Tag Archives: Take Shelter

My 2011 in Film: Favorite 2011 Films

My Top Ten has already appeared over on Row Three, along with all the other contributors’ lists. It’s a good mix, you should check it out. Or, you could just read mine below, copied essentially verbatim, but with added pictures. Below the top ten are a loosely ordered (favorite to less favorite) assortment of other films from 2011 that I think are worth mentioning. Still to come: A post listing my favorite things I saw in 2011, but weren’t released in 2011.

 

TOP TEN

10. Winnie the Pooh

I hoped against hope that Disney would do right by the beloved Pooh bear, and they surpassed all my expectations. With a simple but charming story pulled together from a few of A.A. Milne’s most beloved entries in the series, lovely hand-drawn animation, and a sense of wonder and childlikeness that’s missing from most overly hip children’s films these days, Winnie the Pooh is like a breath of admittedly nostalgic fresh air. Little bits of cleverness like the integration of physical text and the animation style shift for the Backson song just add to the joy of this unpretentious delight. Full review on Row Three

9. Hanna

Joe Wright, of high-quality but relatively staid literary adaptations like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, is doing an action movie about a teenage assassin? O…kay… But Wright pulls it off in spades, crafting one of the finest genre mashups of the year. With influences from James Bond to La femme nikita and from Run Lola Run to M (okay, it’s a stretch, but it’s there), plus a healthy dose of well-played coming-of-age story, it’s easy to accuse Hanna of not knowing what it wants to be, but on the contrary, it knows exactly what it wants to be – everything. And it manages all that with panache and an exhilarating sense of cinematic space in the action sequences. Great performances, action, editing, music, and immensely entertaining to boot.

8. The Artist

It’s no secret I’m a fan (an emerging one, anyway) of silent cinema, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating 2011′s B&W silent throwback since I heard about it. But films that attempt imitation like this can fail in so many ways, either getting things subtly wrong or failing to capture the thing that made the original so pleasing. Thankfully, The Artist comes through with flying colors (or lack of color, heh), pairing its simple romance and tale of silent cinema’s demise with a charm and vivacity that approximates the joys of silent films quite well. The acting is stylistically believable without feeling forced, the film tone-switches like a pro (as many silent films do), and the bits of gimmickry related to sound end up working better than I feared. It’s ultimately a breezy film, though not without its bits of melodrama, but there hasn’t been as charming a celebration of 1920s Hollywood since Singin’ in the Rain. Scorecard review

7. The Innkeepers

If you want to know what kind of horror hits all my buttons, look no further than Ti West’s supremely enjoyable haunted hotel film. Not only does it succeed with jump and reveal scares as the two ghost-hunting hotel employees spend the inn’s final days investigating the potential presence of the rumored ghost, but it’s just as solid in the more comedic sections of the film, bringing these two characters to life so when shit starts going down, it matters. In addition, West proves a wonderful understanding of cinematic space, using the character and location set-up in the beginning for some fantastic payoffs in the rest of the film. I don’t outright love very many horror films, but I loved this one. Full review on Row Three

6. Attack the Block

By the time I finally saw this, it had been so hyped by bloggers around the country that I was sure I would be in for disappointment. Not this time, though; the hype is pretty much deserved. From the gutsy move of having our heroes be South London thugs who start the film by mugging a young woman to the fantastic creature design of the monsters, Attack the Block succeeds on all levels. The character arcs work, thanks to solid writing and performances from the mostly unknown cast, the social commentary works even when it’s a bit on the nose, the thrills and chills work, and the comic relief works as well, for the most part. Sure to be a staple for genre-lovers for some time to come. Scorecard review

5. Melancholia

Leave it to Lars von Trier to somehow make a film about depression that is gloomy as hell, but actually NOT that depressing, when it comes right down to it. In a role that finally showcases that talent that she’s shown so fleetingly throughout her career (how’s that for a backhanded compliment!), Kirsten Dunst plays Justine first as flighty and fun, but that’s just a veneer shallowly covering her deep depression, which is soon paralleled (manifested?) in the approaching blue planet dubbed Melancholia. Yet it is she, in the second half, who is far better equipped to deal with the end of the world, an eventuality that formerly stable Charlotte Gainsbourg is unprepared to face. It’s self-consciously arty, but that’s part and parcel of the von Trier experience, and this is probably his most accessible and overwhelming film to date. Scorecard review

4. Drive

One of the most stylish films of the year for sure, and maybe it’s a case of style over substance, but I don’t really care. From the hot pink title lettering to the movie-LA locations to the mishmash of genre film references to the laconic main character himself, I was totally enthralled with this film. Ryan Gosling cements himself as an actor to be reckoned with, doing a lot with a very subtle role, and managing to stand out against a stellar supporting cast of more over the top supporting characters. Already an arthouse favorite thanks to his earlier films, Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a slam-dunk calling card to Hollywood without losing the personal aesthetic that he’s known for. I’ve seen this twice in theatres, and that wasn’t enough. Full review on Row Three

3. Certified Copy

A heady yet emotionally grounded inquiry from Abbas Kiarostami into the nature and value of originals and copies played out in a most unusual way – a couple of strangers (or are they) who have been discussing the ramifications of copies in an academic fashion suddenly begin acting as if they’ve been married for years (and perhaps they have). How does a simulcra of a marriage related to a real marriage, and if the fake becomes real, what is real? The film is thoughtful, cerebral, and academic, yes, like its male protagonist. But it’s also warm, heartfelt, and resonant, like its “Elle” (a wonderful performance from Juliette Binoche) – though these roles are no more set in stone than their relationship. I’ve still only seen it once, but I’ve pondered it perhaps more than any other film I saw in 2011, unable to get it out of my head. Full review on Row Three

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

My first Lynne Ramsay film, but certainly not my last, and hopefully not hers, either. (One worries when filmmakers take 9-year breaks in between films.) One of the most disturbing and terrifying films of the year, yet with essentially no on-screen violence or gore – Ramsay conveys everything through unsettling sound design, jarring structural juxtapositions as she tells the story out of chronological order yet with a perfect thematic flow, and the wonderful central performance of Tilda Swinton as a woman who embodies the worst fears of parenthood in one tightly wound little ball. The film is assaultive in many ways, and one thing’s for sure – whether the parents who need to talk about Kevin do so or not, audiences certainly are and will be. Scorecard review

1. The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is an intensely personal film, despite its ambitious scope. It depicts the whole history of the universe, yet affirms the importance of humanity even when faced with the enormity of the cosmos – we are tiny, but an endless summer in small-town Texas can be all-important. The film is clearly a passion project for Terrence Malick (as all his films are, really), and much of its pleasure is in how much it resonates personally with the viewer – it hit me dead-on, to the extent that I drank it all in and couldn’t really process anything else for several hours or even days. It was one of the great cinematic experiences of the year for me (and that’s really what it is, an experience, privileging associative resonance over narrative drive), and that’s why it’s remained at the top of my list all year.

 

OTHERS WORTH MENTIONING

The idea that only ten films a year are worth mentioning seems pretty ridiculous to me, so even though I go along with it for list posts and such just to conform to some sort of standard, I really feel like end of the year posts should highlight other worthwhile films of the year as well. So this is a non-numbered listing of other films I really really liked this year. Largely ones I like better are toward the top, ones I like less well toward the bottom, but this is pretty much every film from 2011 (or 2010 in a few cases, like Attenberg, which released in Greece in 2010 but still hasn’t hit the US outside of festival screenings) that I really liked/loved. They all deserve recognition.

Attenberg

My first exposure to the current wave of Greek cinema was a very good one, with just enough oddness in its coming-of-age and dealing-with-death story and stunted-growth characters to go along with its stark Czech New Wave stylistics, without falling over the deep end of weirdness. Austere but also quite relatable. Full review on Row Three

Café de Flore

An absolute marvel in terms of using music and editing for maximum emotional impact, the last section of Café de Flore floored me (no pun intended). The French Canadian film parallels two stories of love and potential loss, one of a modern-day Montreal DJ torn between his ex-wife and his new, younger lover, the other of a mother in 1960s Paris raising her Downs Syndrome son. How they come together will make or break the film for you; it totally made it for me. Scorecard review

The Dynamiter

A tiny film from an indie director out of Mississippi, starring all unknown actors. Checking these types of films out at festivals is always a risky proposition, but this one paid off for me like crazy, with its tender but unsentimental coming of age story balanced by some charming performances from the young actors, not to mention some gorgeous cinematography. Full review on Row Three

Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt’s prickly Western gets across the hellish nature of cross-country pioneering with devastating claustrophobia. Potentially lost, nearing the end of their supplies and sanity, trusting themselves to a guide who may not know anything more than they do – yet no other choices are better. A hard film to get close to, and yet a hard one to get out of your head, with an evocative metaphysical layer as well.

The Adventures of Tintin

I don’t like 3D and I don’t like motion capture. Yet I really, really enjoyed this film. It’s a whiz-bang adventure film in the style of 1930s serials, with a breathlessly gung-ho young hero, his adorable dog, and great comic relief from all the supporting characters. The one-take motorcycle chase at the end is the obvious highlight, but the camerawork is great throughout, as is the use of space within the frame. Scorecard review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

After loving the Swedish version of this, I was a little wary of this one, but trusted Fincher to come through, and come through he did. A bit edgier, a bit slicker, a bit tighter, and a bit more expansive, his version of Dragon Tattoo stands on its own as a solid and hard-hitting thriller. Scorecard review

Kill List

On a purely visceral level, this film is one of the best experiences I had all year – a slow-burn opening following a former hitman trying to get back into the game to support his family turns into something much more sinister, with some heart-pumping scenes that’ll keep your heart racing long after the movie is over. There are some large plot holes, but the film is remarkably effective anyway. Scorecard review

Jane Eyre

Yet another version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic gothic novel? Yes, and one that does a remarkable job of getting those moody gothic elements onscreen. Switching the narrative around a bit works to escalate cinematic tension, and Mia Wasikowska cements the promise she showed in Alice in Wonderland (being in a much better film helped) with a performance that captures both Jane’s willfulness and her reticence.

This is Not a Film

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been placed under house arrest and banned from making films by the Iranian government. So he calls a friend over to film him talking about the film he was intending to make before the ban. From there we get not only a surprisingly humorous yet desperate documentary about Panahi’s situation, but a treatise on filmmaking itself – what a film is and isn’t, and how artists find ways to express themselves even under suppression. Full review on Row Three

Extraterrestrial

Waking up from an awkward one-night stand, a pair of near-strangers realize that an alien ship has taken up residence above their city. But the threat of her boyfriend finding out about them and the annoyance of a next-door neighbor are more immediate in this hilarious and original film from the writer/director of Timecrimes. Full review on Row Three

Rango

One of the most uniquely-designed and entertaining animated films of the year, with a Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon setting himself up as a gunslinger to a thirsty town, but then he’s expected to follow through to save the town. Loads of sly, well-placed references to cinema history just add to the fun.

Midnight in Paris

With lovely Parisian locations and a charming story both playing on and debunking nostalgia, it’s really hard to dislike Midnight in Paris – obviously so, as it’s become Woody Allen’s highest grossing film ever. It doesn’t totally all work for me, especially in the modern-set scenes, but the travels back in time are fantastic.

The Guard

Both a hilarious caper of an old-school Irish policeman forced to partner with a black American FBI agent to take down a group of drug smugglers, and a sober and insightful character study, and better than both those bald-faced descriptions would suggest. The combination pays off just as well or better here for John Michael McDonagh as it did for his brother Martin McDonagh in In Bruges. Both have the advantage of a terrific Brendan Gleeson. Full review on Row Three

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh tries a lot of different things, and I don’t always think they’re successful, but this time he takes on an ensemble drama following the spread and attempted treatment of a deadly disease and pulls it off wonderfully – even if the frequent criticism that the film makes it a bit hard to connect emotionally with the many different people involved is probably accurate, as a thriller showing what could be a very real event in a detached way, it works like gangbusters. Full review on Row Three

Familiar Ground

This is a comedy, though it’s so extremely dry that sometimes it’s hard to tell. It took me a little while to get used to the particular brand of awkward and slow-to-pay off humor, but it was well worth it in this French Canadian dysfunctional family tale. Capsule review on Row Three

Super 8

Super 8 does an awful lot of things right, especially the casting of the kids, who are all simply fantastic. Getting the sense of nostalgia and childhood wonder right is essential for this kind of film, and it does a great job of it until the very end, when J.J. Abrams can’t resist going a little too bombastic and a little too CGI with the fight against the monster. Still, there are shadows of greatness here.

The Future

Miranda July’s films (she’s only made two features, including this one) leave me feeling a bit uneasy, but in this case, I think that’s utterly intentional. A couple faced with their own mortality give up their work-a-day jobs to follow their creative dreams, but that just reveals a lot of their personal insecurities and drives a wedge between them. A bit of a downer, perhaps, but one that certainly speaks to thirty-somethings, especially creatives, who feel like they’re drifting. Full review on Row Three

Take Shelter

A tour-de-force for Michael Shannon (though Jessica Chastain holds her own against him) as a loving husband and father tormented by recurring dreams of an impending storm. Real portents of the future, or the sign of a troubled mind? Either way, the lengths he goes to try to protect his family actually threaten to tear it apart. Scorecard review

The Bad Intentions

Ten-year-old Cayetana is firmly convinced that when her announced baby brother is born, she will die, a cynical fantasy she uses to cope with her aloof parents and the raging of terrorist activity surrounding her home in Peru. Perhaps a spiritual cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth – nowhere near as visionary and breathtaking as that film, especially in its overly-meandering third act, but solid and often quite funny. Capsule review on Row Three

Captain America: The First Avenger

I totally wasn’t expecting to enjoy Captain America as much as I did, but maybe that’s why I did. This is the sort of whiz-bang wide-eyed fun I want from a comic book movie, with gorgeous BioShock-infused set design, a hero who’s earnest in all the right ways, and a treatment of alternate history that pleased me very much.

The Adjustment Bureau

This, to me, is what the average Hollywood wide release film should be – not necessarily in story, though I did quite like its combination of thoughtful sci-fi and chemistry-laden romance, but it’s a solid, adult-aimed film that knows how to use its stars (Emily Blunt in particular makes great use of a character that could’ve been really flat), knows how to blend its genres together, and comes out with a satisfying whole that still gives you something to think about when it’s over.

Headhunters

An extremely solid genre thriller with a nice bait-and-switch plot as an art thief ends up embroiled in a corporate plot much bigger than he is, having to overcome his innate cowardice to survive and get his life back. Lots of OMG and WTF moments punctuate a well-written character arc. Scorecard review

Scorecard: October

[At the end of every month I post a rundown of the movies I saw that month, tallying them according to how much I did or didn’t like them. You can always see my recent watches here and my ongoing list of bests for the whole year here.]

As usual in recent years, I devoted October almost solely to horror films, and actually managed to catch up on several that I’ve been meaning to see for a LONG time. I only loved a few of these, but I enjoyed watching them all. It was a good month, all in all, with a lot of variety despite sticking pretty much exclusively to a single genre. Horror has a lot of facets! Most of these capsules are recycled from posts at Row Three, so if you read me there, you’ve seen most of this – the only other film I saw in October was Take Shelter, so that capsule is brand new. I kind of like focusing on a single theme for a month. Maybe I’ll do it more often. (I probably won’t – I always say stuff like that and then don’t do it.)

What I Loved

The Cat and the Canary

It figures that my favorite new-to-me film of the month would turn out to be a silent. I think I’m made backwards or something. Heh. Anyway, this “old dark house” film was namechecked at the screening of The Bat I went to earlier this month (see capsule below), and even though I liked The Bat well enough, THIS is the film it largely wanted to be. I saw “largely” because this film is not a crime film in the same way, and those crime elements are solid in The Bat. The Cat and the Canary focuses on a last testament left by a crotchety old man twenty years ago – he stipulated waiting twenty years after his death to read it, and this is the time, with all his relatives gathered like vultures in his spooky old house to find out who will get his fortune. His instructions are complicated, involving a second inheritor if the main one proves to be insane, which leads to much suspicion all around. Add in a potential escaped lunatic running around through hidden passageways in the house and a mystery involving the family diamonds, plus some well-done comedy around the disparate group of people, not to mention the quite excellent Expressionist-style cinematography and really innovative animated titles, and this is a super-fun time. Is it scary? Well, maybe not, but there are some moments of genuine suspense and tension, and a few of the visuals are extremely creepy. I posted a longer review here.
1927 USA. Director: Paul Leni. Starring: Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale, Forrest Shanley, Tully Marshall, Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch, Arthur Edmund Carew, Martha Mattox.
Seen October 25 on Netflix Instant.

Carrie

I’ve had Carrie on my horror to-watch list every October for about three years – in other words, as long as I’ve had a horror to-watch list. I finally got to it! And despite its reputation and that I knew the basic beats of the menstruation-bullying-to-prom-night-revenge plot, the film still had a lot of surprises for me, most of them good. First off, Carrie’s mom is CRAZY – it’s a little disheartening to find yet another crazy Christian immortalized on celluloid, but I think it’s pretty obvious that she is totally off the deep end, not only extremely strict on Carrie’s interactions with boys, but insistent that natural biological functions are markers of specific sexual sins and that Carrie’s telepathic ability is a sign of demon possession. Although, to be fair, the film doesn’t really explain where that comes from. Anyway, what makes the film strong and memorable is the focus on Carrie, whose transformation into queen of the prom is utterly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking because you know what’s in store for her – the lead-up, though, is so well-done (if a bit retroactively cliched) that you ache for her to have her perfect night. The denoument had me a little baffled, I will admit, though, and undermines Carrie’s deserved revenge; I’m still not sure what I make of it. Plus De Palma has a tendency to go for flashy shots when he doesn’t need them – the writing and acting here is strong enough that he could afford to save those flashy moments for really striking scenes, giving them greater impact. Longer review here.
1976 USA. Director: Brian De Palma. Starring: Sissy Spacek, William Katt, Piper Laurie, John Travolta.
Seen October 19 on DVD.

The Descent

My interest in seeing this cave creature feature went up a lot after I quite enjoyed Neil Marshall’s Centurion, but the opportunity never presented itself until now. Six young women who have shared various outdoors adventures with each other meet up again to do a little spelunking a year after one member of the group lost her husband and daughter in a car accident. The trip is supposed to kind of bring the friends back together again after the trauma, but things, well, don’t go according the plan. Tensions rise when the trip planner reveals it’s an unexplored cave and that cave-in might just block the only entrance; even this part of the film is good, with some quite intense cave-in and climbing scenes. But they’re not alone in the cave, and the film continues to ramp up all the way to the end, balancing out and out action and thrills with quiet moments that are often just as nail-bitingly intense. The scares here are solid, and even though some are jump scares (which I don’t necessarily like), a lot of them are also the quieter “evil thing randomly in a shot” kind of scares that I LOVE. The effects are surprisingly good despite what I assume is a relatively low budget, and though it’s not hard to predict the order of deaths, there are still a lot of surprises in HOW they come. I apparently watched the director’s cut version, which has quite a different ending merely by having an extra couple of minutes of footage to the end of the theatrical cut – from what my boyfriend was telling me, I muchly prefer the darker DVD cut.
2005 UK. Director: Neil Marshall. Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Jackson Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone.
Seen October 16 on DVD.

What I Liked

The Fog

This was a nearly random pick off Netflix Instant (not totally random, because I have been meaning to watch more John Carpenter films), and I knew almost nothing about it. I haven’t seen the remake or anything. I ended up really enjoying it – Carpenter has a talent for the kind of creepy scares that I love. Not quite jump scares, but where something just appears (with no cut or music to make it a jump) or you become aware of the bad guy’s presence and it sends chills down your spine. I love that, and there are several scenes in here that did that for me. The story is based on a ghost story (told wonderfully by John Houseman to a bunch of kids in the first scene) about a group of people killed 100 years earlier when their ship wrecked in a massive fog. Legend has it that when the fog returns, so will they, and this apparently is the year for it. Fog is creepy anyway, hiding things until they’re right upon you and tending toward exactly the kind of reveals I just mentioned. And there’s more to the story, as the priest in the town uncovers, that means these ghosts are not just unsettled due to their violent deaths, but actually seeking revenge. Not all of this plot works out totally, and the end is fairly nonsense-making, but on a scene-by-scene basis, I loved this. I actually liked it a little bit more than Halloween, which I’m sure I’ll get eviscerated for, but it’s because I like the ghost back story more (despite the nonsense-making). Halloween is the tighter, better movie, but The Fog appealed to my sensibilities more.
1980 USA. Director: John Carpenter. Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, John Houseman.
Seen October 24 on Netflix Instant.

Halloween

Yes, I had never seen this before, though it’s been on my list for a few years. Really, I don’t have much interest in slasher films, but I felt like I needed to see the first entry in each of the major franchises just to be able to say I had and have some level of competence as a film buff. I expected Halloween to be one of the best of those initial films, and it pretty much is. The film establishes Michael Myers with a creepy first-person opening, then immediately jumps ahead to him escaping from the mental institution where he’s been ever since – enough back story to set him up as a character, but not enough to risk falling into the psychoanalysis explanations that too many remakes fall into. But we’re also introduced to Jamie Lee Curtis’s character along with her less-well-grounded friends, giving us a connection to her that a lot of later slasher films eschew (to their detriment). And then the film does those creepy reveals and disappearances that I like so much, even if Carpenter here tends to announce them with obvious music cues. I like his score for the film, so I didn’t mind too much, but some of them I think would’ve been more effective if Michael had just appeared with no score backup. The moment in the screencap above is the best. Anyway, by the time the killing actually gets going, the atmosphere is sufficiently built and it steamrolls to the end nicely. Still, like I mentioned above under The Fog, a psycho killing teenagers is not really that interesting to me as a basic plotline. It’s handled here better than most movies I’ve seen, but it doesn’t really grab me beyond the level of craft.
1978 USA. Director: John Carpenter. Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Tony Moran, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Soles, Charles Ciphers.
Seen October 27 on DVD.

Eyes Without a Face

For once I made good on a promise to see a film soon after I made it, thanks to a couple of Row Three-ers talking it up recently. I won’t say I loved it immediately, but I can definitely see the haunting and disturbing beauty that draws people to it. Dr. Génessier is one of the most clinical and detached monsters I’ve seen in cinema – he doesn’t even seem to care that much about his daughter Christiane, whose facial scarring he’s trying to fix via skin grafts. She even indicates that she’s more of a guinea pig to him, a convenient way for him to practice surgical grafts of this level of complexity. Despite our intellectual understanding of her plight, it remains a little hard to empathize with her – that’s partially due to the blank mask she wears to cover her injury, and also to her seeming indifference (for a while, at least) to the girls her father kidnaps and operates on to get faces for her – but in a way, that very distance is horrific in and of itself. Christiane doesn’t say a whole lot, so we’re mostly left with this masked girl wandering around an ornate house, a house which is hers but yet she seems utterly alien in it. That otherworldly quality continues to the ambiguous but poetic ending; the film is more like a strange dream than a horror film (it doesn’t go for scares), though I will say, the operation scene was far more graphic than I expected!
1960 France. Director: Georges Franju. Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel, Edith Scob.
Seen October 23 on HuluPlus.

Take Shelter

My one new release, non-horror film of the month! Although, in a way, it is pretty scary – more on the level of a psychological drama/thriller than horror, but still. Shannon turns in yet another fantastic performance as a working class husband and father plagued by nightmares (and sometimes daytime visions) of a massive encroaching storm. He knows mental illness runs in his family (his mother has been hospitalized since he was ten), and fears he may be suffering from schizophrenia, but even as he takes steps to seek medical treatment and therapy, he can’t fight the compulsion to fix up the old storm shelter outside his house to protect his family from the storm he dreads. This causes havoc in his family, already dealing with a lot due to the young daughter’s deafness – aside from his instability frightening his wife (one of several fine roles for Chastain this year) and child, his actions threaten his job and thus the medical insurance that would cover his daughter’s cochlear implant. It’s a lot to deal with, but writer/director Nichols shows remarkable restraint in focusing on this family and their day-to-day interactions, many of which are wonderful and normal – the constant threat of breakdown is meaningful because all the actors, including young Stewart, do such a great job of making this family real to us. The storm metaphor is an obvious one, but it works, and a bunch of the scenes just play like gangbusters. It repeats itself a bit sometimes and could’ve been trimmed a bit, but this is a very strong second feature from Nichols (his previous Shotgun Stories I actually own via some blog contest I won, but have never watched), with some great visuals ably supported by a great score and a raft of solid performances.
2011 USA. Director: Jeff Nichols. Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Wingham.
Seen October 29 at a Laemmle cinema.

The Wicker Man

Another one that’s been on my horror to-watch list for years; how I made it this long knowing as little about the story as I did I’m not sure. I knew there was something about a remote village and cultists, but that’s about it. Religious/ideological battles are at the heart of this film much more strongly than I expected. Police detective Woodward heads to this remote Scottish village on a tip that a girl there has gone missing, but when he gets there, everyone (including the girl’s mother) denies that she even existed. Sensing something’s up, the detective keeps poking around, running across rituals and teachings that hearken back to pre-Christian paganism. He doesn’t appear to be a particularly strong Christian in a personal sense, but he’s explicitly saving his virginity for his upcoming marriage, and when confronted with the contented villagers practicing public orgies and teaching their children about the Maypole as a phallic symbol, he can’t quite stand it and goes all holier-than-thou on them, much to their amusement. The film skews toward the pagans for much of its running time, as Woodward comes across as a bumbling interloper interfering in things that aren’t his business, but that only makes the eventual climax that much more disturbing. Note I didn’t say “scary.” The film isn’t really scary in a visceral way, but by end (which is somehow both surprising and inevitable), it is existentially frightening. I suspect that sense will increase on rewatch, when I’m not as focused on figuring out what’s going to happen. Oh, and for the record, I did love the inclusion of all the weird folk music which almost threatens to make the film an out-and-out musical for a little while. It’s a weirder film than I was expecting, but a less scary one.
1973 UK. Director: Robin Hardy. Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt.
Seen October 13 on IFC (via DVR).

[Rec] 2

The first [rec] was a fantastic example of the first-person camera found-footage technique (one of the few that’s fairly internally consistent), and made great use of its claustrophobic environments. The second one picks up right where it left off, with our intrepid reporter in the attack on the verge of being caught by the virus’s progenitor, then cuts to a SWAT team about to enter the building to shut down whatever is causing the attacks. The scares here aren’t as effective because they’re more out in the open – instead of a creepy feeling of something being just out of sight, the infected here are right there in your face. Which is more gross, but less scary. There are some really interesting things done with structure, though, as parts of the film are done from the point of view of a group of kids who think it’d be cool to break into the building – they’re pretty freaking annoying, but seeing some of the things from a different perspective is nice. The tension ramps up toward the end, and there’s a fairly neat use of night vision. I enjoyed the film, but it doesn’t have the pure viseral thrills of the first.
2009 Spain. Directors: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza. Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Manuela Velasco, Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca.
Seen October 6 on DVD.

Candyman

I hadn’t even heard of this film before my boyfriend started telling me about it – he likes the Chicago ghetto location and the way the ending plays out, which of course he wouldn’t tell me about until after I’d watched it. I was apprehensive, and it was definitely more on the jump scare creepy side than I usually like, but it did have elements that I appreciated. For one, like he said, the location in the Chicago projects is quite interesting, and the way Virginia Madsen’s character (very white, very middle-class) gets drawn in there through her academic research into urban legends works pretty well – it creates a double element of danger because, really, she probably shouldn’t be there at all, mythical killer or no mythical killer. Then the way the plot turns as she starts seeing Candyman and somehow winding up at crime scenes in incriminating circumstances gave it a thriller angle that I didn’t expect (I even wondered for a while if there was a non-supernatural explanation for everything). Some of the imagery (like the paintings in Candyman’s lair) was nice and creepy, too. It goes on a bit too long at times, and even though I liked the ending on a visceral level, it doesn’t quite make sense to me, but that seems to be happening with a bunch of these horror films. Ah, well.
1992 USA. Director: Bernard Rose. Starring: Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams.
Seen October 29 on DVD.

The Skeleton Key

I’ve tended to avoid most mainstream horror movies for the past several years, mostly because they aren’t frankly very good. I’m not sure I’d call The Skeleton Key GOOD, per se, but I had an enjoyable time watching it, and it definitely has some intriguing concepts under the hood. Kate Hudson takes a job caring for an older man who’s had a stroke at the old Southern mansion home he and his wife share in the bayous of Louisiana. You pretty much can’t have a supernatural horror flick set outside New Orleans without voodoo (or hoodoo, as the film distinguishes them), and sure enough, turns out the house originally belonged to a Southern gentleman who had no concept of his black servants being anything more than “the help,” when in fact, they were hoodoo practictioners of the highest order. Hudson stumbles into all this and OF COURSE won’t let it go and OF COURSE goes investigating in locked rooms and OF COURSE starts playing with spells herself and OF COURSE gets herself into deep trouble. Most of it is fairly predictable, but it has a few genuinely interesting twists, and watching Gena Rowlands go to town in her hammy part more than makes up for some wooden line readings from Hudson. Plus Peter Sarsgaard is on hand to be his usual self, full of benevolent menace.
2005 USA. Director: Iain Softley. Starring: Kate Hudson, Peter Sarsgaard, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt, Joy Bryant.
Seen October 9 on Netflix Instant.

The Bat

October’s Silent Treatment program at Cinefamily screened the rare silent horror film The Bat, one of several “haunted” house crime thrillers of the time. In the opening scene, a master criminal known as The Bat (because he dresses like a bat) manages to burgle a millionaire’s home right under the noses of scads of police, who he magnanimously tipped off to his plans. It plays like Fantômas or Les Vampires, and has gorgeous Expressionist photography as we see him set off to another job, a bank robbery. But turns out the bank owner may not’ve been on the up-and-up either, as he seems to have disappeared and the majority of the bank’s money as well. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how it went down. I was in and out doing volunteering stuff during some of this exposition. Anyway. Before long, the plot converges on a country home owned by the bank owner, but currently being leased to the imposing Miss Cornelia and her niece, where police and private detectives, bank clerks and criminals, not to mention a hysterical maid, all try to figure out where the money is and stay safe from The Bat, whose identity is kept a secret to the bitter end. The promise of the early scenes is squandered a bit in the long, comedic center section with all the characters (except Miss Cornelia and the Bat, both of whom are self-possessed to a fault – a real stand-off between these two would’ve been something to behold!) bumbling about. But the end pulls it back together for a satisfying conclusion. Bonus: Even though I’ve read that this isn’t the inspiration for Batman, there’s basically a batsignal moment that’s pretty awesome to see.
1926 USA. Director: Roland West. Starring: Emily Fitzroy, George Beranger, Jack Pickford, Jewel Carmen, Tullio Carminati, Eddie Gribbon, Charles Herzinger, Louise Fazenda, Robert McKim.
Seen October 5 at Cinefamily.

Child’s Play

My boyfriend cajoled me into watching this despite my protestations about doll fears (damn those ventriloquist dummies), arguing that it was the first of a franchise and I’d stated my intention to watch the originals of the major horror franchises. Turns out, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting; the voodoo element of soul transference was a fun surprise, the pacing of the film is pretty solid, the effects on Chucky are good, the kid is quite good, and those swooping camera moves are fun if a bit over the top and cliched. I do think there were a few too many “oh, he’s not dead YET?” continuations, but aside from that, I was pretty entertained. I do not intend on watching the sequels, though.
1988 USA. Director: Tom Holland. Starring: Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif.
Seen October 22 on Netflix Instant.

Pit and the Pendulum

I quite enjoyed the Corman-Price take on The Masque of the Red Death, so I figured I’d circle around for another dose of their Poe cycle, and I enjoyed it, too. Here John Kerr (a little wooden) hears that his sister has died suddenly and goes to visit her husband Price at his remote castle. Price is apparently devastated and eventually lets out that his wife died after a growing fixation on the castle’s torture chamber, left there by Price’s Inquisitor father. More and more macabre details emerge about Price’s childhood and his father, as well as the potentiality that his wife was actually still alive when buried – a fact that seems more likely as she takes to haunting the castle. It all builds to a climax with the titular pit and pendulum, but the more ghastly moments spread throughout involve B-movie scream queen Barbara Steele, who carries off the part of wife Elizabeth with panache that puts even Price in his place. It’s a splashy big colorful film (it is in color, despite my only finding quality promo images in B&W online), with lots of relatively mindless fun to be had.
1961 USA. Director: Roger Corman. Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders, Antony Carbone, Patrick Westwood, Lynette Bernay.
Seen October 20 on Netflix Instant.

What I Thought Was All Right

Friday the 13th

And with this one, my quest to see all the firsts of the slasher franchises is complete, I think. I’m told I still need to watch Black Christmas, but that isn’t a franchise, so I’m counting it separately. This is the one I was looking forward to the least, and it is pretty darn stupid. But it has a good bit of campy fun to it, too. Clearly influenced by Halloween right down to the first-person opening kill and the twenty-year jump in time, this one doesn’t bother very much to create any empathy between us the teenage summer camp counselors being killed one by one. The fun in the film is all in seeing exactly how each one is going to be offed, with Kevin Bacon’s post-coital knife-through-the-throat a high point. We never see the killer until the very end, though a lot of the time we’re in the killer’s perspective, which adds to our distance from the victims. In this way, Friday the 13th is perhaps the clearest antecedent to the legions of slasher films to follow, which tend to lose human connection in favor of the most outrageous kills – a trend I don’t particularly like, even though it’s done with freshness and naivete here. The music is quite effective, evoking some combination of Psycho and Jaws with screeching violins and see-saw melodies, but again, none of the character depth or quality scripting that made those films so lasting.
1980 USA. Director: Sean S. Cunningham. Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bertram, Mark Nelson, Peter Brouwer.

Paranormal Activity

I was more amused than intrigued by the first Paranormal Activity‘s marketing campaign, and didn’t rush out to see it, especially as reactions seemed pretty split between “it’s the scariest thing in the world ever” (which I didn’t particularly care to see) and “it’s not scary, it’s totally stupid” (which also isn’t particularly tempting). As is typical for me with films that most people seem to either love or hate, I’m right down the middle. I liked a lot of things about it – the evocation of the demon using very small touches, like a moving sheet or a shadow on a door, are evocative and effective. It does well with creating its mood. On the other hand, almost everything is telegraphed well in advance, so very little of it is actually scary. And the editing drove me crazy – if this is supposed to be a found footage film, with everything coming from the boyfriend’s camera, why are there so many random little edits everywhere? I mean, he didn’t pause and unpause the camera as he’s walking across the room (the camera would’ve jostled a bit while he did, besides why would he), and whoever found the camera later wouldn’t have bothered with editing out a half-second here and there as the guy’s crossing the room. And those edits were EVERYWHERE. So it succeeds on creepy, suggestive low-budget special effects, but it utterly fails as a found footage film, and that’s such a big part of it that I have to mark it down a lot for that.
2007 USA. Director: Oren Peli. Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs.
Seen October 12 on Netflix Instant.

Rewatches – Love

A Tale of Two Sisters

I first watched this in October 2009, and it was my favorite film that month. I simply had to revisit it and share it with my boyfriend this year, and it did not disappoint on rewatch. I’m notoriously bad at remembering endings, so even though I remembered part of the twist, I’d forgotten the other part so slowly remembering it as the movie went on was quite enjoyable. I love that the film works equally well as a tragic drama as it does as a creeptastic horror film – the very end is absolutely heartbreaking as well as chilling. It takes its time a bit more toward the ending than I’d like, threatening to delve into “too many endings” territory, but as I said, the final sequence makes it all totally worth it. And as I watch more horror films and nail down the approaches I like and don’t like and what scares me and doesn’t, this film is an excellent example of what actually scares me. The sequence where Soo-mi sees a dark figure at the foot of her bed that’s hunched over awkwardly and moves closer until it rushes above her…that whole part. Scares the crap out of me. It’s some combination of sound design, plain weirdness (the unnatural positioning of the figure) and the editing shifting from slow to incredibly fast without warning. So yeah. If you want to scare me, do stuff like that. Jump scares and gore don’t do it.
2005 South Korea. Director: Kim Jee-woon. Starring: Lim Su-jeong, Moon Geun-Young, Yum Jung-ah, Kim Kap-su.
Seen October 30 on DVD.

Dead of Night

This was one of the first horror films I remember seeing that I actually liked – a trend in my tastes toward creepy B&W atmospheric horror that hasn’t really abated, despite my new openness to other subsets of the genre. When TCM played it this week, I jumped at the opportunity to see it again. What I’d forgotten before this rewatch was how quickly it jumps into the frame story, no explanation, just the guy driving up to the country house where he has a weird sense of having dreamt about all these people before and an incredible ability to predict things that will happen throughout the evening. Intrigued by his uncanny sixth sense, the other guests start telling about their own experiences with unexplained phenomena – each of these stories could easily be a Twilight Zone episode, and they all have that feel of something just outside normal, none moreso than the frame story. Often frame stories in anthology films are throwaway and rather tiresome, but I really love this one, and the way it circles in on itself and the other stories at the end is surreal and genuinely intense, even though several of the stories are not particularly scary. I was a little afraid it wouldn’t hold up to my memories on rewatch, but it did. I still love it.
1945 UK. Director: Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton. Starring: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes, Robert Wyndam.
Seen October 10 on TCM.

Jaws

Watching this again, I’m not entirely sure what genre it should be. I guess all creature features tend to be lumped into horror, but it plays more like a character drama punctuated by bursts of intense thrills. So, creature feature drama thriller, I guess. Whatever it is, it’s damned impressive, even thirty-five years later. Countless films have tried to capture whatever it is that makes Jaws special, but few even come close – the pacing is perfect, building up the tension before the shark attacks and letting it go just at the last minute, or temporarily difusing it with a red herring. The fact that the film comes right out of the gate and makes a dog and a little boy among the first set of victims is telling – it remains shocking. Thrills aside, the real pleasure here is the interactions between the three very different characters who go after him. Beginning as stereotypes, but not sticking to them, Brody, Quint, and Hooper have a competition/companionship vibe among them that’s much stronger than most creature features have time to establish. Sure, the movie has great special effects (you’ll rarely notice the shark is animatronic), thrilling action, and even awkward humor in the form of the dumbass mayor and his cronies, but the depth of character and willingness to linger on the in-between moments are what make Jaws great.
1975 USA. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton.
Seen October 7 on DVD.

Rewatches – Like

The Uninvited

It’s been so long since I’ve seen this one I didn’t remember anything beyond the descriptor “creepy haunted house movie.” Which could describe umpteen different movies. A rewatch was definitely in order, especially since I’ve continued to mention the film as an example of the kind of 1940s quiet horror that’s closest to my heart even as my memory of it faded into nothingness. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are brother and sister who buy a deserted seaside mansion, only to discover that it’s routinely filled with noises of crying, flickering candles, creeping coldness, and a scent of mimosas, none of which can be explained scientifically. It all seems bound up in the former owner’s granddaughter, who lived in the house until she was three and her mother died falling off the cliff. The next logical step – hold some seances! Of course. It’s a charming little film, really, with a nice crotchety performance from veteran Donald Crisp as the dour grandfather, and some really effective special effects on the ghost. It’s not particularly scary, but it definitely has the quietly chilling atmosphere down pat.
1944 USA. Director: Lewis Allen. Starring: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Alan Napier.
Seen October 10 on TCM.

Totals

Films seen for the first time in October: 16
Rewatches in October: 4
Films seen in theatres in October: 2
List of Shame films seen in October: 3
2010s films seen in October: 1
2000s films seen in October: 5 (1 rewatch)
1990s films seen in October: 1
1980s films seen in October: 3
1970s films seen in October: 4 (1 rewatch)
1960s films seen in October: 2
1940s films seen in October: 2 (2 rewatches)
1920s films seen in October: 2
American films seen in October: 14 (2 rewatches)
British films seen in October: 3 (1 rewatch)
Spanish films seen in October: 1
French films seen in October: 1
Korean films seen in October: 1 (1 rewatch)