelated footage shaped into video collages of the worst aspects of (mostly American) modern culture. They are by turns hilarious, surreal, trippy, fascinating and more than a little depressing. I love it.

And just to continue to prove how much good shit I saw in 2012, here's another fuckton of movies I would heartily recommend:

After Porn Ends

The American Scream
The Avengers

Get the Gringo
God Bless America
Goodbye, First Love
The Hunter
Life of Pi
Miss Bala
Mother’s Day
Neil Young Journeys
Oslo August 31
Rec 3
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Sound of Noise
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
21 Jump Street

And What the Hell, My Favorite Performances of the Year:

Most Improved: 
Jessica Biel, The Tall Man
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Comeback:
Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe (and to a lesser degree, Bernie and Magic Mike)

Holy Shit, You Fucking Went There:
Samuel L. Jackson & Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained

Slumming It and Loving It:

Ethan Hawke, Sinister
Salma Hayek, Savages

The Kind of Bullshit the Oscars Love, Only This Time I Liked It Too:
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight

Absurdly Dedicated Performances:
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Will Ferrell, Casa de Mi Padre

No Idea Who the Fuck You Are, But Now You're On My Radar:
Denis Levant, Holy Motors
Annalynne McCord, Excision
Aggeliki Papoulia, Alps

We Knew You Funny, But Let's Not Overlook Your Dramatic Chops:
Jack Black, Bernie
Leslie Mann, This is 40

Please Continue to Keep Doing What You're Doing:
Liam Neeson, The Grey
Sigourney Weaver, Red Lights