2011 Recap: Best New Releases

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-12-27 21:24
Iíve never really been into end-of-year lists, at least from a writing perspective. Reading them is always fun and insightful, mostly because theyíre written by people who are both smarter than me and who have seen more movies than me during the year. That last part is especially important; I hate to consistently bitch about this (if you happen to follow me on Twitter, I apologize), but pretty much live in the middle of nowhere, which results in me being late to the party on a lot of movies. That especially happens with horror flicks because so few of them ever manage to get a wide theatrical release no matter how good they are, so it might even be a whole year before I see some legitimately great films.

So, in short, I donít do top ten lists simply because I may not have even seen the best that 2011 has to offer yet; as such, I really donít want to look back on a list a few years from now and wince when something huge gets left off here (so anyone carrying torches for the omission of both The Woman and The Innkeepers can douse their flames). Instead, Iím just going to look back at the year that was 2011 in horror and discuss not only the best new films, but also the highlights from the sadly dwindling home video market, which managed a few moments of brilliance between the death throes of its current disc-bound incarnation.

2011 isnít likely to be looked upon fondly in the next decade or so, but it was hardly an abysmal disaster; I donít even think you had to look all that hard, even if there was a huge dearth of mainstream theatrical releases. Plus, a lot of 2010ís more notable titles (Buried, Hatchet II, I Spit on Your Grave, etc.) straggled onto DVD early in the year so the rest of us could see them, which shows us just how fluid these kinds of situations are. But anyway, hereís the handful of flicks that really stood out from 2011, presented chronologically in the order in which I saw them.

Drive Angry

    It took nearly 50 days before 2011 saw itís first really great horror flick blast into theaters, and the latest from Farmer and Lussier actually treads ever so slightly on the genre. However, itís so badass and makes great use of ďbatshit crazy Nic CageĒ (not to be confused with the oddball Nic Cage who only shows up in one out of every ten flicks he does) that it warrants inclusion here. Back in February, I said it would have made for a great segment for a Grindhouse sequel, and I still do--itís a totally bonkers flick fuelled by gunshots, fucking, and explosions and guided by a suave performance by the enigmatic William Fitchner.

Insidious

    Like Farmer and Lussier, Wan and Whannell have become a duo whose work Iíll always look forward to; while Saw is the only genuinely great film these two have done, both Dead Silence and Death Sentence are cool, stylish updates of comic-book ghost stories and vigilante flicks, respectively. Insidious is their homage to the likes of Poltergeist and Amityville, and the first hour is genuinely intense, suspenseful stuff, framed by a deep, suffocating mystery; I know a lot of people had problems when the film finally opened up and pulled back the curtain, but I enjoyed how fully Wan indulged himself. If the first two acts are like the anticipatory trip to a local carnival, then the last act is the stroll through the demented funhouse.

Scream 4

    Iíve never made my love for sequels much of a secret, but Scream 4 doesnít earn a spot here based on that alone. After all, youíll never catch me apologizing for Scream 3 or any other bad franchise entry, so this third sequel was a legitimate return to form for me. Returning to the roots of the franchise and riffing on a decadeís worth of horror material along the way, it delivered a wild, bloody, and surprising ride whose high points faintly echoed the greatness of the first two films, which is something even I probably couldnít have anticipated.

Rubber

    This one was technically a 2010 film, I guess, but most of us couldnít see it until this year; I actually managed to see this one in theaters, which was a surreal event in itself. Not as surreal as the actual movie, though, which might be the most surprising horror flick from this year; obviously, youíd expect a movie about a killer tire to be a little bonkers, but thatís probably the least strangest thing about this one. Most inexplicable is how Wings Hauser somehow manages to upstage said tire, all while being confined to a wheelchair. Maybe itís a little cute and feels like it was made by someone who just took a course in postmodern literary theory, but youíll be chewing over the nature of audience and art long after the novelty of telekinetically-induced exploding heads has worn off.

I Saw the Devil

    If I were the type that had to peg down an absolute best of the year, I Saw the Devil would make a serious run for that top honor. In fact, itís one of the best films Iíve seen regardless of genre all year. Another South Korean mediation on violence and revenge, this one is especially savage. Typically, Iíd question if one of these things needs to be so long, but it breezes through its runtime with panache; itís almost galling that something this ugly turns out to be so stylishly haunting.

Wake Wood

    As much as I really loved Let Me In, this one feels like the proper return of Hammer Films. Taking both the company and audiences back to the familiar trappings of a occult-filled British countryside, this is a slick, gooey, and heady take-off of moralistic terrors like Pet Sematary. This is the movie that Christopher Lee should have had a role in (instead of the horribly dull The Resident, which was like a Lifetime movie on a budget), so long as he stayed out of drag.

Stake Land

    Stake Land almost single-handedly redeemed the endless horde of shitty vampire movies that have emerged lately, mostly because it didnít focus on the goddamn vampires. Instead, it takes the form of a post-apocalyptic road movie and takes a couple of intriguing leads as its subjects. Their journey doesnít come without some intense showdowns with bloodsuckers, but Iíll mostly remember this one for being a weird coming-of-age tale; certainly more Karate Kid than Dracula, it works as both great drama and great horror.

Final Destination 5

    I donít think I need to explain this one any further. Between the theatrical and Blu-ray reviews, I think youíve gathered that I really had a little bit too much fun watching kids getting killed in horrific fashion for the fifth time.



Troll Hunter

    One of the more creative and inventive films I saw this year, this Norwegian offering is some kind of a bizarre masterwork thatís a joy to watch. A lot of its concerns are inherently Norwegian, as the whole thing acts as a huge (literally) allegory for that countryís politics, but it easily surpasses those borders with its gentle humor and awe-inspiring creature effects.

Attack the Block

    This one has been the genre darling all year for a lot of people and with good reason: it absolutely works on so many levels: as an action film, as a comedy, and, obviously, as a horror movie. Though writer/director Joe Cornish crafted this out of his love for childhood favorites, nothing about this feels overly familiar; instead, thereís something so fresh, energetic, and infectious about these characters and their dialogue. Cornish tapped into something here, and I think the film even brings some interesting politics to the table and has a lot to say about that underdog sector of society thatís been discarded like garbage for no good reason.

Bereavement

    Fans of Stevan Menaís Malevolence waited a long time for this prequel, but it proved to be a worthwhile wait. I know he conceived this as a trilogy, and heís reaffirmed that part three will happen depending on the reception to this, so I can only hope that it finds an audience. Heís a filmmaker that excites me; like Cornish, he makes films that are obviously riffing on the stuff he grew up on, but both this and Malevolence are finely tuned updates of all of that. Plus, anything that gives Michael Biehn a starring role is to be commended.

Contagion

    Along with I Saw the Devil and Attack the Block, Contagion is another legitimately great film that transcends genre. As a horror movie, its terrors are palatable; Soderbergh captures an ominous, apocalyptic vibe with ease. It doesnít come with over-the-top hysterics; instead, like the virus at the center of the story, it subtly creeps into your skin. Before you know it, you find yourself gripped in fear every time Soderbergh so much as highlights a door knob with his lens. This also has one of the best ensembles youíll see in a movie this year.

Human Centipede II: The Full Sequence

    I fully expected that Tom Six might have been too full of himself after The Human Centipede, a film that you would have sworn was overtly disgusting and ghastly. In reality, it the first film is silly, stupid, and harmless, so it follows that Tom Six would lash out at the exaggerated perception of it big time; yes, the sequel is disgusting (it is easily the most disgusting movie Iíve ever seen in a theater), but itís framed with a meta-awareness that actually gives it more of a point than the original. It refuses to relent because Six wants to show you what disgusting really looks like, and, most of all, he wants you to recoil back to the relatively quaint original. Few sequels work as interestingly as this one; in fact, I think it actually makes the first one even better in context.

Revenge: A Love Story

    Another Oriental revenge epic, Revenge: A Love Story is one of the more unsettling movies I saw this year. Fetuses are ripped from a motherís womb within the opening minutes, and the indignities somehow get worse from there. But somehow, the ďlove storyĒ equation from the title emerges over all of that; it really is a love story, albeit one that involves rape, revenge, and violence that consumes everyone it touches.

Paranormal Activity 3

    I think Paranormal Activity 3 might be the best in this series so far; it might be getting bigger and more cinematic as it goes along, but it still captures the primal fear that a good found footage movie elicits. However, my interest has moved beyond the still-effective jumps and bumps in the night; instead, Iíve become fascinated by how theyíve carved out a genuinely interesting mythology around these characters, even if you do have to swallow that theyíve somehow managed to film all of these crucial moments in their lives.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

    Speaking of smart movies masquerading as gore fests, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil takes a well-worn concept, turns it on its head, and shakes it up. In this case, itís the idiot kids who wander into the woods that end up being the enemy, almost out of default. Theyíre correct in thinking that Tucker and Dale are a couple of good old boys, but theyíre misguided in their insistence that these two mean to do any harm--even if most of them end up dying through a series of unfortunate events.

A Horrible Way to Die

    This one probably upset me as much as any horror movie this year for myriad reasons. For one thing, poor Amy Seimetz is put through the wringer as the girlfriend of a convicted serial killer (played with unnerving, disarming intensity by A.J. Bowen). But forget that--this movie mostly upset me because it took far too long for me to see it; this is another one that premiered at festivals long before I ever saw it and ended up going straight to DVD when it could have easily played in theaters. I hope it ends up reaching the audience it deserves, and I suspect it will once Adam Wingard and Simon Barrettís follow-up (Youíre Next) becomes a sensation next year.

The Skin I Live In

    In retrospect, 2011 has been a great year for films transcending horror; usually, you might get one flick every couple of years thatís legitimately great, but this one has had more than a few. As such, the highs have been very high this year, with this one being a notably sick peak. Asian revenge tales have been all the rage for their hugely epic, violent twists and turns, but Pedro Almodůvar delivers a wild plot that might upstage them all in terms of sheer nuttiness. Thierry Jonquetís story goes to some deep, dark, and perverse places born out of obsessive desperation for something thatís been lost, and Almodůvarís art house sensibilities relay it with a clinical ease.

Dream Home

    At this point, it seems like whenever you mention Dream Home, you have to assure people that you aren't actually talking about Dream House, the terribly lazy haunted house/not-so-thrilling psychological thriller that even Jim Sheridan himself disowned earlier this year. However, in a few years' time, the latter is going to be the footnote, and this Hong Kong offering will be remembered as a slick, violent slasher that reflected the economic unrest of recent times. Even when stripped of its political contexts, it works as both a disturbing, visceral horror movie and a gut-wrenching emotional journey of a girl who would kill for a room of her own.

Black Death

    This feels like an appropriate bookend for the list; like Drive Angry, it dabbles in various genres, beginning as a Medieval quest epic before ending up drenched in the gothic flavors of necromancy and witchcraft. In between, there's a whole lot of gore-soaked hack and slash and excursions into the unseemly corners of humanity's penchant for self-destruction. A scathing indictment of mob mentality and and a disturbing portrait of one man's fall from grace, Black Death is a fine update of 70s cult and witch-hunt movies.



    Stay tuned tomorrow for a look the year's home video highlights, plus a look ahead to 2012's most anticipated releases.

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