Moments after Girlhood’s perfectly disconcerting opening, you settle into the world of its protagonist, Marieme, but writer/director Celine Sciamma has already told you something very important. You shouldn’t assume anything.
Few, if any, films have been able to do justice to coming of age the way Sciamma’s does. Girlhood is a character study, following Marieme (Karidja Toure) through her days as an adolescent in a deprived Paris project, struggling against each of her equally unappealing life options.
Good girl Marieme sees one important door toward opportunity close. On the same day, she catches the eye of a trio of wilder girls and slowly she finds the joy in extending her adolescence and the power in solidarity and sisterhood.
Sciamma, thanks to a quietly powerful performance from Toure, represents more than just the bittersweet romance and nostalgia generally associated with the coming of age film. Saying goodbye to childhood is rarely as simple and lovely as movies make it out to be, and Sciamma’s interest is in seeing the same transition from an under represented point of view. The fact that this feels so fresh is itself an indictment. For Marieme, her choices are limited along racial, sexual and socioeconomic lines, but Sciamma’s perceptive film is too honest and understated to feel preachy.
Wisely, Sciamma disregards every filmmaking technique we’ve come to expect in a movie about a girl blossoming into womanhood. Her observant style, cast of amateur actors, and her own penetrating storytelling give the proceedings a quiet authenticity.
Like Sciamma’s previous films Tomboy and Water Lillies, Girlhood explores youth in crisis. She never judges her characters, and Toure’s ability to showcase her character’s humility and strength simultaneously ensure the audience’s empathy.
The storyline is necessarily untidy as Marieme takes on and casts off wildly different personas, illuminating the almost heartbreaking courage of youth. Regardless of the choices she makes from among the options limited by discrimination on almost every front, we must root for her fight for a life she can accept.
Ave DuVernay’s unflincing account of civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama is the most painfully relevant film of 2014. Sure, Oscar decided to ignore the director’s brilliant work as well as David Oyelowo’s stunning, wearied performance, but that doesn’t mean you should. DuVernay is a master storyteller at the top of her game and with her stewardship, Selma is a well crafted, straightforward punch to the gut.
Another underappreciates 2014 gem, Mike Leigh’s biopic Mr. Turner, releases to home entertainment today as well. While the films are markedly different, they do share some wonderful elements in common. Leigh’s approach suits the material beautifully as his painterly camera and fluid direction give the story room to breathe, while a magnificent lead performance from Timothy Spall keeps you spellbound. Both boast wonderfully nuanced turns from a large, capable ensemble and both were woefully underappreciated by the Academy. You should give them a chance.
We’ve spent more than a month celebrating the best horror movies of each decade, and what that made us want to do is to throw a little party for those under-the-radar gems you may not have caught. This list could go on for days, but we narrowed our recommendations down to a half dozen of our very favorite, woefully underseen horror flicks. Have a look, and if you’ve missed any of these, take our word for it: you need to see these.
6. Eden Lake (2008)
The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenaged thugs.
European horror tends to do a nice job with the upwardly mobile middle class’s terror of untamed young things. Kids today! The best of these films mix a contempt for proper manners and liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes.
The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Sure, the “angry parents raise angry children” cycle may be overstated, but Jack O’Connell’s performance as the rage-saturated offspring turned absolute psychopath is chilling.
5. The Woman (2011)
There’s something not quite right about Chris Cleese (an unsettlingly cherubic Sean Bridgers), and his family’s uber-wholesomeness is clearly suspect. This becomes evident once Chris hunts down a feral woman (an awesome Pollyanna McIntosh), chains her, and invites the family to help him “civilize” her.
The film rethinks family – well, patriarchy, anyway. Writer Jack Ketchum may say things you don’t want to hear, but he says them well. And director Lucky McKee, in hi smost sure-footed effort, has no qualms about showing you things you don’t want to see. Like most of Ketchum’s work, The Woman is lurid and more than a bit disturbing.
Nothing happens in this film by accident – not even the innocent seeming baking of cookies – nor does it ever happen solely to titillate. Deeply disturbing and absolutely not for the timid, this is a movie that will stay with you.
4. The Snowtown Murders (2011)
John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.
Director Justin Kurtzel seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.
Daniel Henshall cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.
There’s not a false note in his chilling turn, nor in the atmosphere Kurzel creates of a population aching for a man – any adult male to care for them, protect them and tell them what to do.
The Snowtown Murders is a slow boil, and painfully tense. It’s hard to watch and harder to believe, but as a film, it offers a powerful image of everyday evil that will be hard to shake.
3. Them (Ils) (2006)
Brisk, effective and terrifying, Them is among the most impressive horror flicks to rely on the savagery of adolescent boredom as its central conceit. Writers/directors/Frenchmen David Moreau and Xavier Palud offer a lean, unapologetic, tightly conceived thriller that never lets up.
A French film set in Romania, Them follows Lucas (Michael Cohen) and Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a young couple still moving into the big rattling old house where they’ll stay while they’re working abroad.
It will be a shorter trip than they’d originally planned.
What the film offers in 77 minutes is relentless suspense. Creepy noises, hooded figures, sadistic children and the chaos that entails – Them sets up a fresh and mean cat and mouse game that pulls you in immediately and leaves you unsettled.
Watch it. Do it.
2. We Are What We Are (Somos le que hay) (2010)
In a quiet opening sequence, a man dies in a mall. It happens that this is a family patriarch and his passing leaves the desperately poor family in shambles. While their particular quandary veers spectacularly from expectations, there is something primal and authentic about it.
It’s as if a simple relic from a hunter-gatherer population evolved separately but within the larger urban population, and now this little tribe is left without a leader. An internal power struggle begins to determine the member most suited to take over as the head of the household, and therefore, there is some conflict and competition – however reluctant – over who will handle the principal task of the patriarch: that of putting meat on the table.
Writer/director Jorge Michel Grau’s approach is so subtle, so honest, that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror film. Grau draws eerie, powerful performances across the board, and forever veers in unexpected directions.
We Are What We Are is among the finest family dramas or social commentaries of 2010. Blend into that drama some deep perversity, spooky ambiguities and mysteries, deftly handled acting, and a lot of freaky shit and you have hardly the goriest film on this list, but perhaps the most relevant.
1. The Ordeal (Calvaire) (2004)
A paranoid fantasy about the link between progress and emasculation, the film sees a timid singer stuck in the wilds of Belgium after his van breaks down.
Writer/director Fabrice Du Welz’s script scares up the darkest imaginable humor. If David Lynch had directed Deliverance in French, the concoction might have resembled The Ordeal. As sweet, shy singer Marc (a pitch perfect Laurent Lucas) awaits aid, he begins to recognize the hell he’s stumbled into. Unfortunately for Marc, salvation’s even worse.
The whole film boasts an uneasy, “What next?” quality. It also provides a European image of a terror that’s plagued American filmmakers for generations: the more we embrace progress, the further we get from that primal hunter/gatherer who knew how to survive.
Du Welz animates more ably than most our collective revulsion over the idea that we’ve evolved into something incapable of unaided survival; the weaker species, so to speak. Certainly John Boorman’s Deliverance (the Uncle Daddy of all backwoods survival pics) understood the fear of emasculation that fuels this particular dread, but Du Welz picks that scab more effectively than any filmmaker since.
His film is a profoundly uncomfortable, deeply disturbing, unsettlingly humorous freakshow that must be seen to be believed.
To hear the whole conversation, tune into our FIGHT CLUB podcast.
Somewhere between Twilight and the tabloids, Kristen Stewart began doing some real acting. She’s better than ever in Clouds of Sils Maria, and though hers is a supporting role alongside one of the screen’s major talents, Stewart pulls plenty of weight in a terrific drama with much to say.
Juliette Binoche is customarily excellent as Maria, a famous actress returning to the stage in a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years earlier. This time, though, she’s playing the older female lead, while a Lindsay Lohan clone named Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz, striking just the right tone of clueless entitlement) is taking the role Maria originated.
Stewart is Maria’s ever-present personal assistant Valentine, who not only runs both errands and lines for Maria, but serves as her bridge to a younger generation.
Writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) takes the intimate psychological playground of Polanski’s Venus in Fur, and laces it with the pop culture commentary of Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Binoche and Stewart swim gracefully inside the play within a play setup, slowly moving Maria and Valentine in directions that mirror the script both characters are reading.
The actresses display an easy chemistry, never more apparent than when Valentine is trying to sell Maria on the merits of young Hollywood. In the film’s most deliciously meta moment, Stewart might just as well be telling all of us Twilight haters to get over it already.
Assayas’s script is sharp and his camera is fluid, effectively blurring the line between onstage and off. Revisiting the play forces Maria to confront her past and question her present, and Binoche reveals the various layers with a gentle, masterful touch.
The beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria lies in its subtle complexity. It offers sly insights that sneak up on you, and an exceptional cast to make them stick.
It’s official. Our flux capacitor is running out of power, our time travels are coming to a close. We’ve highlighted the best horror films of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and the first decade of the 2000s, and now it’s time to bring things up to the present with the best in horror from 2010 – 2015. Who would have thought that list would be so hard to put together?
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard, along with his co-scribe Joss Whedon, uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Goddard and Whedon’s nimble screenplay offers a spot-on deconstruction of horror tropes as well as a joyous celebration of the genre. Aided by exquisite casting – particularly the gloriously deadpan Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford – the filmmakers create something truly special.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror comedy.
4. The Conjuring (2013)
Yes, this is an old fashioned ghost story, built from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Director James Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.
Wan cut his teeth – and Cary Elwes’s bones – with 2004’s corporeal horror Saw. He’s since turned his attention to something more spectral, and his skill with supernatural cinema only strengthens with each film.
Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. The results range from the visceral fun of The Woman in Black to the needless disappointment of Mama.
But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to. He proved this with the creepy fun of Insidious, and surpasses those scares with his newest effort.
Wan’s expert timing and clear joy when wielding spectral menace help him and his impressive cast overcome the handful of weaknesses in the script by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re in the theater and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.
3. Let Me In (2010)
With Hollywood’s 2010 reboot of the near-perfect 2008 Swedish film, 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.
Twelve year old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely boy who’s being bullied at school. When young Abby (Chloe Moretz) and her “dad” (Richard Jenkins) move in next door, Owen thinks he’s found a friend. As sudden acts of violence mar the snowy landscape, Owen and Abby grow closer, providing each other a comfort no one else can.
Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (The Road) are both terrific, and give the film a touching, vulnerable soul.
Reeves, also adapting the screenplay, ups the ante on the gore, and provides more action, scares and overall shock value. Incredibly, he even manages to build on the climactic “revenge” scene that was damn-near flawless the first time.
2. The Babadook (2014)
Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.
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.
It’s a simple premise, and writer/director Jennifer Kent spins her tale with straightforward efficiency. There is no need for cheap theatrics, camera tricks or convoluted backstories, because Kent is drilling down into something deeply, frighteningly human.
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. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.
1. It Follows (2015)
David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in years. He’s crafted a coming of age tale that mines for primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.
Yes, it’s the STD or horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted another cautionary tale about premarital sex. Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.
Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.
Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcast.
The answer is no, and that is what makes The Mekons the most punk rock band ever, regardless of the fact that their music is more of a folk/honkytonk/punk blend.
Born of Britain’s punk scene in ’77, the band consisted of an art college collective who, characteristically, had no musical ability at all. Naturally, they were immediately signed to a label.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the band is still together, still recording, still touring, regardless of the fact that they’ve been repeatedly dropped by labels and have never achieved even a moderate level of success.
Joe Angio’s documentary Revenge of the Mekons enjoyable catalogs the band’s journey from talentless punks with a philosophy to brilliantly listenable artists with integrity and the same philosophy.
The film marks the evolution of a band that constantly reinvents itself, each new direction a natural progression from the last while also being a fascinating surprise. They find the “voice of the people” foundation in wildly varying styles of music and, rather than abandoning their previous style, they marry it with the next. The result is always fresh because the Mekon’s natural style is, as founder Jon Langford calls it, “bloody minded.” Whatever genre they adopt, it naturally changes. Just like, as the film points out, when the Ramones started recording they were trying to sound like the Beach Boys.
But it’s the band’s almost comical indifference to financial or popular success that sets the film apart. Says Ed Roche of the Mekon’s label Touch and Go Records, “Every critic loves the Mekons. Unfortunately, they get free records.”
Rock docs almost invariably follow the same format: humble beginnings, meteoric rise, trouble handling success, crash and maybe the glimmer of a resurgence, depending on the film and subject. To spend 95 minutes cataloging all the ways a band manages to avoid success is fascinating – it’s like the story of Anvil, except that the Mekons aren’t even trying to succeed.
What they are doing is focusing solely on their own artistry, which can be a pretentious thing to watch for a feature length running time, but the band does not possess an ounce of pretentiousness. They are what they are. They do what they do. Like them or don’t, it doesn’t matter to them.
Director Levon Gabriadze, with serious help from screenwriter Nelson Greaves, has managed the unmanageable. His entire film Unfriended is seen from a laptop screen, yet never gets visually dull and never feels limited by the gimmick.
More than that, his film is immersed in the digital-native culture without seeming forced or hokey. Without ever feeling like a stunt – a story in service of a device rather than vice versa – Unfriended tells a cautionary tale that’s topical, current and smart.
Five high school friends mindlessly Skype on the anniversary of their friend Laura’s suicide. Laura had been the victim of cyberbullying, and not only is her humiliation still available online, so is her suicide. Such is the horrifyingly public world of today’s teen.
The gang can’t seem to get rid of an anonymous 6th in their hangout, and little by little the presence evolves from annoying to aggravating to terrifying.
Greaves’s script is smart. There are flashes of other films – The Den, Paranormal Activity 4 and others – but Unfriended never feels stale. Greaves’s language is so unsettlingly familiar, and he makes some important points without even approaching a preachy tone.
It’s a set of familiar ideas – vengeance, guilt, betrayal, cowardice – wrapped in a very shiny new package, and it’s the wrapping that could have really gone wrong, but Gabriadze succeeds in filling the screen with enough to look at, enough virtual action to keep your attention.
He builds tensions through a truth or dare style game that provokes the friends to turn on each other, but the film has more empathy for the characters than the run of the mill slasher. The five actors manage to flesh out dimensional characters with the slightest material to work with, and each feels realistically flawed yet sympathetic.
It’s a fascinating choice because the whole film flirts with the ugly “they aren’t bad kids” excuse you hear every time a 7th grader is filmed being gang raped or an autistic child’s bullying goes viral.
These five don’t think they’re bad people. They certain seem like nice enough, likeable enough teens – to everyone except that creepy lurker on their screen.
Michael Douglas continues to find intriguing ways to evolve as an actor. Now into his 7th decade on the planet, the actor has taken more and more interesting roles, generally succeeding. His Liberace in 2013’s Beyond the Candelabra marked a high point in his long career, and for his latest, the thriller Beyond the Reach, he reimagines a role originated by Andy Griffith, of all people.
Douglas plays a multi-millionaire named Madec, a man who collects trophies, buying his way out of red tape and problems, no matter how dire. He finds himself in hot water when an expensive but unlicensed hunt for “big horns” goes wrong. When he suspects that his young guide may not be as easily bought as he’d hoped, he devises a particularly nasty Plan B.
Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is Ben, Madec’s wholesome but potentially corruptible young guide. What emerges is more than a sadistic cat and mouse game, mostly because Douglas patiently unveils layers to the character that feel at once horrifying and utterly natural.
It’s a straight forward thriller wisely adapted by Stephen Susco from a novel by Robb White. White was the source writer for many an exploitation flick back in the day (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts), and while Susco maintains the same type of urgency and thrill, his taut script is as interested in character as terror.
There is something so genuine about Douglas’s performance – he’s a shark, a man who’s amassed enormous wealth through charm, savvy, and cut-throat maneuvering. His sense of entitlement is based on decades of success, success that has encouraged him to see the world exactly as he sees it here. As ugly as his behavior is, it isn’t necessarily personal. It’s survival. It’s business.
Irvine handles his task capably, but it’s Douglas who makes the film worth watching. What begins as simply the clearest (if most heartless) strategy toward achieving a goal becomes, as time wears on, an old buck’s attempt to dominate the young challenger to his alpha status.
Beyond the Reach is a simple premise and a simple film that could very easily have become another throwaway thriller, and though it’s certainly no masterpiece, it transcends its exploitation trappings thanks to a veteran actor who knows what it means to be a survivor.
Earth Day rears its smiling, nervously optimistic head once again with Disneynature’s latest eco-doc Monkey Kingdom.
Directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill have carved an impressive career of environmental documentaries, for both the large and small screen. Monkey Kingdom boasts the same skillful mixture of environmental grandeur and character-driven intimacy, and the film is as visually glorious as any in this series. Still, you have to wonder how many hours of wildlife footage is accrued before the filmmakers can impose a storyline on the proceedings.
That is not to suggest the tale is entirely make believe. Monkey Kingdom rolls cameras in the jungles of South Asia, capturing the complex social structure of a macaque monkey troop. What unfolds is a kind of Cinderella story of the low-born Maya and her efforts to fend for herself and her newborn.
As we’ve come to expect from Disney’s doc series, Monkey Kingdom sheds light on the intricate social workings of the subject, and macaques turn out to be fascinating creatures with the kind of structured social order that begs for exactly this treatment. At first we watch as lowly Maya sleeps in the cold and eats from the ground while the alpha and other high born monkeys nap in sunlight and feast on the ripe fruit at the top of the tree. Can she ever hope for more? (At least we can rest assured that there’s no make-over coming.)
The intricate pecking order sets the perfect stage for an underdog film full of scrap, perseverance and triumph.
Narrator Tina Fey’s smiling, workaday feminism gives the film personality and relates it to humanity without having to even try.
While the film keeps your attention throughout, Monkey Kingdom lacks some of the punch of other Disney Earth Day flicks. Linfield and Fothergill’s 2012 film Chimpanzee had the 5-year-olds at my screening sobbing breathlessly, whereas Monkey Kingdom might elicit a compassionate frown.
Between the built-in drama of the “overcoming adversity” storyline and the occasional giddy monkey hijinks (the bit where the troop crashes a birthday party is particularly enjoyable), the film compels attention as it shares eco-savvy information kids may even remember.
Documentary purists will balk at the anthropomorphized story, but families will enjoy this thoroughly entertaining film.
The best horror film (indeed, one of the very best films, period) of 2014 is available today for home entertainment and you must see The Babadook. Writer/director/Australian Jennifer Kent, with an assist from cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and magnificent performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman – has crafted an unsettling and spooky haunted house style tale.
The horror here is fueled by compassion generated by the naturalistic performances. Kent has captured something with primal urgency, something simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying. The film’s subtext sits like a raw nerve just below the scary happenings afoot, making this as the freshest and most relevant horror film of 2014.
Pair it with another remarkable tale of either a crazy mother or a supernatural presence, J. A. Bayona’s 2007 ghost story The Orphanage.
Belen Rueda shines as a mother whose son disappears shortly after making imaginary friends at the orphanage the family owns. Bayona creates a haunted atmosphere and Rueda’s utter commitment to the character keeps the film breathless. It is a spooky nightmare that takes its material seriously and delivers.