(also see my music list below the fold)
Year-end top-ten lists can be so...contemporary. We have over a half-century of television, nearly a century of film, and centuries of art and music to explore and discover. When faced with the staggering maw of creative history, whatever jazzed you in the last year can quickly lose relevance. In addition, items that resonated during the last several months of the year inevitably take precedence over things that emerged at year's beginning. Still, people seem to love these list dealies, and after musing over the concept a while, I think I've come up with a way to deliver the goods without betraying my ingrown disdain for the practice.
None of the films in this list are new, as in NOW PLAYING, though a few are relatively recent releases on DVD:
Calvaire (2004) - By far the best of the French-language xenophobic "dread of the country folk" horror sub-subgenre (also see Frontière(s), Sheitan.) An itinerant singer/performer gets caught in a web of delusion surrounding a group of psychotic farmers who haven't seen an outsider in, well, a long time. Tight and precise, Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz's first feature has not a single shot wasted and remains visually engrossing and dramatically tense throughout. Look for an early cameo by Jean Rollin prodigy/French porn star Brigitte Lahaie. The high-end cast also includes Laurent Lucas, a veteran of French thrillers like Lemming and Harry un ami qui vous veut du bien, and Philippe Nahon, who you may recognize from Haute Tension, or as Gaspar Noé's Butcher. One reason this film ends up on a 2008 list is that it nagged at my subconscious until I watched it a second time—only then did I fully appreciate its brilliance. Du Welz' new film, Vinyan, also looks quite promising.
Cloverfield (2008) - Part of the reason this film won me over was its not-so-metaphorical depiction of Manhattan as a big, giant trap (all you people who are loathe to leave the island will want to get out right quick when a gigantic, powerful monster attacks.) Though I'm typically not a fan of CGI, the method used here is spare and effective, and the viewer is never over-exposed to the totality of the monster in question. The narrative flows fast and stays unpredictable throughout, with shocks aplenty. Cloverfield is proof that a great monster movie can still be made, with a minimum of means at that.
The Signal (2007) - Three directors collaborated on this technophobic/survivalist nightmare, and just when you thought the concept of a deadly, mind-warping electronic transmission was finished as a horror-film premise, these guys have kept it fresh. The Signal gets off to a rocking start immediately and never stops moving (always a joy for me, as I'm often seen in my living room, 30 minutes into a film, shouting "where are the zombies?!?") The story is consistently surprising, with loads of unexpected humor and plenty of the red, red kroovy for the gorehounds.
Naboer (Next Door) (2005) - A young, Norwegian professional, after an acrimonious breakup with his live-in girlfriend, gets unwillingly submerged in the dark, sensual world of two odd sisters that live next door. The sisters' seemingly endless flat is a masterwork of set design, with dozens of doors and creepy rooms that suggest past horrors. The whole film is remarkably claustrophobic and dense, in an unsettling "windmills of my mind" sort of way. Next Door is also notable for featuring one of the most unusual, violent, but undeniably hot sex scenes in recent film history.
The Nude Vampire/The Iron Rose - Two of director Jean Rollin's 1970s films recently made available (Autumn 2007) as part of the Salvation label's ongoing Rollin collection. Though the director's work is often much maligned as being cheap and cheesy, the fact is that his films are consistently visionary and compelling, especially when one considers that they are some of the most inexpensive productions to come out of France. It's my understanding that Rollin works each film outward from a set of pre-conceived imagery, filling in the sometimes spare narrative as he goes. If you like beautiful, young Europeans in 70s-mod fashion, sexy female vampires, crumbling chateaus and moody beach scenes, Rollin's films will not disappoint. The Iron Rose (1973) is a minimalist piece about a young couple trapped overnight in a cemetery, while The Nude Vampire (1970), Rollin's second feature, reads like a cross between one of his vampire dramas and a classic Trek episode.
Sílení (Lunacy) (2006) - Jan Svankmajer's now-trademark stop-motion animation (this time with raw meat, nails, tongues, animal carcasses etc.) punctuates this live-action tale of a hapless, troubled young man who falls under the spell of a decadent Marquis. Drawing on both Poe and de Sade for literary inspiration, the story is a cavalcade of grotesqueries, with sadistic mind games, sex magick, humans in captivity, the descent into madness, and a general indictment of various forms of psychotherapy. Fortunately, the story and the acting are quite strong, and hold together the steady barrage of mayhem. Definitely my favorite of Svankmajer's films.
Ex Drummer (2007) - This recent Belgian flick is a monster, on the level of Trainspotting or The Piano Teacher in the modern, nasty-drama pantheon. Though not strictly a horror film in genre terms, Ex Drummer is nonetheless mighty horrific and expertly done, like a punch in the face of modern cinema. See my full commentary on Ex Drummer here.
Scarecrows (1988, DVD Sept. 2007) - Give me a good slab of supernatural horror over psychotic serial-killer fare any time. Scarecrows is such a film—a good, old-fashioned American horror movie, the likes of which were more plentiful in the decade and a half that preceded its release. When a group of paramilitary thieves fall out after a big heist, they end up chasing one another around a condemned farm property, and as one might guess, the high-tech hoods end up with a lot more to worry about than who's getting away with the loot. As with most of the other titles on this list, the strength of Scarecrows is not in its graphic gore or hard shocks (though there are a few), but in clever, creepy ideas and an economic, straightforward editing style.
Thirst (1979, Special Edition DVD 2008) - Slinky beauty Chantal Contouri and Blow-Up/Deep Red icon David Hemmings star in this oh-so-70s bit of nuanced weirdness about some upper-crust vampires who have automated their bloodlust by erecting a series of "blood farms," where "donors" walk around dazed and pale in plain white uniforms. The film is nicely done, with striking set pieces and plenty of surreal plot shifts. Thirst is part Clonus, part Prisoner episode, with a great 4:30-movie vibe throughout. If you like Let's Scare Jessica to Death, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark or Burnt Offerings, Thirst will be a satisfying view.
The Zombie Diaries (2006) - This understated UK entry in the handheld-camera horror genre succeeds where George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead essentially failed. The Zombie Diaries is subtle and thoughtful everywhere that Romero's film was over-styled and ham-handed (perhaps I just expect more from George, as he set the standard so brilliantly in 1968, then reset the template again with equal brilliance in 1978.) The camera changes hands as it follows three groups of survivors through the zombie-infested countryside, as they fight off swarms, forage for food and supplies and try to keep each other alive. Despite a few brief scenes of zombie gore, The Zombie Diaries focuses mainly on the acts of individuals in the face of a massive crisis, and on how the choice between human cooperation and barbaric inhumanity impacts everyone's ultimate survival.
Music (All titles released 2007 or 2008 unless otherwise noted): Kluster - Admira & Vulcano | Mama Bär/Rudolf Eb.er/Runzelstirn & Gurgelstøck - Il Portale Delle Indipendenti | High On Fire - Live from the Relapse Contamination Festival | Pig Destroyer - Phantom Limb | Silvester Anfang - Kosmies Slachtafval & Levend Op De Brandstapel | Stan Reed/Gregor Jabs/Frank Rowenta - Apoplexia 1973 (2006) | Elisabeth Wurst - Sitzgruppe | Earth - The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull | Wolves in the Throne Room - Two Hunters | Burial Hex - Initiations | The New Blockaders - Das Zerstoren, Zum Gebaren | Jabladav - Primland | Hateful Abandon - Famine (or Into the Bellies of Worms) | Blue Sabbath Black Cheer - assorted releases | Mecki Mark Men (1st album reissue) | The Human Beast - Volume One (reissue) | Harmonia - Live 1974 | Circle - Katapult | Rättö ja Lehtisalo - Kopernikus Hortoilee Näkinkengässä (2003) & Ed Benttonin Briljantti Stabilismi tai Taivaallinen Kylpysaippua (2006) | Vegas Martyrs - The Female Mind | Défaillance - Contemplation Misanthropique de l´Humanité... | Whisper - Circle of the Moon | Elysian Blaze - Cold Walls and Apparitions (2005) | Skullflower - Desire for a Holy War
To see other 2008 year-end lists from the WFMU staff, click here.