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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 1

By Andreas

It’s list-making time again! The alliteration-loving Marvin the Macabre over at The Montana Mancave Massacre has challenged horror bloggers to name their top 10 horror movies of the past 10 years. So of course, we had to do it. (I came up with a similar list of 20 horror faves from all time periods back in October.) You can expect Ashley’s top 10 sometime soon; in the meantime, here’s mine: ten rewatchable, well-made movies, and the best that recent horror has to offer.

10. Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2010)

I found a lot to dislike in the bioethical child-rearing allegory Splice: it adopts a lot of horror cliches without taking them anywhere; its writing is only clever in spates; and it goes completely off the rails at the end. But it’s got terrific special effects (especially in the creation of its monster, Dren) and when it’s darkly funny, it really the mark. That, plus its icy blue/green color palette and Adrien Brody’s hotness, sneaks it onto my list at #10.

9. Seed of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2004)

So many slasher sequels of the past decade have been formulaic, low-quality retreads. Hence why Seed of Chucky is such a breath of fresh air: it revels in its franchise’s inherent absurdity, piling meta-jokes and gory self-parody on top of its “killer doll on a rampage” premise. Turning the Child’s Play set-up inside out, Hollywood-style, is oodles of fun—as is seeing Jennifer Tilly finally get her equivalent of Being John Malkovich.

8. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

You can call it “children’s fantasy” all you want; I’m telling you, Coraline is an animated horror movie. The title character’s dream-turned-nightmare constitutes one of the decade’s most imaginative horror landscapes, and there’s no villain quite like the Other Mother, voiced with menacing sweetness by Teri Hatcher. Selick’s fluid stop-motion artistry and Neil Gaiman’s very scary novel turned out to be a match made in horror heaven.

7. Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)

No zombie movie of the 2000s (and there were a lot of them) had a twist quite as original as Pontypool‘s: here, the vector of disease isn’t saliva or blood, but words. Set in a claustrophobic radio station off in rural Ontario, the film milks all the terror it can out of talk radio call-ins—bleak audio-only testimonies to the increasingly violent havoc outside. The terror is counterbalanced only by the rough, reliable growl of Stephen McHattie, giving a powerful performance as a hotshot DJ trying to keep cool. Semiotic horror: that’s something you don’t see everyday.


6. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

This Korean monster movie casts off the genre straitjacket from the very beginning, and fearlessly mixes slapstick, tragedy, and anti-imperialist critique to tell the story of one family’s vendetta against a giant fish monster. Strange, stylish, and spectacular, The Host rewrites the rules of kaiju cinema while playing the audience’s heartstrings like a giant killer harp.

5. [REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)

Handheld Blair Witch rip-offs are a dime a dozen these days. Literally: they’re cheap to shoot, and often profitable. (See: Paranormal Activity.) But [REC] takes the caught-on-tape aesthetic into new territory, bringing the audience right into the heart of a quarantined zombie outbreak. It’s ceaselessly visceral and inventive, and introduces reporter Angela Vidal, one of my favorite recent final girls. Few movies beat [REC] when it comes to inducing raw, physical fear. (Not even [REC] 2, though it certainly tried.)

4. May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

I’m not shy about my love of May. I did write 1/4 of my senior thesis about it, after all. It’s a quirky, cute, romantic, gruesome, twisted, bloody, perverse indie horror confection, melding Frankenstein and Repulsion with something Zooey Deschanel might star in. It’s the bittersweet tale of an obsessive, attractive misfit and the lengths she goes to for love. It’s really, really good! Essential viewing if you’re interested in horror of the past decade, or any time.

3. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

For many stupid reasons, art films like Caché that debut at Cannes are rarely seen as authentic horror. But it is! It so is, and it’s one of the eeriest, most disturbing horror movies of the 2000s. It only has a single scene of actual gore, but that’s nothing compared to the lingering unease and uncertainty instilled by the rest of the movie. Who sent those tapes and letters, utterly destroying the Laurent family’s bourgeois comfort? It’s a question that persists after countless gratuitous slasher deaths have faded.

2. 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)

Boyle’s vision of post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested England is an elegy to a vanishing way of life (i.e., humanity). A hardy quartet of survivors make an arduous cross-country trek, punctuated both by bursts of violence and rare moments of beauty. In such a ruined world, 28 Days Later asks, can any altruism or compassion bloom? For all its brutality, it’s an unusually tender horror movie, with stars Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris doing very subtle, striking work. This is the new millennium’s gold standard of what a zombie movie can look like.

1. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

Really, what else could top this list? Not a single misstep mars Alfredson’s note-perfect adaptation of John Lindqvist’s young-love vampire novel. Sweet, delicate, and shockingly violent, Let the Right One In is as cool and crystalline as a snowflake. Oskar and Eli’s bizarre relationship is a refuge for two abused outsiders, two kids just trying to make a go of it in this hard world. It’s a theme we can all relate to and, in Alfredson’s gentle hands, it’s also the most beautiful, unforgettable horror movie of the 21st century.

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20 Horror Faves

Way back when, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl requested that all the horror-loving folks out in blogland send her their 20 favorite horror movies. They responded en masse. I was part of that masse! Well, I figured, why not milk that list for some actual content? Thus, here it is: my list, in its chronological, 20-entries-long glory. It was a painful list to come up with, and I’m missing some of my other special favorites, but it’s decent, I think.

  • The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927): So macabre, so weird, so Freudian, so fucked-up. Also, probably Lon Chaney’s best surviving performance. (I mean, Burt Lancaster loved it!)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): The best version of Stevenson’s tale, no matter what the Victor Fleming partisans tell you. Also, Miriam Hopkins’ sexy leg [courtesy of Lolita’s Classics]:

  • Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932): Um, duh! More about this forthcoming later in the month.
  • Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934): “DARTS OF FIRE IN MY BRAIN!” Looniest, wackiest, most maniacal exploitation movie of all time.
  • Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): Whale at his gleefully perverse best. I wish Dr. Pretorious was my boyfriend!
  • Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935): Peter Lorre is a creepy fucker, plus obsession and grand guignol! I adore this movie.
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942): One of the seminal Hollywood horror movies, at once erotic, repressed, and scary as hell.
  • The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943): And another Val Lewton masterpiece! Unbelievably morbid and moodily poetic.
  • Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti et al., 1945): The segments are uneven, but Michael Redgrave vs. a ventriloquist dummy, together with the nightmare finale, is more than worth it. Ealing should’ve made more horror.
  • Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1959): Franju tells his really icky mad scientist story with a delightful sense of humor. Valli makes a great (evil) lab assistant, and the design of the mask is so simple as to be nightmare-inducing.
  • Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962): This is easily in the top 5 on this list. Independently made with an unblinking vision of existential horror, it also has one-time actress Candace Hilligoss giving the performance of a lifetime. “WHY CAN’T ANYBODY HEAR ME?”
  • The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963): I fucking love Julie Harris here; she leads a pretty much perfect cast as they navigate the recesses of a very angry house.
  • Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964): I talked about this recently, but to recap: it’s a brutal tale of two women and a man in the wilderness, with a big hole in the middle. So greasy and desperate, I love it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968): It’s a pretty canonical choice. Romero was a true original, resourcefully squeezing all the metaphorical value he could out of a solid cast, a boarded-up house, and some brain-craving zombies.
  • Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1973): SO DEPRESSING. Watching this movie is like masturbating with a shard of broken glass. OK, I’m done drawing analogies now. But seriously, Bergman turns family drama into ultra-visceral horror.
  • The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976): The underrated third member of Polanski’s Apartment trilogy, it’s really stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s Trelkovsky’s miserably kafkaesque relationship with his neighbors, or him wearing a dress and whispering, “I think I’m pregnant!”
  • The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982): When Poe wrote the words “desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,” I think he was anticipating the lingering dread and scary-as-shit special effects of Carpenter’s masterpiece.

  • Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988): I wish Jeremy Irons were my drug-addicted gynecologist brother. But then I’d have to be Jeremy Irons. Also, mutant vaginas. What’s not to love?
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2003): I wasn’t expecting it, but Boyle’s neo-zombie odyssey across postapocalyptic England has insinuated itself into my bloodstream like a particularly pernicious virus.
  • Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008): Aren’t those kids cute? And isn’t that movie startlingly beautiful and well-written?

Are you shocked by my bad taste? Or shocked by my good taste? Comment below.

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Gives me the willies!

Ashley:

I <3 scary movie lists. So, I got super excited when I read on Final Girl and The Horror Digest about Top Ten Willie Inducing Moments list! So here are the moments that give me the chills.

Let the Right One In (2008) – Eli’s “old face”

Let the Right One In is a masterpiece of a vampire film. It’s not the scariest movie in the world but it does have some very chilling moments. For me, Eli’s older face is one of them. I think the reason it freaks me out so much to the point of not even wanting to look at it, is because it’s so subtle. You only really realize after the fact, once her face changes back that it was just totally fucking different a second before.  How Oskar didn’t run screaming from the room the moment that face looked up at him is beyond me; that’s true love, fo’ sho.

Black Christmas (1975) – “I’m going to kill you.”

The original Black Christmas is a movie that scares me so deeply that I can’t even explain it. The first time I watched this movie, I couldn’t sleep right for a few nights afterward. There’s just something about it that gets under my skin and makes me feel unsafe. This moment happens about 8 minutes into the movie and it freaks me the fuck out. We have these excruciatingly long moments listening to grotesque sounds and words coming from the phone and then, without skipping a fucking beat, it switches to complete calm,  telling Barb, “I’m going to kill you.” My stomach literally dropped the first time I saw this part, it scared me so much. I’ve watched this movie with people who just thought this part was HI-LARIOUS and it just goes to show you that different thing scare different people. Just watching this part so I could get this screen grab has me anxious.

Martyrs (2008) – the monster girl

Anything that moves really unnaturally scares me a lot. So, of course there are tons of Asian horror movies that have scary moments for me; that jerky, creepy movement is just not right, it’s not natural, it’s not human. However, the French Martyrs takes the cake for me in terms of stop-moving-like-that-goddammit! This is a brutal film, from start to finish. For the first half of the film, the terrifying monster that continually stalked and fucked up Lucie had me holding my breath, my hands clasped tightly over my mouth. The bathroom scene, where we finally see the creature in full, had me totally petrified. I couldn’t handle the way she moved, the way her bones protruded, the way her mouth was like some jagged black hole whenever she screamed. If I were Lucie, I would have killed myself a long fucking time ago just to get that thing away from me.

Pet Sematary (1989) – Zelda

I debated whether or not to put this one since I don’t consider Pet Sematary one of my favorite horror movies, and as an adult I’ve only seen the whole thing once or twice. But that doesn’t change the fact that at some point during my early childhood I saw parts of this movie; the parts with Zelda. And the image of her never, ever left my mind. I still have intense fears of going into a room and seeing someone hunched in the corner because of this movie. Watching the scenes with Zelda fills me with a sick kind of fear, the kind that makes me want to turn off what I’m watching RIGHT NAOW because I can’t stand looking at it or hearing it.

The Stepford Wives (1975) – bleakest ending ever

I’ve written about my love of The Stepford Wives in the past. This movie is terrifying to me on a very fundamental level; as someone who is very conscious of women’s issues and oppression and patriarchal power , the movie is bleak and gut-wrenching. No escape. No salvation. Death at the hands of men who don’t give a shit about substance or personality; they just want you to be ‘the perfect wife’. And they can pull it off. Because who’s going to question them?

Alice:

When Ashley told me about this “willie-inducing moment” thing, I immediately wanted in. Ergo, voilà! Since neither of us could put together a full 10, here’s my 5 to complete her list, in reverse-chronological order. May the willies be with you…

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the death of Frank Poole

Space travel is already a pretty scary prospect: no oxygen, just a few other people, relying entirely on your womblike spaceship to get you to Jupiter safely. So when the computer gets pissed off and starts doing in one crew member after another, you’re pretty much fucked. Frank is the second-to-last astronaut left, and all his conspiring with Dave proves futile: HAL unhinges his suit’s umbilical cord, and off he goes, limbs flailing frantically, into the cold darkness. I’ve always thought going into space would be like the coolest thing ever. Then I think about this scene, and… maybe not.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – the corpse at the top of the stairs

It’s great that one of the biggest scares in this classic isn’t the living dead at all. Barbra, running from the gentleman zombie who’s just killed her brother, enters a random house in the Pennsylvania wilderness. She hurries up the stairs, but then she sees this. We never really find out who this corpse belonged to or how they died; judging from the state of decay, it was clearly before the zombie onslaught. And since we only see it for a couple seconds at a time, it really sticks in our minds. All we really know is, stay the fuck off of the second floor! (This moment, I noticed, was also chosen by Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck. It’s just really seriously willie-inducing.)

The War Game (1965) – the first blast

This isn’t really a horror movie. It’s actually more of a political mockumentary. But Peter Watkins’ Oscar-winning film has dozens of these devastating, willies-eliciting moments. With chilling detachment, the film depicts a hypothetical near-future in which NATO vs. Communist Bloc tensions escalated to the point of full-scale nuclear war. This scene shows the first nuclear bombardment of England, as unprepared civilians are blinded by a far-off explosion. My willies are amplified by the accompanying voiceover: “At this distance, the heat wave is sufficient to cause melting of the upturned eyeball…”

Carnival of Souls (1962) – the face in the car window

This guy’s face reappears a lot in Carnival of Souls, as he persistently dogs the steps of our organist heroine Mary (Candace Hilligoss). It’s never clear who he is or what he wants, except that he’s probably dead, and he probably wants Mary to be dead, too. This is the first time we see him, as Mary drives through Utah by night. First, it’s her reflection in the window. Then, it’s him. Dear Scary Faces, please stop being where you shouldn’t, whether it’s in windows, mirrors, or nightmares. Sincerely, me.

Mad Love (1935) – Dr. Gogol disguised as the reanimated Rollo

OK, we all know Peter Lorre is one creepy motherfucker. We saw him make those faces in M. We watched him obsess over that piano-playing hand in The Beast with Five Fingers. He’s even creepy in non-horror movies, like Stranger on the Third Floor. But this scene, midway through Mad Love, may be Lorre’s creepiest moment ever. He’s not just being his (already crazy) self as the obsessive Dr. Gogol. Instead, he’s putting on a demented show by dressing up as the knife-thrower Rollo, who was executed earlier in the film, in order to freak out poor pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive).

Let’s count everything that’s willie-inducing about this scene: 1) the neck brace and metal hands are totally nonfunctional – I think it’d be way less terrifying if his head actually had been reattached. 2) Still, the idea of reattaching a guillotined man’s head = ewww. 3) The sunglasses and hat almost entirely covering his face. 4) Lorre’s laughter. 5) He doesn’t even look like Rollo (played by Edward Brophy), yet Orlac falls for it. This is only one short scene, but that image – which I saw as a child in those devilish horror movie encyclopedias we had lying around the house – is so uncanny, so perverse, and so wrong in so many ways that it gives me the willies just thinking about it.

Ewww! Bad! No! In closing, I hope you enjoyed our willies.

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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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