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Monday, December 28, 2015

Movies That Made My 2015, and a Ridiculously Bloated Music List

When I reflect upon my experience with a film (and let's be honest, a great many films are not even worth reflecting on), I fall back to these three simple criteria: 1. What did this movie set out to achieve? 2. Did it accomplish those goals? and 3. How well? I find that this works, eschewing all other notions—at least at first—save for this trio of basic rules, because you might get complete satisfaction out of a Bill Zebub movie, or a Jerzy Skolimowski film, but you would rarely if ever compare those vacuum-housed paragons to one another. All the movies on this list are "masterpieces," within their self-appointed frameworks, give good resonance, working alternately as comedies, dramas, with moments of great suspense, and of course, terror; harmonizing the elements I look for always, in any cinematic endeavor.

With movies, as with music, these lists are not focused on 2015 the calendar year, though I do always strive to be current; it's more about what thrilled me personally and thoroughly in the past 12-month time frame, with at least half an eye on latest and / or greatest. As always, entries are in no particular order.


Lost River

Ryan Gosling aims for high craft and mostly succeeds with his first directorial feature, a fable set in rural USA, in a dead town that's been mostly flooded and abandoned. Visual / structural nods to David Lynch and Gosling's collaborator Nicolas Refn are here, but there's a unique visual & storytelling voice too, complete with muted-yet-vibrant color. It's a to-die-for cast as well; everyone from the mesmerizing Ben Mendelsohn, as a wicked, lecherous bank-loan officer, whose character also runs the local Grand Guignol / burlesque club, where desperate and broke single Mom (played by Mad Men boob goddess Christina Hendricks) takes a job in desperation, to those also plucked like diamonds from the talent pool—the great Barbara Steele, Gosling's Mrs. Eva Mendes, and cult-cinema it-girl Saoirse Ronan. Nicely otherworldly, blending simple beauty, grotesquerie, and unique visual concepts (the rowboat ride through submerged streetlights is a highlight), Lost River holds up to multiple viewings, and makes one realize that this heartthrob actor also has some promising talent behind the camera.

The Babadook

Hopefully it's not giving too much away to say that The Babadook is an elaborate, swirling metaphor for grief; that which stays in your life forever, what one can only hope to "tame" rather than ever dismiss. This is also one of the best mainstream horror films in a long while, a woman's tale to be sure, that manages to excel as a gut-wrenching, emotional drama, as well as a briskly paced pop-culture-phenom horror movie. It's loads of fun, despite the incredibly difficult subject matter: loss, loneliness, motherhood, and the raising of an extremely trying and traumatized child. A mysterious, seemingly one-of-a-kind child's storybook shows up in the home, seems to change with every reading, and is relatively indestructible at least until its core antagonist, Mister Babadook, is made flesh. A great idea, and as I am fond of saying, the best horror stories are human stories masquerading as horror, and this film epitomizes that notion. In its sum total, I would even go so far as to call The Babadook a love letter to grief, with innovative visuals aplenty and all the classic touches to keep genre fans well satisfied.

Housebound

Our first of two films from New Zealand on this list, and like What We Do In the Shadows below, it's a horror-comedy, but that is where comparisons end. Housebound is a story told from a fiery, young, female POV; it's subtle, smart, quick-paced, dryly funny, and somehow follows the skeletal structure of a horror film all at once. Our protagonist Kylie, a grumpy badass pretty much custom-designed to make my heart pop out of its bony cage, has fucked up royally, is near 30 and planted back at mum's house with an ankle bracelet by the local authorities—let the arguing, passive aggression and eye-rolling between mother and daughter begin! While it's not this movie's goal to be super scary, it's fun as hell, with parch-humored Kiwi dialogue and a mystery that needs solving, because house arrest back at mum's is bad enough, without any supernatural nonsense mucking about.


Faults

Sterling character actor Leland Orser plays a shit-show of a cult deprogrammer, his life in shambles, living out of his car and stealing meals; this guy has not a damn thing to live for, and the one thing he was good at has led him into misadventure and undeniable failure. Along comes a lifeline, in the form of desperate parents who entreat the broken nebbish to help them get their daughter back from a mysterious cult. The "victim" in question, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), has a ripened sexuality and a quiet force of will that only complicates matters, and nothing goes down quite as expected, Faults ending up being a tight little thriller with a spooky, downbeat ending. Highly recommended.

What We Do In The Shadows

It's hard to imagine anyone disliking this movie, so perfectly poised as it is, as a crafted & clever horror-comedy piece, one that feels effortless, full of hard laughs, and similar to The League of Gentlemen BBC series in that it was made "with love," by comedians and writers with a clear appreciation and knowledge of the horror genre. Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement leads a trio of vampires, old and well-traveled, with fringy, difficult personalities (even for vampires), who are now bound to a tatty house in Wellington, with their sire, an aged nosferatu, living in an upright casket in the cluttered basement. This premise alone is a pisser, and the movie seizes upon an arterial range of vampire-vaulted satire like no other I have seen. From a hilarious fashion montage, to arguing over dishes, to etiquette lessons on victim-taking, "swearwolves," and breaking in unwanted new initiates, What We Do… is quite simply the best horror comedy of recent years, and I can't think of a damn thing bad to say about it.

It Follows

This movie inspired some real love and hate reactions; I'm on the love side, perhaps because I tend to let cinema wash over me, without taking a microscope to things like plot, I'm much more about atmosphere and ideas, both of which It Follows has aplenty. A unique horror concept, a faceless predatory curse that can take any human form, is transmitted sexually from person to person, one tryst at a time. That alone could have been enough to get me interested, but It Follows delivers on so many other levels, taking place in "no time" (one girl reads from a makeup-compact kindle, while half-moon wall telephones abound and 70s cars seem to be everywhere); cramming a deep sense of John Carpenter / Halloween homage into a striking, panoramic, creeps-abounding, decidedly post-millennial visual palette (and as my friend Matt said, yes, everything does look like an Instagram photo (i.e., filters applied) but this just appeals to me rather than distracts.) There is always something happening in every shot, often at the periphery, and at times you'll feel like you're squinting—there will be things you won't notice about It Follows until the second or third viewing, but how great is that? To me innovation is key, both in ideas and execution, especially in horror cinema, and sometimes the Hollywood-vaulted, theatre-chain megalith just happens to get it right. An exciting electronic score by Disasterpeace also keeps It Follows surging forward, marrying to the film as the best Carpenter and Goblin soundtracks have to their respective high points.

Late Phases

The films that resonate with me typically demonstrate the talent to make art, tell a story of some kind, keep me engaged, regardless of means & resources—big budget or small, if the abilities are there, the inspiration, it will shine through. Late Phases is a perfect example of low-budget cinema done right. A gloomy werewolf tale, set in a community of retirees, where one retired military man's blindness leads him to a heightened awareness that something is very wrong, on the first day of his arrival in town. Looking stonily with a lack of fear at the end of his life, our ex-soldier has a nose for bullshit, and a better sense of impending danger than Spider-Man. There are also real scares and tension in Late Phases, the monster scenes rendered fully with "practical" effects (a term that has only become necessary as filmmakers have moved deeper into digital, computer-based effects, sometimes for better, but more often for worse) and is sure to give you a warm fuzzy for the low-budget classics of earlier decades, the 90s most probably. Late Phases may not be a life-changer, but it held up to multiple viewings for me and has cemented itself nicely in my memory.

Bad Behavior

Definitely the worst babysitting job, ever. In the lifetime of this horror subgenre, babysitters have been terrorized, sexually assaulted, watched loved ones slaughtered etc., but I'm hard-pressed to think of a night more fucked-up than the one this girl has. This is a "small" movie, more thriller than horror, populated with excellent actors, and novel ideas—that most of the story takes place in the bathroom of a suburban house, yet remains engaging throughout, speaks to the economy and craft of the filmmakers, especially considering the obviously low budget. This tightness and tension is established right away, and stays elevated, as we're greeted by the albeit oddly placed Ted McGinley and Linda Hamilton as the hiring parents, whose eldest son is, give or take, about as old as the sitter herself—so what the fuck is she doing there in the first place? You'll find out, and Bad Behavior's bleak ending will also likely please genre fans, as well as further speak to the overall class of the production, because well, bleak endings rule.

V/H/S sequel segments

High time I talked about this. While it's generally accepted amongst genre fans who liked (or loved, as I did) the first V/H/S horror anthology film that the original was gold, and the sequels declined in quality with each release, and that much is true, there are several sequences within those two sequels that are not only of great merit, but if combined would have made for a much finer, more comparable and worthy sequel to V/H/S the first. They are, notably: Safe Haven by Gareth Evans, a Welsh-born director who mostly works with Indonesian actors (as in The Raid: Redemption); his segment, set inside the HQ of a suicide cult, is more jam-packed with memorable scenes, and moments of high tension & wild gore than most feature films. Jason Eisener's Slumber Party Alien Abduction, the one V/H/S 2 segment I've watched over and over, a perfect short that's perhaps the scariest treatment of this subject I've ever seen. The camera is mounted on a little terrier, and through economic & clever use of sights, sounds and colors, we are in the horror with a big sis, her boyfriend, and a group of kids who all fall prey at a lakeside house to powerful alien invaders. Nacho Vigalondo's Parallel Monsters; the director of the memorable Timecrimes gives us a delicious alternate-universe story, typically Spanish (or should I say Catholic?) in that the other "we"s are engaged wholly in sin and debauchery, blood and sex, with a decidedly anti-Xtian societal norm; it's an exciting idea that in its limited time plays out perfectly. Lastly, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorehead's Bonestorm, which I could see inspiring some haters, but this fast-moving segment of SoCal skateboarders with head-mounted GoPros, who retreat just south of the Mexican border to find a place to ride and stunt unbothered, and end up getting very bothered by a numberless horde of rotting, undead esqueletos, is super-effective and satisfying.

Bluebeard

From 2009, though I just got around to seeing it. Director Catherine Breillat, known for her unflinching, visceral treatments of human drama, like Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell, does a perfect treatment here of the Bluebeard tale, with not a frame wasted or an ounce of dialog tossed off. It's a superb rendering of period atmosphere (think grime, stone and steel) populated by young girls, sold off or orphaned, and unsure of their fates, and one girl who treads willfully and fearlessly into the chambre of the beast. It's perhaps telling that I feel I have the least to write about Bluebeard, but ultimately enjoyed it the most of everything on this list, and felt compelled to include the film here despite its having been out for more than a few years. At a sparing 80 minutes, the film abounds with gorgeous photography, deep, complex characters and an ever-tightening story, including an ending that might inspire solo, private ovations.

mentions:

L'il Quinquin - Master of the heavy-yet-light hand, French director Bruno Dumont (whose California-set third feature Twentynine Palms blew a lot minds, mine included), often obsessed with matters of faith, once again takes on the insular world of French provincials (as he did with both Humanité and Flanders), this time with humor (dark as always), charm and bleak realities. Created as a four-episode miniseries, rendered on Netflix as one long film, L'il Quinquin has fascinating characters, an odd murder mystery, and a nicely "hung" ending.

Dark Star - H.R. Giger's World - Wholly satisfying for any fan of Giger's paintings and creations, we get a view inside the life and home of this iconoclastic illustrator, painter and sculptor. Shot shortly before his passing, we see a truly humble artist, surrounded by his loved ones, friends, and works—the ride on his personal, self-built backyard mini-rail system being a superb highlight. All the biographical high (and low) points and curiosities are also addressed, without feeling episodic, and with a lens of true kindness and deep respect for its subject.

Best actor: Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Best actress: Nina Arianda, Rob The Mob


Now, as to music, there's a lot that I love and even more that I like…. These are releases that wowed me enough though, front to back, that as stated above resonated throughout my year and likely will reach far beyond. That said, though I keep copious notes, there's the genuine chance that I innocently forgot something (for example, Excepter's Familiar appears here, where it should have been on the list for 2014.) A lot of great music came out this year and last, and in some cases the brilliance of things creeps up on me…. Regardless, this may look like a big list, but it's a mere surface scratch of the mass of music I listened to, liked, and/or played on the radio this year:


Devilspit - Grim, Hateful and Drunk | Impalers - Psychedelic Snutskallar | Necrovulva - all | Zavod - all | Human Bodies - No Life + MMXIII-MMXIV | Bog Oak - A Treatise… | Contact - First Contact | Excepter - Familiar | Young and In The Way - When Life Comes to Death | Bretwaldas of Heathen Doom - Seven Bloodied Ramparts | Night Bitch - s/t 10" | Vorde - Vorde | Shaved Women - Just Death | Caïna - Setter of Unseen Snares | Nekromantiker - Nekromantiker | Ides - sorry, nothing | v/a - Frozen In Time II: Music to Accompany the Films of Ingmar Bergman | Cretin - Stranger | GIDIM - all | Leather Chalice - all | Vilkacis - The Fever of War | Vivisektion - Gaskammer EdictArvo Zylo - Falling Tower, Terrible Fountain | Blood Rhythms - Assembly | Sektarism - split LP w Darvulia & s/t CD | Heavydeath - X - Solus in Mortem / VIII - Futility & Death | Mueco - Demo 2013 | Mocoso - Demo 2014 | Dark Blue - Pure Reality | Ashencult - Black Flame Gnosis | Svffer - Lies We Live | Limbs Bin / Two Million Tons of Shit - split | Anasazi - Nasty Witch Rock | Volahn - Aq'Ab'Al | A.M.S.G. - Anti-Cosmic Tyranny | Haare - Musta Magia | Kyle Eyre Clyd - Pale Dawn Creeps | Ramlord - splits with Cara Neir, Krieg, 7" EPs | DDAA - Hazy World | NRIII - Gnashed | Spitzenqualität - all | Dumal - Dumal | Alexandra Atnif - .A:A. mix.1 | Krasseville - Nous Sommes Faux | Encounters - Prolonged Nostalgia | Orthank - Rotting World | Belus - Demo MMVV  & Anicon / Belus split | Volkmort - Traces of Doom | Uniform - Perfect World | Night - Night | Disasterpeace - It Follows OST | Nocnitsa - Reveling of Foul Spirits | Unholy Two - Talk About Hardcore | Good Willsmith - Aquarium Guru Shares the Secret Tactic | Nuit Noire - Inner Light + Deluge of Starlight | Sinoia Caves - Beyond the Black Rainbow OST | Recreant - Still Burn | Husere Grav / FRKSE - split LP | Miller / Camfield / Merzbow - No Closure | Justin Marc Lloyd - Your | This Colony Is Sleeping In - Stay / Gone | Moon Pool and Dead Band - MEQ | Faustian Funeral - Demo | Vetala - The Lord of Eternity | Makoto Kawabata - Astro Love & Infinite Kisses | Ateh Gibor Le'olam Shaitan - Ritual II | Aktisa - Grands tyrans | Grausamkeit - Satan's Addicktion & Pure Madness | Unspeakable - Under the Black Spell | Cape of Bats - all | Black Cilice - Mysteries + Old Oaths | Warground / Hithaeglir - split | DA - Artcore Action Heroes | Drew McDowall - Contact | Long Distance Poison - Human Program | Tyrants of Hell - Haggard and Rotten | Serpentine Path - Emanations | Sapthuran - Hildegicel | Vomit Breath - Confessions of a Necrophiliac Priest | Expander - Laws of Power | Askeregn - Monumenter | Viands - Temporal Relics | Life Stinks - You're Not Gonna Make It | Clandestine Blaze - New Golgotha Rising | Crowhurst - Give In | Crowhurst and Bonemagic - Dedicated To Wheeler Winston Dixon | Slugga - all | One Master - Reclusive Blasphemy | Summoning - Old Mornings Dawn | Oppression - Sociopathie & glorie | Nudity - Astronomicon

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