Any horror movie fan you talk to will tell you that the last few years have been weak for horror movies. What’s the deal? Well firstly, everything that’s coming out seems to be a rehash, reboot, or sequel to an older, higher quality film. Clichés abound, the genre is in dire need of new blood, and we may have found it with two bright new talented directors coming to the forefront of the genre. These new original voices know the secret formula that many great horror movies have used in the past: cast a female in the lead. In horror movies, the female lead doesn’t need to be weak; in fact, she can be strong. Very strong. Usually the last “man” standing. I remember writing a term paper in film school years ago about how women in horror advanced the cause of feminism in our society. Who can forget Ripley in “Alien” saying, “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off”, or in the movie’s sequel seven years later uttering the kickass line, “Get away from her, you bitch”. If one looks back at film history they will notice a rich history of women in the lead role: “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Shining”, “The Exorcist”, “The Ring”, “Halloween”, “Psycho”, “Suspira”, “Alien”, and “The Birds”, just to name a few.
The genre was rejuvenated earlier this year with “The Babadook” – a smart, snappy, and darkly twisted tale that dealt with death, mourning and the matriarchal role. The main character was of course female (Essie Davis), but here’s the kicker: so was the filmmaker, the promising Jennifer Kent. It was an original, refreshing change of pace to a genre that was, for the last decade or so, more interested in the same old boring ideas about the male psyche. Kent reinvigorated the game and “The Babadook” was a major success – one that will likely spark a new wave of horror filmmakers to one up it.
The same can be said of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows”, which refuses to follow the conventions of 21st century horror cinema. Its DNA is ingrained in and inspired by the classics. Just when you thought there wasn’t really much more room to manoeuvre creatively within the genre, Mitchell delivers this stunning movie. Having opened just last week, the film is already a hit with critics. After it’s sly, subtle bows at the most prestigious of film fests last year (Cannes, TIFF, Sundance) and the most glowing of reviews (check out that 96% RT score), audiences will likely soon discover what most festival goers already knew: this movie is the real deal. A blend of the surreal with the very real. A taste of the next generation of horror movies to come.
Much like “The Babadook”, the story’s main character is female and the implications are more psychological than gore-tastic – a relief if you ask me. Dealing with 19 year-old Maika Monroe who loses her virginity and is later told by the same guy that he has passed on a curse to her that will follow and haunt her everywhere she goes, the film is imprinted with ridiculously clever undertones. The only way for our main protagonist to get rid of this “disease” she has inherited is to sleep with someone else and pass it on to them. Oh boy. Here comes a slew of film school term papers for the next decade about the film’s allegorical connection to STDs. Those sly open-minded students wouldn’t be far off in their theories, but there’s much more to “It Follows” than just its fascinating dissection of STDs and teenage sexuality.
Every scene in Mitchell’s film is filled with unbearable dread, bringing to mind early John Carpenter just by its synth-driven musical score, courtesy of the brilliant Disasterpiece. The jump scares are also frighteningly timed, all thanks to Julio C Perez IV’s editing and the dreamy atmosphere Mitchell creates on-screen. Scene after scene, the viewer is engulfed in an inescapable sexual nightmare, and just when you think the film will unfold in a conventional way, Mitchell pulls the rug under you and slaps your face sideways. Just like the classic movies it has been inspired by, “It Follows” is inescapably eerie. It’s also the first great American movie of 2015.
This decade has so far been a transitional decade for movies. We are living in an exciting, confusing time where superhero movies, sequels and popular book adaptations are becoming the foundation at the box office. If the notion of an original, creative, idea seems to be lost and forgotten, there are still – now more than ever – filmmakers pushing the norms and boundaries of what a movie can be. Filmmakers like these are few and far between, but they need to exist to make movies further progress and evolve just like they have in past 100+ years. To me, the following ten movies represent the most important of the decade thus far. They are the movies have marked my mid-decade, the movies I feel have further advanced the cinematic medium. As always, I write articles such as these to get the readers to chime in with their own picks. Looking forward to reading them.
1) The Tree of Life Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” is a mosaic of a film that might test the limitations of its audience, but more importantly, the cinematic medium’s limitations. No matter what faults you may have with Malick’s movie, you cannot deny the sheer chutzpah and originality that went into its creation. There has never been anything quite like it and I highly doubt there ever will be. Malick tries to transcend the boundaries of life itself by trying to find a kind of meaning. This is his search for transcendence, in the little moments that make us and shape us. Death, mourning, rebirth, transcendence are just a fraction of the themes being tackled here. The mainstream might not have warmed up to the film’s non-linear narrative; for the rest of us, the symposium of abstract shapes and colors that pop our eyes out on the screen is just what the doctor ordered. This is the greatest cinematic experience of the decade.
2) The Master P.T Anderson’s masterpiece is almost unexplainable. A reinvention of the cinematic language with a never better Joaquin Phoenix. The backdrop is scientology, but that’s only the backdrop for a much more complex movie. The surrealistic nature of the film was a hint for things to come in the Anderson cannon – “Inherent Vice”, anybody?- but here was a movie that had the best director of his generation at the peak of his powers, using scientology as only the background for bigger more complicated themes. I was more than riveted. Bold, innovative and infuriating, “The Master” is a landmark movie, but one that will likely divide its audience in half. Too bad, I was hypnotized by almost every single frame of its puzzling, schizophrenic narrative.
3) Margaret “Margaret” is an absolute masterpiece. It thematically is going for the tone of a grandiose opera, but in a modern day context, filtered through the emotions of a teenage girl associated with a tragedy she witnessed and felt responsible for. It expresses the emotional teenage mind-set like no other. Every performance is astounding and every character in it so compelling and fully-realized. There’s no doubt in my mind that if this movie hadn’t been tangled up in lawsuits years ago, Anna Paquin surely would have been winning many awards for her performance. It’s such a shame that a movie of this size and scope was overlooked. Director Kenneth Lonergan asked friend Martin Scorsese for some help in the editing room and what you ended up getting was a movie that could not be explained easily and has only gotten better with time.
4) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Grasping a film such as this one may require some major attention from the viewer, and even when the attention is there, frustration may come about as a result of the film’s abstractedness and non-linear narrative. This is all not too surprising when you consider Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmography and his constant acknowledgment of nature and the way it binds to us as human beings. Have I lost you yet? Snoozing? That’s how some folks might react when watching “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”. Coming out of the screening I attended, there was a kind of head scratching vibe in the air. It was as if Weerasethakul’s film had not only confused the general public, but actually angered them in frustration with what they had witnessed. I dug it the its mysterious setting and its dream-like episodes. If you’ve seen “Tropical Maladay” or “Syndromes and a Century” you know just how special this guy is.
5) A Separation Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s indisputably great “A Separation” is the portrait of a country in turmoil. Just like the marriage depicted, it is constantly caught in the politics and restrictions the society offers. In one memorable scene, a man tells his daughter to speak Arabic as opposed to Farsi. In another telling moment, a girl’s school textbook recalls a time in the country’s history when the only two classes that existed were “royalty” and “everybody else”. Every person involved in the trial of “A Separation” has the best intentions and their own honorable values to go by. It is the most truthful and unbiased depiction of Iran I have seen this decade. The characters in Farhadi’s film live their lives according to the same religion and guidelines that are asked for them to obey. Yet, in the end it is only our own personal experiences that can provide us with the moral compass for the story.
6) Under the Skin What Glazer has accomplished here is quite remarkable and shouldn’t be forgotten. He’s made a picture that defies all the rules and, just like most films on this list, has reinvented a new kind of language. He showed real promise with his first film “Sexy Beast” back in 2000, a cerebral and intense film that paved the way for Ben Kingsley’s best performance. He followed it up with “Birth”, which was kind of all over the place and not as successful as I wanted it to be, but now he’s really surprised me with this one, an out of left field vision that stuns. More than two years after having seen it I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Its originality and absurdity is what I love the most about it, and of course Johansson, who is just perfect for the part of a murderous, seductive alien, was the perfect casting choice.
7) Holy Motors Leos Carax. You have to give it to this wildly imaginative filmmaker. He’s allergic to formula and refuses to adhere to the norm. In this thrilling, visionary, frustrating, exhausting and masterful film, he decided to give a poisonous valentine to the cinema, splitting his film into a bunch of different genres. Episodic in nature and more than eye-opening, Carax gave us something we’ve never seen before: a surreal nightmare of the past, present and future of cinema. With unusual acting chameleon Denis Lavant by his side, this was a movie in which anything could happen, in which any image could get juxtaposed with any other. There is no three-act structure built upon a tired, overplayed premise. Carax pushes, pushes and pushes until he finds the existential, surrealistic nirvana he’s been looking for throughout the movie with a simple but awe-inspring final image that is as haunting as it is ridiculous.
8) Black Swan Taking a cue from Kanye West’s 2010 album, this is Director Darren Aronofksy’s Beautiful, Dark, twisted fantasy. Natalie Portman gave the performance of the year in a film that was more than just about ballet; it was about the boundaries an artist had in order to push his or herself to the very limits of their art. The same could be said of Aronofsky, who’s never adhered to the conventional or acceptable. A potent, poisonous child of Emeric Pressburger/Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes” and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive”, this was a campy, visionary, extraordinary mess that turned into the film that confirmed the filmmaker was the real deal.
9) Inside Llewyn Davis There was a hint of reflective existentialism in the Coens’ Best Picture winner “No Country For Old Men”. Those kooky brothers were maturing before our very eyes and we had no idea what was to follow. “A Serious Man” was unlike any movie they’ve ever done: autobiographical, philosophical and damn near apocalyptic. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is where the Coens, the thinkers, make the masterpiece they’ve been hinting at this decade. A meditation on failure which just so happens to have as a backdrop the 1960’s Greenwich Village New York folk scene. This is the scene right before Dylan, when Folk was still square and the struggles for the artists were very apparent. Our Llewyn Davis doesn’t want to sell out, sticking to his artistic integrity and preferring a life without money than to sell himself to the devil. If only we had more artists like him today.
10) The Social Network A film such as “The Social Network” relies on characters more than plotting. The characters populating the film stay etched in your head way after the film is done, which is in fact the highest quality of the film. There is an almost irresistible vibe created; Fincher uses low lit cinematography to enhance the dreary atmosphere happening throughout. The hallways of Harvard feel cavernous and nightmarish, whereas the look and portrayal of University life is nothing short of condemning. Although the movie can be seen as an entertainment first and foremost, the substance that drives its themes home is very apparent. After a second, third and even fourth viewing of David Fincher’s masterpiece, I discovered new things that might not have seemed as obvious or apparent the first time around. “American Beauty’s” advertising campaign told us to “look closer; the same goes for “The Social Network”.