The Top 10 Films of 2016

Let’s not beat around the bush; 2016 was a shitshow. I don’t even know most of you and I can say that’s true without hesitation.

At least the movies were good. It is one of benefits of, to use the parlance of our subject matter, living in a world where roughly a thousand films get released annually. That number is just domestically too. Keeping up with what hits theatres allows no hesitation, for each weekend brings a South Korean pic, that Sundance gem people said was worthwhile, a sequel to a horror remake, a remake of that horror sequel and everything else you do and don’t want.

As for what you came to read, the best of the best, why hesitate and yammer on with even more words; here they are. The ten best films I saw this year.


Always Shine

Two of the year’s most unsung performances come from this eerie, barely-seen thriller by director Sophia Takal and writer Lawrence Michael Lavine. Sitting alongside the women on the verge of a nervous breakdown yarns like Persona, 3 Women or Queen of Earth, Always Shine stars Caitlin FitzGerald and Mackenzie Davis as best friends and aspiring actresses. Davis has, thus far, found no success, while FitzGerald is finding consistent work in low-brow horror flicks littered with nudity. Minor work is better than none, and when the pair head off for a weekend of catching up, jealousy, false modesty and years of unsaid spites go from simmer to boil, with Takal’s lengthy, often close-up takes and Lavine’s vicious dialogue drugging up a great work.


Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika’s masterpiece about storytelling, destiny, family and forgiveness is this year’s proof that breathless blockbuster cinema isn’t dead. Amidst an underwhelming parade of would-be wow-inducers (Dawn of Justice, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts), the fourth feature by the finest animation studio working today comes via their CEO Travis Knight, who along with his cinematic magicians, summon images of towering skeletons, tsunamis sliced in two and an ending that is perfectly elegant, quiet and moving in its telling. That it does all of this with wit, surprise and an inventive array of action set-pieces is but the frosting on this scrumptious dessert.


La La Land

An invigorating delight where dreamers ponder the stars and love in all of their conflicting glories, Damien Chazelle’s runs with the notion that heights mean nothing without the lows, and vice-versa. Riding the backs of the charm-bombs that go by the names of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the pair dance and sing along to breezy, catchy tunes, romance blossoms and does what it must, with challenges peeking their heads into sunrises and sunsets. A movie like this needs showstoppers; it has them. A movie like this needs surprises; it has them. A movie like this needs to end just right; boy, it does that.


The Lobster

Courtship is hard. Weird as hell too. Two people, typically from entirely different backgrounds, trying to find a connection. At times it begins from a mutual passion. The physical attraction is always an option. Or perhaps both of you are prone to nosebleeds. For those unable to figure out how to make two become one, there is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, an absurd, oh-so-dark comedy about coupling, society’s expectations of falling in love and literally turning the lonely into animals if they can’t get their shit together. Lanthimos excels in the bizarre by making it dry and uncomfortably relatable, and along with co-writer Efthymas Filippou, crafts a movie that allows Colin Farrell to be a glorious sadsack, Ben Whishaw to show new levels of desperate and lets Angeliki Papoulia develop unseen levels of wickedness.


Manchester by the Sea

Most writers think and present grief as one thing; constant pain. There is a – false – notion that time simply heals all wounds and it’s nothing more than dealing with some misery before you’re hit with the epiphany. Kenneth Lonnergan knows better, and that depression isn’t devoid of other emotions while the suffering occurs. His Manchester by the Sea, in which Casey Affleck plays a man going from one horror to another, captures the absurdities along the way. There are those entirely comfortable with the sadsack. There are the instances where said sack recognizes how he’s viewed and just can’t help himself. In Manchester by the Sea, what you get is life in progress; horny teenagers, unexpected reunions, the triggers of yesterday’s troubles and everything else that the world shovels onto our plates.



Raw yet thoroughly precise in its narrative movements, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a bounty of things. ost impressive, to some degree, are what movements it doesn’t make. Characters come and go from the life of Chiron, a young, gay black boy who grows into a man. Jenkins knows he doesn’t need to detail where these people went, nor how those that remain in his life’s orbit changed. They merely have, as we all do. A decision here can lead to a spiral there. A decision there can be but one of many that transforms a confused teenager to a cook, a drug-dealer or any of a number of things. With a cast that steps every beat right, from the subtle to the shout, Jenkins has in Moonlight a lingerer, sticking in your brain and blood for the minutes, hours, day and weeks after its viewing, growing in resonance and appreciation with every detail that springs back to one’s memories.


OJ: Made in America

Call it television, cinema or whatever the hell you want to call it. I’m going with towering. Ezra Edelman’s documentary on the life, and very much the times, of O.J. Simpson is a towering achievement, grandiose in scope and ambition that makes nearly eight-hours feel like two, as facts you knew get twisted and reframed, with race, fame and gender all getting new shades via a case from two decades ago. Of course, what Edelman artfully informs us is that no man, crime or celebrity is an island, and that years of decisions from the across the morality spectrum lead to their admiration or downfall. A piece of art that profoundly shows how far we’ve come and, somehow, just how much we have left to go.


Only Yesterday

Studio Ghibli is on hiatus, so what’s a cinephile to wish for? How about old Ghibli works finally making it stateside? Yes please. Only Yesterday is a human, richly empathetic work by master Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko), originally made in 1991 and thankfully available to us in the U.S.A. now. Taeko is every adult whom is the last one to get their act together, not due to a life on the breaks, but a life of not wanting to settle. As she heads off for a job away from the city in a quaint countryside, Taeko ponders how things were in her formative years. With a plot that likely sounds a hodgepodge of dull and navel-gazing, Takahata’s adaptation of Hotaru Okamoto and Yuuko Tone’s manga is actually flush with the kind of details the finest novels offer. Plus, we get lush, hand-drawn animation that only emphasizes how genuinely ugly modern animation has become.


The Treasure

Furthering the run of fine Romanian cinema of the 21st Century, Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective) has constructed a thriller…no a comedy….no a thriller-comedy thing with The Treasure, where the financially unsound hope to eek out luck from history. That history sits in the backyard of Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu), the neighbor of our kind, calm protagonist Costi (Toma Cuzin). To get the alleged riches, whatever they may be, of Adrian’s dead grandfather, Costi must provide funds upfront. And then there’s shady companies who they can hire. And the laws proclaiming certain riches must be declared. And the man who may or may not have any clue how to use the equipment. Each dig in the ground could be another waste of time or one inch closer to a life-changing wealth, in addition to relentless in-fighting between our crew. It’s a tasty brew of sensations that crescendos with an ending you’d never imagine.


The Witch

Hope, hypocrisy and religion; three friends that have hung together for centuries. Robert Eggers The Witch explores the complicated tapestry the trio make as his 17th century New England folktale hangs in the horror if it all, with child performances that have no right to be this outstanding and cinematography by Jarin Blaschke that turns the terrors we witness into the type of images that would go in the museum of our nightmares. A staggering debut feature.

Seattle Cinema Survey – Brad Pitt

Turkey Time is here, as is, so it happens, is this week’s collection of film critics’ replies to my inane questions known as the Seattle Cinema Survey. As the latest movie featuring Brad Pitt is here in the form of Allied, I asked our troupe; What’s your favorite Brad Pitt performance?

Brad Pitt’s gone through some odd changes, in a manner all successful careers do. There were the early breakout years, followed by some bland starring turns and then finding that balance of charisma, cool and confident, along with all of the shaded to be played within that. For me, his best take on that is still as Tyler Durden in 1999’s Fight Club (previously discussed in a Was I Nuts?). There is definitely the charisma, as our narrator played by Edward Norton falls for the casual way Durden dismisses everyone else’s attempts at impressing people. The cool comes via swagger and spitting out random, seemingly useless knowledge, but in a non-showboat-y manner. Finally comes the confidence, as declarations of rules, from when to fight, how to follow and where to take society, seems like a natural set of marching orders when delivered with such gusto. That said orders tend to include blowing up lots of stuff, bloodshed and selling women’s own fat asses back to them; that’s just part of the Pitt magic.


Ooooh this one’s a particularly tough one given the semi varied plethora of odd ball characters Pitt has chosen throughout his career; how he’s always been able to find the curious balance between dashing lead and psychotic cult leader continues to amaze me. That being said, one of my all time favorites, and perhaps the one I love to quote the most is Mickey O’Neil from Guy Ritchie’s 2000 release, Snatch. The gypsie-esque bare knuckle boxer, a veritable one punch machine gun with a sense of humor and dark revenge just the same. Brilliant!

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing See @BrentMMcKnight

My favorite Brad Pitt performance, by miles and miles, is his supporting turn in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Up until that point, I always thought of him as flat, bland, and handsome, but with little substance. It was around this time, thanks in large part to roles like this and his turn in Seven, where, for me at least, he started to prove he was more than that reductive set of character traits; where he started down the path that led to fantastic, varied turns in the likes of Fight Club, Inglorious Basterds, Moneyball and a slew of others that show his real range.

But rich kid mental patient Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys is the performance where I started to see the possibilities. He’s so totally unhinged and chaotic and so damn much fun to watch. That was the moment where I sat back and said, “Okay, I think I get this whole Brad Pitt thing.”

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @filmjabber

That’s a tough one. Pitt has been so good in so many movies, but my mind immediately gravitates towards his zanier roles (i.e. Fight Club, 12 Monkeys, Inglorious Basterds). While there’s a part of me that wants to say Se7en, I’m going to go with his deliciously over-the-top performance in Inglorious Basterds.

Seattle Cinema Survey : Teenager Films

Hello all and thanks for joining us for another Seattle Cinema Survey.

In this week’s edition, we look to the years of youth, though not innately our own. With The Edge of Seventeen hitting theatres and garnering quite a few raves from critics, I posed to our collective of film fanatics; what’s your favorite film about life as a teenager.

Easily my favorite film that centers on teenagers is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused; a piece of perfection that echoes the highs of having a summer of nothing to do, as well as the quiet that comes amidst the chaos. However, I must say that Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his own book The Perks of Being a Wallflower speaks to more of the theatrics of those years where finding yourself is a daily war. A work with flaws, Perks gets the little things right, from the random faces you see at every party that mean nothing to you, to the joy of finding the song for that moment and, of course, discovering comfort in your fellow freaks.

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing I See @ BrentMMcKnight
I thought this was going to be super easy, until I started thinking about it and that hope evaporated quickly. Like many folks my age, I grew up on bittersweet John Hughes high school comedies like Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the rest. Then came the likes of Say Anything, which is still my favorite Cameron Crowe movie. To this day I lament my high school experience didn’t have more musical numbers like Grease. Kings of Summer is a great modern teen story, and I adore Pitch Perfect more than is probably appropriate for a dude pushing 40. Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are my favorites from the ‘90s revival wave that picked up the Hughes mantel (I also have a deep love for Stick It—they don’t call it gym-nice-tics).

It’s hard to argue against movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Boyz n the Hood, The Last Picture Show or The Outsiders. Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Craft, Pump Up the Volume and Dazed and Confused, are all in the running. I didn’t think of Hoop Dreams immediately because it’s a documentary, but it’s one of the most compelling stories of teenage life I’ve ever encountered.

Now I’m just listing movies I’ve seen, but I think I’ve got it down to two finalists. Rick Rosenthal’s 1983 Bad Boys—not that Bad Boys—about gritty Chicago street kids in prison, starring a young Sean Penn, transcends its exploitation trappings to tell a powerful, unusual story. But maybe I’ll go with the most obvious choice, George Lucas’ American Graffiti. I’m a sucker for a good one-night-changes-everything narrative. And Toad has my favorite ‘60s hair style—short on top, long and slicked back on the sides, which just looks silly when it gets disheveled.

Jason Roestel of Harsh Realm @filmbastard
This one was easy. Dazed And Confused. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off would come in second, followed by nearly every other film John Hughes made in the 80’s, but Linklater’s Dazed And Confused captures the single best aspect of being a teenager – hanging out.

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @Filmjabber
I’m inclined to say The Breakfast Club for the obvious reasons, but in all honesty it’s been so long since I’ve seen it I don’t remember much of the details. So I’m going to say a more modern one; Mean Girls. The movie breaks down cliques in an exaggerated but highly entertaining manner and is easily one of the funniest teen films out there. The best to capture teen life? Probably not. But it’s the first that came to mind.

Seattle Cinema Survey : Aliens on Earth

Hi all, and thanks for joining us for the latest edition of Seattle Cinema Survey. In this week’s round, with the arrival of…um…Arrival, with it’s intergalactic visitors hitting our planet’s shores, I asked our motley crew of critics, bloggers and writers; What your favorite aliens on Earth film?

 There really are so many options aka I’m going to need to put some parameters on this thing for the second week in a row to come up with an answer. This time, said parameter will be that the alien has to be a real character in the movie. The creature from a different planet can’t merely be the baddie or something on the periphery.

My gut reaction is to pick yammer on again about Under the Skin, but I’ve written a lot about that work lately. So, I’m giving one of its clear forebears a shout in the form of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Starring the late, great David Bowie in all of his weird charm, Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis features an alien seeking to transport water from Earth to his oh-so-distant home, succumbing to the joys, troubles and excesses that all of us deal with on a daily basis in the process.

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing I See @brentmmcknight

Maybe even more than horror and Red Dawn, alien invasion/aliens among us narratives informed my life from an inappropriately young age. You’ve got classics like multiple versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The War of the Worlds, The Blob, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and tons more. It’s nice to see Night of the Creeps getting widespread love after floundering away in obscurity for years; I still think of Predator anytime I set foot in the woods and we’ve apparently got another iteration of Alien Nation on the way from Jeff Nichols. Hollywood continues to churn out fantastic alien encounter movies that I adore, like Attack the Block and Edge of Tomorrow (and hopefully Arrival, haven’t seen it yet, but I have high hopes).

But as far as favorites go, John Carpenter is the man, and because I feel like The Thing may well show up elsewhere on this survey, I have to go with They Live. Carpenter’s 1988 slurry of B-grade sci-fi camp, anti-consumerist subversion, and the late, great Rowdy Roddy Piper kicking ass and chewing bubblegum, stands as a paranoid classic that was equally prescient at the tail end of the Cold War (when shit got real weird) as it is this week in particular. Not to mention it has the most delightfully overboard fight scene in cinema history. If you haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s book-length essay breakdown, it should be required reading.

 Tim Hall of The People’s Critic @peoplecsrtic

Ok my pick is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1978 version not the crappy Daniel Craig remake and all the wannabe movies that followed.

The aliens were innocent plants that cocoon’d our loved ones and turned them into mindless beings. Plus, much like The Thing, you don’t know who to trust. The final scene with Donald Sutherland seals the movie for me. A great ending to great alien movie.

Seattle Cinema Survey – War Films

Good day all, and thanks for joining us on another edition of the Seattle Cinema Survey, home to me bothering local critics and bloggers about various movie related subjects.

This week’s topic is a tie-in to the much discussed new war drama by Mel Gibson called Hacksaw Ridge. Now, asking about the greatest war film of all-time may be a bit too broad. However, two lauded works of the genre did come out in 1998 in the forms of The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. With those two landmarks as the starting point, I inquired…what’s the best war film post-98?

For my selection, parameters were necessary. It couldn’t be a war-time film itself like The Pianist, or a movie with battle scenes here and there as a smaller part of a larger narrative ala Steven Sodergbergh’s truly underrated Che. The trenches needed to be prominwnt. With those structures set for my pick, I’m going with Clint Eastwood’s 2006 work Letters from Iwo Jima.

A companion to the oh-so-inferior Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima is a haunting marvel, as we witness the preparation for and eventual fight at the titular destination from the viewpoint of that battle’s losing side. Ken Watanabe is mesmerizing, inspiring and melancholic as the Japanese general who sees a troop in shambles, emotionally and in terms of readiness, and does what he can to keep morale and humanity alive amongst it all.

Matt Oakes of Silver Screen Riot @SSRdotcom
There have been some sleeper hits and awards-geared war films since the turn of the century but the stretch has hardly been as prolific for war films as say the 70s with the Vietnam War or the 80s with the Vietnam War or … you get the picture. Kathryn Bigelow owns two of the best war films since 1999 with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty earning their right as strong contenders for the title. Peter Berg’s more recent Lone Survivor was a gritty showstopper that framed heroism against physical brutality. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down is a visceral, ugly and totally memorable wartime clusterfuck. I’m even a sucker for Mel Gibson’s vengeance-fueled The Patriot. The scene where he’s grunting, hacking red coats to filets? Priceless. But no one can top what Quentin Tarantino himself referred to as his “masterpiece” ; Inglorious Basterds. A series of tableaus that sees a rogue outfit of angry American Jews crunch, punish and brutalize their way through the enemy Nazi ranks, Inglorious Basterds revels in its revisionist retelling of the events of WWII and QT manages humor and surprising humility amongst the chutzpah of his offerings, which of course include plowing Hitler’s face with machine gun rounds in a hellish torrent of cinema fire. Though Christoph Waltz never really amounted to much outside of Tarantino’s wheelhouse, his role here was a revelation and it’s easy to see why Tarantino himself considers Colonel Hans Landa his best written character.

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @Filmjabber
That’s a tough one. There haven’t been a lot of great, legitimate war movies in the last 15 years. There have been some fantastic holocaust movies (The Pianist), but I view that as a sub-genre that your typical “war movie” fan wouldn’t call a war movie. Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind, but aside from the climax, it’s not a war movie in the traditional sense. And I’m sure some critics will point to Inglorious Basterds, but even then, I’d call that more of a Tarantino film than a real war film.

So my answer is… The Hurt Locker. I remember watching that movie for the first time and barely breathing. The movie is superbly constructed and exciting as hell, and a rare exception to the “modern war movies sort of lack that special something” feeling I generally get when I’m watching a story set during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.

Seattle Cinema Survey : First Horror Love

Once more with feeling, it’s the last Seattle Cinema for Horror Month, as I am a Halloween nerd.

So far, I’ve asked our collection of movie critics and bloggers about the best horror pic of the century, scariest moments outside of the genre and underrated sequels. To round things out for the month, we are discussing; the first horror film you fell in love with.

I’ve discussed mine in the past, but a refresher. I’ve never been a gore person. Even Python’s Holy Grail freaked me out as a kid when the Black Knight, that stupid bastard, received a barrage of “fleshwounds.” Eventually I could stomach that, but was more than a little hesitant to view a movie my older brother kept raving about: Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. He’d mention the picture being funny, but all my brain could focus on was the idea of a person severing their own hand via rusty chainsaw.

Somehow, he convinced me to watch it with him. Dread consumed my body, as possessions occurred, heads were chopped off and yes, a hand was removed with blood. Lots of blood. I was still creeped out, until the single hand began spewing a firehose level of crimson, which then began to change color and relentlessly cover our hero Ash.

I was hooked for life.

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @Filmjabber
The first horror movie I remember watching, and the first one I remember having lasting psychological impact, was Candyman. Seriously, I wouldn’t go into the bathroom with the lights off for like two years.

But to answer your question, I have to say Scream. I was in junior high and hadn’t watched many horror movies up until that point, and I didn’t even understand many of the references the film makes, but boy did I have fun. I love every aspect of that movie, and still do.

Also, I went and saw the movie with my mom—surrounded by older kids and dates—so that wasn’t awkward at all.

Matt Oakes of Silver Screen Riot @SSRdotcom
Nothing can top my experience watching The Shining for what must have been the third time. I was in high school, had not historically been a horror fan, and sat down with two friends to what would become one of my most memorable movie watching experiences. What makes The Shining so terrifying is not the supernatural elements swirling throughout but the very real, very urgent dangers of domestic violence and alcoholism. Jack Torrence’s swift transition from questionable patriarch to dead-eyed nutter remains the gold standard for mind-melting metamorphoses and something clicked in me that time watching. The visual nuance rushed from the screen. The dread was amplified beyond belief, my speakers cranked as my mom’s not-so-hot box TV would allow. My eyes were wide and tear-stained from dread. There is a visceral quality to The Shining that leaves a hush over a room and it was in that fear that I discovered my love for the genre.

Tim Hall of The People’s Critic @peoplescrtic
The first scary movie I fell in love with is Halloween.

The entire story is fascinating. A young Michael Myers kills some family members and goes to a mental institution and is planning a murder (and learning how to drive) the whole time. He gets out and goes after his sister who has no idea he’s coming.

Dr Loomis is a madman and completely out of control. He’s also the only person who knows what Michael is capable of.

Michael Myers actions in the first Halloween is eerily close to a real killer. That’s what makes the movie so chilling.

Great scares, creepy plot, and an amazing score. It’s worth a watch every Halloween.

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing I See @BrentMMcKnight
More than any individual movie, I fell in love with horror as a whole at early age. When I was little, probably inappropriately young, my family used to go to this video store/ice cream shop. I’d wander around the horror aisle, check out all of the VHS covers, and scare the living shit out of myself. And I loved it. I gave myself wonderful nightmares just imagining the monsters and slashers and blood covered serial killers on those boxes.
My parents let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted. So, starting as early as I can remember, I consumed a steady diet of Universal monster movies, old Hammer joints, gothic horror yarns, ghost stories, Edgar Allen Poe adaptations and all of the classics.

I was seven when Nightmare on Elm Street came out, and watched it shortly thereafter. That kicked off a whole new endeavor that led to the likes of Friday the 13th, C.H.U.D., Texas Chain Saw Massacre and more hardcore, gory titles. By the time junior high rolled around, I was the kid expounding on Nightbreed (which led me down a deep, dark, Cronenberg hole—he didn’t direct it, but I don’t know that any human being has ever been creepier on film) and extolling the virtues of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and George Romero.

Now I’m rambling and I should actually answer the question. It’ll likely change tomorrow, but for now my answer is The Blob. The 1958 Steve McQueen movie, though the 1988 version also rules.

Sara Michelle Fetters of MovieFreak/The SGN @moviefreaksara

The first horror movie I ever remember watching was James Whale’s 1935 classic The Bride of Frankenstein. I was with my grandparent’s farm for a couple weeks during the summer, and one early afternoon, after competing against my grandmother in more games of cards than is likely humanly possible, this glorious gothic masterpiece randomly came on television. “We must watch this,” she said matter-of-factly. “You will love it.”

She wasn’t wrong. I was amazed by the film, so much so I made it a point to try and seek out other early B&W classics as soon as I returned to Spokane, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi and, of course, the original Frankenstein. I was particularly taken with The Wolf Man, this tragic, deeply romantic tale of loss and sacrifice captivating me body and soul. In fact, it’s doubtful I’d have marveled at the wonders and delights of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London had I not been so rapturously found of that 1941 sensation, same going for its fellow 1981 lycanthrope counterparts The Howling and Wolfen.

But the movie I think I fell completely head over heels for had to have been 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. First time I watched it was during a summer series for kids at Spokane’s local art house theatre, The Magic Lantern. Not only was it the only one of that year’s series that my parents attended right alongside with me, it was also screened in its original 3-D presentation. From the moment that first boney hand came thrusting at me from the center of the screen, to the eerie scenes of a smitten Creature swimming underneath a clueless Julie Adams, to the final moments in a cave where hero and monster battled to the death, this Jack Arnold directed classic had me in such utter rapture that feeling of clutching my mother’s arm while my dad gently chuckled one seat over has stuck with me to this very day, and it’s likely why I adore the genre as I do as well as another significant reason as to what lead me to become a working film critic.

Seattle Cinema Survey :Best 21st Century Horror Film

Hi to all and thanks for joining us for another edition of the Seattle Cinema Survey, where horror month rolls along because Halloween is the best dammit!

This week, I’ve asked our crew of local critics, bloggers and people with awful, just awful opinions; What’s the best horror film of the 21st Century?

A rather straightforward question, I’m somehow torn by my own query. That is due to one fact, which would be Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. A basically perfect film, that manages to create engaging, complex characters in a zombie comedy, before going full-horror in the last act, Shaun of the Dead remains a member of both genres. As such, I’m going to pick a movie that is a full-tilt scream factory.

That selection is Danny Boyle’s marvelous 28 Days Later. An update of the zombie-genre, where our infected bunch rush you with the intensity of Black Friday shoppers, Boyle’s work crawls through the veins quite uncomfortably. The concepts aren’t altogether new, with a confused individual stepping into a dystopian world. What makes the project so gut-churning is how on-your-toes the whole endeavor manages to be throughout. Along with the previously discussed former-humans longing to tear you limb from limb, it’s the rampant nature of the turn into such a creature that lingers. The sequence where one of our crew begins to rage and flail after an errant drop of blood into HIS EYE gives me chills at the mere thought.

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing I See
This is a damn hard one. All the people griping and grousing about how horror is dead haven’t paid attention for the last 16 years. Cabin in the Woods deconstructs and inverts horror tropes in unique and inventive ways, 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead helped redefine the zombie genre for a new generation, The Descent is pure claustrophobic nightmare and throws in a curve when you least expect, Kill List obliterates traditional genre boundaries, I Saw the Devil is a vicious revenge masterpiece, What We Do in the Shadows reinvigorates both vampire movies and mockumentaries, Shaun of the Dead pulls off that most difficult feat—a horror comedy that is legitimately both funny and scary, The Devil’s Backbone still stands as Guillermo del Toro’s best movie and a marvelous modern ghost story to boot, Trouble Every Day may be the artsiest cannibal movie ever made, and Piranha 3D has everything I want out of a schlocky, 3D exploitation movie.
Dammit, I don’t know.

My pick could easily be any of these movie, or countless others. Maybe teetering on the verge of an all-out Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic collapse or a potential fascist dictatorship means horror has plenty of primal fears to tap into. What the hell, I’ll go with Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 creature feature The Host for my pick today. It’s certainly the best monster movie in recent memory, and manages to be funny, harrowing, and legitimately moving. Coupled with some of the Weta Workshop’s best effects work (sorry, Lord of the Rings and Black Sheep—another potential choice), it’s one for the ages.

Tim Hall of The People’s Critic @peoplescrtic

This answer can change for me every month. For now, I’m going with 2007’s The Mist. I was locked in during the first few minutes when Dan runs in and screams, “There’s somthing in the mist.” All these people stuck in a store and they’re told there are unspeakable horrors in the mist. Without even seeing what’s out there, the group starts to take sides. When the monsters do show up, Mrs. Carmody forms a tiny cult of survivors and starts “sacrificing” people. At times she’s scarier than the monsters outside.

The premise is simple but effective and the monsters are out of this world terrifying – even the ones you can barely see. My favorite scene is the group trip to the pharmacy next door. The scene is so tense as you’re waiting for something to happen and it all hits the fan at the same time.

The ending of The Mist makes it a must watch every October.

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @Filmjabber
I typically don’t get scared by monster movies, but I remember being scared shitless when I went to go see The Descent. So that’s my answer. And after being scared in such a way, the theater informed me I wouldn’t be allowed back, if you get my meaning.

Matt Oakes of Silver Screen Riot @SSRdotcom
This century has been an absolute showstopper for horror films and being a horror fanatic, I could go on and on and on. Off the top of my head: The Loved Ones, I Saw the Devil, Martyrs, Session 9, The Mist, The Descent, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, 28 Days Later, Kill List, The Babadook, The Descent, The Conjuring, The Cabin in the Woods, Let the Right One In, Shaun of the Dead. But though some listed above may be superior none are to me as utterly rewatchable and insanely enjoyable as Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell. Simple, scary and hilarious, there is not a tedious moment in Drag Me To Hell. From the first time Christine Brown is practicing pronunciation in her car mirror to the showstopping train tracks finale and all the ooey, gooey junk falling into her mouth along the way, Drag Me To Hell is amazeballs through and through.

Sara Michelle Fetters of MovieFreak @moviefreaksara
Neil Marshall’s 2005 stunner The Descent is a masterpiece. An absolutely horrifying excursion into the bowels of the earth, it isn’t so much a darkly lit, unbearably claustrophobic monster movie as it is a fearless examination of grief, courage, friendship and solidarity. The saga of a group of close-knit female friends with an adventurous streak reuniting for the first time since one of their members, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), has suffered unimaginable tragedy, the movie’s an unfathomable nightmare of tension that’s as unrelenting as it is emotionally complex.

Not that the creatures these six spelunking women end up encountering aren’t terrifying. They are, Marshall utilizing their lithe, limber carnivorous forms as if they were the shark from Jaws, only showcasing them at just the right moment in order to provide maximum impact upon the viewer. But it is always the human dynamic that is the most startling, the way Sarah must deal with her ravenous grief while the other women reveal their inner strengths and weaknesses as they attempt to survive their ordeal.

The U.S. release version of the film, which is admittedly amazing, softens things a little bit, allowing the tiniest ray of light to shine inside this seemingly impenetrable darkness. The original cut, however, is a thing of deranged, unsettling beauty, building to a denouement that’s up there with the final moments of something like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique or Takashi Miike’s Audition. It’s a quiet, unsettling final scene that overwhelms in its serene madness, Sarah discovering a form of peace that comes at a cataclysmic cost.

Jason Roestel @filmbastard

As I ponder this most excellent question various interior personas would each like to submit their candidate. The aged cinemaphile in me says Pascal Laugier’s outstanding existential slaughterhouse Martyrs, with its bipolar plot swings and catastrophic violence, all of it driving toward a finale more metaphysical/spiritual sucker punch than standard genre showdown. Laugier has yet to top the feature that made him a known entity in the American horror industry. Same goes for Neil Marshall, who I believe made one of the best horror films of any century (well, the two centuries in the contest) with 2005’s The Descent. Neil never made another film on that level. As far as the inner child who grew up on Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and who developed a taste for the creepy crawly side of the film industry, that kid would go with The Descent for his choice. It should be noted how estrogenic my selections are. Riot grrrls unite and all that. And since we’re on the topic of gore girls, Lucky McKee’s May is not to be ignored in this category.

Was I Nuts ? – Donnie Darko

Are there still those committed to Sparkle Motion. 15 years ago the cult of Donnie Darko began, but the movie has become more of an early 21st Century antique than a touchstone for future film lovers. With its own nostalgia for the 80s baked into cinematic recipe, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko doesn’t seem to be developing into the kind of underground classic that each generation of movie-nerd harkens back to. Instead, it’s “I Believe In a Thing Called Love,” liking “Family Guy” or other ideas only twenty-somethings were into when W was first President; an idea from yesterday.

Was the love for Donnie Darko a misguided admiration for an alright film that, just by being a bit different than the time’s norm, was graded on a curve? Are the poorly received follow-ups of Kelly less a sign of decline or proof that the filmmaker was never that good to begin with? Was I nuts?


The Film

Released on October 26, 2001 to little fanfare, Donnie Darko is sci-fi/horror/teenage drama by writer-direct Richard Kelly in his feature-length debut. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie, a suburban teenager whose life is a mélange of boredom, arguing with family and pills. Then a jet engine falls into his bedroom and he begins talking to a rabbit-costumed figure named Frank; as happens. Amidst the normal turmoil of high school life, Donnie grows increasingly distant and angrier, haunted by interactions with Frank and this spectre’s claims that the world will end in 28 days, 6 days, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

With a middling box-office reception, Donnie Darko did get enough critical acclaim to keep chatter about the picture alive. The movie would receive three Independent Spirit Award nominations, with Gyllenhaal getting into the Best Male Lead race. The film that looked dead kept going. According to The AV Club, “The Pioneer Theatre in New York ran it as a midnight movie for two years.” DVD sales, which began really taking off at this time period, became a boon for Kelly’s work, with numbers generally being quoted that the movie made over $10 million from the format in the first few years. Suddenly, you couldn’t go to a Suncoast, Hot Topic or Spencer’s without seeing Frank the Bunny on posters or someone playing the movie’s soundtrack. Popularity continued to grow, even leading to Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut getting a release in 2004, featuring 20-plus minutes of footage, a change in the musical cues and a lot more time-travel talk.


The Memory

I can rather vividly recall watching Donnie Darko for the first time and imagine the story isn’t too dissimilar from many people’s initial outings. During my junior year of college at Salisbury University, my dear friend Kat (thanks buddy), also a movie-nerd, kept raving about the film and insisted I watched her DVD of it. Slightly hesitant as it featured that kid from The Bubble Boy, I nonetheless gave it a chance. I was quite quickly hooked, in love with the moodiness of it all and the low-key nature of its sci-fi world that manages to mix in a horror tinge. What followed was uber fandom, complete with t-shirt, a Frank the Bunny jack-o-lantern that took three hours to carve and a $30 DVD purchase from fucking Suncoast because Best Buy wouldn’t regularly have it for $10 until a few months later.

Like a virus…but the good kind…of virus…um…I spread the good word of all things Sparkle Motion. Jake Gyllenhaal became someone to watch and I waited with baited breath for what Richard Kelly would do next, which led to the abysmal, yet definitely different, yet definitely abysmal Southland Tales in 2007.

The Prediction

Donnie Darko has to be good, right? I mean, please.


The Result

With all of the Amblin Entertainment nostalgia that’s creeping into pop-culture of late, and “Stranger Things” being such a success for Netflix, it’s peculiar that Donnie Darko has not been talked about more of late. Especially since it still remains quite fantastic.

All of those bits you recall adoring continue to ring with confidence, right from the first scene. We all recall the sequence of Donnie descending at dawn from the hillside, as we see him bicycling through the suburbs, his father messing with big-sis and Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” scoring it all, the scene aided strongly by the deep, crisp guitar and bass plucks from that tune. There is an immediate sense that something is a little off. Yet, even before that, Kelly’s movie compels, as we slowly zoom along the first glimpses of morning, mountains in the distance, birds chirping and Donnie waking up on the side of the road, confused by it all.

The economy of storytelling continues right after this, as the Darkos chat, or rather loudly argue, over dinner. Sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is revealed as a burgeoning Democrat, making papa Eddie (Holmes Osborne) freeze in disgust and mama Rose (Mary McDonnell) sarcastically laugh at the notion. As Donnie delights in the fuss, Elizabeth jabs about his failure to take prescribed therapeutic medication. All the while, little Samantha (Daveigh Chase) sits oblivious. The dynamics of home are set.

The complexities of school then come into focus, with Tears for Fears “Head Over Heels” our chorus. Kelly uses a long-take to show our ensemble as Donnie walks down the hallway. There’s the sneering, rebellious kid. A teacher clinging to a book, shocked by the youth. A young girl that walks alone. Seth Rogen doing drugs. An oblivious principal. In a short-while, Kelly has given us a host of players in two striking sequences, and he’ll use a variation of this towards the close of the movie, but not so much as a one-note crutch.


A lot of credit must be given to the cast here. Gyllenhaal is an enigmatic as memory serves, the kid who means well but isn’t concerned with being a prick. His early defense of an Asian classmate hints at his good nature, even as he remains friendly with the teens instigating the cruelty. Gyllenhaal plays Donnie as almost too-smart for his own good, his cockiness and an inability to hold his tongue making himself seem beyond just another high-school kid. That innocence remains though, personified by the initial courting of Jena Malone’s Gretchen. The new kid in town, Gretchen and Donnie are first linked when Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) tells her new pupil to sit next to the cutest boy in class, of which Mr. Darko receives the honor. Soon, Donnie is getting comfortable talking to Gretchen as he walks her home from school. She mentions her father’s “emotional problems”, a fact Donnie perks up to, stating, “Oh I have those too!.” This excitement is quickly rebuffed by the tragic fact that Gretchen’s father stabbed her mother multiple times; deflating Donnie’s eagerness. From then on, Donnie frets, with Gyllenhaal’s speech getting anxious and Malone’s character strangely becoming more confident. The ebb and flow of this pair, each thoroughly trying to be cooler than at all, is delightful.

The unsung highlight of Donnie Darko is probably Mary McDonnell’s Rose, both as a piece of writing and acting. For all of the mystery of Frank the Bunny and the time-travel filling, it all comes back to the family dynamic. Rose is vital to that as she profoundly cares for her son, a boy that grows further away from the baby that once resided in their home. Donnie calls her a “bitch,” a sting that goes far below the skin. It’s interesting to see how much Donnie is her son, as his skepticism of people’s motives and the casual snooty responses are definitely a part of her nature. When Beth Grant’s Kitty comes to Rose’s door in desperate need of a Sparkle Motion chaperone, McDonnell’s face is gold, shaping into faux-sadness that Kitty can’t go now due to unforeseen circumstances. This is all vital to make that conclusion, where the sacrifice that must be made occurs, have the required level of weight. There are others close to Donnie that are impacted, but it’s the pure, overwhelming grief on Rose’s face that makes it mean something.

Kelly may have not made another good movie since Donnie Darko. Perhaps Southland Tales doubled-down too much on the peculiarities and The Box went too deep with the over-explanations of oddities; it’s hard to tell. He will always have this one, the cult classic that briefly escaped into the mainstream, before sinking back into the shadows with other offbeat greats.

Seattle Cinema Survey : Unappreciated Horror Sequels

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Seattle Cinema Survey, home of me bothering local critics, writers and nerds about various movie related things. As Halloween is but a few weeks away, it’s all things spooky-scary, with horror getting the spotlight this month.

In this round, we take a peek at something horror cinema provides a lot of; sequels. There is an endless supply of follow-ups to beloved, and definitely not beloved, horror work, with the great ones (Evil Dead 2, Dawn of the Dead, The Bride of Frankenstein), being universally lauded. However, with so much to pick from, I asked; What’s the most unappreciated horror sequel?

Three answers sprung to mind for me. The first is The Exorcist III, which a contributor later in this survey gushes about with precision. Second to jump out for me is Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II, the direct sequel to Carpenter’s masterpiece that is assuredly inferior to that original and nonetheless superior to most slashers. Strangely, my pick is also Halloween II, but in the form of Rob Zombie’s sequel to his own – not especially good – remake of the Michael Meyers classic.

Where Zombie’s initial stab at the world of Haddonfield was too closely tangled up in reworkings and throwbacks, his Halloween II managed to be its own gnarly, gruesome beast. Still featuring a flash of the terrific hospital sequence from Rosenthal’s sequel, here Zombie messes with the terror that’s crawed into the daily psyches of those infected by the mayhem of round one. The dirt and grain of the 16mm filmstock enhances the skewed reality of it all, as the polish of too many Halloween pics is unseen.

Brent McKnight of Cinema Blend/The Last Thing I See @BrentMMcKnight

I maintain that all the Friday the 13th movie are good, or at least watchable, up until Jason Takes Manhattan (Jason X is also fun, though I hesitate to use the word good as a description); Gremlins 2: The New Batch doesn’t get as much love as it should, especially as a satirization of sequels; Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is bonkers and misunderstood, though it has its defenders and I feel like it’s star has rightfully been on the rise in recent years. But it’s another franchise that’s home to the most underappreciated sequel.

While The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror movies of all time, the first sequel, The Exorcist 2: The Heretic, is, well, not good. 1990’s The Exorcist III, however, is pretty boss. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who wrote the original novel, The Exorcist III takes a step in a different direction, though keeps the general supernatural ambiance and creep factor. The story follows Lieutenant Kinderman (now played by George C. Scott) from the first film as he investigates the Gemini Killer, a Zodiac-style serial murderer. It stands on its own, has aged well, and though it doesn’t top the original, The Exorcist III is a sturdy, underrated horror joint that honors what came before.

Erik Samdahl of Film Jabber @Filmjabber

A couple that come to mind are Paranormal Activity 2 and 28 Weeks Later. The first Paranormal Activity gave me nightmares, and while it relies heavily on gimmicks, those same gimmicks (and some added ones) still work surprisingly well with its sequel. I don’t remember exactly what happens in the movie, but I also remember walking out of the theater saying, “That still made me jump.”

28 Days Later is considered one of the best zombie movies out there, though you can tell Danny Boyle intended it to be a standalone movie. On the surface, the sequel, with a different director, feels like a cash grab, but it’s still a super exciting and suspenseful cash grab.

But my selection for most under-appreciated horror sequel will go to Psycho II. It’s a movie that shouldn’t exist and has no right to be any good, but it’s a legitimately well made movie that extends the story of Norman Bates in a realistic way. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I bet many, many people have dismissed it outright–that’s why it’s my choice.

Review – The Girl on the Train

Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) and based on Paula Hawkins’ popular novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train is a lurid whodunit where our protagonist isn’t merely an unreliable narrator, there’s a strong change she’s the killer everyone is trying to uncover. Said narrator is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a thoroughly drunk woman whose life has become a sad routine of heading into New York City every morning, sipping on a thermos of booze and staring at the neighborhood she once resided in with her now ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux). As Rachel’s life flops on, Tom remains in the pair’s old home, where he lives with new wifey Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their young child; a little one the former were never able to produce together.

The flame of yesteryear isn’t the only thing Rachel’s obsesses over, as their’s also Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans), a seemingly idealic twosome whom Rachel projects all of life’s missed blisses. That is until Rachel witnesses Megan in the arms of another amidst one ride, leading to her own private investigation of this new figure, a decision that comes with screaming, a figure in a dark tunnel and our lead waking up with caked blood all over her clothes and body.

The Girl on the Train is the kind of film that would definitely have featured Michael Douglas were it released in the early 90s. Slightly pulpy, erotic and erratic, Taylor’s take on this kind of story is slightly conservative. The violent acts are started in frame but the impact, especially the most severe moments, aren’t shown. The various sexual trists begin and aren’t lingered on for long. This isn’t Paul Verhoeven, but rather a work attempting for an austere take on the genre. The end result is an alright movie that gets a lot of juice from a terrific Emily Blunt performance. Her Rachel is an unflinching life that’s gone off the rails. She stumbles here, lies to strangers there and is always, always on the verge of tears. Blunt keeps Rachel a vivid character; a troubling pseudo-sleuth in it for herself more than the person that has gone missing.

The movie’s main struggles take up the periphery. Taking a note from the book’s layout, we occasionally cut to the other leading ladies of this tale. We get a little time with Anna, displaying her anxiousness about Rachel still hanging about the edges of her and Tom’s life. We also get glimpses of Megan, where her melancholy over a life of mistakes and insecurities regularly bubble up. However, these ventures into the times and turmoils of Anna and Megan don’t walk the line well. There is too little room given to their existences to make them compelling, yet too much shown to justify the minutes spent on them, as each visit grows increasingly expository. This weighs down The Girl on the Train, as those making up this fictional playground aren’t intriguing enough to make up for the lack of trashiness.

Yet, when the conclusion comes and everyone’s motives are revealed, there is a bit of a punch. Even with flashbacks being a tad too prominent, the viscera finally flows and there is an outstanding use of a corkscrew that may lead to quite a few squeals. The whole is not great. It’s not a must-see. It is good enough.