Fright Club: Best Middle Eastern Horror

There are countless reasons the Middle East has not been a hotspot of horror film output. Chief among them may be censorship, but the truth is that many of the countries in the area have a lot more to deal with right now than making movies.

Still, horror cinema has become a blossoming industry. Film as art has always been a renegade’s opportunity to make a political statement and horror can be an inexpensive way to speak your mind. Films like Omar Khan’s 2007 Pakistani horror mash-up Devil’s Ground, though highly flawed, worked as both an homage to Western horror tropes and a comment on Pakistani life. And the 2015 film Jeruzalem filmed its first-person found-footage right in the holy city.

Here we count down the five very best of the genre coming from the region in a podcast recorded live at Gateway Film Center.

5. Rabies (2010)

(Israel)
So, weirdly enough this film has literally nothing to do with rabies. Like, at all. But, it does have a relentless nature and seriously weird attitude, mashing together serial killer, slasher and wooded horror to nice effect.

Filmmakers Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales started their journey in film and in horror here, with a genre mishmash that mostly works.

We open in a pit. A pitiful woman is calling out from the darkness. We soon realize that she and her brother 1) have run away from something, and 2) share a dark, unseemly secret. But that’s almost beside the point.

This story introduces the serial killer who haunts the film but hardly does the most damage. When a group of lost tennis players wanders into the woods—first to help the brother, then to escape a morally questionable cop—and a good guy of a forest ranger gets mixed up in all of it, well, things take weird turns. Bloody turns.

There’s an unsettling comic element to everything and performances are uniformly excellent. It’s an ambitious effort that does not entirely satisfy, but you find yourself really pulling for some of these guys and completely forgetting about that landmine.

4. Baskin (2015)

(Turkey)
Welcome to hell! Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol invites you to follow a 5-man police squad into the netherworld, where eye patches are all the rage, pregnancy lasts well under the traditional 40 weeks, and you don’t want to displease Daddy.

The serpentine sequencing of events evokes a dream logic that gives the film an inescapable atmosphere of dread, creepily underscored by its urgent synth score. Evrenol’s imagery is morbidly amazing. Much of it only glimpsed, most of it left unarticulated, but all of it becomes that much more disturbing for its lack of clarity.
The further along the squad gets, the more often you’ll look in horror at something off in a corner, that sneaking WTF? query developing along with your upset stomach.

The central figures in this nightmare are one eye-patch wearing helper who enjoys tossing his or her hair over one shoulder, and the breathtaking father figure played by Mehmet Cerrahoglu. There is no one quite like him.

Cerrahoglu’s remarkable presence authenticates the hellscape. Evrenol’s imaginative set design and wise lighting choices envelope Cerrahoglu, his writhing followers, and his victims in a bloody horror like little else in cinema.

3. Big Bad Wolves (2013)

(Israel)
A mixture of disturbing fairy tale and ugly reality, Israel’s Big Bad Wolves takes you places you really don’t want to go, but damn if it doesn’t keep you mesmerized every minute.

The particularly vulgar slaughter of several little girls sets events in motion. One teacher is suspected. One cop is driven. One father suffers from grief-stricken mania. It’s going to get really ugly.

Filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado (Rabies) implicate everyone, audience included. They create intentional parallels among the three men, pointing to the hypocrisy of the chase and making accusations all around of a taste for the intoxicating bloodlust that comes from dominating a weaker person.

Their taut and twisty script keeps surprises coming, but it’s the humor that’s most unexpected. Handled with dark, dry grace by Lior Ashkenazi (the cop) and Tzahi Grad (the father) – not to mention Doval’e Glickman (the grandfather) – this script elicits shamefaced but magnetic interest. You cannot look away, even when the blowtorch comes out. And God help you, it’s hard not to laugh now and again.

2. Under the Shadow (2016)</h2 (Iran)
Our tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

(Iran/US)
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own.

Amirpour is blessed with a cinematographer in Lyle Vincent capable of translating her theme of loneliness in a dead end town, as well as the cultural influences and Eighties pop references, into a seamless, hypnotic, mesmerizingly lovely vision. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Amirpour develops a deliberate pace that makes the film feel longer, slower than is probably necessary. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug-addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Though these are character types more than characters outright, Amirpour and her actors don’t abandon them. Each has breath and dimensionality, their fate a question that piques sympathy.

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful beauty of Vincent’s camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

Stars, Stripes & Appetites

The Bad Batch

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour dazzled moviegoers with her sleek and imaginative vampire fable A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The film tells of a solitary female figure and the surprising impact of unlikely companionship. Amirpour called the film a “vampire western.”

If you haven’t seen the film (and you should, immediately), but you like the premise, then Amirpour’s follow up The Bad Batch might also appeal to you. It mines a similar vein, although the context is a bit more merciless.

The film’s provocative opening of mostly voiceover under credits introduces the concept of the “bad batch” – unwanteds. Drugs, immigration, petty crime – it’s never clear what this batch has been up to, but we know where they’re going. They’re headed to a quarantined expanse of arid Texas desert no longer considered part of These United States.

Once the images on screen take form, Amirpour creates an atmosphere of dystopian terror that the balance of the film never quite reaches again.

Newest resident Arlen (Suki Waterhouse – very impressive), realizes just how Mad Max this can get moments after gates are locked behind her. In a breathless and brutal piece of cinema, we are introduced to one of two communities thriving in this wasteland.

The Bridge People are hyper-bulked up, ultra-tanned cannibals represented by Miami Man (Jason Momoa). (They may not have access to steroids, but they’re certainly getting a lot of protein.)

The second community of Comfort offers a colorful, almost habitable environment led by charismatic leader The Dream (Keanu Reeves).

With these two communities, Amirpour moves very clearly into metaphorical territory, ideas she underscores nicely with strategic use of the American flag.

One version of America sees the vain, self-centered “winners” literally feeding on the weak. The second may seem more accepting, but it pushes religion, drugs and other “comforts” to encourage passivity.

It’s a clever but unwieldy storyline, and Amirpour has trouble concluding her tale.

She has a great cast, though. Joining Woodhouse, Momoa and Reeves are flashes of Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna and a host of the freakish and intriguing.

Amirpour has such a facility with creating mood and environment, and though the approach here is different than with her debut, she once again loads the soundtrack and screen with inspired images, sounds and idiosyncrasies.

Her opening sets such a high bar – one she fails to reach again – and her finale feels too conventional for this character and this world. They’re fairly slight criticisms, but with a filmmaker of such amazing talent, they can’t help but be a let-down.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Fright Club: Best Female Vampire Movies

An aching loneliness tends to be the overwhelming theme of any vampire film that focuses primarily on the female predator – unless, of course, the focus is girl-on-girl action. But even then, aching loneliness, too. Whether evil bloodsuckers or just tragic and doomed to feed off the living, there’s something peculiarly spooky about these ladies. Here we celebrate the vampiress with our countdown of the five(ish) best female vampire movies.

Listen to the podcast, complete with a live studio audience, HERE.

5. The Hunger (1983)

Director Tony Scott’s seductive vampire love story has a little bit of everything: slaughter, girl-on-girl action, ’80s synth/goth tunage, David Bowie. What more can you ask?

Actually the film’s kind of a sultry, dreamily erotic mess. Oh, the gauzy, filmy curtains. Catharine Deneuve is the old world vampire Miriam, David Bowie is her lover. But he suddenly begins aging, and she needs to find a replacement. Enter Susan Sarandon as a medical specialist in unusual blood diseases and a fine actress who’s not above smooching other girls.

There are three reasons people will always watch this film: Bowie, Catherine Deneuve’s seduction of Susan Sarandon (classy!), and the great dark-wave Bauhaus number Bela Lugosi’s Dead. Together it’s a Goth Trifecta! And Goths do love them some vampires.

4. Daughters of Darkness (1971)

Seduction, homoeroticism, drowsy lustfulness – this one has it all.

Countess Bathory – history’s female version of Dracula – checks into an all-but-abandoned seaside hotel. The only other guests, besides the Countess’s lover, Ilona, is a honeymooning couple.

Effortlessly aristocratic, Delphine Seyrig brings a tender coyness, a sadness to the infamous role of Bathory. Seyrig’s performance lends the villain a tragic loveliness that makes her the most endearing figure in the film. Everybody else feels mildly unpleasant, a sinister bunch who seem to be hiding things. The husband, in particular, is a suspicious figure, and a bit peculiar. Kind of a dick, really – and Bathory, for one, has no time for dicks.
Caring less for the victims than for the predator – not because she’s innocent or good, but because her weary elegance makes her seem vulnerable – gives the film a nice added dimension.

The accents are absurd. The outfits are glorious. The performances are compellingly, perversely good, and the shots are gorgeous. Indulge yourself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFRuSbykaV0

3. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Leave it to visionary writer/director Jim Jarmusch to concoct a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.

Great lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop of…Detroit.

Not since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached, underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in uniquely contrasting ways.

There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.

2. Let the Right One In (2008)/Let Me In (2010)

Let’s be honest, we’ve combined these two films just to make room for an additional film in the countdown. In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest, coldest imaginable environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure. Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar with a blond Prince Valiant cut falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.

Hollywood’s 2010 version is the less confusingly entitled Let Me In. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) managed to retain the spirit of the source material, while finding ways to leave his own mark on the compelling story of an unlikely friendship.

While the original had an ominous sense of dread, a feel of bleak isolation, and a brazen androgyny that the update can’t touch, Let Me In scores points all its own. Reeves, also adapting the screenplay, ups the ante on the gore, and provides more action, scares and overall shock value.

Together the films set the standard for child vampire fare, and neither one should be missed.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Hz0x67hMcg

1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own.

Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The image is highly stylized, with a hip quirkiness and stationary camera framings that noticeably mine Jarmusch’s early work. Indeed, Amirpour seems an avid fan of American indies of the Eighties and Nineties, as well as the films of endlessly imitated French New Wave filmmakers and Sergio Leone – so that’s a mish mash. But Amirpour effortlessly balances the homages and inspirations, the cultural nuances alive in Girl giving every scene a uniqueness that makes the whole effort surprising.

Amirpour is blessed with a cinematographer in Lyle Vincent capable of translating her theme of loneliness in a dead end town, as well as the cultural influences and Eighties pop references, into a seamless, hypnotic, mesmerizingly lovely vision. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Day 20: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own.

Amirpour is blessed with a cinematographer in Lyle Vincent capable of translating her theme of loneliness in a dead end town, as well as the cultural influences and Eighties pop references, into a seamless, hypnotic, mesmerizingly lovely vision. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The image is highly stylized, with a hip quirkiness and stationary camera framings that noticeably mine Jarmusch’s early work. Indeed, Amirpour seems an avid fan of American indies of the Eighties and Nineties, as well as the films of endlessly imitated French New Wave filmmakers and Sergio Leone – so that’s a mish mash. But Amirpour effortlessly balances the homages and inspirations, the cultural nuances alive in Girl giving every scene a uniqueness that makes the whole effort surprising.

Amirpour develops a deliberate pace that makes the film feel longer, slower than is probably necessary. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Though these are character types more than characters outright, Amirpour and her actors don’t abandon them. Each has breath and dimensionality, their fate a question that piques sympathy.

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful beauty of Vincent’s camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Fright Club: Horror’s Best Female Directors

Sunday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. We thought we’d celebrate by perusing the very best horror directed by women. It’s a much stronger list than many people realize and it includes two of the finest genre works of last year.

5. Near Dark (1987)

Back in ’87, future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow brought a new take on a familiar theme to the screen. A mixture of vampire and western tropes, Near Dark succeeds mostly on the charisma of the cast. The always welcome Lance Henricksen is campy fun as the badass leader of a vampire family, while the beguiling Mae (Jenny Wright) – nomadic white trash vampire beauty – draws you in with a performance that’s vulnerable and slightly menacing.

The most fun, though, is Bill Paxton as the truest psychopath among the group looking to initiate a new member. All the film’s minor flaws are forgotten when you can watch an unhinged Paxton terrorize a barful of rednecks. Woo hoo!

4. American Mary (2012)

A masterful Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Writer/director/twins Jen and Sylvia Soska offer a screenplay that is as savvy as they come, clean and unpretentious but informed by gender politics and changing paradigms. Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

3. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

2. The Babadook (2014)

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.

1. American Psycho (2000)

American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Director Mary Harron trimmed Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, giving it unerring focus. More importantly, the film soars due to Christian Bale’s utterly astonishing performance as narcissist, psychopath, and Huey Lewis fan Patrick Bateman.

There’s an elegant exaggeration to the satire afoot. Bateman is a slick, sleek Wall Street toady, pompous one minute because of his smart business cards and quick entrance into posh NYC eateries, cowed the next when a colleague whips out better cards and shorter wait times. The more glamour and flash on the outside, the more pronounced the abyss on the inside. What else can he do but turn to bloody, merciless slaughter? It’s a cry for help, really.

Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well it does because of the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane and yet somehow empathetic. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Fright Club: Best Horror in 2014

If you think 2014 was a paltry year in horror, you just weren’t looking hard enough. Sure, the big blockbusters – Ouija, Annabelle, etc. – disappointed, but there were independent and foreign gems aplenty. We count downt the best horror had to offer in 2014. You’re welcome!

5. Housebound: Long before Hobbits and dragons, kiwi Peter Jackson filled New Zealand cinemas with laughs and screams while covering their screens in blood and body fluids. The torch has been passed to Gerard Johnstone, whose Housebound is a funny, clever, heart-racing horror flick about a potentially haunted house. It’s also among the very best of the genre released this year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT1KcYiPb4I

4. Big, Bad Wolves: In Isreal’s hypnotic fairy tale nightmare Big Bad Wolves we follow one driven cop, one driven-to-madness father, and one milquetoast teacher who’s been accused of the most heinous acts. Not for the squeamish, the film boasts brilliant performances, nimble writing and disturbing bursts of humor. It treads in dark, dark territory, but repeatedly dares you to look away. It’s a bold and brilliantly realized effort.

3. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature – also Iran’s very first vampire film -is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive: The great Jim Jarmusch (Ohio boy!) updates the vampire genre with a well conceived twist on the unusual, aided by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful performances as well as his own dry humor and magnificent eye for visuals.

1. The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer.

Listen in to our new Fright Club podcast with Golden Spiral Media!

FC 01-Best Horror in 2014

Counting Down the Women of Film, 2014

Of the many excellent trends in movie houses this year, our favorite was the focus on female directors. Here we celebrate our favorite films of 2014 helmed by women.

Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut. It opens in Columbus on January 9. Do not miss it.

The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer. It also marks first time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent as an artist to watch.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature – also Iran’s very first vampire film -is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child: Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with this one. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Belle: Amma Asante’s directorial breakout is the fact-based tale of a bi-racial girl raised by her aristocratic grandparents in 18th Century England. Well told and perfectly cast, with the always flawless Tom Wilkinson playing the family patriarch and a wondrous turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead, the film draws parallels you never knew existed between past and present.

Beyond the Lights: Mbatha-Raw impresses again with help from another female behind the camera in this cautionary tale about fame by Gina Prince-Bythewood. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.

Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s second effort behind the camera tells the truly amazing story of an Olympic runner turned WWII POW. Her attention to detail benefits the historical epic, and another strong turn by Jack O’Connell keeps your attention.

Best First Features of 2014 Countdown

One of the most interesting themes you find when searching back over the best films of 2014 is the brilliance of films with one word titles (Birdman, Nightcrawler, Whiplash, Boyhood, Rosewater – it’s a long list!). Another is the remarkable quality of feature directorial debuts. Many of the year’s most powerful, intriguing films came from first time filmmakers, though several of these are industry veterans. Here is a look at the most impressive feature directorial debuts of 2014.

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s been writing films – many of them mediocre at best – since 1992’s Freejack. It appears he saved his best script for his debut as a director. Nightcrawler is aided immeasurably by the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s career, but Gilroy’s dark, creepy approach to unseemly but enormously relevant material proves his mettle behind the camera.

Rosewater

An industry veteran with a connection to the source material, Jon Stewart made his directorial debut this year with the tale of a journalist jailed in Iran partly because of an interview he did with The Daily Show. The story behind Rosewater is fascinating, and Stewart’s direction proves thoughtful, insightful and inventive.

The Babadook

Aussie Jennifer Kent’s spooky tale opens this week, offering perhaps the creepiest effort of the year. A cautionary tale about parenting, the movie introduces a filmmaker who grounds fantasy in an unnerving level of naturalism, who can draw deeply human performances, and who knows what scares you.

Dear White People

Justin Simien makes the leap from shorts to features with one of the smartest films of the year. Dear White People tackles racial issues with confidence and a mix of sarcasm, outrage, hilarity and disgust. Simien never abandons comedy for preaching, but there is not an issue he isn’t willing to spotlight, however uncomfortable. It’s an insightful, biting comedy too few people saw this year.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature is also the first Iranian vampire film, so extra points there. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a gorgeous, peculiar reimagining of the familiar. Amirpour mixes imagery and themes from a wide range of filmmakers as she updates and twists the common vampire tropes with unique cultural flair. The result is a visually stunning, utterly mesmerizing whole.

Obvious Child

Gillian Robespierre crafts an uncommonly realistic, uncomfortable, taboo-shattering comedy with Obvious Child. A romantic comedy quite unlike any other, it succeeds in large part due to a miraculous lead turn from Jenny Slate. Robespierre’s refreshingly frank film rings with authenticity, and is as touching as it is raw.

Bad Words

We’re willing to give anything a shot if Jason Bateman is involved. Sure, it doesn’t always pay off, but his directorial debut Bad Words is as wry, dry and funny as you’d expect. No one has comic timing like Bateman, and it leads to a quickly paced, lean and hilariously mean effort.

The Lady is a Vamp

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

by Hope Madden

Earlier this year Jim Jarmusch released his vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive – a brilliant and woefully underseen flick. Had he not released that film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night would certainly be the most Jarmusch-y vampire movie ever made.

In fact, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has made the world’s first Iranian vampire movie, and though she borrows liberally and lovingly from a wide array of inspirations, the film she’s crafted is undeniably, peculiarly her own.

Amirpour is blessed with a cinematographer in Lyle Vincent capable of translating her theme of loneliness in a dead end town, as well as the cultural influences and Eighties pop references, into a seamless, hypnotic, mesmerizingly lovely vision. The film is simply, hauntingly gorgeous.

Set in Bad Town, a city depleted of life – tidy yet nearly vacant – Girl haunts the shadowy, lonesome fringes of civilization. The image is highly stylized, with a hip quirkiness and stationary camera framings that noticeably mine Jarmusch’s early work. Indeed, Amirpour seems an avid fan of American indies of the Eighties and Nineties, as well as the films of endlessly imitated French New Wave filmmakers and Sergio Leone – so that’s a mish mash. But Amirpour effortlessly balances the homages and inspirations, the cultural nuances alive in Girl giving every scene a uniqueness that makes the whole effort surprising.

Amirpour develops a deliberate pace that makes the film feel longer, slower than is probably necessary. The time is spent with singular individuals – a prostitute (a world-wearied and magnificent Mozhan Marno), a drug addicted father (Marshall Manesh), a street urchin (Milad Eghbali), a pimp (Dominic Rains), and a rich girl (Rome Shadanloo). Two people weave in among these players – the handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), and a lonesome vampire (Sheila Vand).

Though these are character types more than characters outright, Amirpour and her actors don’t abandon them. Each has breath and dimensionality, their fate a question that piques sympathy.

Vand’s Girl is the constant question mark, and that – along with the eerie, sometimes playful beauty of Vincent’s camerawork – is what makes the film unshakably memorable. I promise the image of a vampire on a skateboard will stay with you.

Verdict-4-0-Stars