Archive for December, 2009

Ten Best Horror Films of the Decade

Posted in Movies on December 21, 2009 by kickingupthedarkness

In the last ten years, American horror movies have been on a downward spiral into suckiness.  From the endless amount of remakes to the unbelievably insipid PG-13 films, it’s like we’ve lost sight of why we watch horror movies in the first place.  The idea of dumbing down a horror film for a younger audience goes against their very nature: to scare and disturb the shit out of us!! A movie shouldn’t be made less disturbing for a mass market audience.  Horror movies are supposed to be disturbing!! So, on this list, you’ll find the few great American horror movies of the last ten years and the foreign gems that really hit the mark.  No remakes and absolutely no PG-13 crap. 

10. HOSTEL PART II

Eli Roth’s follow-up to his 2006 box-office hit is superior to its predecessor for two reasons: Richard Burgi and Roger Bart.  As two American businessmen who travel to Slovakia so they can each torture and murder a young woman, both actors create vivid, terrifying, and believable characters.  Burgi is a hoot as the arrogant one who is always snorting coke and cannot wait to kill somebody.  It’s a hilarious, not-to-subtle satire of the American businessman.  And then there’s Bart: shy, unsure of himself and not nearly as kind a man as you would hope him to be.   Their role reversal at the end of the film is as brilliant as it is inevitable.  And once again, Roth makes the torture scenes genuinely frightening and intense, not exercises in depravity (Hello, SAW franchise).

9. SESSION 9

Writer-director Brad Anderson has had quite a decade with last years’ terrific thriller TRANSSIBERIAN, Christian Bale’s skinny performance in THE MACHINIST, and the delightful sci-fi romance HAPPY ACCIDENTS.  But SESSION 9 remains his creepiest.  The film is also noteworthy because it features an actual decent performance by David Caruso! Caruso and the great irish actor, Peter Mullan, play two asbestos workers who take the dangerous job of cleaning up an abandoned mental institution in under two weeks.  Anderson actually filmed in a real abandoned asylum which adds greatly to the film’s atmosphere.  The asylum swallows you just as it swallows every character, bringing every single one of their phobia’s to the surface.  And the film’s final line of dialogue haunts me to this very day.

8. THEM

In recent years, with films like HIGH TENSION and THE ORDEAL, France has proven itself to be the new go-to place for insane, terrifying horror movies and THEM is one of the best.  It’s basically the good version of THE STRANGERS, which is so similar in structure it’s a wonder that writer-director David Moreau did not sue Hollywood.  If you’ve seen THE STRANGERS, you know the gist: a young couple is tormented by unseen foes in their lonely cabin in the woods.  The big difference is that these unseen foes seem to be actual human beings, not supernatural creations of the screenplay who have the power to be anywhere at any time.  They are never seen fully until the last shot of the film which makes them all the more frightening as the young couple runs and hides in every spot of their home.  Moreau makes great use of background noise and shadows, causing the film to keep you firmly on the edge of your seat for its entire running time. The film also gives a frightening and believable reason for the villain’s actions, unlike those ridiculous masked people from THE STRANGERS.

7. THE DESCENT

Neil Marshall is another director who had quite a decade with the action-packed DOOMSDAY and the low-budget, but kick-ass DOG SOLDIERS.  However, it’s THE DESCENT that truly got under my skin.  The tale of five female friends who go spelunking in an abandoned cave system is scary and claustrophobic as hell before the mutant monsters even arrive on screen.  There’s a sequence where one of the main characters is trapped in a tunnel that is so genuinely frightening it’s borderline unwatchable.  And then those creepy monsters show up.  Marshall wisely keeps them in shadows for a good portion of the film so that when we do see them in full light, they’re creepy as all hell.  The American release tacked on a bullshit happy ending, so make sure you see the British version where the ending stays true to the darkness of the rest of the film.

6. FRAILTY

Bill Paxton made a terrific directorial debut with this chilling masterpiece.  Matthe McConaughey (In his best performance) recounts his horrible childhood to FBI agent Powers Boothe who is searching for a serial killer named ‘God’s Hands’.  McConaughey tells Boothe of how his kindly father (Paxton) claims to have received a vision from an angel who sent him on mission to rid the world of demons that are disguised as people.  The film is told mostly in flashbacks with Paxton’s two sons trying to make sense of their father’s ‘mission’.  Matt O’Leary is terrific as the young McConaughey who strongly doubts his father’s sanity.  The movie keeps it a secret for a long time before revealing whether or not Paxton is actually crazy of if he is indeed on a ‘mission from god’.  Either way, FRAILTY is a taut, gripping film that asks a lot of questions about what people believe in and why they choose to do so.

5. SLITHER

The silliest, most entertaining horror movie in the last ten years.  Writer-director James Gunn creates a great throwback to cheesy 80’s horror films such as THE BLOB and SHIVERS.  Nathan Fillion has a grand old-time as the small town sheriff who has to deal with an alien invasion of parasitic slugs.  Having even more fun is Michael Rooker as the poor sap who becomes the first human the slugs take over.  His search for meat in the supermarket is one of the film’s many hilarious scenes.  And lets not forget Gregg Henry as the incompetent Mayor.  Every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth is a gem.  My personal favorite: After watching Elizabeth Banks chop someone’s head off with a shovel, ‘Bitch is hardcore’. Classic.

4. SAUNA

Another terrific foreign horror flick that puts most American movies to shame.  The story of two Finnish brothers who are tasked with mapping the new border between Russia and Finnland after a brutal 25 year war in the 1400’s is haunting, moody, and trippy as fuck.  Near the beginning of the film, the two brothers commit a terrible crime that comes back to haunt them when they come upon a hidden village in the middle of the woods.  The village contains a sauna that the residents say can, ‘wash away your sins without the presence of God’.  Naturally, the two brothers enter and a whole bunch of crazy shit starts to happen.  The movie is not very concerned with explaining itself but that only makes it all the more mysterious. The film is filled with terrifying images that sneak their way into your head.  Does the sauna have any actual power or is it just the brothers’ guilt tormenting them? I think you can take the movie either way and like that it allows you to draw your own conclusions. Also, how many horror films can you think of that take place in the 1400’s?

3. THE MIST

I really don’t get why more people did not respond to this movie.  Frank Darabont proves himself once again to be the master at adapting Stephen King stories and THE MIST proves to be one of the most suspenseful horror movies I’ve ever seen.  The story is fairly traditional: people trapped inside a building with lots of monsters outside. In this case, it’s a supermarket and a mysterious fog filled with creatures that traps our characters.  But King and Darabont make this one unique by creating intelligent characters and using the setting as a back drop to explore the extreme measures people will resort to when they are terrified.  Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as the de-facto leader of a religious cult that forms in the supermarket and Thomas Jane makes for a good hero.  The ending of the film annoyed me when I first saw it, but it has since grown on me because it fits with the tone of the rest of the movie.  The film was released in color in theaters despite Darabont wishing to release it in Black and White.  Luckily, the DVD contains the Black and White version and if you haven’t seen the film, don’t even bother watching it in color.

2. MARTYRS

Hands down, the most fucked-up, deranged, creepy, and riveting horror film of the last ten years.  France really proved itself to be the new King of Horror with this insane, twisted ride of a movie.  I cannot say too much about the plot without giving away the movie’s labyrinth of secrets and revelations.  The film begins with a young girl being tortured by unknown foes in a HOSTEL-like chamber.  She escapes and winds up in an orphanage where she meets another troubled young girl.  The movie then jumps fifteen years and cuts to a nice, normal family having a quiet breakfast.  There’s a knock on the door and when the father opens it, he comes face to face with the young girl from the beginning, now holding a shotgun.  She enters the home and slaughters the entire family.  After she’s finished, she calls her friend from the orphanage and tells her, ‘I found them’.  All of this madness occurs in the film’s first ten minutes and that is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s a wild ride through hell that has the power to shock and disturb the fuck out of you every fifteen minutes.  It is not an all an easy film to sit through, but you won’t be sorry that you did.

1. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

The. Best. Vampire. Movie. Ever. No Joke.  TWILIGHT and TRUE BLOOD fans should be ashamed of themselves after watching this movie.  It tells the story of a picked-on 12 year old boy who befriends a young girl named Eli after she moves next door to him.  There’s some strange things about Eli though: she does not eat, never comes out during the day, and is definitely connected to a series of murders that are plaguing the small Norwegian town.  The bond formed between these two characters is more touching and truthful than twenty Hollywood romances combined.  The movie never shies away from Eli’s nature.  She is not a ‘nice’ vampire who survives on animal blood or steals from the local hospital.  No.  She is a vicious monster who has to kill if she wishes to survive.  The two young actors are terrific, particularly Lina Leandersson as Eli.  She actually makes us believe that this girl is over 200 years old.  The film’s ending is as heartwarming as it is disturbing.  But the film’s best scene comes when the movie answers the age-old question of what would happen if a vampire were to come into your home uninvited.  A Hollywood remake is in the works, but there is no doubt that they are going to fuck it up, so see this version before they spoil the film’s greatness.

And that’s that! I don’t really have any high hopes for many American horror movies in the future (The re-makes keep on coming) so I’m going to keep my eye on Norway and France.  They clearly know what they’re doing.

The Ten Best Films of the Decade

Posted in Movies on December 20, 2009 by kickingupthedarkness

Before I send out my ten best films of the year, I figured it might be fun to hit the top ten films of the decade.  I’ve been reading so many of these damn lists that I couldn’t resist the urge to do my own.  Even though these lists are pretty silly, always relative, and you always forget something crucial after you’ve written and posted them.  You know the feeling I mean: ‘Oh Fuckbunnies! I should have put ‘The Wrestler’ ahead of ‘Mystic River’, now I gotta do the whole list over again!’ Well, I’m not going to bother with that nonsense.  I’m not going to pool through lists of every movie that has come out in the last ten years in an effort to make sure I forget nothing.  If I’ve forgotten a film, well it couldn’t have been that great now could it?  So here they are, right off the top of my head, the ten films of the decade that remain at the forefront of my mind:

10. TIE: WATCHMEN/THE DARK KNIGHT

So sue me, I just couldn’t decide which one was better.  In a decade that made comic books the kings of the box office and the summer movie season, these were easily the two best.  And they are both great for different reasons: THE DARK KNIGHT took the summer popcorn movie and elevated it to a level of high art.  The action sequences were some of the most riveting we’ve seen in the last ten years and even if you have issues with the story, you cannot deny that this is one of the most entertaining action flicks in many a moon.  But it’s the characters and Christopher Nolan’s subtle criticisms of society that make this a true masterpiece.  We all know how good Heath Ledger was, but lets not forget Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Christian Bale for taking characters that could have been one-note and turning them into tragic figures.  And for those of you who feel the need to complain about Bales’ Batman voice, think about this: If Batman truly existed, why wouldn’t his voice sound utterly preposterous? Bruce Wayne would not care about his voice sounding cool, he would just be content to have it disguised.  This is one of the film’s many unique touches that makes it the most realistic comic book film we have ever seen.  WATCHMEN, on the other hand, creates its own unique universe that is at once unbelievable and frighteningly plausible.  It managed to adapt a massive, renowned to the point of hysteria, graphic novel as faithfully as could have been done in two-and-a-half-hours while not alienating people who have never read the graphic novel.  The performances (especially Billy Crudup and Jackie Earle Haley) were right on target.  And the film itself, while visually breathtaking and filled with terrific action, works best as a sly satire of superheroes, idol worship, and government secrets.  After these two, superhero films have got a hell of a lot to live up to for the future.  Lets hope IRON MAN 2 is equal to the task.

9. FINDING NEMO

I’ll admit, it was tough to choose just which Pixar movie was going to find up on this list (Hell, I could have just listed each one from each successive year and called it a day), but I’m going with FINDING NEMO because it wowed me the most.  WALL-E was a visual masterpiece of the future, but there’s something about the way the water moves around the characters and environment in every scene of NEMO that just entrances me every time I watch it.  I have never felt more like I was getting a sneak peak into a gorgeous new world than when I was watching this film.  Every scene is breath-taking.  But the sequence that takes the cake for me is when we get to watch as news travels all over the ocean (From the crabs at the bottom to the birds in the sky) of Marlon and his quest to find his son.  I also think it is the funniest of the Pixar movies (with UP as a close second).  Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres perfectly nailed their mis-matched characters.  Brooks, with all of his usual neuroses and aggravations firmly in place and Degeneres, with all of her inherent whackiness on full display.  No actors have better morphed into animated characters than these two. 

8. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

My problem with most of Charlie Kaufman’s films is that they are either impenetrable or lose themselves in the third act by putting their utter contempt for the audience on full display.  ADAPTATION flies off the rails when it realizes it doesn’t have an ending and thinks itself clever by throwing every cliché in the book at us.  It’s a fine line between being clever and being lazy and that one misses the mark.  Ditto to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (though that one is interesting and bizarre enough that I do feel the need to watch it again).  ETERNAL SUNSHINE is his most complete movie.  Jim Carrey delivered his best and most restrained performance as the lovesick fool who thinks that erasing his memory is the best way to forget his lost-love, Kate Winslet (In one of her best performances).  As we track his descent to regain his consciousness, we are drawn into our own minds where our memories have the power to destroy us and to save us.  This is the price of love and Kaufman does not beat us over the head with his message, but quietly shows us that our memories, no matter how painful they are, are what truly allow us to define ourselves as human beings.  The movie is also a visual delight (the most accurate depiction of the mind to ever hit the screen) and filled with great supporting performances by Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo.  But special credit goes to Kirsten Dunst, an actress I normally find unwatchable, who delivers her finest and most moving performance as the Nurse who discovers a crucial truth about her own memory.

7. SOLARIS

Audiences and critics really missed the mark on Steven Soderbergh’s haunting, moody, sci-fi masterpiece.  It owes more to a film like 2001 than to STAR WARS and I think that’s what people’s real problem with it was.  Also, it moves at a slow, steady pace that most found boring, but I found hypnotizing.  Clooney had a great decade and this is his most affecting performance.  He shows us the inner turmoil of a scientist trapped on a spaceship near a planet that does not attack with little green men, but with a fully formed being in the shape and with all the memories of his dead wife (The always reliable Natasha McElhone).  Sci-fi movies so rarely take the true leap into their own title (Science and Fiction) and are mostly content to rely on aliens and humans blowing each other up.  SOLARIS  looks at space with true wonder and at once comforts us and terrifies us with the possibilities of what could be out there.

6. CACHE (HIDDEN)

Harsh social commentary disguised as Hitchcockian thriller.   There is no more interesting director to watch right now than Michael Hanecke.  The formal behavioral psychologist as morphed into the most demanding, infuriating, and riveting director of his generation.  There is no film-maker out there right now who has his ability to pin me to my seat and demand my attention from the very first frame.  Audiences have trouble with his technique because he so often tries to enrage you (FUNNY GAMES) but never just for the hell of it and the anger he seeks is always the appropriate reaction.  CACHE is his most mind-boggling.  Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche are terrific as a wealthy French couple who start to receive mysterious videotapes that impossibly document their every move.  Eventually Auteuil realizes that these tapes are tied to his  past history with a young boy from Algeria and tries to find out who is torturing him and his wife.  An easy concept for a thriller, but the tapes are not what the movie is really about.  Hanecke merely uses the tapes as a way to force his characters to confront their past sins that they have buried with false justifications.  By using the shaky relationship between France and Algeria as a focal point, Hanecke reflects on race-relations of all cultures and how past prejudices still ( and always will) exist in a world where people do anything and everything to hide their own guilt.  Hanecke’s got a new movie, THE WHITE RIBBON, coming out at the end of month and I hear it’s his best yet.   But if you haven’t seen this, shoot it to the top of your Netflix queue immediately. And make sure you watch that last frame with a magnifying glass.

5. KILL BILL

I consider both the KILL BILL”S to be part of one movie so I’m including them as part of their own epic, individual masterpiece.  I did not have more fun at the movies in the last ten years than when I was watching the KILL BILL’s.  Tarantino is a director who has no problem throwing every personal fetish and idiosyncrasy on the screen in full display and I love him all the more for it.  His dialogue crackles and sparks with obscure references from SUPERMAN to long forgotten Kung-fu movies and you treasure every word.  This is also absurd action at its finest and most enjoyable.  We root for the Bride as she completes her ‘roaring-rampage-of revenge’ and that line of dialogue describes both films perfectly.  Never before has revenge been treated as such a sacred, necessary and even artistic ritual.  Everyone loves the great sword fights, but for me, the best battle is the cat-and-mouse games of words that Bill and the Bride play at the end of the movie.  Dialogue has never been more engaging and exciting.

4. MICHAEL CLAYTON

When I first saw MICHAEL CLAYTON, I liked it quite a bit.  I thought it was a smart, entertaining thriller with great performances all around.  However, each time I go back to it, I discover something new and like it more and more.  This is Clooney’s other masterpiece of the decade (though I haven’t seen UP IN THE AIR yet).  This film is so masterful in its storytelling that you are practically unaware that it is a corporate thriller until you’re about halfway through it.  But what really sticks in my mind is first time writer-director Tony Gilroy’s (he wrote the BOURNE movies) terrific dialogue.  There’s the great scene where Clooney explains the job of  a law firm’s ‘fixer’ to a client who has just committed a hit-and-run, Tom Wilkinson’s rambling, brilliant monologue on why the law firm has broken his spirit, Tilda Swinton ordering a hit-man to murder someone without even mentioning the word, Wilkinson reading the corporation’s many crimes while they listen in on his phone, and the final, amazing confrontation between Clooney and Swinton that is so taut and tense you’ll forget to breathe.

3. THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Daniel Day-Lewis is quite possibly the finest, craziest and most daring actor of his generation and no movie proved that more than Paul Thomas Anderson’s deranged masterpiece.  Everything about the film and Lewis’ character, oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, put you on edge.  You are not comfortable for one second of screen time.  There’s also Paul Dano’s terrifying performance as the small-town preacher who forges a life-long battle for power with Mr. Plainview.  Anderson uses both characters to see which would happen if capitalism and religion were both wild animals tossed together in a duffel bag.  It’s not a pretty picture and Anderson is not afraid to portray both men as charlatans of false worship.  His themes resonate even more strongly today, as a recession cripples us and religion continues to prevent people from moving forward. 

2. SIDEWAYS

Hands down, the funniest and most touching movie of the decade.  I would like to spend an entire weekend with Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti on a wine tour, but kind of already feel like I have.  Both actors create such real, flawed, wonderful characters that we feel like we know them inside and out.  Virgiania Madsen is also wonderful as the woman who might be able to save Giamatti from a lifetime of depression.  There are so many scenes of such quiet truth, such as when Giamatti visits his mother only to steal from her and she knows it and accepts it.  Also, Church’s heartbreaking monologue about how he cannot lose his fiancée despite his endless amount of lies to her.  And no one can forget the wonderful scene where Madsen compares Giamatti to a bottle of the finest wine.  What’s even more remarkable is that none of this feels forced.   The movie touches on themes of loneliness, despair, and lies but succeeds the most by simply creating real characters who we would be honored to spend some quality time with. 

1. THE PRESTIGE

I think I’ve seen THE PRESTIGE about twenty times since it first hit theaters and the film never fails to fully engage my attention.  Christopher Nolan has proved himself to be my director of the decade as he is the only one who has two films on this list.  The story of rival magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman is told in his traditional out-of-order manner, but this is the first time where that structure did not merely feel like a gimmick.  He uses the device of having both characters reading the other’s diary to tell his epic story so the audience learns about each one at the same pace as the other character does.  It’s a brilliant structure, but what makes the movie the true best film of the decade is that it itself is one giant magic trick.  You’ll hold your breath until the very last frame and still be shocked out of your skin.  The film is also a great reflection on the tortured nature of artists.  In order to be a truly great artist, one must make unbelievable sacrifices, something that both characters learn in very different ways throughout the course of the film.  Artists are at the forefront of our world every day and we criticize them and bring them down whenever we can without ever thinking that our words might have the power to make them do terrible things in order to please us. 

So, that’s it! Those of you who know me might have been surprised that I included no horror films on this list.  Well, have no fear both of you! Coming up next will be my top ten horror films of the decade because I love too many of them to have to exclude them from any list and they really deserve a category that is all their own.