Happy New Year from the team at Diabolique Magazine! 2016 has been a crazy ride with a fair amount of ups and downs in the world of cinema. We lost an abundance of talent this year but we were also exposed to some exceptional genre content. To celebrate the past year, the team has picked their top five films from 2016, including new and re-releases across different platforms. Are your favorites listed below?
Kat Ellinger: Editor-in-Chief
5. Cosmos (2015)
I couldn’t let my top five slip by without including Andrzej Zulawski’s final farewell: Cosmos (2015). The film, the director’s swansong, is a perfect ode to the strange kind of love typified by Zulawski’s oeuvre that hasn’t been seen anywhere else, and isn’t likely to ever be seen again. A raw, screaming, obsessional love, difficult to resist, impossible to forget. Cosmos is the perfect parting shot at the end of a career tragically cut short by Zulawski’s death on February 17th this year. Not only did the film reach the big screen stateside, but it also saw its home video debut via Arrow Films in 2016. Arrow presents the main feature as part of a magnificent set (including liner notes by our own Associate Editor Samm Deighan). A fitting tribute to the legacy of the director.
Of all the films he made, and each and every one is a crazy wild ride, Cosmos is one of his sweetest, most gloriously absurd, touching and funny. Adapted from the equally, if not more, absurd novel by Witold Gombrowicz, the Zulawskian three sided triangle of lovers is used to full effect; through scenes of dinner table finger touching, vibrating, screaming, long glances, erotic damp patches and reams of bizarre dialogue, while people fumble over fallen peas and wonder who has been leaving sacrificial animals around the grounds of a small rustic guest house. For all the surreal nonsensical plotting, it’s a film that displays an emotional honesty that proves genuinely funny and beautifully poignant all at the same time.
4: Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976)
The release that sparked one of the longest episodes of our podcast Daughters of Darkness, this year, Miklós Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976) had to be on this list. If you want to find out where it fits into the cycle of erotic cinema from such a spectacularly vintage year (as well as a career overview of the director’s work) you can listen to that episode here.
Sexy, delicious, provocative, the film is so loaded in sublime visual style, it begs to be seen in glorious high definition. Mondo Macabro gave the film a world exclusive upgrade to Blu-ray in a limited edition release, making this a possibility for the first time ever. The restoration presents as a faithful and gorgeous looking transfer; thus enabling Jancsó’s orgiastic statement of sex, drugs and political consciousness to bask in its own wonderful carnal based majesty, for this upgraded medium. (You can read the full review here).
3: Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
In one of those, didn’t see that coming, moments of the year, I was staggered to see Eiichi Yamamoto’s poetic statement about the art of living deliciously Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi No Belladonna, 1973), make it to Blu-ray this year in a beautiful 4k upgraded format.
The animated film combines eroticism and feminist pagan themes, sets them to a provocative prog soundtrack, with some spellbinding visuals, to provide a transgressive spin that promotes witchcraft as a positive force. Based on Jules Michelet’s 1863 The Sorceress (La Sorcière or Satanism and Witchcraft) Belladonna of Sadness is such a unique film, one that celebrates Neo Pagan ideas of feminine sensuality and sexuality as a source of power in a way that isn’t often seen in the realm of cinema; thus challenging the dominant cinematic codification of the witch figure as one of feminine monstrosity, demonstrating instead that in embracing sexual awakening and her femininity Belladonna’s heroine can find a way to fight against an oppressive social order on her own terms, and is ultimately set free in the process. (You can read the full review here).
2: The Greasy Strangler (2016)
The Greasy Strangler (2016) is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long, long time. Part John Waters, part Steptoe and Son (1962-2016), and part The Oily Maniac (1976), Jim Hosking’s breakout indie hit is a bit of an enigma that proves difficult to resist, once it gets its dirty mitts on you. It’s gross, disgusting in fact. It makes you question your own sanity. It revels in absurd and profane humor. It is an absolute riot from start to finish. Rarely is an energy so fresh and so gloriously obscene let loose in today’s “don’t step on my feelings” culture of apologetic cinema. One thing is for sure, director Hosking doesn’t appear to care. Neither do I. I have always found there is a special sort of liberation to be found in allowing yourself to fully immerse and enjoy rare experiences such as these. And you can find liberation too, if you can get past choking on your own vomit as a naked and well built Big Ronnie fondles a grease drenched grapefruit in an act of seduction, that is. Adding to the charm, you also have a series of catchy quotable catchphrases — that are already hurtling toward icon status — to relish. Phrases like “bullshit artist”, “smooth”, and “hootie tootie disco cutie”. (You can read the full review here).
1: Symptoms (1974)
When the BFI announced they were restoring Jose Ramon Larraz Symptoms (1974) to Blu-ray earlier this year, I, like many others who had been waiting, wishing, a master of this “lost film” would be unearthed, could hardly believe the news. The title had been on the BFI’s most wanted list for quite a while, and it seemed like all hope was lost when no elements appeared to be forthcoming despite the appeal. In fact, when I reviewed the film a couple of years ago, the mood of that particular piece focused on lamenting over the fact that Symptoms could only been seen in raw bootleg form (a fact which seemed positively criminal at the time); captured in VHS quality from a showing on British TV in the early eighties. The film seemed to vanish into the ether, after being entered as the official British entry at Cannes in 1974, despite its brief airing on television. Sad times indeed, but now Symptoms is back, fully restored, and rightfully so, given the status of the film as not only a piece of stunning cult horror, but one of the most beautiful, and haunting British genre films of the seventies. (You can read the full review here).
Honorable mentions: Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (2016) and The Female Prisoner Scorpion Complete Collection (Arrow Films, 2016) would have both been in my top ten, but having worked on them I thought it only fair to leave them out in interests of bias. However, both sets include films I adore, and therefore I felt they were worthy of a mention despite my personal connection with the releases.
Carnival of Souls (Criterion), Lone Wolf and Cub (Criterion) Electra, My Love (Second Run) Three Wishes for Cinderella (Second Run) Symptoms (Mondo Macabro) Suddenly in the Dark (Mondo Macabro) Dark Water (Arrow Films) Deep Red (Arrow Films) Black Mama, White Mama (Arrow Films) The Church (Shameless) The Sect (Shameless)
Samm Deighan: Associate Editor
5. Évolution (2015)
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s eerie, Lovecraftian follow up to 2004’s brilliant Innocence is, like that film, something of a coming of age tale. It follows a boy and his mother, who live on a remote island populated only by boys and young women, and the possible sighting of a corpse sets off his natural curiosity about his changing body and the strange experiments that take place on the island. Easily the best horror film of the year, Évolution’s unnerving mix of surreal poetry and body horror is not to be missed and I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.
4. Valley of Love (2015)
It was a real struggle to decide between this film and Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come), as both are vehicles for the great Isabelle Huppert and have a similarly pensive, melancholic tone and loose plots that meditate on how the past events inform present grief, but Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love won out solely because of the chemistry between Huppert and her costar, Gérard Depardieu. The two star as aging French actors, long ago divorced, who have reunited in California’s Death Valley per the instructions of their son, who recently committed suicide. John Waters may have described this film as containing “the fattest Gérard Depardieu you’ve ever seen,” but — not unlike the final years of Orson Welles’ career — he is better than ever.
3. Magré la nuit (Despite the Night, 2015)
I had the wonderful fortune to see the New York premier of this film (actually, that’s true of all of my top three on this list) with director Philippe Grandrieux in person and it’s one of the many cinematic outrages of the year that — unless I’ve fallen asleep on the job and missed something — it hasn’t been picked up for distribution. Like many of his films, it’s not quite in the horror genre but has some of the same dark, claustrophobic elements that inform the best work of David Lynch, and is equally influenced by the thriller genre and film noir. In this case, the vaguely scripted film follows a doomed young couple — she dabbles with life-threatening sexual masochism, while he is searching for any information about his mother — and has some genuinely frightening and disturbing scenes, as well as unforgettable performances from two of my favorite young actresses, Ariane Labed and Roxane Mesquida.
2. Elle (2016)
One of the great masterpieces of this year is definitely Paul Verhoeven’s return to European filmmaking with Elle, an adaptation of Philippe Dijan’s novel Oh… about a businesswoman who is raped by a masked assailant and, instead of contacting the police, decides to take matters into her own hands. Initially meant to be set in Detroit, Verhoeven was unable to find an American actress to take the lead role and instead turned to the capable hands of Isabelle Huppert; the fact that she apparently isn’t going to be nominated for an Oscar for this film is a clear sign that it’s past due time for the Academy to set themselves on fire and go out once and for all on a pyre of burning award statuettes.
1. Cosmos (2015)
And speaking of literary adaptations, the final film of Andrzej Zuławski (who passed away this February and will be very much missed) is one that I’ve had an opportunity to write about several times this year, though I will probably never tire of doing that. An adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s dizzying 1965 novel of the same name, the film follows a young writer on holiday at a country inn with his friend (two wonderful performances from newcomers Jonathan Genet and Johan Libéreau, who have great onscreen charisma), when he begins to notice a series of strange coincidences — the hanging body of a sparrow, a maid’s scarred lip, and a curious mark on the ceiling of his bedroom, among other things — that seem to lead up to an existential mystery. As can be said of all of Zuławski films, Cosmos is not for everyone; it is elusive and demanding, but the rewards are great and — a sentiment that I think is true of all cinematic masterpieces — it continues to open up new dimensions upon every viewing.
Simon Ball: Contributing Writer
5. Cruel Summer (2016)
Phil Escott’s Cruel Summer (2016) takes place over one weekend and documents the lives of three English teens from a no hope sink estate. Nick’s (Danny Miller) girlfriend Lisa has just chucked him. Julia (Natalie Martins), who has a bit of a thing for Nick, tells him that Lisa had been shagging Danny (Richard Pawulski), so Nick goes psycho and sets out for Danny’s blood.
Nick and Julia discover that Danny, who has Asperger’s, is camping out by a local lake as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award. Stopping only to collect Calvin (Reece Douglas) and shoplift some vodka, the scene is set for a truly ugly and violent confrontation. Psycho Nick is driven to attack Danny by Julia’s underhand scheming and once his blood is up nothing his mates say or are willing to do will stop him.
Cruel Summer is not a comfortable watch; the depiction of austerity Britain’s no-hope generation, deprived of jobs and further education opportunities is as frighteningly accurate as the brutal violence and degradation that follows. It’s a beautifully shot and intelligently scripted movie with intense visceral performances from the young cast, covering every emotion from bored ennui and impotent fury to psychotic rage and hopeless despair.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Jim Jarmusch’s stylish vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive (re-released on VOD in 2016 sees old school vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) adrift in the modern world. Reclusive rock musician Adam is contemplating ending it with a wooden bullet, so partner Eve is drawn back to Detroit from Tangier, leaving vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt and, yes, it is that Dr Faustus Christopher Marlowe), behind. So far so good but then Eve’s wild child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) rocks up and starts making the sort of trouble that’s likely to get the vamps noticed.
To me, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story about a pair of sophisticated outsiders who, alienated from so-called respectable society, have witnessed many remarkable events, yet go unnoticed themselves. As such they are a metaphor for commonly derided subcultures, now even more so post Brexit and Trump. Yorick Le Saux’s nocturnal cinematography is just stunning with the palette and composition worthy of a Dutch master. Jarmusch really could not have cast this movie any better with the sharply sculpted cheekbones of Hiddleston, Swinton and Hurt; could anyone else be so vampiric?
There’s also one of the best lines I have ever heard in a genre movie: “What are we going to do with him? I mean, it’s not like the old days when we could chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters”.
3. Wekufe: El Origen del Mar (AKA Wekufe: The Origin of Evil, 2016)
I’m not a great fan of found footage films so my third choice, Javier Attridge’s Wekufe: El Origen del Mar (AKA Wekufe: The Origin of Evil, 2016) surprised me. Paula (Paula Figueroa) opens the movie, predictably whimpering, “If you are watching this video, most likely I’m already dead”. Only Paula is in no danger; she’s acting up for filmmaker boyfriend Mathias (Mathias Aldea) as they head towards the Chilean island of Chiloe.
Journalism student Paula is investigating the local legend of the Trauco, a horned beast with a massive penis said to be responsible for all the island’s unexplained pregnancies. Paula thinks the Trauco is a front for historic rape and sexual abuse of indigenous Mapuche women. Mathias regards Paula’s project as an opportunity to knock out a found footage horror movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project (1999), linking Chiloe to the legendary South Pacific island of R’lyeh from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.
The officials don’t want to talk about the Trauco but the locals are upset about corporate exploitation and pollution. Things get weirder when Paula and Mathias are threatened by masked musicians in the local market. When a Mapuche woman claims to have seen the Trauco, the pair head off to an isolated cabin in the woods to get their footage.
I like Wekufe because it subverts the effect of The Blair Witch Project with an existential threat that may be very real rather than solely supernatural. I found this particularly chilling given that the Chilean government keeps Pinochet-era terrorist legislation on the books to silence indigenous people when big corporations threaten their way of life or the environment.
2. Egomaniac (2016)
The debut horror feature of British filmmaker Kate Shenton, Egomaniac (2016), takes her own career as an independent filmmaker as a starting point. Shenton wrote and directed the tale of Catherine Sweeney (Nic Lamont) who is determined to produce her own zombie romantic comedy feature film. Problem is that everyone she tries to get interested in financing the picture wants her to include a talking dog sock puppet in the action, because “talking dogs sell movies”. This interference with her own creativity naturally drives Catherine over the edge of sanity with suitably gruesome consequences for all those involved.
Egomaniac takes a caustically funny swipe at indie horror production in the UK and is full of characters and situations that anyone on the UK horror filmmaking scene is likely to have encountered. I particularly enjoyed the short film screening scene at a local pub (where Kate’s enormously funny short Gimp (2013) gets a bit of screen time); with its tiny audience it was pretty close to the bone.
1. The Unkindness of Ravens (2016)
The Unkindness of Ravens (2016) is from the same team that brought us 2013’s Lord of Tears. On this occasion writer Sarah Daly and director Lawrie Brewster’s shift the avian focus from owls to crows and ravens as Afghan veteran Andrew (Jamie Scott-Gordon) is sent to a remote Highland artist’s retreat to try and come to terms with his Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD).
The problem is that Andrew’s PTSD demons manifest themselves as flashbacks to his time in Afghanistan when he witnessed ravens scavenging the bodies of his injured mates, and there just happen to be a lot of ravens around the cottage. Before long Andrew encounters his own double who warns him that the Raven Warriors, a demonic race that torture the souls of lost soldiers before devouring them, are coming to get him. So Andrew faces up to the Raven Warriors in an epic battle for his sanity and possibly the souls of his lost comrades.
For me this movie really topped out this year’s offerings. It has really beautiful cinematography of the Scottish Highlands by Michael Brewster, a powerfully rendered and imagined race of demon ravens, great costume and creature design, a meticulously researched and detailed background mythology drawn from Scottish and Norse legend, an ethereally Celtic music soundtrack, and a simply extraordinary performance by Jamie Scott-Gordon as the traumatised former soldier, not to mention a serious point about the mental well being and treatment of our ex-servicemen.
Anthony Isaac Bradley: Contributing Writer
5. Vendetta Dal Futuro (Hands of Steel, 1986)
Apparently some other label released Vendetta Dal Futuro (Hands of Steel, 1986) a while back, but that doesn’t matter because I only have eyes for this disc from 88 Films and its delicious slipcase. I’ll never tire of seeing a greased-up Daniel Greene butting heads with an even more greased-up George Eastman. Directed by Sergio Martino, this is a legit great action film full of carnage and bar fights. Oh, and John Saxon is an added bonus, if you’re into handsome men.
4. Burial Ground (1981)
Who doesn’t love Peter Bark as a momma’s boy? Andrea Bianchi’s lean and mean trash gem Burial Ground (1981) gets the full Severin treatment, with amazing new slipcase artwork. Along with Nightmare City (1980) this is one of my favorite comfort food sleaze sandwiches. Rich people come to the countryside to engage in kinky sex and end up with maggots on their faces. And I treasure how mean the undead are in this film—weapons will be used to maim, brains being an afterthought. They’re outright jerks and I love it.
3. Zombi: Dawn of the Dead (1979)
Guts. Fingers poking through a bandage. Severed arms left behind with zero blood pressure. Ken Foree’s abortion know-how. This 4-disc set from NWR Presents/Midnight Factory contains all the classic moments from Zombi: Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero’s 1979 masterpiece, highlighting the European cut spearheaded by Dario Argento. The packaging, while gorgeous, is somewhat cumbersome. That said, this Italian release is still worth an import, and includes every cut available. Dawn will always be my favorite. The apartment raid is one of the most disturbing scenes on film, a combination of police brutality/minority abuse, poverty and sadness. When the one-legged priest delivers his odd speech I get chills.
2. Green Room (2016)
Sadly I didn’t get to the theater much this year, but I consider myself lucky to have seen Jeremy Saulnier’s latest, Green Room (2016), on the big screen. The soundtrack is perfect (seek out “Savage Pressure” by Battletorn) and the film’s skinhead-territory atmosphere is downright terrifying. On first watch I thought there might be a disconnect between the realism of the first half and the more actiony second, but upon repeated viewings I didn’t notice. This is a tight film. The violence feels frighteningly legit, and once things go sideways no one’s safe.
1. Lone Wolf and Cub (Criterion Collection, 1972-1974)
This is an outstanding set of films. Contains 1-6 (and the Shogun Assassin cut), along with several extras. The packaging is one of the better Criterion releases, with a great cover (no minimalism here) and a secret surprise if you look close enough (or Google it). This series has a reputation that is earned—blind buy if you haven’t seen them. Admittedly I haven’t finished watching the last two yet, but the first couple alone make this my favorite release of the year. A must-have.
Heather Buckley: Contributing Writer
5. Southbound (2016)
It’s like a 1990’s made-for-cable Stephen Kingesque horror anthology—five tales of the supernatural interweave along an “endless” desert highway populated by hovering reapers, courtesy of directors Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Radio Silence and Patrick Horvath. The Way Out is a looping purgatory for two criminals. Siren is about a cult family looking for sacrifice. The Accident is about the torment of what ultimately becomes a hit and run. Jailbreak is about rescue in a town of demons. And The Way In is about a home invasion gone wrong. Southbound never shies away from blood, monsters and the satanic. It offers craft, fun, scares and unapologetic horror imagery we have been missing in the genre. Nostalgia should not inspire the artist to trace the past, but to find inspiration and create a new work. Southbound succeeds in being what you first loved, but transforming these cues with contemporary techniques, story and talent.
4. I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)
In Billy O’Brien’s I am Not a Serial Killer (2016), a young boy, John (Max Records), is diagnosed with psychopathology. He is fascinated by serial killers and suspects he might become one sooner rather than later—his psychiatrist is none too sure. John is also the school pariah; weirdo—working in his mother’s funeral parlor does not help with the stigma. He has rules keeping him grounded and away from Denis Rader-land USA, but bullies and life tests these boundaries. And now a rash of killings have plagued the town; his neighbor, a kind old man, Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is suspected by John to be the murderer. Rather than going to the authorities he observes Crowley as a looking-glass to his own potential future, and to attempt to banish the temperament that could push him over the edge. Can he stop the killing? Can he stop himself? Does he truly understand Crowley’s nature? Here story, acting, and film grammar create a complex emotional landscape, a look at love and redemption—reinforcing the idea that nature/nurture can transcend body count and some things are not what they seem.
3. The Neon Demon (2016)
The Neon Demon (2016) is folklore. The Neon Demon is myth. Ingénue Jesse (Elle Fanning) is wrapped in the silks of youth, beauty and certainty—traits that become a danger to her very life. Shot like fashion photography, The Neon Demon is both cinematic and symbolic. The blue themes in the film are for the waters of Narcissus, director Nicolas Winding Refn has said. The Triangle, the occult “sacred space.” The score gives way to twinkling music-box flourishes—as if being pretty is a little girl’s dream/nightmare, come to bear within enveloping, driving synths. The Neon Demon exists in the filmic nightmare reality of Starry Eyes (2014), Maps to the Stars (2014), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Black Swan (2010). Like these films, The Neon Demon confirms what the audience suspects about these industries, but also quietly suspect about themselves and each other. Damning.
2. The Love Witch (2016)
Ruthless attention to detail in a handcrafted recreation of a 1960/1970s cinematic kaleidoscope, Anna Biller’s narrative focuses on femininity and its performance as owned by women in the glare and the shadow of male desire. These feminist through-lines subvert gender roles though the exploration of the binary (polarity) and the tragedy of the empowered woman (witch) beholden to courtship rituals defined by the masculine and its fragility. Gold and velvet reds; primary colors create an immerse “fetishistic” world—a singular creation of Biller whose many roles included not only writer, director and editor, but costumes, sets, painter and composer of the film’s songs. Casting here is also flawless with the choice of a more formal performance style. To watch The Love Witch (2016) is be seduced by its detail and by its obsessions.
1. Elle (2016)
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a film revealing the subtle choices we make and the lives we choose to lead through an intricate play of nurture/nature. What can be seen in behavior and blood-lines, what is owed to the past, and what is the agency of now. Elle (Isabelle Huppert) remains untouched due to her baptism in trauma and tragedy from her father. Elle is her own woman—a video game CEO looking to create the next great sex and violence narrative. She is a mother. She is the “other” woman. She is raped. She is honest. She is not moved by any of it. She endures too much, but it is never enough to break her. Huppert’s embodiment transfixes. She, like her character, is without fear. Elle forces you to rethink where you are and why you are.
Joseph Dwyer: Contributing Writer
5. The Handmaiden (2016)
Exiting the theater after seeing Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), I felt somewhat odd. There was something off about the picture—too much humor or something. I thought that maybe the historical drama would have been better if it was more serious, like The English Patient (1996). Since then, perhaps it is because I am currently writing at good length about the movie, I ended up convincing myself that it is one of the best films of 2016. This tale of double and triple crossing, set during Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s is quite magical, and enjoyable to look at more than anything. The mixture of Korean, Japanese, and western influences meld into Sapphic and sadomasochistic displays of desire and deceit. What more could one want than a gothic heroine dressed in a kimono and leather gloves fit for an Italian giallo killer, reading passages from the Marquis de Sade? The back and forth between whom the dominant and submissive figures are add to all the ornate, wacky, and seductive fun.
2. Évolution (2016)
This one is a real slow burn. An odd sci-fi sort of movie about pubescent boys with starfish attached to their midsections, their mothers all very similar looking and laconic, no fathers or daughters in sight. Évolution (2016) is some kind of metaphor for motherhood and boys becoming men, with a narcoticized, marine-life twist that evokes everything from Lovecraftian imagery to mermaids. It owes a lot to great cinematography from Manuel Dacosse, the fellow who began his career with Cattet & Forzani’s films. One thing I can definitely say is that director Lucile Hadzihalilovic really has a leg up on Gaspar Noe, the director she has collaborated with (either as producer, writer, etc.) throughout her career. Where Noe seems to enjoy going for excess and sensationalism, Hadzihalilovic understands the nuances of restraint.
3. The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
The Eyes of My Mother (2016) is probably the scariest picture of the year. Goodness, young director Nicolas Pesce made a short but not very sweet film about a young, sociopathic woman growing up in an isolated house. Right from the start, an unhinged visitor bludgeons her mother to death, and I won’t bother giving away many details as to what follows. They are most likely not what you expect. Let’s just say, people are chained up in the barn with their eyes and vocal cords removed. The Eyes of My Mother appears to take just as much from Shirley Jackson’s short novels and stories as much as it does from other isolated, violent anti-heroes of the past, like Norman Bates. It is kind of like a reimagining of Wisconsin’s famous serial killer Ed Gein, superimposed on a haunting young woman.
2. Private Vices, Public Virtues (1976)
There were so many quality re-releases this year thanks to companies such as Arrow, Severin, Vinegar Syndrome, and Mondo Macabro, which came out with a great looking Blu-ray version of Miklos Jancso’s, lush and seductive Private Vices, Public Virtues (2016). Now also seems like a good time to thank Kat and Samm, two of Diabolique’s editors who have done a great job with their Daughters of Darkness podcast—had they not done such a public service with their episode on orgies in cinema, I wouldn’t have known about Jancso and his pictures. Partially based on true events, Private Vices is an aristocratic story of young royal socialites having a long roll in the hay with their friends, and sometimes enemies. It is amazing to look at cinematographically, and when it comes to bodies, the visual pleasure is focused just as much on frolicking male subjects as female—and of course the uncannily arousing Teresa Ann Savoy as a hermaphrodite. Jancso shows what fun can be had until father gets home with his armed enforcers. The last shot is beautiful to behold. Those horses galloping off in slow motion reminds me why I work jobs involving cameras, someday hoping to capture that kind of beauty.
1. Thundercrack! (1975)
This was re-released in December of 2015 by Synapse, but it took a bit of time to digest. Thundercrack! (1975) is one of the greatest works ever created by a San Francisco Art Institute alumnus, and might be one of the strangest movies ever made. On a dark and stormy night, a group of young men and women all end up at Prairie Blossom, an old gothic house. Clocking in at two hours and forty-five minutes, this monster is part slapstick drama, part hardcore pornography; the sex scenes are notable for being completely unarousing and full of dialogue. Almost all the guys have the exact same moustache and shag haircut so that they are difficult to differentiate. The sound quality is awful, but once you get the hang of the tin-can ambiance, it turns out that the dialogue is AMAZING. The immortal George Kuchar did a great job with the long-winded script, on-set lightning, and acting as a gorilla-loving character named Bing, who released a bunch of circus animals around the estate during a vehicular suicide attempt. It is quite safe to say that there is nothing else like Thundercrack!
Kieran Fisher: Contributing Writer
5. CarousHELL (2016)
I’m not being ironic when I say that Steve Rudzinski’s CarousHELL (2016) is one of my favorite movies of the year. 2016 has saw several excellent releases, each of which has been special for different reasons, and for CarousHELL its magic lies in being pure entertainment at its most outlandish, silly and fun. It’s also a prime example of the quality DIY films coming out of the ‘underground’ of which, if you’re willing to explore, you’ll find many gems boasting heaps of original ideas and creative execution to make up for the less than shoestring budget. As I sat there watching a woman have sex with a homicidal fairground horse with the horn (both literally and figuratively), my heart was Foal of love.
The premise is simple: Duke is a talking carousel unicorn and he hates his job. Every day is the same; kids ride on his back for hours on end, and to make matters worse he’s lonely because he’s the only carousel unicorn there that’s alive. But one day, after being disrespected by a little brat, Duke decides that he’s had enough and decides to break free and hunt down that little bastard, killing every person he meets along the way. Can the fairground sheriff stop him before he slaughters a party full of teenagers hosted by a girl with a unicorn fetish?
Made for only $2000, CarousHELL boasts some impressive production values; the kills are creative, bloody and brilliant as well, and the practical effects will hit the sweet spot of many a slasher fan. But the film excels with its comedy; every actor puts in a stellar performance, regularly cracking jokes which hit the mark. The film also brilliantly satirizes our current social-media obsessed culture, and it creatively adheres to and pokes fun at slasher tropes.
4. Green Room (2016)
Jeremy Saulnier movies make me aroused. His first movie, Murder Party (2007), is grossly overlooked, but it was 2013’s Blue Ruin that solidified his place as one of the most exciting directors on the planet – and in my heart. When it comes with genre fare I never get scared – I tend to find macabre entertainment fun and fascinating more than anything – but there are scenes in Blue Ruin that had me on edge.
Green Room (2016) is like Blue Ruin when it comes to uncompromising intensity and, like its predecessor, it portrays violence in an ugly, non-glamorized light. Taking place in a neo-Nazi compound which is hosting a gig for punk, metal and hardcore bands, a young four-piece find themselves in more trouble than they bargained for once they witness a murder backstage. Now trapped in the middle of nowhere with a fearful group of white supremacists who are determined not to go to jail, a fight for survival ensues.
What I love about Green Room is that it didn’t make race a thematic focal point. The antagonists were vile neo-Nazis, but their beliefs were never brought to the forefront. However there is a political undercurrent bubbling under the surface; lead fascist Darcy (Patrick Stewart) seems more keen on exploiting misguided people for his own material gain as opposed to instigating any pro-white revolution. One could argue that this has parallels with Donald Trump’s rise to power, as he’s exploited America’s racists, bigots and misguided people in his own right to suit his own selfish ambitions.
3. High Rise (2016)
They said that no one could adapt J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name. Producer Jeremy Thomas, who has owned the film rights for over 40 years, had all but given up hope of it ever coming into fruition; even auteurs like Nicholas Roeg couldn’t find a way to make it work. But then director Ben Wheatley and screenwriting partner (and wife) Amy Jump showed that the seemingly impossible was indeed possible – and the result is a stunning, remarkable achievement.
Taking place in a tower block where residents live on floors based on their role in the social pecking order, High Rise (2016) is a vicious parable about the divisions in class structure which are still as prevalent today as they were in 1975. It’s a savage, darkly comic satire rooted in 1970s kitsch stylings and poignant contemporary social commentary. It works, and is further proof that Wheatley is one of the best things to ever happen to mankind. Kill List (2011) is the best film ever, in this writer’s humble opinion.
2. The Nice Guys (2016)
This is the Shane Black return we’ve been waiting for since 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Sure, 2013’s Iron Man 3 might have scored him his biggest career hit to date, but a Marvel franchise installment isn’t the best use of the talents of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriter. While he has proven that he’s a deft hand in an array of genres – The Monster Squad (1987) showed that he’s capable of penning a cult horror classic, while the upcoming The Predator and Doc Savage films are going to be awesome big budget action fare – he really excels in neo-noir action comedies with odd fellow buddy pairings, and The Nice Guys (2016) is the best in his canon so far.
Ryan Gosling is my man crush, but he’s also an outstanding actor who rarely gives subpar performances, and neither does co-star Russell Crowe (also a sexy man who, admittedly, plays the same lovable hard ass type role he’s renowned for). The story sees the two of them play mismatched private dicks investigating the murder of a porn star while searching for a missing girl, and it’s hilarious. Boasting a witty script, an engaging mystery and top notch performances across the board, they don’t come much better than this.
1. Shin Godzilla (2016)
As you’ll find out in our upcoming Asian issue of Diabolique, I’m a bit of a Godzilla junkie. This atomic nightmare has been making my dreams come true since 1998, when Roland Emmerich’s Ill-fated (but super fun) American remake served as my gateway to a lifelong love affair with Japan’s greatest monster. But nothing beats the haunting poetry and allegorical horrors of Toho’s Godzilla when he’s operating as a force of terror, and Shin Godzilla (2016) is a return to the franchises’ roots in showcasing the monster as a metaphor for contemporary fears.
Here we see the beast as an emotionless force of nature hellbent on remorseless destruction; it’s no secret that Japan has been a country rocked by devastating natural disasters in recent years, and the film channels those fears into a remarkable work of art with intelligent socio-political subtext. In addition to the metaphor for Mother Nature being a bit of an old bitch sometimes, it’s also a wonderful satire of bureaucratic government and its global identity. There is so much going on in this movie, but the best part is getting to see G back in all his almighty glory.
Chris Hallock: Contributing Writer
Year end lists are tricky because, if you’re adventurous like me, you tend to catch a lot of really great films in the span of 365 days. I typically ask myself the following questions when hashing out top choices: Did the film fully transport me into its cinematic world? Did it challenge conventional ideas of what cinema could be? Did it crush my soul, or at least provoke thought once I left the theater? DO I WANT TO WATCH IT AGAIN? A number of releases ticked all the boxes, and were a mood swing away from making the cut; tremendous films like Karyn Kusama’s gut-punching The Invitation (2016), Danny Perez’s delirious Antibirth (2016), the gentle nihilism of Ricky Bates’ Trash Fire (2016), Taika Waititi’s heartfelt and hilarious Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), or the gorgeous restoration of Eiichi Yamamoto’s intoxicating Belladonna of Sadness (1973( were all certainly worthy contenders. The following films, however, are my top five of 2016:
5. Córki dancingu (The Lure, 2015)
A slew of descriptors can be affixed to Polish fantasy-cum-musical-cum-horror oddity Córki dancingu (The Lure, 2015), but none of them accurately convey its spirited reworking of the mermaid folk myth. Better yet, the amalgam works, a testament to the commendable effort put in by director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s team. The story begins as a reversal of mermaid lore where instead of the mermaid’s song luring unsuspecting fisherman to a watery doom, a pair of curious mermaid protagonists, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), are drawn to the surface by the music of humans. They join a band and are immediately seduced by the night life of a cabaret club where the alluring duo delight club goers and tail fetishists alike with sultry vocals and a supernatural reveal during the act’s climax.
Surface life is rewarding for a time but, as you’d find with most success stories, the naive spirits are prone to exploitation, corruption, and arrogance, especially as they ignore base desires. A rift forges between them when Silver falls for the bassist (Jakub Gierszal) in their band while Golden struggles to keep her appetites at bay. For all its disparate parts, Córki dancingu manages cohesion as a rock opera that shifts from joyous moments of spontaneous song and dance into darker territory of fearsome, flesh-eating creatures. The music is fun, the performers are committed and, while some may not appreciate the abrupt downbeat ending, it doesn’t pull punches.
4. The Fits (2015)
Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut The Fits (2015) is an intimate and dreamy slice of cinema designed to challenge race and gender conventions with an unusual fantasy component. Holmer juggles intersecting themes that normally populate coming-of-age stories, but speaking from a point-of-view rarely explored in work tackling the subject. It’s the story of Toni (Royalty Hightower), an introverted girl approaching adolescence in one of Cincinnati’s underprivileged neighborhoods, training to be a boxer with her ambitious brother and his friends. She becomes enamored by the teen girls who are part of a dance team at the community center where she trains.
Meanwhile, a plague of “fainting” spells is experienced by nearly all the girls except Toni – a not-so-subtle metaphor for menstruation – alienating her further. Toni’s comfortable identity as a “tomboy” is challenged, and she is drawn to the powerful feminism and confidence characterized by her older peers. This leads to difficulty reconciling why she can’t be both a fierce boxer AND dancer. The Fits admirably renders a setting as mundane as a rec center an enchanting place, a wonderful environment for making its powerful call to defy societally imposed constraints. Through the eyes of Toni, the viewer may also reconnect with his or her own adolescence, a time of confusion, mystery, and possibly a little magic.
3. Neptune (2015)
During moments of grief, some look to the sky for answers while others may turn to the sea. In Derrick Kimball’s sparse coming-of-age film Neptune (2015), the sea holds few answers for Hannah (Jane Ackermann), a young girl haunted by the recent disappearance of a classmate in her small island community off the coast of Maine. Kimball’s film is an unusual coming-of-age tale that uses visual poetry to drive the narrative. He imbues Neptune with surreal, dream-like imagery that transports the viewer from the rigorous life of fishermen to the innermost turmoil of characters who are facing demons wrought from loss and guilt. While Neptune is most certainly a story about coping with death, it’s also a film bursting with life as Hannah, bound by a religious upbringing and gender expectations, attempts to break free from the chains of her insular community. Neptune is clearly a mediation on life and death, but most importantly, it’s a story of self-determinism in the wake of tragedy.
2. Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1987)
Andrzej Żuławski’s tumultuous relationship with a repressive Polish government is well-documented, and his experiences making subversive films in the country of his birth endure as the most fascinating cases of government interference with art. His massive scale sci-fi epic Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1987) was nearly a casualty of the censorship that would plague Żuławski before his exodus to France. Żuławski’s work has since been reappraised by the gatekeepers of post-communist Polish culture, and the Polish Film Institute recently oversaw a digital restoration of the film, approved by Żuławski himself. The film itself is truly astonishing, an allegorical powerhouse with layers of subtext and symbolism.
Having personally only experienced it on disappointing DVD transfers, it’s an absolute stunner to behold a pristine picture on the big screen. It’d be senseless to cram a plot synopsis into this piece but, briefly, the film explores the dynamics of a civilization on a distant planet settled by astronauts from Earth. A generation later, a new traveler from Earth arrives whom they believe is the Messiah, who subsequently incites a war between the descendants of Earth and the planet’s indigenous people. With Żuławski at the helm, this simple premise reaches dizzying heights as he and cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz utilize startling imagery, striking costumes and sets, and raw emotion to discuss religion as a pervasive and dangerous presence in culture even light years away from Earth. If you’re unfamiliar with Żuławski’s style – a blend of enormous performances, philosophically profound dialogue, and audacious set pieces – this immersive nightmare is where you should start your journey; it’s not just filmmaking, it’s sheer artistic fearlessness.
1. Évolution (2015)
Images of ocean life swaying lazily back and forth with the movement of the tide open Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s mystifying Évolution (2015). From the outset, it sets a tempo that lures the viewer into discomfiting quiet before complete immersion in an atmosphere of dread. The story unfolds in a remote seaside compound where a society of women care for young boys believed to be their children, but lacking the maternal bond expected between mother and child. The boys are subject to experimental procedures by a team of nurses, many of whom perish in the process. As the narrative progresses, the viewer adopts the point-of-view of Nicolas (Max Brebant), a resilient boy who rebels with art and questions the circumstances of his prison-like existence who finds companionship with one of the nurses (Roxane Duran). The film benefits from Manuel Dacosse’s breathtaking photography and a mournful score that sounds like a whale’s moan. Hadzihalilovic’s film envelops the viewer with chilling and hypnotic imagery and invites comparison to the literary work of H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, and David Nickle. Évolution resides at an intersection where science and the occult collide and though Hadzihalilovic gives us plenty to ponder, we’re never given a complete answer. The film ends on an ambiguous note full of horrifying possibilities for the potential of life on earth.
Jay Kay: Contributing Writer
5. Darling (2015)
Mickey Keating is a modern day master storyteller. Creating each of his films from different decades of incredible cinema and storytelling, Darling (2015) is no different. Witnessing this truly terrifying trip into madness back at the 2015 Ithaca Fantastik Film Festival, Darling tells the story of young and very fragile woman performed by Lauren Ashley Carter, who is caretaking a beautiful mansion in New York City. The building has a haunted history of evil and suicide which is hidden from those taking on the task. Our protagonist’s stay turns out to be a trip deep inside her dark self and the building’s true intentions.
While the narrative sounds pretty typical, the film is anything but. Carter and Keating are a great duo that bring out the best in each other. Carter’s timeless beauty and wide eyes are beacons for her talent to shine, emote, and carry the film. Keating’s style and eye knows how to entrance, enchant and connect to each piece of this story, even if you don’t quite know where the film may go.
Darling’s score is tense and echoes the voice of, and mood within, the building. Simple scare tactics and the personality of the city all play into the atmosphere of this film. Shot in a smart and wonderful way, it offers just enough to fill the frame but never lingers – leaving you focused on the details and waiting for the next beat. Keating and his crew understand and reflect the evil inside of us all, from the classic set decoration, editing, and perspective of the camera to the grizzly practical effects and Val Newton style frights. Finding homage in the classic horror tales of decades before, Darling is a film that shows the depth of the haunted house sub-genre, the range of Keating’s talents, and reveals the storytelling of his mentors – including one Larry Fessenden who makes a cameo along with longtime Glass Eye Pix alumnus John Speredakos.
4. Abattoir (2016)
Watching this film at the NYC Horror Film Festival, I was blown away by the scope, sound, and story presented before me. Part noir storytelling, part visual gem that was crafted over years and with restrictions, and part knockout performances by the overall cast — especially Lin Shaye and Dayton Callie — Abattoir (2016) is Darren Lynn Bousman’s best work to date and continues to show his love for a genre that can be unkind and cookie cutter.
Based around a young woman named Julia, played by Jessica Lowndes and a cop played by Joe Anderson, both are searching for answers and her mother, played by Lin Shaye, in a small New Orleans town. The film builds a puzzle wrapped inside a mystery, with the narrative surrounding a collector of “murder rooms”. A mysterious man known as Jebediah Crone, played by Callie, offers the clues to Julia’s past and deals with the devil, himself looking for resolution for his past. Together, all parties are on a path towards the ultimate haunted house, facing both their sins and obsession.
Abattoir is so much different than anything on this list. Visually stunning, whether influenced by the southern gothic style of the town or Crone’s “murder room” collection, Bousman and crew create a lush and macabre canvas for the cast to performance against. Featuring a primarily older cast, the experience and personality are so evident in each scene, with sharp lines of dialogue and reactions. The score, dialogue, and feel of Abattoir is authentic and makes one feel that you are transported into a noir novel with a truly obsessed and tragic set of characters. Watching it on the big screen, the creation of Crone’s collection is so clever with the financial restrictions upon the budget and visual effects. A passion project for sure, just like Train to Busan (2016), Abattoir is that cold breath of life into a film sub-genre that reflects nothing truly original anymore. Abattoir takes its concept and just runs with it, as we enter a world of nightmares and noir style that makes the overall experience something to remember.
3. 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters (2016)
My favorite documentary of 2016 was an incredible pleasure to watch at different film festivals. 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters focuses the narrative on the birth, death and rebirth of movie posters from decades past. Both entertaining and an educational tool that balances knowledge with history, creativity and personal passion. Created by a lover and collector of movie posters, Kevin Burke and his crew took the time and detail to explore what movie posters mean to many different people. This was completed by speaking with a truly diverse group of artists, fans, film professionals, collectors and even feedback from test groups, and formed around an incredible multi-media presentation that truly demonstrates the beauty of the film poster coming together.
At the heart of 24×36 is a connection to the love that I have for the thrill of finding movie posters, art and more to collect and keep forever in different ways. Burke, his crew, and interview subjects all embody this passion through candid conversation, editing, and use of technology. Not focused as a fan film, Burke finds different roads off the main narrative, giving the project shape and focus by including the evolution of technology and the market, the fan obsession, and a more personal side of the creators. 24×36 frames this reality and celebrates it, instead of only touching on the changes and evolution of movie poster art swallowed by big studios and generic cover art. Whether you are a fan of movie posters from any decade or a student wanting to be educated by masters, 24×36 is a crucial documentary for everyone that opens the doors of the heart and mind – showing anything can happen and that the dream can last forever!
2. Cruel Summer (2016)
Nothing affected me more than watching Cruel Summer (2016) this year. Assigned to review the film, I was blown away by the reality, terror and true evil that can come from the human monster in these characters and inside us all. A very simple production on so many levels, Cruel Summer found its inspiration from real events surrounding a hate crime in the United Kingdom back in 2005, when a trio of young adults attacked a mentally disabled young man. For me, this film made me truly angry, upset, and on the verge of tears after I had finished watching. Cruel Summer continues to invoke the same reaction each time after; that is the key for me when it comes to any horror film.
Like with Train to Busan (2016), you care about the characters no matter what has happened or they have done. Offering appropriate backdrops that contrast and reflect each situation as well as character, the very small ensemble cast, as well we the score and the film’s final edit, are the true gems of the film. We see the care and craftsmanship on each level of this production, but especially with these three crucial aspects.
Cruel Summer is cast so well with each actor ingrained into their character, showing the depth, damage and emotion that many genre films are missing. The score is fluid and reflects the power of some moments while creating comfort in others. The final edit maintains a flow that keeps the film on track, never letting the personal baggage of each character clog the main story thread but just leaving enough to allow the viewer to deal with all that they have experienced and in the end let it settle. Due out on VOD and DVD in 2017, Cruel Summer is a powerful and scary portrait of the true nature of how we react to what we do not understand, and what can come from the darkness of jealousy, manipulation, and fear inside us – creating real horror.
1. Train to Busan (2016)
For me, just like many others, the zombie genre is a rotting corpse. Every once in a while, you will find a live one amongst the fields of cookie cutter titles that have lots of viscera, a struggle to survive, and just about no connection to the characters whatsoever. Not since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) has a film captured everything you wanted – not only in the infection/undead sub-genre but in a film overall. Watching it at three different film festivals and now on VOD, Train to Busan (2016) is a masterpiece of genre filmmaking. Created by animator Sang-ho Yeon, this film was critically acclaimed at some of the most prestigious film festivals, with fans and critics echoing the love it deserves. A balanced experience with a narrative that begins with little exposition, Train to Busan presents a stabbing dread that is different than most of its kind. As the train pulls out of the station heading to the city of Busan, all hell breaks loose with a 28 Days Later style infected monster — unrelenting, vicious and rabid — inside several train cars.
Tapping into your fears, emotion and excitement, those infected are only part of the story. Yeon focuses the primary narrative on the survivors who offer so many different stories, fears, and personalities, and are fitting pieces to the overall puzzle. Each of the main characters is distinctive and, like many great Asian horror films (especially coming out of Korea) before Train to Busan, the feel, style, and emotion is palpable and connecting. You feel connected to every element of this film like nerves stimulated on one’s body. You laugh, you dig into the seat, you cry, and you earn your payoff. One of the most incredible theater experiences I have ever had, Train to Busan is a complete ride that everyone should take at least once. It will rip your heart in all the right ways.
Jeremy Kibler: Contributing Writer
Against the most cynical of opinions, 2016 was actually a very good year for film. Every year, even when the mainstream offerings throughout the calendar year may seem dire at times (January kicked off with Dirty Grandpa ), there are always a number of gems. Though the following list includes mostly horror or horror-adjacent titles, it was actually very tough to fill only five slots. Here we go:
5) The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) might be the most divisive pick on this list. After seeing it at a screening, many audience members grumbled, calling it “the worst movie ever,” and others walked out halfway through. I can see why—it is Refn’s least palatable film even after Only God Forgives (2013)—but it so intoxicating in its lurid strangeness with an ominous, tonally perfect musical score, another cool synth piece of work from Cliff Martinez. There is a lot of beautifully chilly style here, although in the form of a vicious cautionary tale of the vanity-obsessed modelling world, I see the style being the substance. Love it or hate it, The Neon Demon changes one’s mood immediately afterwards.
4. The Invitation (2016)
Going in to The Invitation (2016) with a blank slate enriches the impact of this tensely mounted slow-burn. Director Karyn Kusama gathers estranged friends in the Hollywood Hills for a dinner party that doesn’t seem quite right. Everything is constructed so skilfully, right down to the sharp sound design and moody cinematography, and then it all pays off with a most unforgettable last shot.
3. Tie: Don’t Breathe (2016)/Hush (2016)
It was hard to decide between these home-invasion thrillers because I feel they both raise the bar in their sub-genre, mastering a simple premise and the geography of one house. Don’t Breathe (2016) is lean and mean, continually forcing the viewer to change allegiances between a blind war vet sitting on a hefty loot and the three criminal young people robbing him and hoping it will be another easy heist. It’s inventively shot and tightly edited, and keeps surprising you when you’re not just holding your breath.
On to Hush (2016); this high-concept little thriller is a doozy, too, in which a masked killer terrorizes a deaf-mute novelist and won’t stop until he gets inside her country home. It’s practically one long chase, but it’s so efficient, well-staged and full of thumb-screw tension. Both of these picks stressed me out in the best of ways.
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Even setting aside that 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) was a secret “spiritual successor” to 2008’s Cloverfield (which I, myself, would put at the top of the found-footage list), this lean, highly concentrated chamber piece is yet another taut exercise in how to build tension. It ends up being a mystery box, but before the last 15 minutes (which will divide audiences), Mary Elizabeth Winstead leads the way as a resourceful, root-worthy protagonist. John Goodman is also exceptionally unsettling, setting everyone off-balance as a survivalist who may or may not be insane. Just don’t spoil the goods.
1. The VVitch (2016)
A film so masterful in its craft that it was endorsed by the Satanic Temple, The VVitch (2016) is the most chilling entry on this list. Rich in portent and dread, Robert Eggers makes one accomplished feature debut with his story in which the dynamic of a family exiled from their village for practicing their Puritan Christianity gets shaken up when moving near the edge of the woods. It creeps under your skin, and even though I haven’t seen it again since February, it still lingers in the mind.
Sheila M. Merritt: Contributing Writer
5. Hell or High Water (2016)
Hell or High Water is indeed a high water mark among the films of 2016. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is intelligent and timely. Estranged brothers unite as bank robbers to save the family land from foreclosure. The acting is stellar. Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster are pitch perfect. Director David MacKenzie employs present day rural Texas not only as a backdrop; it’s almost a character in the narrative. A finely made heist thriller, there’s a depth that transcends genre.
4. Lights Out (2016)
Three horror films impressed me this year. Lights Out (2016), because it delivers on its premise courtesy of director David F. Sandberg. In addition, actress Maria Bello seldom disappoints. She is stunning in her role in this movie.
3. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Don’t Breathe (2016) garners my praise because I’m not a fan of the home invasion sub-genre, but this one made me recognize that when it’s well done, it is gratifying. Motivations are comprehensible. Suspense is beautifully calculated. Kudos to the cast and director Fede Alvarez.
2. Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) gets points for its nice evocation of the 1960s. Director Mike Flanagan previously shook me up with Oculus (2013), another film that deals with family dynamics within a supernatural setting. I look forward to his take on Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game which is in post-production.
1. La La Land (2016)
Ending non-horror, but within the realm of fantasy, La La Land (2016) warmed my heart. A musical that encapsulates nostalgia and celebrates creativity, it all coalesces with Emma Stone’s song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”: “So bring on the rebels/ The ripples from pebbles/The painters, and poets, and plays/And here’s to the fools who dream/Crazy as they may seem/Here’s to the hearts that break/Here’s to the mess we make.”
And here’s to you readers. May the New Year bring you joy.
Erin Miskell: Contributing Writer
5. Hardcore Henry (2015)
This entry is really low brow for some, but dammit, I love this movie. This movie plays like a first-person shooter game, only it’s jacked up on steroids and good music. It was directed by Ilya Naishuller, who’s also the singer/guitarist of Biting Elbows. Naishuller was known for directing some first-person music videos for the band; after teaming with Timur Bekmambetov (the same dude that brought us the Night Watch series [2004-2006]), he produced the story of an assassin trying to save his wife from the nefarious scientist that engineered him.
Is it a deep thinker? Nope. However, it’s got a main character that can’t speak but runs a lot, which is infinitely refreshing. It gives us a good chance to get involved with the backstory without the weirdness of having to identify with some voice or face that’s not ours. It also features Sharlto Copley in multiple turns, each one more outlandish than the last. I like Copley a great deal – he’s funny when given the right material, and he’s got more than enough here. He’s got that madman smile, which makes me wonder just what else he has in store for us in the coming years.
Most importantly, this film is an action movie, and a fun one at that. Sometimes, you need something where cars blow up, people are shot, and an impossible fight scene is set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Any movie that can make good use of that song earns the soft spot.
4. The VVitch (2015)
This film knocks me for a loop every damn time I watch it. I’ve heard criticisms over the year that it’s not really a horror film, but for me, Robert Eggers’s The VVitch is so much more than horror: it’s a very specific form of horror, the cautionary folk tale. The beauty of the folktale is that, when done well, it seamlessly blurs the lines between reality and imagination. Hence, an actual witch stalking a family in the woods is something real because, when you’re that scared and that isolated, it is all you have. Sounds like twigs snapping become terrifying because it’s supposedly just you out there; biological anomalies, like a goat giving blood instead of milk, are unexplained and a sign that God is angry with you. It’s the perfect exercise in terror, because it capitalizes on the fact that, when left alone, people will turn on each other and assume the worst. Thus, a tale of caution is born: behave, or else this same string of events will happen to you. The supernatural is real, and it will destroy you after you’ve wrecked your own life.
There’s not much else I can say about this film that hasn’t already been said. Anya Taylor-Joy has a nice, long career in front of her; Eggers can direct anything he damn well pleases; Kate Dickie is one I’m going to be watching from now on. And this film will terrify me every time I watch it.
3. Deadpool (2016)
Some people hate this film. I happen to love it. A bit of backstory: I’ve been cautious of superhero movies since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. The X-Men were my heroes as a kid, so to see something that completely screwed up the storyline and misuse a perfectly good Ben Foster… well, that just plain hurt.
So when Deadpool came along, I was wary. While it doesn’t adhere strictly to cannon, it translates well for people that are tired of watching Chris Evans’s sanctimonious, judgmental ass. Within the first two minutes, I found myself sucked in by the extreme sarcasm of the opening credits. Referring to your leading man as “God’s Perfect Idiot” and the writing team as “The Real Heroes Here” has a searing self-awareness that most films lack. It continually breaks the fourth wall, and it says all of the things we’re thinking.
On top of that, it has my favorite romantic scene ever: two people having sex while feeding each other Thanksgiving dinner. If nothing else, this film gave me a new life goal. Kidding aside, it’s actually a really sweet love story when you stop and think about it. Wade and Vanessa have something most people look for most of their lives. Skee Ball and WHAM! – it doesn’t get much better than that, folks.
2. Capture Kill Release (2016)
Oh this one is a close second to my top film of the year. It’s currently playing in festival only; I had the chance to view it, and Jesus Christ is this film extraordinary. Whereas The Eyes of My Mother (2016) is high art, this one is more so the underground punk artist that flaunts tradition.
A found footage offering from Brian McAnulty and Brian Allan Stewart, it tells the story of husband-and-wife team Jenn (Jennifer Fraser) and Farhang (Farhang Ghajar), who intend to commit the ultimate do-it-yourself project: the murder of a complete stranger. Filming themselves with a hand-held camera, Jenn and Farhang gleefully plot and plan the way that some people document a kitchen remodelling or the preparation of a baby’s nursery. However, as time ticks on, Farhang starts to lose his nerve, while Jenn continues a descent into the thrill of mayhem.
The performances in this film are absolutely searing. Fraser’s Jenn will make you distrust any woman that happens to have that name on principle. She and Ghajar have unbelievable chemistry, something so many studio pictures attempt and fail. It’s low on the gore factor, but high on the tension and atmosphere. To think that a film about murder that’s this disturbing came out of Canada – politeness central – only makes it better. If you get to see it, you owe it to yourself.
1. The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
I said it before and I’ll say it again: I want to tattoo this film’s name on my ass and buy it a ring. It hits so many good points for me: strong writing and direction from Nicolas Pesce, strong performances, strong score from Ariel Loh. It’s well-paced and moving. It’s simply perfect.
Shot entirely in black and white, The Eyes of My Mother (2016) tells the story of Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), a woman seeking connection amidst the looming backdrop of a childhood tragedy. It features a distinct lack of in-your-face gore, choosing instead to rest upon the performances of both Magalhaes and Will Brill. This was such a wise choice, as these actors are simply dynamite. Magalhaes presents a coldly detached, broken woman searching for a companion, while Brill’s Charlie is beyond creepy. Put them together, and you have one of the most compelling on-screen pairings that transcends words. They are singularly terrifying and fascinating.
This film simply presents the worst kind of monster: the person who cannot feel the way the rest of us do, the one who is hiding in plain sight. It’s the person that can’t relate, that treats us all like lab rats. Francisca is the most terrifying villain to come out of cinema in the past decade. And I love this film for giving her to me. It’s an art form.
Joseph Perry: Contributing Writer
5. The Clan (El Clan, 2016)
Argentinian crime drama/thriller The Clan (El Clan, 2016) boasts another of the year’s best villainous performances. Writer/director Pablo Trapero’s exceptional film is based on the true story of the Puccio family from Buenos Aires, who kidnapped and murdered victims from wealthy families in the 1980s. Guillermo Francella is jaw-droppingly amazing as Arquimedes Puccio, a doting father who turns to kidnapping when he suddenly finds himself unemployed after his work with the state’s intelligence services dries up. He coaxes his rugby-star son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani in another tremendous turn) into helping him kidnap one of the young man’s own friends as the first victim. Alejandro has no idea that his father plans to kill the friend after collecting the ransom, but after the murder, he continues to assist Arquimedes in the crimes. Once Alejandro falls in love with Monica (Steffania Koessl), he soon discovers that leaving a family business like this one is no easy feat. Many other interesting characters are involved in intriguing subplots and the ensemble cast is magnificent.
Trapero has crafted a goosebump-raising thriller with a despicable yet complex main character in Arquimedes. Francella gives one of the screen’s finest, most chilling performances of the year to bring that character to cinematic life.
4. Operation Avalanche (2016)
This conspiracy thriller comedy (a Canada/USA co-production) blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in more ways than one, as director Matt Johnson and co-writer Josh Boles play characters that share their real names in this cinema verite/pseudo-documentary effort, but they also infiltrated both NASA and Shepperton Studios with their crew to shoot footage for the film. The filmmakers take one of the most infamous conspiracy theories of modern times and add their own new twists and angles to serve up a fresh, gripping work. When fictional Johnson and Boles are recruited by the CIA in 1967 as part of a fledgling group of Ivy Leaguers for its A/V program, Johnson keeps trying to get the group increasingly important assignments. He talks some supervisors into letting the group pose as a documentary film crew in an attempt to uncover a Russian mole within NASA. Johnson eventually makes a pitch to help out a behind-schedule NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landings. Fellow A/V program member Owen Williams (who also shares his real name with his character) finds his friendship and professional relationship with Johnson at odds when it turns out that the latter hasn’t been completely honest with the rest of the group. Danger is not far behind.
The found-footage, 16mm-like aesthetic works perfectly for the story. Johnson’s attention to period detail and incorporation of actual NASA footage are outstanding. Johnson, Boles, and Williams balance humor and nail-biting tension to great effect. The trio previously worked together in the same capacities on the bullying and school shooting dramatic thriller The Dirties (2013).
3. Creepy (2016)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure ; Pulse ) offers up a satisfying Japanese mystery thriller that more than lives up to its title in this story of former police profiler turned university lecturer Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), and the odd (to put it mildly) neighbor Masato Noshino (Teruyuki Kagawa), who they move next door to. Noshino goes from livid to charming to coy at a moment’s notice, and Yasuko is repelled by yet drawn to him. When Noshino’s strangely behaving teenage daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino) is introduced, things get even more puzzling. Baffling unsolved disappearances and deadly accidents set Takakura’s mind to trying to tie up loose ends when a former colleague implores him to help with a cold case. There’s much more at play in this gripping effort but to reveal anything else would be doing potential viewers a disservice.
Kurosawa shows masterful direction here, and Kagawa is brilliant as one of this year’s best screen villains. Akiko Ashizawa’s cinematography keeps an unwavering watch on the proceedings, and the subtle sound design and soundtrack magnify sudden shocks. When Kurosawa gives the first glimpse of what happens inside Nishino’s home, it is an unsettling scene that further justifies the film’s title.
2. The Similars (Los Parecidos, 2016)
Speaking of films paying homage to the past while creating a wholly unique new vision, writer/director Isaac Ezban’s Mexican science fiction/horror effort The Similars (Los Parecidos, 2016) is an amazing movie that clearly shows Ezban’s love for The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), classic science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s, and more — I’ll leave the rest of the surprises up to those who have yet to see the movie. My advice is to learn as little as possible about The Similars before seeing it, but I’ll give you a spoiler-free set-up to whet your appetite. A group of strangers become trapped in a rural bus station hours away from Mexico City when a violent storm hits. With no way to leave the premises, a strange phenomenon strikes the stranded people, and paranoia and tensions rise as occurrences become increasingly bizarre.
The ensemble cast is terrific, and the changing color palette of the film is one of the many factors that make this film look so beautiful as it ratchets up both chills and absurdity. Ezban, who debuted as a feature auteur with The Incident (2014) and who is currently working on a new film called Parallel, is a master filmmaker with a huge love for genre fare. The Similars is not to be missed.
1. The Love Witch (2016)
Writer/director Anna Biller blends sumptuous 1960s cinematic aesthetics with feminist messages in her marvelous take on serial killer and slasher movies, The Love Witch (2016). I fell in love with this film from its opening moments during my initial viewing and have been enchanted through repeated viewings. It works on so many levels: as a cinematic treasure chest of classic movie-making styles, an occult thriller with humorous undertones, a feminist approach to gender politics in horror fare, and more. The film pays loving tribute to art house films of the past while addressing modern audiences with its own dynamic flair.
Samantha Robinson brings an old-fashioned movie star quality to her performance as Elaine, a ravishing young witch who relocates from San Francisco to Eureka, California, after the mysterious death of her husband. She joins a coven headed up by High Priest Gahan (Jared Sanford) and High Priestess Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), discusses her rather quaint take on the dynamics of sexual roles to her bemused new landlady Trish (Laura Waddell in a standout performance), and uses potions on men that cause them to deal with never before awakened romantic feelings that overwhelm them to death. Elaine also becomes romantically interested in police officer Griff (Gian Keys), who heads the investigation into the mysterious murders in town. The cast plays the film’s melodramatic approach straight, with all involved showing impressive chops.
The Love Witch is a true achievement and a labor of love on the part of Biller (who helmed and starred in the 1970s-set satirical sex comedy Viva ), who, besides writing and directing the film, also edited, did set design, created costumes and props, and wrote period music for the score. M. David Mullen’s cinematography gorgeously captures the proceedings. Fans of 1960s and 1970s occult thrillers, European horror movies and sex comedies, and classic melodramas will find plenty to love here.
Steven Thrash: Contributing Writer
Let’s be honest, 2016 wasn’t the ideal year when it comes to first-rate horror movies. I long for the days when there was a Saw film opening just in time for Halloween or when Freddy Krueger still haunted the dreams of the Elm Street children. Fortunately, there are Silver Screen sightings of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees on the horizon. And while spooky ghost stories seem to be surging, 2017 should up the ante in blood and guts with titles like Rings, Saw: Legacy and Leatherface.
But in 2016, at times, the selection of pictures available in theaters was almost as painful to watch as dragging your elbow back and forth over a cheese grater. However, there were a handful of films that kept the candle burning for all of us macabre movie maniacs. I know my list is going to be a little controversial, but here are my top five films that appeared in theaters last year.
5: The Other Side of the Door (2016)
Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) is so consumed with grief over the death of her son that she will do anything to be with him again. And I do mean anything, which includes trifling with the dead. But Maria is explicitly warned not to open one specific temple door from which she can communicate with her dead son. So, what does she do? Of course, Maria opens the forbidden door and all hell breaks loose.
Despite the predictable plot path, Callies does an admirable job acting with the limited material she has to work with. Callies is a lot more convincing as Maria than she was as the wining, unlikeable Lori Grimes on The Walking Dead (2010-present). Anyway, the film isn’t perfect, but the creepy, dark imagery helps The Other Side of the Door (2016) just beat out The Conjuring 2 (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) on my top-five list.
4: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
This movie was a real surprise for me, because I expected absolutely nothing from this peculiar Cloverfield (2008) sequel. I suppose the appearance of the creature at the very end of the film helps propel the picture into the realm of monster movies, but I was much more engaged by the conflict that poor Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) endured.
Michelle has been abducted, but her captor Howard (John Goodman) insists he has perpetrated this heinous act for her own good. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the suspense that builds over the course of the narrative, and I think it pays off well in the final moments of the story. For me, the monsters attacking the Earth felt more like a window dressing, while Michelle’s peril drove the narrative.
3: Don’t Breathe (2016)
The Blind Man might be the best cinematic horror villain to grace the Silver Screen in quite some time. Stephen Lang portrays the villainous victim of the story, as an unstoppable force of nature — a relentless boogeyman — that can’t be reasoned with. For me, the scene where he plans to impregnate Rocky (Jane Levy) had me cringing in my seat. It was a horrible feeling of helplessness on both that of Rocky’s part, and the audience, as the Blind Man graphically made his move to inseminate her body with a turkey baster. Thankfully, Alex (Dylan Minnette) arrives just in time to save her from the unthinkable. In a fit of uncontrollable rage, Rocky plunges the baster into the Blind Man’s mouth. It’s a disgustingly brilliant sequence. Listen, it’s hard to watch, and incredibly graphic, but it lets the audience know in no uncertain terms that the robbers are NOT the baddies. It’s the Blind Man.
2. The Shallows (2016)
I know a lot of people are going to vehemently disagree with me on my top-two choices, but these were the pictures I saw on more than one occasion because I enjoyed them so much. I concede that they may not be the purest form of horror flicks, but I relish them just the same.
I’m sure the filmmakers of The Shallows (2016) pitched their story to producers as Jaws (1975) meets Blue Crush (2002), but I was onboard from the moment I heard actress Blake Lively would be wearing a bathing suit for the majority of the film. Sex sells, especially in scary movies, and I hardly think this notion is antiquated even in this day and age.
Now, while the story is straightforward and transparent, the suspense level is kept consistent and heightened, as Nancy (Lively) tries to find a way to outsmart the shark she’s locked in mortal combat with. Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography is impeccable and there was just enough madness and mayhem to keep me involved in the story.
1: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
Here’s where I probably lose everyone, but I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). The film already had the advantage of being anchored by one of the most well-known and successful literary tales of all time, courtesy of Jane Austen. Lace that tale with blood-thirsty zombies, gore and sexy ladies that are anything but damsels in distress, and you’ve got yourself a rip-roaring ruckus of cinematic proportions.
Lily James was a gem as Elizabeth Bennet, while Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy was irksome and likeable all at the same time. James and Riley’s on-screen chemistry is close to palpable, which helps you root for them while they slash their way through the zombie apocalypse.
Here’s what I loved about the movie, in my original review: Each performer brings a tremendous believability to their individual roles, without anyone becoming the proverbial red-headed stepsister or clichéd bad apple of the bunch. Lily James is as talented as she is lovely, and she brings a tenderness and ferocity to this new interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet. The chemistry between her and co-star Sam Riley is perfect, and Jack Huston is delightfully decadent as the odious Mr. Wickham. Not to be outdone by the actors and actresses is the magnificent score of composer Fernando Velazquez, as he weaves together the perfect match of horror, romance, and drama with his stirring musical arrangements.
Here’s what I thought needed work, in my original review: While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an exceptional story, with a fun new twist, the horror aspect of the picture is somewhat lost. The movie just lacks any of those gut-wrenching scares that make you want to jump out of your seat or cower in the darkness. Those missing-in-action moments seem to be sacrificed for more storytelling and dramatization, which isn’t all too terrible, but, lest we forget, this is supposed to be a scary film.
Happy New Year, everyone! Thank you so much for reading.