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While the majors seemed content to contribute little more
than remakes, sequels and knockoffs to the genre scene this past year, there
was lots of exciting stuff going on in the independent/foreign-film realm. The
wealth of fine features from outside the studio system made it tough to narrow
down a top-10 selection.
The lists below are composed of movies that received some
kind of commercial U.S. release in 2011 (a couple of worthy flicks seen at
festivals will have to wait till next year). The titles are arranged in
alphabetical order, though the film that ranks first that way was also my very
favorite among this crop:
ATTACK THE BLOCK: Joe Cornish’s knockout directorial debut
has seriously cool monsters, a riproaring pace, cleverly staged action,
engaging characters (a gang of young British apartment-house hooligans who
become heroes when the aliens invade), just the right touch of social
commentary and loads of laughs that leaven but don’t undercut the seriousness
of the situation. What more could you ask for?
BLACK DEATH: Good and evil have never been more mutable
concepts than in Christopher Smith’s compelling and truly chilling medieval
saga, following knights on a quest to quell the Black Plague that eventually
reveals the most virulent disease to be that spawned within human hearts.
INSIDIOUS (pictured at top): Having helped spawn one of the more savage
strains of modern horror with SAW, James Wan and Leigh Whannell go back to
genre basics and come up with a haunted-family tale that gets great eerie
mileage out of rich, cost-effective atmosphere, imaginative staging and perfect
timing that has you shivering in your seat when you’re not jumping out of it.
KIDNAPPED: The very last bit is unnecessarily cruel, but for
the rest of the running time, Spanish filmmaker Miguel Ángel Vivas earns the
right to the uncompromising torment meted out against an innocent family by
ruthless home invaders. The long single takes he employs keep you involved with
their plight throughout, with violent outbursts that are alternately harrowing
and cathartic. Extra points to one of the most marvelous uses of split screen
A LONELY PLACE TO DIE: You should have been able to catch
this grandly filmed outdoor thriller on the big screen, but it was relegated by
IFC Films to barely-there theatrical release and VOD play. Any way you can see
it, though (the DVD is coming next year), don’t miss Julian Gilbey’s twisty
survival story with an impressive lead performance by Melissa George. (Review)
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE/TAKE SHELTER: Are these really
horror films? If you’re asking that, then also ask yourself this: Is ROSEMARY’S
BABY a horror film? If that gets a yes, then so does the first question. Like
Roman Polanski’s classic, MARTHA and SHELTER are dark dramas in which the
threat is not overt, but always lingering in the margins, gnawing at the
psyches of their paranoid protagonists and putting a serious creep into
audiences. Do things ultimately become as hellish for MARTHA’s Elizabeth Olsen
and SHELTER’s Michael Shannon (two of the year’s most exemplary performances in
any genre) as they do for Mia Farrow? If you haven’t already, see the movies
(they hit the home market in early 2012) to find out.
STAKE LAND: Postapocalyptic/undead films are everywhere
these days, but Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s entry is a different beast: one
more concerned with getting to the hearts of its characters than ripping them
out. There are scares aplenty, and remarkable imagery on a low budget, yet what
sticks with you the most are the people struggling through a world that has
fallen to the inhuman. (Review)
SUPER 8: A monster movie about loving monster movies, a
Steven Spielberg production about growing up at a time when going to Spielberg
movies inspired a generation of budding auteurs to shoot their own
horror/sci-fi epics on Super-8 film. J.J. Abrams finds just the right balance
of unforced nostalgia, youthful camaraderie and big-ticket special-FX thrills.
TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL: A neat switch on backwoods-horror
standards that doesn’t simply rest on its role reversal (the scruffy
hillbillies are the good guys and the visiting college kids keep managing to
blunder into their own deaths). Director/co-writer Eli Craig sweetens the
premise with a series of hilarious situations and comically splattery
setpieces, while the unlikely burgeoning relationship between Dale (Tyler
Labine) and coed Allison (Katrina Bowden) adds unexpected emotional seasoning.
Also hailing from other countries and making strong
impressions were Norway’s THE TROLL HUNTER (if I was doing a top-11 list, that
would be the extra title), Spanish bad-boy Pedro Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE
IN, the Africa-lensed THE DEAD, Korea’s I SAW THE DEVIL, Australia’s THE REEF
and A SERBIAN FILM, which I can’t exactly say I enjoyed, but whose power can’t
be denied. Among the plentiful crop of indie follow-ups, BEREAVEMENT was one of
the few to stand on its own with a singular scary identity, while DRIVE ANGRY
(is there any actor more suited for 3D than Nicolas Cage?) was easily the
year’s most pleasurable guilty pleasure.
Speaking of 3D flicks, one of those tops (or bottoms) the
list of 2011’s dishonorable mentions (omitting any number of direct-to-DVD
sequels, ’cause that would be just too easy):
SHARK NIGHT 3D: In which a group of fresh young actors
manage to keep straight faces, while they and a team of Hollywood professionals
play the most mindbendingly illogical and ludicrous scenario since ANACONDAS:
THE HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID with utterly unjustifiable seriousness.
CREATURE: Just because you’ve rehashed every cliché in the
monster-movie playbook doesn’t mean you’ve created a clever (or scary, or
funny, or meaningful) homage to the form. In fairness, lead actor Mehcad
Brooks, despite his crucial tussle with the monster being played entirely off
screen, conveys real strength and dignity. He and his character deserve a
DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT: SUPERMAN RETURNS has a rep
(unwarranted, says I) as a disappointment; was Brandon Routh trying to assure
it wasn’t his lowest-regarded comics-based film by appearing in this one? Its
makers somehow managed to turn Tiziano Sclavi’s memorably quirky creation into
something resembling a rejected Syfy pilot.
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE): Tom Six’s sequel
proves that incessantly namechecking your previous movie isn’t the same thing
as satirizing it, and that shooting it in black and white neither transforms it
into art nor makes its gratuitous, pointless cruelty any easier to stomach.
Would that IFC Films gave a fifth of the marketing push to worthy movies like A
LONELY PLACE TO DIE that it does to these imitation provocations.
THE ROOMMATE: The story of a college girl who tries
desperately to emulate her new roomie’s life and seriously f**ks everything up,
this movie tries desperately to emulate SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and…
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN: Just for the record, I
don’t have anything categorically against mixing vampires and werewolves with
teen themes and romance; TV’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER did it memorably, and
sometimes brilliantly, for seven seasons. And this particular franchise was
incrementally getting better with each film. But BREAKING DAWN puts it on my
worst list for the first time by stretching about 20 minutes of plot into two
tedious hours (in the course of making a shameless cash grab by dividing one
book into two movies) and, even with all that screen time, never giving us one
scene reasonably explaining why heroine Bella (Kristen Stewart) insists on
carrying to term a hybrid baby whose birth is likely to kill her.
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