It's difficult to discuss the films of 2010 without comparing them to 2009's bumper crop. Truth be told, most of our favorite films this year could never compete with the likes of Drag Me to Hell, Zombieland, Thirst and the original Paranormal Activity. But amidst the many underwhelming efforts of 2010, there still lurked a few films that reminded us why we love getting scared in the dark. After the jump, in no particular order, are our picks for the year's five best horror movies.
(Note: in our internal poll, Adam Green's Frozen tied with one of the following films, but since Frozen was produced by none other than FEARnet's own fearless president Peter Block we decided to leave it off this list. Suffice it to say that, biased though we might be, we still think it's a worthwhile film.)
First time feature-film director Gareth Edwards made perhaps the most thoughtful, reflective fright film of the year. Though calling Monsters a fright film is a bit misleading. It's not really scary, but Edwards' moody, politically charged tale of an American journalist escorting a tourist through a Mexico "infected" with giant space invaders is arresting; and thankfully shows that contemporary genre filmmaking doesn't have to rely on non-stop cuts. (The fact that its two leads are easy on the eyes doesn't hurt.) Edwards' background as a visual effects artist serves him well. Toy lines won't likely be based on his titular creations, but their haunting, otherworldly beauty befits a story in which what lingers is more important than what explodes.
On the flip side of the coin there's Piranha 3D, acclaimed horror filmmaker Alexandre Aja's first true foray into splatter comedy. This retro ‘80s pastiche is saddled with a wildly uneven script, but Aja, aided by makeup artist extraordinaire Greg Nicotero, generates enough goodwill to compensate via generous amounts of nudity and some of the funniest, most ingenious screen kills in recent memory. (The film's centerpiece, an epic spring-break bloodbath, does for killer fish films what the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan did for war movies.) Stars Elisabeth Shue and Adam Scott create likeable enough leads, and there's enough genre vet cameos to do Joe Dante (who helmed the original Piranha) proud. By all means don't miss the film's Funny or Die! Oscar campaign videos. If only the annual TV snooze fest really did see fit to reward such inspired madness…
Speaking of the Oscars, it makes us giddy to imagine how shocked the old fogeys at the Motion Picture Academy must have been – sitting down for what looked to be a serious ballet drama (with that nice little Natalie Portman), only to tumble headlong into Darren Aronofsky's psychosexual freak-out. On paper, the story reads like a bad Lifetime original movie: fragile young artist, predatory rival, overbearing mother, Ecstasy-induced sexual experimentation. But Aronofsky elevates the material, delivering a transcendent work of art while still embracing the story's horror and exploitation elements. The creepy vibe, warped perspective and breathtaking set pieces bring to mind vintage Polanski and DePalma, yet as a whole the film seems as fresh and provocative as a punch in the gut. Portman's cracked prima ballerina steals the show, though Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and (especially) Barbara Hershey all make the most of their moments in the spotlight.
Let Me In
This time last year, our hopes for the American remake of bona fide Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In were approximately nil. But Overture, Hammer Films and writer/director Matt Reeves put art ahead of commerce, resisting the temptation to give John Ajvide Lindqvist's stark teen vampire tale a Twilight gloss. Some chide Reeves for leaning too heavily on director Tomas Alfredson's original template. (Our own shot-by-shot comparison of the trailers revealed numerous mirror-image compositions.) Still, credit Reeves for having the judgment to keep what worked, lose what didn't (those darned cats) and improve upon the rest: the streamlined narrative, the touches of ‘80s Americana (Reagan, Now ‘n Laters), the breathtaking car sequence and the terrific ensemble acting, most notably that of young Kodi Smit-McPhee. While we still chide Hollywood for being too addicted to remakes and sequels, Piranha 3D and Let Me In prove that even twice-told tells can still be told well.
The Last Exorcism
For all the attention the subject receives in pop culture, the fact remains that there just aren't that many truly great films about exorcisms. In the wake of William Friedkin's monumental classic, there followed a slew of imitators, but none captured The Exorcist's near-perfect balance of spiritualistic fervor and old-school frights. This year, however, director Daniel Stamm came closer than most to getting the mix right with his The Last Exorcism, a faux documentary (produced by Eli Roth) chronicling a southern minister's attempts to debunk demonic possession after he comes, through personal suffering, to believe in the healing power of science. Though some have found the film's ending a little flawed, for much of its running time The Last Exorcism pulls viewers in with its all-too-human protagonist and clever shaky-cam scares.
That wraps up our picks for the best theatrical films released this year. Be sure to check back on Monday (December 13th) for our choices for the Best Unreleased Films of 2010, and in the coming days for TV, books, games, music and more!