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It was quite an interesting year for genre cinema—one reason being that a number of its best examples weren’t strictly fright films, but mixed horror elements into stories with other emotional beats. This made for quite a welcome variety amidst the usual remakes, sequels and trend-hoppers.
There was no one film that I could truly choose as the best of the best, so the Top 10 list below is in alphabetical order. I’ve restricted my choices to movies that got some kind of commercial U.S. release in 2010—and how encouraging it is that three films I saw at festivals and could have easily included (BLACK DEATH, STAKE LAND and KIDNAPPED) have nailed down distribution for 2011.
AMER (pictured right): A kaleidoscope of color and sound and blood and sex and split screens and fractured psyches, distilling the giallo genre down to its visceral and psychological essence and providing a serious cinematic rush. Kudos to Belgian writer/directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani for one of most arresting feature debuts in recent memory.
BEST WORST MOVIE: No movie that inspires a documentary this winning can be all bad, and whatever its ridiculous faults, TROLL 2 is unique enough to have spawned a sizable cult following for itself, its creators and its nonpro cast—all of whom are celebrated in affectionate and enormously entertaining fashion by preteen TROLL 2 star-turned-filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson.
BLACK SWAN (pictured at top): Natalie Portman dances and self-destructs her way into the pantheon of great disturbed heroines in Darren Aronofsky’s riveting character drama-cum-psychological shocker. How gratifying to see a movie this daring, stylistically ambitious and downright unnerving drawing such crowds in a season of big-screen holiday fluff.
BURIED: What could be scarier than waking up confined to a coffinlike box several feet underground…and slowly learning that your life is in the hands of people who see you less as a person than as a political softball? Ryan Reynolds is a perfect Everyman hero/victim in Rodrigo Cortes’ sweat-inducing exercise in topical claustrophobia.
THE HORSEMAN (pictured left): A vengeful father gains justice and loses his soul in this shattering first feature by Aussie Steven Kastrissios. The pornographers and other human vermin who get theirs in the worst possible ways surely deserve it, but it’s the movie’s accomplishment that the violence is horrifying nonetheless.
I SELL THE DEAD: One of those rare movies that improves on second viewing; once you’re used to the episodic storytelling, you can fully immerse yourself in the rich, flavorful characterizations and fine period atmosphere elicited on a tiny budget. FX-artist-turned-writer/director Glenn McQuaid provides plenty of spooky and funny moments along the way.
LET ME IN: A few missteps (like vampire Abby’s CGI-enhanced attacks) prevent this from achieving the heights of the original LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, but they’re subsidiary. With striking performances by Chloë Grace Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee, writer/director Matt Reeves recaptures the heart and adds a few effective new wrinkles to the relationship between a bullied boy and bloodsucking girl, forged in shared loneliness and sealed with blood.
MONSTERS: The U.S./Mexico border has finally been walled off thanks to an infestation by towering extraterrestrial beings, but the essence of Gareth Edwards’ movie (yet another impressive filmmaking debut, again by an FX wiz) is not their threat but how a journalist and the boss’ daughter he at first reluctantly escorts through the quarantined zone navigate the literal alien territory. The creatures may be largely unseen, but Edwards makes their every appearance count.
[REC] 2 (pictured right): Against the odds, Spanish directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza manage to turn around, take their first-person cameras right back into that bloodstreaked maze of an apartment building and deliver almost as many jolts as their original. Adding more points of view and explanations for the grisly mayhem, the duo lose none of the scarifying potency.
RED WHITE & BLUE: Vengeance may be as American as apple pie, but once again it’s a foreigner (Brit Simon Rumley) who plumbs its visceral and psychological depths to explore the toll it takes on both the victims and the victimizers. The fact that the violent events don’t transpire quite the way we first expect them to only adds to the movie’s nerve-wracking impact.
Worthy runners-up include THE LAST EXORCISM, SPLICE (both strong films undercut by weak endings), BITTER FEAST, TRIANGLE, SHUTTER ISLAND, FROZEN, SALVAGE, THE CRAZIES, DAYBREAKERS and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the best Western ever made by a filmmaker who had to add zombies to get it produced.
Unfortunately, even with all that good stuff around, it was pretty easy to select the lowlights of the 2010 genre scene…
SKYLINE (pictured left): Arguably more a sci-fi actioner than true horror, though the emphasis is just as much on claustrophobic tension as spectacle, and there are a number of scenes of crawly creatures ingesting humans and getting bashed to a splattery pulp…oops, did I make the movie sound more interesting than it is? This cosmic bore features human characters whose behavior is more alien than that of its extraterrestrials.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE): Makes this list not because it’s disgusting, offensive or upsetting, but because it isn’t—not for one clichéd, contrived second. That this 93-minute life-support system for a single sophomorically sick idea was successfully sold as some kind of transgressive achievement is the cinematic con job of 2010.
CHAIN LETTER: Sick of torture-style murders? Sick of borrowed style over narrative substance? Sick of clueless appropriation of modern technology to tart up a generic storyline? Here’s a movie that allows you to be sick of all three at once!
SAW 3D: How did the creative team who made one of the best entries in this franchise (SAW VI) also wind up responsible for its nadir? Any sense of morality play and mythology-building is lost in a sequel that sadistically encourages you to root against the victims escaping their fates and a scenario that has never seemed more made up as it goes along.
GIALLO (pictured right): Everything you’ve heard, sadly, is true about this misbegotten effort that should have allowed Dario Argento to revisit his past glories, but got subverted somewhere along the way into a glum, styleless pastiche that showcases none of his talents, and which the maestro himself has dismissed.
LAKE PLACID 3: Yes, we know this sort of direct-to-cable/DVD sequel/creature feature is going to sport less-than-persuasive CGI, and we’re not expecting Mamet-level screenwriting. But come on, people—it is possible to make a low-budget nature-amok movie with a sense of fun and energy, rather than a tiresome feeling of going through the motions to churn out one more piece of product. Rent Joe Dante’s PIRANHA and study it.
VAMPIRES SUCK: A couple of people commented that my previous pan didn’t acknowledge the efforts of the actors, so I will say that yes, lead actress Jenn Proske does a nice job of comically capturing Kristen Stewart’s TWILIGHT tics. Too bad she’s stranded in a typically fourth-rate “comedy” by the notorious Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer team.
The HATCHET II controversy: Any informed discussion about the relationship between the MPAA and horror films (to which the board has been notably lenient in recent years) got drowned out by the hyperbole and hypocrisy surrounding the brief theatrical release of Adam Green’s slasher sequel. For weeks, the movie’s unrated status was touted as a key selling point and the reason to support its big-screen play; then, when some (but not all) of its theaters dropped the film due to its box-office non-performance, suddenly HATCHET II was a victim of the big bad MPAA and never should have been unrated in the first place. Can’t have it both ways, folks. The lie was put to all this nonsense a mere week later when the equally extreme and unrated I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE remake opened and had no trouble keeping its screens.
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