Monday, January 26, 2015

Best of the Year Number 6!

To us mere mortals, the passage of a year marks us as 365 years closer to death. To us cheerier mortals, it marks a new calendar. But to the virtual glory that is a blog, one more year simply means another twelve months worth of film, some good, some so bad they’re good, and some nearly to truly great.

As is tradition around these parts, I like to celebrate my blog’s birthday (which just so happens to fall a week or so before its owner’s real life closer-to-death birthday) with my own best-of list highlighting my favorite movies reviewed over the last cycle of the Doll’s House.

Thusly do I present a countdown:

Honorable #15 Tie: Alyce Kills Contracted
I pair these two little indies together because both are fresh, flawed, and successfully dependent upon their central female performance. In Alyce Kills,  Jade Dornfeld plays a needy young woman whose obsession with her best friend leads to serious horror comedy chaos. Najarra Townsend carries Contracted as a recovering addict whose insecurities about her relationship (and in a less obvious way, misunderstood shame over being raped) result in her body disintegrating right before us. Neither film is perfect, but both brought something new to the genre from young filmmakers who I hope to see more from.

14. Tormented
At first glance, Tormented is yet another entry into the 'don't bully nerds' subgenre that's been dishing out slashers since Slaughter High. Thankfully, the combination of writer Stephen Prentice and director Jon Wright knows how to handle such a familiar trope with a fresh dose of black comedy. Tormented isn't a classic, but it's a strong, biting little film that never feels dull. I was shocked at just how much I enjoyed myself watching a story that I'd seen told numerous times before.

13. Jug Face
Any naysayer who complains about the current state of horror need only browse the straight-to-DVD-or-streaming realm to discover that original horror films are absolutely thriving (just not necessarily at the theater near you). Take, for prime example, Chad Crawford Kinkle’s indie tale Jug Face, a strange little story about a backwoods community who must occasionally sacrifice one of their members to a pit monster if the assigned sculptor happens to craft a jug of their faces. It's an incredibly fresh premise that is wonderfully backed up by restrained filmmaking and outstanding performances. The movie isn't perfect, but it's unexpected and for that, we should all be grateful to live in the era of cinema that we do.

I've never been shy about my appreciation for James Wan. Here's a filmmaker who clearly grew up a horror fan and therefore knows not just what works in the genre, but all those cliches that are done to death to no effect (look to Insidious's duplicate Sinister and ask yourself, "WHY THE HELL CAN NO ONE TURN ON A F*CKING LIGHT SWITCH?"). With The Conjuring, Wan and steady screenwriter Leigh Whannell take on a typical haunted house yarn and present it, without any particular flourish, to great success. Like Insidious, I was disappointed in the film's third act, but for a good hour, Wan creates true suspense, aided by a fantastic art department and camera crew that understood that to truly bring its audience on board, it had to treat us as if we were IN that house.

Warning: you will need to shower more than once after watching Kidnapped. It's not just the sleaze factor on Mario Bava's once-lost road movie: it's that star George Eastman sweats so profusely that it penetrates any streaming device you thought was waterproof. Perspiration aside, this is a fast-paced slice of the '70s at its slimiest complete with a superb ending that leaves you smiling. Give it a go (just remember to wear a slicker while doing so).

10. The Purge
Haters, go hate somewhere else. While James DeMonaco’s theatrical hit didn't fully exploit its high premise (see its slightly overstuff sequel for that), The Purge gave me a solid home invasion film sprinkled with rather fascinating economic commentary. I'm thrilled to see this franchise succeed and eagerly await next year's entry.

A sort of dry comedic take on A Clockwork Orange, this rather uncelebrated 1978 British film follows a trio of escaped mental patients as they hunt a busload of prim and proper schoolgirls in the quiet countryside. Filled with dry humor, occasional harmonizing, some Freudian exploration, and a heroic three-legged dog, this is '70s gem that deserves some true celebration. Preferably with scones.

Argentina isn't a film known for its thriving genre film output, but hopefully little gems like this one will help to change that. Here Comes the Devil is a strange, sexy, and scary little horror that follows a normal family down a very dark path of possible possession, incest, cults, and vigilante justice. The religious and sexual symbolism pulses through as the unique musical score shouts. This is not necessarily a pleasant watch, but it's a very effective one.

A great lesson in low budget genre filmmaking, Ben Wagner’s Dead Within sets its action inside a small cabin post-zombie apocalypse. Been there, done that, you want to say, until you watch two strong actors (Amy Cale Peterson and Dean Chekvala) create a complicated marriage tested by paranoia. What's even more impressive is how scary Dead Within manages to be. By creating such a strong sense of character and claustrophobia, it takes us to such levels of tension that we don't know where to go.

One can never go wrong by casting a genre film with people not normally cast in a genre film. One can also never go wrong by me in taking a battle royale-ish scenario and giving it a fresh spin. Indie filmmaker Paul Hough manages to do a whole lot more with The Human Race, a sci-fi horror that seems to deliberately set out to give long-unimpressed movie watchers something new. Whether it's the hero with an amputated leg, a surprise early death, or two deaf characters who speak in sign language, The Human Race just feels FRESH.

I won't deny that I was rooting for Curse of Chucky to be good. My history with the Child's Play saga remains a huge part of my identity as a horror fan, and my love of Don Mancini's most personalized entry, Seed of Chucky, knows no bounds (I've been known to draw blood when defending it). So yes, I WANTED to love Curse of Chucky, but that doesn't mean it wasn't still wonderful on its own. Mancini finds a great balance of humor and horror while also refreshing his story with new touches, not to mention a post-credits sequence that does warm service to dedicated fans.

French filmmaker Marina de Van is the kind of woman who makes David Cronenberg look uptight. With In My Skin, de Van delves into a different kind of body horror following a corporate go-getter (played by the auteur herself) who becomes disconnected from her personal and professional life as she rather nonchalantly embarks upon a journey of self-mutilation. There's much more to the tale than that synopsis can say, or maybe, there's far less. The beauty of de Van's rather icky film comes from all that's not spelled out. In other words, it's very deep (maybe) and certainly, very, very French.

3. 13 Sins
There was probably no need to remake a fairly recent Thai film for American straight-to-video horror audiences, but if doing so gave us 13 Sins, I won't complain. Directed by The Last Excorcism's Daniel Stamm, this horror comedy understands what so many any of its ilk do not: anchor your film with an identifiable lead. Mark Webber’s Elliot is a nice, believable guy trying to do his best, and that instant sympathy makes his story so much easier to get into than all of the Crowsnests and The Darkest Hours combined. 

I've always MEANT to visit the much-discussed cinema of Jean Rollin, but the descriptions seemed more atmospheric than interesting. On a whim, I decided to try one of his shorter entries on Instant Watch and boy was I thankful. The Iron Rose is a strange, eerie film unlike any other. An attractive young couple spend their first date in a cemetery which goes as well as any horror fan predicts.  Sure, the film is mood over story, but the mood is so uniquely haunting that it works.

I'm an easy mark. If you tell me a movie has a gorilla drinking a martini, I'm in. If you tease me with killer dolls or naughty children or Michael Ironside or possessed kittens or--well, you get my point. I will watch anything aimed at my interests, but that doesn't always mean I'll love it (but don't worry Mikey: I'll always love you). When several friends told me there was a slasher musical set at theater camp, it sounded almost too good to be true. But guys: it's real. Jerome Sable’s horror comedy embraces its jazz hands and Sondheim influence with the full enthusiasm of an alto belting Let It Go. It's not for everyone, but those who love a good tune next to their stabbings will, like me, squeal with glee throughout Stage Fright.


  1. Great list, Emily!

    On an unrelated note, but as you'd agree, an extremely important one, have you finished Murder, She Wrote yet?

  2. Chris, I don't ever WANT to FINISH MSW! I love knowing it is always there, that whenever I need a little mysterious whimsy, I can randomly select any episode with a cute name and surprise guest star and spend the next 44 minutes in glee. I don't watch them in any order. I just experience them one clever Jessica Fletcher deduction at a time!

  3. Great list!
    Some I've seen (a few because of you pointing the way)... a couple I haven't seen (yet) which is always what I'm looking for with these lists, to be turned on to new movies.
    The only one I'd toss away is The Conjuring, ick!

    1. Thanks Knob! And I can understand Conjuring hate. It's the kind of ghost story that either gets you or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, what's the point? I still wish (like all Wan joints) it had a stronger ending, but I still really appreciated its first hour.

  4. Well... I didn't hate the conjuring... it's well made. But the word of mouth was so over the top around here and I'm generally annoyed by the real world antics of that couple.
    Also, that doll... no subtlety there.

    1. Totally understand. Nothing kills a film quite as effectively as hype!

  5. Well that's my viewing list for the weekend organized. Great list, Emily!