2011 was an odd year for me when it came to film. I watched more than ever before, particularly in the cinema, snapped up classics on Blu-Ray at a rate that put a serious dent in my wallet and continued my ongoing and never-ending quest to get some of my friends to drop their prejudices and actually read subtitles. What was odd was that for the first time in years my favourite films of the year weren’t horror. Maybe my tastes are changing – or maybe the boundaries of film definition are; certainly a couple in my list below aren’t horror by definition – or perhaps quality is dropping. More likely I missed out on a lot of good stuff; I’ve certainly fell away from independent American horror in the last 18 months, with a long list of titles I’m yet to see. Whatever, I’ll get round to them all eventually. But my favourite films of 2011? Nicholas Refn’s outstanding Drive (during which I may have started a crush on Ryan Gosling), Korean crime thriller The Yellow Sea (Hong-Jin Na‘s amazing follow-up to his equally good The Chaser), Super 8 (J.J.Abrams homage to early Spielberg that pushed every single one of my buttons), The Raid (Indonesian action-thriller that’s the best thing I’ve seen since John Woo’s Hard Boiled) and Miike Takashi’s incredible 13 Assassins (which is The Seven Samurai crossed with Lone Wolf And Cub. With burning cows).
But, in order, here are my top eight horror/genre pictures of the year. Why eight? I could say something pretentious like eight is so now and ten is so last season. I won’t. Truth is, I couldn’t get the list to ten. Hey, sue me.
Lifelong filmgeek Jason Eisener enters a fake trailer into Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse competition, wins, and finds his ninety-second Hobo With A Shotgun spoof playing in theaters across America (well, those that actually understood what QT & RR were trying to achieve). Thing is, that title is too good to go to waste, as was the idea. The fact that Eisener managed to secure Man-God Rutger Hauer for his full length Hobo is just added value. Hobo With A Shotgun is fast and funny, stuffed full of cartoon violence and gore, and is guaranteed not to convert anyone who isn’t in love with this genre. For the rest of us it’s a love letter to 70’s sleaze and direct-to-video 80’s splatter. It works because Eisener has an obvious love for horror, has seen just about every Troma film ever made, loves Street Trash and prefers latex and karo syrup over CGI. Support this kid, he’s one of us. Just with a little more talent.
A stylish and brilliant movie from Hong Kong that’s a throwback to the glory days of the mid-90’s Category III (the Chinese rating for violence and gore) madness that produced such classics as Bunman. This features a performance from the sexy Josie Ho that manages to be cute, funny and horrifying in equal measures, sometimes in the same scene, that should ensure her cult status for years to come. Ho is an estate agent who dreams of buying a home in an upmarket area of Hong Kong, and when she’s finally about to seal the deal it falls through as the owners raise the price. With no more ready cash, she does whatever it takes to keep her dream alive, which includes slaughtering her neighbours. You can view Dream Home as a satirical look at the current state of world economy, money markets and the desperate lengths people will go to for survival. It’s all of those things, but it’s also a genius slice of nasty violence with some of the best gore and splatter I’ve seen in a long while, and one of the best slasher films of the year.
I can generally do without the found-footage genre but this Norweigan movie totally took me by surprise and blew me away. What happens when a group of documentary filmmakers attempt to expose an infamous bearskin poacher who actually turns out to be Norway’s only living troll hunter? The result is the coolest monster movie import since The Host, which claims that culling the rock-eating, Christian-blood-chugging ogres has become a necessity because they are the real reason behind such natural concerns as global warming. Hiding in dense forests and underneath snowy mountain ranges, some of the trolls are massive, Godzilla-sized creatures. This is the kinda movie Ray Harryhausen would make today. It strikes a very cool balance between humour and horror, while paying homage to creature features of old.
As brilliant and essential filmmaker as Pedro Almodovar is, I never expected a film of his to end up on a list of my genre favourites. And yet The Skin I Live In is pure horror, with it’s almost B-Movie story of a surgeon (brilliantly played by Antonio Banderas) who has experimented and perfected a skin that cannot be burned after years of torment following his wife’s death in a fire. He lives in a mansion with an assistant and a captive woman who he tests his creations on. Date rape, murder, secrets, lies, mystery parents, gender ambiguity, unbreakable emotional bonds are simply some of the themes that Almodovar weaves into high melodrama and total horror; like much of his cinema it breaks boundaries and constantly surprises, but by calling on such influences as Eyes Without A Face and classic Hammer pictures he creates a fantastic, very twisted, modern gothic masterpiece. It also has the most squirm-inducing moment of the year; you’ll know it if you’ve seen it, and if not then you’re in for a treat.
There’s been an Australian release on my favourites list for the last few years, but Snowtown may be the best genre film to come from the continent for a very long time. Genuinely based on true events, it’s the story of three teenage boys, predominantely the 16 year old Jamie, who live with their single mother and are subject to abuse from the paedophile that lives across the street. When the adult John enters their lives Jamie sees him as a father figure, and he encourages the brothers to harass their abuser. And when Jamie discovers John dismembering the perverts dogs a line has been crossed – John starts to indoctrinate Jaime into his strange world of violence. Despite very little graphic violence being shown on screen Snowtown isn’t an easy watch. Director Justin Kurzel shoots in muted colours and long takes that allows the audience to observe a serial killer grooming a young boy, and he creates an uneasy feeling, an almost documentary feel which is further enhanced by a limited soundtrack and improvisation by the actors. It’s the best comment on disenchanted youth since 80’s classic River’s Edge, and as a horror film it works brilliantly well. It’s haunted me since I saw it.
I’ll watch anything Kevin Smith makes; the guy is a geek done good who writes the best dick and fart jokes, so when he announced his first horror film I was excited. But Red State isn’t horror; it’s a satirical look at America, organised religion and beliefs, which uses several real-life cult groups as it’s basis yet never directly references them. It’s a lean, sharp film, maybe the best thing Smith has ever done, which benefits from two outstanding performances from John Goodman and especially Michael Parks, who eats up every line Smith gives him. Red State was shamefully ignored by many critics who didn’t really understand what it was. Smith’s decision to release the film without studio backing didn’t help it with the mainstream, but by doing so he kept true to his independent roots and showed the way for other struggling filmmakers.
For pure entertainment value it was hard to top Attack The Block, the brilliant debut from Joe Cornish. Low budget and very British, Cornish channelled the spirit of just about every 80’s flick he’d grown up with into his alien invasion movie, pitting a group of streetwise kids protecting their urban hellhole against a group of neon-fanged steroid critters. Very funny, several spot-on action set-pieces – I’ll maintain that the slow-motion escape of leader Moses is the scene of the year – and some nice in-joke references for the geeks in the audience. Attack The Block has got energy and heart and balls, and reminded me of the first time I watched The Evil Dead. Seriously, it’s that fucking good. Cornish is the man to watch.
I’ve seen Kill List three times. First was with a festival audience, the other two were at home with friends. Everyone’s reaction, including mine, has been the same: What the fuck was that? It was pretty obvious after Ben Wheatley’s first movie Down Terrace he had some talent, but this? This is on a whole different level entirely. So it’s a hitman movie, with ex-soldier Gil and his best friend taking on a job from a mysterious client they meet in a hotel, a simple list of assasinations. Except it’s not. Because their first hit – a priest – thanks them for killing him, and their second – a librarian – knows who they are, and as the violence gets more extreme the job veers into some very strange territory indeed. Why does a wound on Gil’s hand refuse to heal? Who is the strange woman who appears to him in the night? Wheatley cleverly answers nearly all the questions without really giving anything away, and takes the climax of this truly outstanding film into an area you will not predict. By taking a much-abused genre and turning it completely on it’s head, by blending Get Carter with David Lynch, Wheatley has made without doubt my favourite film of 2011. This is a rarity; a film open to interpretation that will floor you no matter how you care to read it, and a genuine original.