Part II: The Best of the Rest: Horror, Action, Sci-Fi, Art, and Comedy categories!
(see part one here!)
Confession time: there ended up being so damn many winners this year that I broke my usual year-in-review post into THREE parts: part one is here, with my top 14 of the year. You should check that out first, obviously, since it's the very cream of the crop. But I saw too many movies I loved to stop at 14, so what follows is everything else which I thought was undeniably great this year, in no particular order. Today, we cover Action, Sci-Fi, Horror, Art, and Comedy! Tomorrow we return with Part III, covering Drama and Documentary. Enjoy!
Best of the Rest By Category!
There were so goddam many great movies this year that I thought I’d try and break the honorable mention list up by categories, so it’s a little easier to browse. So today, we're looking at Horror, Action, Sci-Fi, Art, and Comedy!
WE ARE STILL HERE
A deliciously twisted and carefully constructed riff on the hoary old haunted house genre, with first-time director and world’s-greatest-twitter-user Ted Geoghegan expertly defying time and space to tease out the best tendencies of modern, moody indie horror, patient 70’s horror, and gleefully gory 80’s bloodbaths, all while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of each. Fun, spooky, surprising, and enormously satisfying, this is about as good as indie horror gets. See the full review here!
To my knowledge this five-part mini-series from the great Japanese horror auteur Kiyoshi “No, no, we just have the same last name,” Kurosawa never actually played stateside, making this technically a direct-to-video effort. But what kind of asshole would I be if I didn’t give it its due just because of the sorry state of American-Asian genre imports? PENANCE is the story of four young girls who witness a friend’s murder, but say they can’t remember anything about the killer. This incites the deep hatred of the dead girl’s mom, who follows them into adulthood demanding… well, penance. Each of the five episodes deals with a different character, and explore, sometimes in very nebulous ways, how the events of the past have informed their adult lives. Some become heroes, others villains, but the mysteriously obsessed mother is always hovering around, sometimes explicitly antagonistic, other times inexplicably protective. Kurosawa uses the mini-series format as a good excuse to get even further away from traditional narrative than he usually does, giving each segment a starkly different tone and subtly distinct style, and tying them together only in loose, subterranean thematic ways. But he definitely delivers on his usual promise, which is to provide an icy, inexplicable dread, meted out with patient, distinctly classical filmmaking. Even at PENANCE’s most conventional moments (mostly in the final episode, which provides more resolution --at least in some regards-- than he’s usually inclined to offer) there’s no doubt you’re in the hands of an auteur who is absolutely confident of his abilities and absolutely unwavering in his vision. Methodical, mysterious, offbeat, and compelling, and maybe the best thing Kurosawa has done since BRIGHT FUTURE.
Another triumph of micro-budget indie horror, IT FOLLOWS sets itself up a straightforward, elegant original premise and then lets it play out, trusting the overwhelmingly ominous, paranoid atmosphere and understated imagery to get under our skin. It’s simple, but it’s spectacularly effective; director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis turn the Detroit suburbs into a brooding, twitchy nightmare with such ease that I can’t imagine anyone living in the area who saw this movie will ever again be completely comfortable in their neighborhood. The pace is patient but relentless --just like the mysterious IT of the title-- the acting is nuanced and believable, and the tone is spot-on for a dreamy, sweat-soaked descent into fear. The movie does itself no favors by setting up a premise which just begs to be overanalyzed, but don’t make that mistake -- the premise is a perfect cocktail to play off our vulnerabilities and anxieties about sex, guilt, and responsibility, not to be a stand-in for some kind of petty moralizing. IT FOLLOWS is too good for that bullshit. Give yourself over to this one and enjoy a pitch-perfect fever dream, the kind that lingers with you even though when you describe it to your friends you can never quite explain it right.
The phrase “From the director of TRICK R TREAT” --which is very possibly the best horror anthology of all time, and the third-best holiday film of all time, after HALLOWEEN and GROUNDHOG DAY-- was a guaranteed ticket sold to me, and director Mike Dougherty (who turns out not to be Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty, bummer) does not disappoint. KRAMPUS moves the holiday-themed action from Halloween to Christmas, but keeps the tone of its predecessor, which is to say an intoxicating mix of ingenious scares, dark comedy, and well-honed character moments. The monsters herein are without question the best designs of the year, and Dougherty utilizes them to tremendously fun and spooky effect, but don’t overlook the surprisingly earnest human story. An excellent cast --led by an amazingly committed Adam Scott and, especially, Toni Collette -- actually get to experience some real character arcs, which heightens the suspense without detracting in the slightest from the delightful menagerie of monsters that Dougherty visits upon them. Simply terrific fun, and a great reminder that horror movies needn’t be so damned serious all the time to still deliver the goods.
HE NEVER DIED
Henry Rollins is a mysterious, supernatural, uncomfortably intense old badass, who just wants to be left alone… until mysterious gangsters start to fuck with his routine. That’s all you need to know, but it’s not half of what makes this weird, low-budget action/horror/comedy gem tick. Like Rollins himself, the movie can be a little awkward and off-putting at times, but its intensity, ambition, and --crucially-- rich vein of deadpan comedy make for the kind of movie which will just have you smiling bigger and bigger as it goes along. It kinda peters out at the end, I grant, but it’s rich with charm, violence, and surprisingly bold ideas. See the full review here!
Sold with the eyebrow-raising high-concept come-on of a western / cannibal horror movie hybrid, BONE TOMAHAWK turns out to only occasionally be either of those. I mean, it is a Western, and it does, eventually, take a turn into cannibal horror, but mostly it’s something even more unexpected: a long, talky hangout movie starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins. Sure, sure, they got a Sid Haig cameo at the beginning so they know their way around horror, but what the movie really wants to do is put those four guys on horseback, and have them wander around and talk about life and philosophy and right and wrong, while they gradually make their way to a bloody HILLS-HAVE-EYES finale. That this is a stranger decision even than a cannibal Western is not in dispute, but then again, neither are the results: it’s fucking great. Russell and his mustache from HATEFUL EIGHT are in fine form, Wilson is likeable, and someone finally realized that there actually is a good use for Matthew Fox, if you cast him as a pompous, mustachio’d asshole. But it’s Jenkins who walks off with the movie, playing an earnest, well-meaning eccentric given to whimsical aphorisms like, “You know, I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part.” The horror, when it arrives in the last 20 minutes, is plenty brutal, but a bit short on style and atmosphere to really get the skin crawling. But by that point, you like the characters so much that it doesn’t matter, so it works out OK. Surprisingly unassuming considering its unusual pedigree, but also not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen.
Genre: Sci-Fi (or, "SyFy")
The Spierig Brother’s surprisingly faithful adaptation of Robert Heinlein's short story All You Zombies ingeniously expands on its central premise while still keeping its ballsy twist as a centerpiece. It’s a gripping slippery sci-fi romp, well-appointed and consistently surprising, but it’s even better as a complicated personal drama, thanks to a terrific performance from Ethan Hawke, and an absolutely mind-blowing performance from newcomer Sarah Snook, who turns in the hands-down best performance of the year, either gender, bar none. I know the Academy doesn’t give out Oscars to films which premier in January, and at this point it’s pretty trite to point out that they always overlook great performances like this in genre movies, but even so I just feel that honor demands I say jeez this is an egregious oversight. Having now proved herself to be one of the most ambitious and gifted actresses around, I look forward to a long career of seeing Snook appear as wives and girlfriends without anything interesting to do. Even so, I suspect this movie will gradually build a cult following as one of those very rare things, a sci-fi movie which is more focused on mind-bending ideas than explosions (although it does have a few of those, too).
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–ROGUE NATION
While it lacks the grandeur and wildly imaginative setpieces of its Brad-Bird-directed 2011 predecessor, the latest M:I sequel makes up for it with a better villain (an icy, genuinely scary Sean Harris, also seen in this year’s excellent ‘71) and a more elegant plot, plus all the clever tech antics and overwrought spectacle you would expect. Delightful action sequences abound, there’s a charming cast, and for a modern obscene-budget action movie it’s assembled with surprising deftness (though that’s somewhat of a backhanded compliment). If it has a flaw, it’s that it’s maybe a little too slick and disposable. I saw it only three months ago, and I’m already struggling to remember any specifics about it. And actually I had to go back and figure out how long ago I actually watched it, too. But as far as cinematic cotton candy goes, this is pretty durn tasty.
Offbeat and self-aware enough to distinguish itself from Marvel’s increasingly homogenized lockstep, and much more charming than any movie which was finished by some other director after the only person who actually wanted to make it in the first place walked away over artistic differences with the studio has any right to be. It’s much better as the scrappy caper comedy the Paul-Rudd/Michael Pena team-up suggests it should be than it is as the inevitable superhero origin story it must become, but I suppose both parts have their merits. I like the suit, anyway, and they come up with enough ridiculous reasons to turn tiny that it kept me amused. Even an actor as naturally charismatic as Corey Stoll still can’t seem to break Marvel’s curse of dull villains, though. I was ready to write it off as a competent, mostly appealing time-waster until the film had the balls to go full-on psychedelic at its finale. OK, it lamely cheats its way out of it, but the fact that it was willing to go there puts it ahead of a lot of the competition.
Oooh, controversy. Nobody liked this surreal and extremely odd Ryan Gosling-directed ode to David Lynch by way of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, as directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It was greeted with boo’s and jeers at its Cannes premiere. It’s sitting at 30% on rotten tomatoes, in the company of DUMB AND DUMBER TO and Paul W. S. Anderson's POMPEII, and ISHTAR.* Even the few critics who recommend it agree it’s a total mess. And it’s not hard to figure out why; Gosling seems to have found everything which is annoying and frustrating about Lynch, Cianfrance and Refn, and very few of their strengths. Well, except one: the cinematography, by Benoît Debie (IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID, SPRING BREAKERS) is a lugubrious, filthy marvel, and the score by Johnny Jewel (DRIVE, BRONSON) is a perfect compliment, full of fuzzy menace and broken-down yearning. The tone is right. And it is a thing of beauty to get the tone this right. If you can ignore Gosling’s embarrassing script (full of phony redneck patois and charmless forced offbeat oddness) and just soak in the atmosphere, possibly while really, really stoned, there’s the core of a terrific, sinister and mournful art movie here. That’s a big ask, and Gosling sure doesn’t give you a lot of reasons you should overlook his painful failings as a writer, but on the other hand there’s an ambition here which is undeniable. Had he pulled this off, it would have been an all-time favorite. He didn’t, but still, getting halfway there is really something when you’re aiming this high. There’s a lot of shittiness to be found here, but also a consistent thread of genuine greatness; as a story --even a fragmented, arty story-- it’s regrettably amateurish, but as a hallucinogenic, mostly-visual tone poem/horror fantasy meditation on economic and spiritual decay in the despairing Rust Belt, it has moments of sublime perfection. Plus Ben Mendelsohn gets to go full-on campy as the sleazy villain, and fuck, you got Barbara Steele in there as a creepy mute. Barbara fucking Steele. Remind me again how anyone hated this? I don’t know. You probably won’t like it, but I may have just convinced myself that I loved it.
Billed as a wuxia art film from Taiwanese arthouse darling Hou Hsiao-Hsien (CITY OF SADNESS, FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON), it’s certainly nothing of the kind, at least as the genre has typically been defined. While there are a few martial arts scuffles, they’re few and far between, and over quickly. So it’s a wuxia film which has most of the martial arts taken out. It’s also a martial arts film which has had almost everything taken out -- protagonist, motivation, resolution, context. What’s left are context-free dialogue scenes, exposition for things which are never explained or elaborated on. There is clearly some sort of plot that happens here; I mean, it’s clear who most of the characters are in a general way, and we see some altercations between them which would seem completely normal in a movie which gave them any context. But just when I thought maybe I was piecing things together, a crazy wizard guy showed up, and how he fits into the whole thing I certainly do not know, leaving this probably the only Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie which shares a plot device with Steven Seagal’s BELLY OF THE BEAST. So it’s a martial arts movie with very few martial arts, a political intrigue thriller with no comprehensible plot, and a character piece about characters we never understand. And this is clearly done intentionally -- I think Hou could easily describe the movie’s plot and motivations if he so wished (it’s “loosely based on the late 9th century martial arts story "Nie Yinniang" by Pei Xing,” says wikipedia), but for reasons of his own, he deliberately omits key pieces of the puzzle, leaving just enough connective tissue to prevent it from feeling utterly random but carefully obstructing any kind of real understanding. What does that leave, then? Just one thing: overwhelming aesthetic beauty. And it is indeed overwhelming. Shooting in a confoundingly constrictive 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Hou and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing conjure images of alien, breathtaking beauty which are just so utterly gorgeous that it frankly doesn’t matter in the least what, specifically, they mean. The plot is lightly sketched enough that you can simply enter this world and get lost in it, which is exactly what I recommend you do, and as soon as possible.
This is one of those irritating ones which technically premiered in 2014, but of course no one outside a few festival-goers actually got to see it ‘til early 2015, myself included. But this revenge-fixated anthology is such an energetic and gleefully malicious little fantasy that I am certainly compelled to acknowledge it here. For what we would, I suppose, generally term an “arthouse film,” I don’t know that this has a lot of substance to it, but as a misanthropic ode to the sweet, sweet taste of revenge (served hot or cold), it’s absolutely intoxicating. Pacing, acting, and blackly comic tone are all pitch-perfect, and if the film has one problem, it’s only that it never tops its opening segment, a slow reveal which is about as perfect an exercise in setup and payoff as you will ever hope to see in a motion picture. But what a problem to have!
It honestly took me a while to parse out the vibe of this lightly surreal, offbeat western-comedy from New Zealand-based first-time director John McLean (DIE HARD). It has a very strange, somewhat episodic structure, full of odd vignettes and incessant banter and peppered with both images of violent, gritty Western revisionism and mythic abstraction. But about 20 minutes in, something clicked, I got it, and from there on I was completely entranced by the delicate balance between melancholy romanticism, goofball humor, lyrical beauty and startling violence. Michael Fassbender is, of course, terrific, and his somewhat-fatherly, somewhat-antagonistic relationship with young idealist Kodi McPhee-Smith (THE ROAD, LET ME IN) is the movie’s emotional core. But give credit to another pitch-perfect weirdo role for Ben Mendelsohn, inexplicably looking just like “Desire”-era Bob Dylan, and a bevy of lesser-known character actors, all of whom contribute to this oddball romp through a dreamy, funny, violent Old West which never was, but obviously should have been.
This newest offering from Pixar -- the formerly undisputed king of American animation, in whom I had recently started to really lose faith after years of shameless sequelizing and demeaning money grabs-- handedly redeems their tentative last few years with one of their most enjoyable and ambitious films ever. INSIDE OUT is a fun, visually inventive adventure through the literalized subconscious of an adolescent, ingeniously touring the current understanding of neuropsychology along the way. That’s right: this is a lively, adventurous movie for kids, which consists of a literal journey through the most abstract theories of mind, all made concrete and personified. I literally cannot think of another movie which sets a more ambitious task for itself, let alone one which executes it with such apparent ease. Honestly this came within a hair of my top 14, and the only thing that holds me back is the vague, somewhat implacable sense that perhaps the film is too clever for its own good, soaring to remarkable heights in frenetic, imaginative storytelling and ingenious visual metaphor, but perhaps winding up slightly too abstract to hit as hard on an emotional level as the very best Pixar films do. Then again, maybe I was just too busy being impressed on the first viewing to even register anything else. Because it is, if absolutely nothing else, a tremendously impressive effort, and proof that Pixar, when it sets its mind to it, is practically untouchable.
We, as a nation, have been rescuing Matt Damon for quite awhile, but seldom has it been such fun. And seldom has it been so far; the premise here, of course, is that Damon is an astronaut marooned on no less forbidding a surface than Mars, who must get creative if he’s going to survive and get home (at great taxpayer expense). Despite hearing it was good, I just couldn’t get excited about this one while it was in theaters, I guess because director Ridley Scott has such an uneven track record that I sort of assumed it would be another great-looking but ponderous bore, like PROMETHEUS or, god help us, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (a movie whose very title is a wearying death march of unearned pretensions). But I had not counted on writer Drew Goddard, who deftly transforms exactly the kind of movie you would assume Scott would make into a turgid slog, into a lively, charming adventure tale. Even Scott’s tendency towards grand, epic visuals can’t manage to take the fun out of Goddard’s cheerful gallows humor. A terrific, highly diverse cast (packed with great actors in small roles that maybe don’t require them, but shit, I’m never sorry to see Chiwetel Ejiofor, even if he doesn’t have a lot to do) goes a lot further than the expensive effects, but that’s not to say the journey isn’t exciting in itself, as Goddard cleverly throws one obstacle after another at our hapless Matt Damon. Considering the talent and money deployed here, the results are a bit slighter than maybe they ought to be, but the film is a scintillatingly pleasurable journey from start to finish.
No less an authority on cinema than my Mom and Dad (who saw this before I did, a good sign for the universe) hailed DOPE as “the FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF of this generation,” which is an assessment I could not possibly hope to top. And that means exactly what it sounds like -- this is a energetic, slightly farcical romp full of good will and winning characters. The only difference is that while Ferris Bueller hailed from the affluent, insulated world of the John Hughes suburbs, DOPE places our good-natured hero with a magic touch solidly in the poverty-and-violence-ridden streets of Inglewood, California. This gives a very mildly gritter touch to the whole adventure and heightens the stakes a little, but the breezy tone is unmistakable and infectious. Though the characters insist they play in a “punk” band (a debatable point, but whatever) the soundtrack is rife with top-quality early 90’s hip-hop (and some healthy nostalgia) and a sense of madcap fun pervades everything -- right up until the last minute, when the movie becomes a bit insistent about its moral, which was probably better made just by virtue of telling a story than by last-minute sermonizing. Still, DOPE knows that it’s the movie America needs right now, and I can’t argue with that.
CHI-RAQRebounding off his oddly restrained (for him, anyway) vampire art movie DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS, CHI-RAQ (a name, of course, evoking the pernicious violence with plagues Chicago’s South Side) finds Spike Lee up to his old tricks, which is to say, crafting overstuffed, crazy, messy, angry, loving, compassionate, contradictory, offensive and transcendent works of passion. Plus, this time it’s an ultra-stylized musical. About gang violence. As Vern put it, Lee must’ve woke up one morning and said fuck it, I’m gonna make a movie that’s so Spike Lee it turns into Baz Luhrmann. The result is a movie which is absolutely all over the place in terms of tone, style, message, (and, to some extent, quality), and features everyone from Nick Cannon to David Patrick Kelly to Dave Chappelle (his first film role in 13 years!). As we’ve come to expect from Lee, sometimes the wild tonal shifts turn a bit discordant, but when it works, it’s a thing of surreal, sublime beauty, funny and angry and passionate. Maybe the most powerful part is the most unexpected, though: halfway through this stylized, sex-soaked musical, everything pauses for a heartfelt, prose sermon about the state of race relations in America, delivered by John Cusack of all people. Sometimes the direct approach is the best approach, and it’s sometimes frustrating to watch Lee chase good ideas with bad, or even run two good ideas into each other head-on. But with an artist as vigorous and original as Lee is, trying to reign things in would defeat the whole purpose of watching a great American auteur chase his own dreams. Plus, Wesley Snipes wears a sequin eye-patch, what other movie would dare offer such heady pleasures?
Continued Tomorrow, with THE BEST OF THE REST! -- A brief examination of a another 15 or so films that didn't quite make the cut but are just too damn great to be forgotten -- Documentary and Drama categories!