Recently a friend of mine passed around Mick LaSalle’s “Best Films of the Decade” list, and the email thread inspired me to cobble together my own list. So follow the link to view my full top 25, with a few considerations. My list is based on the films I’ve screened, so it is by no means intended to be a complete cinematic analysis of the decade. I’ve pared films down by the ones that have stuck with me since the initial screening.
Chalk it up to personal preference, but modern horror is completely underwhelming. Sure, much of the moralty found in classics of the genre delves into the realm of extreme fundamentalism, but the best films sink into the slow and steady build to a level of chaos that is equal parts sensually visceral and psychologically disturbing. If a film leaves me questioning, “How could this happen?” then it’s typically hit it’s mark.
Modern horror, increasingly referred to as “nu-horror,” rarely touches upon these fundamentals. Instead, they substitute plot, tension, and character-development for senseless gore and violence. True, the house that Saw built harkens back to aspects of older gore-heavy classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it sacrifices the macabre, the gothic Americana if you will, that somehow justified the gore. Even the remakes of these classics eschew substance over piles of defiled and carved-up bodies.Which is a long-winded way of getting to director Ti West‘s latest film, The House of the Devil.
A few days ago, a group of friends emailed me about a horror movie night they were planning. They’d compiled a short list of films to consider, and I added to their list. While it ran through the pre-requisite canon of horror, it still lacked anything recent worth watching. In hindsight, I should have included The Strangers, but spaced on it at the time.
Unable to attend, I found myself scrambling to work in some horror film viewing over the Halloween weekend. After re-watching The Gate on cable, I decided to crack open The House of the Devil, which is available in limited release and more interesting Video On Demand (Comcast, U-verse, and more).
West is gaining traction with his retro throwback style and approach, but to his credit the proclivity to homage never crosses into style over substance — think more Death Proof than Planet Terror here. He continues the trend with Devil, and never wavers throughout the film.
For those of you just tuning in, back in March first-time director Mark Region dropped a puzzler on the world in the form of the trailer for his first feature film shot on 35mm titled After Last Season. What followed was months and months of speculation, second guessing, and utter confusion.
Everything about this film looks amateur — so much so, that it appears completely intentional. Some have even speculated that the film is some sort of viral marketing campaign. For what? Who knows. I’ve come across some claims that Spike Jonze is somehow behind this, and that it’s related to his upcoming film Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t see a connection, but i suppose anything is possible.
Who is Mark Region? The name seems preposterous, although some have actually spoken to the man. Other times actor Jason Kulas has stepped into the role of spokesperson. But why? Is it the inconsistencies that plague the film’s origins? Someone funded this, it cost $5 million (yes, THAT cost $5 mil), so what are the details here? Region claims this was his first opportunity to shoot on 35mm, but everything i’ve seen appears to look almost like video, not film.
much has been made of Bryan Singer’s decision to film Valkyrie in English. that’s right, a German historical drama…in English. wherever you fall on the fence of that argument, try to put it aside if you can. while troubled, Valkyrie has a lot going for it. first off, the cast is top-notch, and like Defiance, the tale centers on a historically significant figure which provides a distinct entry point into a rarely explored aspect of World War II. unlike Defiance, Valkyrie has the benefit of re-uniting Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer, the duo behind The Usual Suspects and The Way of the Gun…well, OK Singer had nothing to do with the latter.
the point is, these two understand the fundamentals of a pot-boiler, and they play around with historical drama in a very interesting, and, more importantly, engaging way. The story of Claus von Stauffenberg and the attempt on Hitler’s life is the stuff of legend, and the film is paced in such a way to keep you hooked despite knowing the ultimate outcome. Cruise’s likeness to von Stauffenberg is uncanny, and he manages to hold things down (despite some of the claims coming from the von Stauffenberg estate).
unlike Defiance, Singer and McQuarrie rely on their own strengths to engage the viewer. the plot is thick and full of twists, and in true McQuarrie fashion, almost confusingly so. Singer brings a stylistic look to the film that is unlike any other World War II film of late. it’s not a great move, in fact it’s almost a bit too stylized, but ultimately it succeeds in providing distinction — something that is important in the already bloated WWII genre.
however, it’s important to note that i watched this in less than ideal circumstances, so i really should give it a second look. the good news is, i want to give it a second look, so that’s saying something. i’m giving this one a middle ground review until i can give it another spin and dig deeper.
i caught Defiance a few weeks ago, and was ultimately disappointed. don’t get me wrong, Craig is a formidable actor. i really enjoyed his turn in Munich and what i’ve seen of his bond has been good (hint: i’m not a fan of the bond series). the problem really falls in the hands of Zwick and Frohman’s screenplay. the subject matter is juicy, and has all the elements of a uniquely engaging tale of survival. what we get instead is a detached struggle film.
the story centers on the four Bielski brothers during German occupied Poland. the brothers led a group of Polish Jews into hiding deep within the Belarussian forest. the story itself is compelling, but something just doesn’t quite gel. there is one interesting scene of mass hysteria induced revenge when the group captures, and subsequently tortures, a German soldier. strong themes of brotherhood and betrayal permeate the film, but it ultimately falls flat, feeling oddly familiar. it’s as if the film, which is based upon an original concept, somehow manages to appropriate enough of the typical war-movie DNA to end up feeling like a retread.
case in point, during one battle sequence, Zwick borrows heavily from the slo-mo/violence/ears ringing cliche, and it ultimately does nothing to pull us further into this story. instead, it reminds the viewer that we’ve seen this before, and more importantly, it’s growing old. i won’t pretend to be a historical expert when it comes to the Bielskis, but even so, one cannot help but feel as though there are some serious cinematic liberties being taken here.
apart from a few inspired sequences, utterly forgettable, which is disappointing from someone like Ed Zwick (then again, he was responsible for The Last Samurai). if you’re a big Craig fan and don’t mind revisiting war movie cliches, give Defiance a spin. otherwise, skip it.