Best Horror Films of the 2000s

Though something of a self-confessed horror fan, I still feel as though I am behind many of the die-hard fans. I also seem to search and appreciate different aspects of horror than many others, and there are a few films from my own list that I can’t say I’ve really seen anywhere else. That being said, hopefully I’ll motivate a few viewings and discussions; it was a lot of fun to write. For reference sake, I’ve seen about about 50 horrors from last decade, and am also including a short list of top five films I wish I had seen before making this list.

Top Five Horror Films of the Decade that I still need to see

Session 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

The Hills have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006)

Kairo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003)

Mulberry Street (Jim Mickle, 2006)

10. The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)

A film that I personally find depreciates in value on multiple viewing; The Mist is far too misanthropic for me. Not even the heroes are noble or virtuous; they are not even weak in an appealing way. I just want to say, I don’t need likable characters to enjoy a narrative but to have such a larger number of people with few redeeming features irks the optimist in me who believes that people are fundamentally good. That being said, their dynamic and situation is fascinating enough to not only sustain the film, but make it one of the best horrors of the decade. The story unfolds in a way very typical of the invasion narrative, as characters are forced to co-operate in order to survive, and inevitably fail because of conflicting interests and egos. This film integrates both the military and religion into the relatively small space with great effect, highlighting both the power and powerlessness of the individual within the “machine”. The much debated final scene is really what elevates the film to new levels for me, as the bleakness is brought to eleven by the faceless human monsters who come to the “rescue”. The Mist reflects a contemporary distrust in the military, not only as potential “monsters”, but the dangers they can unload on the public without us being informed or able to properly survive. In essence, it is about their failures to protect us, and in that sense, the father’s failure to protect his own family seems like a very apt comparison within the structure of the narrative.

9. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2008)

I feel in many ways, that Trick ‘r Treat is at odds with many of the other films on my list; It is not particularly unsettling, preferring to channel the “feel” of the Halloween season, rather than the true nature of horror. That is not a criticism, as much as it is an observation. The film still has its scares, but they are mostly incidental, harmless and subverted by both the absurdity of the plot and the comic bravura that runs through the entire film. The film is not completely shallow though, and in its subversion of our expectations, it also manages to make a few interesting observations on the horror genre and its clichés. Perhaps the best example is the twist on the virginal college girl; the premise is set up stereotypically, having her chastised and teased for her innocence, and then preyed upon by the lusty monster. Though it is hardly the first time we see the expectation of the innocent female transformed or turned on its head, I think this one is done with a new level of creativity that is unprecedented. Though the reveal of what the “victim” is plays a large part in what makes the story so interesting, it is what it represents that is pivotal ; something lusty, animalistic and the fact that she did not have to be corrupted to reach that state, that it existed within her from the start… and that she embraces it completely.

8. Suicide Club (Sion Sono, 2001)

Not an easy choice, though often disturbing and disgusting, Suicide Club does not exactly fit a classical horror formula. The grotesque nature of some of the subject matter and the extreme (and not cartoony) violence elevates it to a kind of spectacle horror like many slashers are, or more recent “torture-porns”. The film escapes from all the natural inclinations of western horror, and is not only an incisive commentary on popular Japanese culture, but the profound effect the lack of individualism has on society as a whole. The film’s opening sequence is one of the most shocking of all times, and not only sets a tone, but defines every moment that follows. The mass, and seemingly, random suicide of teenage girls leads to government investigations into the phenomena, that only seems to be growing, as well as a huge amount of self-examination. The most disturbing scenes are the two mass suicides, the first being apparently planned, though no real explanation is offered… the second, a genuinely random act of school yard games. The film offers a theory about people distancing themselves from… themselves; that most of us live a kind of out of body existence where we are not truly connected to the lives we live and with the other people in our life. That we exist as cogs in a larger game, allowing ourselves to be swayed and moved by the currents of the information age. Though, hardly an endorsement of suicide, the film approaches the subject as a kind of perverse revolt over individual freedoms and power that is ironically as faceless as the existence they are protesting.

READ FULL REVIEW

7. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Much like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, Drag me to Hell is notable for its formal and aesthetic qualities rather than the strength of its plot. By that I don’t really mean that it is a “visual” splendour, in the sense that Suspiria is, but rather that the creativity of both the constructive of the scares, and the use of motifs is both potent and consistently clever. The story is fundamentally weak, though it works as a very effective vehicle for Raimi’s unique horror sensibility. The manifestation of hell is very different than that of the Evil Dead films, as it is largely internal, motivated by Christine’s moral degradation. As a result, it often seems that the evolution of the scares moves from being extremely external, beginning with very physical attacks that are often without precedent or strong instigation, to becoming an internal battle, often with dreams, and with profound effects on Christine’s state of mind and relationships.  The film is just unmitigated fun.

6. The Last House on the Left (Dennis Illiadis, 2009)

I’m still kind of baffled that I liked this film so much; it is a remake of a remake for heaven’s sake! The film is somehow good though, from the almost ethereal quality of some of the imagery (notably the use of water throughout the film, which is at once redeeming and cleansing, but also hides the truth) to the lurid nature of the parent’s revenge, it displays a kind of artfulness a-typical of contemporary mainstream horror. The film is downright dirty, often times extremely difficult to watch. It appropriately makes the infamous rape scene extremely painful and disgusting, focusing especially on the victim’s experience, rather than the gratuitous violence of her captors. The second half of the film is comprised almost solely of the parent’s revenge on the people who raped and attempted to murder their daughter. The violence is gratuitous, at once satisfying and extremely disturbing. It is fascinating to see their transformation, but their moral degradation is even more apparent. The film does try to have its cake and eat it too, but I think it is successful enough on a formal level to ignore any apparent tonal or thematic inconsistencies it espouses.

5. Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)

Though the film is overtly about religion, and the dangers of fundamental belief, the film is universal in its handling of family matters and the questions of faith and morality. Rooted in a Christian ethos, a father receives messages from God that instruct him to destroy the demons that live among them. He takes on the aid of his two sons, one who believes him without question, and the other who doubts him every step of the way. It should be no surprise that this creates an incredible amount of tension between the characters, and because the film itself never fully commits to what perception of reality is accurate or not, the audience is not only disturbed by the possibility that the father is insane, but that even worse, that he might not be. The film is shockingly brutal, without ever having to show very much. Most of the violence takes place off or just beyond the confines of the screen; the characters carry the weight of their actions, whether it is with a certain amount of disgust, or the sense of a dutiful act completed. It is a film that does a lot with very little, and relies heavily on both its writing and the strength of its performances… two things that more horror films could try.

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

One of the more compelling entries in the vampire genre, Let the Right One, is an intimate and frightening story of the wolf and the lamb. It is entirely possible that this film could be read as a kind of love story, not unlike Twilight, where two bodies of the same age interrelate in a seemingly romantic way. This is a disturbing interpretation of events, but I do not think it is an illegimate one. If we want to be reductive, Wuthering Heights is also a love story, and so is Lolita. It is because love is seemingly involved that all of these narratives become so disturbing, because we do not want to believe something as sacred and holy as love can be so perverted by abuse, violence and obsession. In Let the Right One In, because of the appearance of the characters suggests pre-pubescent youth, it is easy to ignore the implied age of one of them. When they are both lying together in bed, naked, the scene is not disturbing because one is a vampire, but because we do not want to believe in sexualized children… even if Oskar’s own naivety implied little more than a healthy curiosity in the opposite sex, the imagery is strong enough to unsettle us. This idea is used recurrently through the film, and is a rather common one in the handling of children in horror. It just so happens that this film integrates it with a newfound melancholy and sense of loss, that almost serves to justify the character’s reliance on each other, even if one can only assume that at least one of them will be a little more lost for it. We both hope for Oskar and Eli to remain together, because they are both lost souls who seem to have found hope, while we shrink at the most likely consequences of this “union”.

3. Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)

Horror is probably the best genre of filmmaking to deal with traumatic life events, especially ones that are commonplace. Ginger Snaps deals not only with the coming of adolescence between two sisters, “the curse”, but also the trauma of early sexual discovery. The film appropriately handles the complex nature of female sexuality, not only in the woman’s role as the submissive player in the male-female power-plays but how it is further exercised in relationships with other women. This is not only present in the idealized female friendship that exists between Ginger and her sister Brigitte, whose relationship borders on incestuous in their psychological and physical intimacy but in both girl’s interactions with their classmates. The aggression and rivalry displayed between the sisters and popular girl, Trina, reveal the nuances in both female competitiveness and even the sexual tension that exists between rivals, in how Ginger dominates Trina both physically and mentally, and then has the audacity to offer Trina’s “body” for her father to taste. It’s sickening and disturbing on so many levels, but yet, somehow un-gratuitous and natural. One of the great films about adolescence and teenage girls.

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2. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)

As scarce as female directors are in the filmmaking world, in the realm of genre (beyond rom-coms) they are as rare as albino two-headed calves. Claire Denis is the exception that makes the rule, especially considering, that she makes a film that is so un-genre-like… pure arthouse fluff. Suffice to say, I love every minute. The film is exceptionally feminine in the handling of horror and violence; the plot is thin, but the anxiety and relationships are strong. The characters are in anguish, as the ones who are infected can’t help consuming other people “just to feel something”. Her handling of consummation is hardly different than her treatment of sex, and both are unconventional for any genre, especially horror. The perspective is that of a woman, the focus is on the flesh, touching, moving… it is not only focused on the female experience, but adulates the male form in a cinematically unfamiliar way. The film is not necessarily about violence, physical or emotional, between lovers, but about our self-destructive nature and how it poisons our lives. On an aesthetic level, it is a film about the flesh; a study of movements, deconstructions, comparisons, and filters. The body is seen in many states, through many lenses, in many locations… constantly transforming and taking on new meanings. It is a film like a dream, or more like a nightmare, it is an existence that you don’t want to believe… but fear does.

1. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2008)

A film that has no right to be as sad and probing as it is, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, is at its worst, a self-aware and over-stylized pretentious film that attempts to over-compensate the familiarity of its structure with almost patently absurd visuals. Why include it then? Truthfully, a large part of me loves all that empty self-awareness; it is so descriptive of a sub-genre of horror that gave up so long ago. It is this premise of absurdity though, that allows moments of true intimacy and humanity to peek through. The characters are not only aware of their superficiality; they seem to strive to be the clichés of adolescence that we find so often in popular culture.  The men seem to recognize the moral corruption of their pursuits, how misogynistic and destructive it is, while the women pursue degrading situations that only further put into question their own identity and self-esteem. Both personalities are extremely vulnerable when isolated from the authority of mom and dad, and the comfort of not being brutally murdered by a faceless killer. The tension is palpable, the melancholy real, and the revenge brutal. For a film that works so hard to look like a magazine spread, the murders are not fun or beautiful, they are not even particularly creative… but that’s why they are so effective. They humanize the inhuman, and only further contribute to the re-evaluation of horror norms within the slasher genre that shows no respect for death or human weakness.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sasha Gervasi, 2009)

I know as much about heavy metal music as I do quantum physics; hint, it’s not very much. That being said, I couldn’t help being pulled into Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a story that rightfully focuses on the pursuit of dreams rather than metal. Though a hugely influential and talented band, Anvil, whose members are referred to as Canadian demi-Gods, never hit it big. After disappearing from the major stage back in the early 1980s, they continued to drop from the mainstream, falling further and further into obscurity. It is the mid 2000s when the film begins; Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner are the remaining members of the original line-up. Both live in Toronto, and work ordinary jobs, and live ordinary lives. It is only at night and on weekends where they are able to take the stage and experience their music.

They are offered a tour in Europe, but nothing seems to go right. Then they record an album that no one seems to want to put out. Nothing seems to work out for these two best friends, but they are relentless in their pursuit. The filmmaking is sympathetic to their plight and instead of painting them as washed up has-beens, they are painted as men who just were not in the right place at the right time. Neither is perfect; both are neurotic and emotional. Lips is even aggressive, and his anger is not only thrown upon strangers who refuse to pay him, but Robb. Most of these moments are uncomfortable, for a man who is so often gentle and concerned with his family, he seems so volatile that one wonders if the film is not painting a full portrait of him.

Then again, their imperfections lend to how endearing both men are. Their meekness and kindness seem to be to their downfall; their career has been plagued by mismanagement and non-management. You see on their European tour, that their manager (who is also the fiancée then wife of another band member) has no idea what she is doing, and they put up with her. Even though Lips concedes that the tour was a failure, he cannot seem to blame her, even complimenting her heart and passion.

The film’s best moments revolve around family, and how conveniently Lips and Robb’s families compare and contrast. With Lips, there is more than just a suggestion that his family does not and never has approved of his choice to be an artist. Yet when his older sister lends him some money to produce his record, we remember how family can often overcome petty differences. It does not seem like a play for documentary drama, there is never a doubt that her act is out of pure generosity and love for her brother. It is honestly one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the year, and it’s somehow never cloying or over-sentimental.

This film could have easily veered in two directions, both of which would have been pandering. The film somehow succeeds to hit a middle road. Though quite obviously directed to elicit a very specific reaction to the people involved, it is still remote enough to allow for the audience to make their own judgments on the events and individuals. The film ends on an appropriate a moment, it seems to pattern perfectly Anvil’s first big break, invoking the same kind of adolescent awe, but with a new sense of opportunity and thanks. It is open ended, but there is such a sense of hope in the people themselves, that you cannot help thinking that whatever happens, these are people who will appreciate every good turn that comes their way.

2009 in Review

Looking back on this year, I actually saw quite a few films I’d now count among my very favourites. It is strange looking back, because I didn’t even realize I had seen some of these so recently… time really flies. Unfortunately, my list making probably will not be as complete as last year, as I still haven’t gotten the files off of my old laptop which included my viewings for most of the year. I’m working mostly from my top 5 of the month lists and my record of viewings since about mid-July. I’m also omitting all 2009 releases, because that’ll be another list for another day.

Last year I posted a few film goals, and mostly, I failed at them completely. To break it down;

Zulawski- 2 Films

Budd Boetticher- 0 films

French Cinema- innumerable

John Cassavetes- 2 films

John Ford- 3 films

Luis Bunuel- 1 Film

Rainer Werner Fassbinder- 0 films

Taiwanese New Wave – 0 films (Ithink)

The Films of Jane Fonda- 0 Films

Yasujiro Ozu- 1 film

Best Films I saw for the first time in 2009

20. Claire’s Knee (Rohmer, 1970)

19. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento, 1970)

18. The Champ (Vidor, 1931)

17. Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Kieslowski, 1993)

16. Faust (Murnau, 1926)

15. Heroes for Sale (Wellman, 1931)

14. Last Summer (Perry, 1969)

13. Orlando (Potter, 1992)

12. The Legend of Hell House (Hough, 1973)

11. Mother Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowicz, 1961)

10. Other Men’s Women (Wellman, 1931)

9. Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995)

8. Les Bons Debarras (Francis Mankiewicz, 1980)

7. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Meyer, 1965)

6. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2008)

5. Two-Lane Black Top (Hellman, 1971)

4. Paris, Texas (Wenders, 1984)

3. The Servant (Losey, 1963)

2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch, 1992)

1. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, 1937)

10 filmmakers I want to explore/discover in 2010

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (seen 1)

Gilles Carle (seen 1)

Arnaud Desplechin (seen 1)

Alain Resnais (seen 1 feature)

Alain Robbe Grillet (seen 0)

Raoul Ruiz (seen 0)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (seen 2)

Jerry Lewis (seen 0)

Monte Hellman (seen 1)

Robert Bresson (seen 0)

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More tidbits!

First Film I saw in 2010

Giordano Bruno (Giuliano Montaldo, 1973)

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Five Best Films I saw in December

Le Confessional (LePage, 1995)

The Devils (Russell, 1971)

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2007)

Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon, 1937)

The Time of the Wolf (Haneke, 2003)

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More end of 2009 lists!

Spengotron

Tongue-Tied Lightning

The Yellow Brick Road

Mango Mango Mango Mango

41. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2009)

I was lucky enough to see this on the big screen at the Fantasia Film Festival. Much like Drag Me to Hell, this is a horror film that is best enjoyed with an audience. It is exciting, funny and scary, and though it never truly gets under your skin, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. An anthology film, all four stories take place in a small American town, and are appropriately “horror-ific.” My favourite is probably the play on the virginal college girl, which is perhaps the most familiar storyline in horror lore and yet the film puts an interesting though perhaps not completely unconventional twist on it. The film’s appeal is largely on how well made it is, how it cuts at just the right moments, how it plays with our expectations and how it thrills us with its effects. The most notable is perhaps the showdown between a grumpy old man who lacks the Halloween spirit, and cute little bag boy who adorns the posters.

43. The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)

I had no right to like this film. It is not only a remake, it’s a remake of a remake and It’s dirty and it’s dark and it’s violent. Like its predecessor, the film’s signature moment is a rape sequence, and though perhaps exploitive, there is nothing titillating about the sequence whatsoever. It is appropriately torturous, incredibly difficult to watch, and becomes an interesting catalyst for some morally ambiguous revenge. This is not a fun horror film to watch, it is far from satisfying, and even the the revenge taken on the aggressors is so morally ambiguous that you can’t revel in the demise of the invaders. Yet, I personally found the film fascinating for this very reason. It reminds me, though not with nearly the intellectually charge, of Haneke’s Funny Games (at the very least, it lacks Haneke’s condescension). There is an artfulness in the direction and a condemnation of violence that is extremely involving and yet confusing. Unfortunately, the strange final scene makes a mockery of what precedes it. I suppose one could argue that it is the signifier of the complete moral decay of the father but there isn’t too much in the text to support that claim.

50. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009)

Paranormal Activity is a cinematic phenomenon that seems both an extension and a departure from The Blair Witch Project. It employs the similar technique of supposedly found footage, but it also reflects a society that is entranced even deeper in the world of technology. With Youtube, we live in a world where nearly everyone can be a theoretical filmmaker and the line between home video and art is continually blurred. I think this apparent ease that we can all suddenly be filmmakers undermines all the skill in both writing and editing that went into Paranormal Activity. Sure, an opening and closing door is only so scary, but it is how insignificant this act is that makes it so bone chilling. It seems like a test, and as the “haunting” becomes more aggressive, there is an almost frightening tameness to this initial act. The film takes advantage of its chosen style, and the long shots of the bedroom at night are excruciatingly long and the wide angle lens makes the fullness of the frame overwhelming, and even oppressive. The deterioration of the couple’s relationship also seems to explore the idea of the untrustworthy and incapable patriarchal figure, as the boyfriend attempts to “deal” with the situation only by ignoring the feelings of his girlfriend and aggravate the events because of a case of inflated ego. The essentially useless male figurehead seems to be a very common theme in horror of the recent decade, and one can only imagine it is tied with a general distrust of more powerful institutions that are, more often than not, tied to traditional ideas of a patriarchal society. Though it occasionally asks the audience to make a leap of faith as far as suspension of disbelief is concerned, if you allow yourself to be taken in by the slow build tension and scares of Paranormal Activity, it will certainly be an experience in horror that will not soon be forgotten.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning of a List of the End of the Decade

The 2000s were an important decade in my development as a film fan. It was the decade of my adolescence, my graduation from high school and my eventual ascension to secondary education. It was the decade I discovered cinema…

That being said, my passion for film was always tied to films that existed long before I was born, my passion for film is more tied to old library VHS tapes than it is to the big screen.  That being said, there is still little that compares with seeing a truly magnificent film in theatres… many of my favourites of the decade were first seen in a darkened theatre surrounded by other people with a similar passion. I can almost remember the exact circumstance and reception of the audience for each film I’ve seen over the past ten years, because for me, it was as much a chance to see a great film as it was an event defined by circumstances and surroundings.  It is a unique emotional and intellectual experience, and one I don’t see myself trading the most expensive state of the art home theatre system for those smelly seats in my smelly cinema.

What to say about this in film? Apparently, a lot of things happened, some new CGI stuff, some motion capture, DVD then blu-ray, some movies about short men with big feet, etc. I’m never good at making accurate historical assessments… I do like the apparent effects of globalization on the industry though, how many more foreign language films we get, and how we already have filmmakers attempting to reflect in their work a more connected world, which is far more easy said than done. It’s an imperfect science, as most film is… as often as you get something that is startlingly modern and new, you get something stale, fetishist (not in a sexy way) and generically mainstream (*cough Slumdog*).

Since everyone is doing it, I’ve decided to present my top films from the decade. I tried to see as much as I could, but there will always be something I miss, so I think there is no point in delaying this anymore. Well… I am delaying it, since I’m only starting tomorrow, but this fancy introduction took a whole ten minutes to write, so as far as I’m concerned I’m invested. Before I start, three mini lists. First, the top ten films of the decade I wish I had seen, my five worst films and then ten honourable mentions before I start with the actual list tomorrow. Allez-up!

Ten Films from the 2000s I Wish I saw Before Making this List

Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)

Les Amants Reguliers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)

Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 2004)

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)

Yiyi (Edward Yang, 2000)

Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon(Eric Rohmer, 2007)

Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

L’Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)

The Wayward Cloud (Ming-liang Tsai, 2005)

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

Five Worst Films I saw this decade (more or less)

Arsene Lupin (Jean-Paul Salomé, 2004)

Bangkog Dangerous(Oxide Pang Chun & Danny Pang, 2008)

Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2008)

Brothers (Susanne Bier, 2004)

Inside(Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, 2007)

Runner-ups, Honourable Mentions for the Best Films of the Decade

Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)

17 Again (Burr Steers, 2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Co-director, Lee Unkrich, 2003)

The Corporation (Mark Achbar & Jennifer Abbott, 2003)

Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008)

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman, 2006)