Giving our inaugural Best Video Games list a thorough once-over, the question that ultimately begs to be answered is this: Was 2011 a creative regression for the video-game industry? It’s a valid inquiry, as 22 out of the 25 titles we’ve named the year’s most valuable are either sequels, prequels, or another non-timeline-sensitive entry in an already established series (if you happen to acknowledge Child of Eden as a follow-up to Rez, then make it 23). I can recall an era where every new game was, literally, a legitimately new game, unveiling technology, characters, and gameplay that had never been seen before. Now, it’s as if the most direct pathway to a masterpiece for developers is an unwavering focus squarely on the refinement of their own past successes, adjusting and enhancing prior ingredients proven repeatedly fruitful in order to manufacture a regenerated end result that radiates ingenuity. What’s interesting about 2011’s gaming continuations is that, for the most part, they honorably cater to the idea that how longtime fans of the source material feel about the updated substance is far more important than the resulting economic gain. While it’s true that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 broke copious capital-making records, Infinity Ward received criticism from the masses for not altering the formula enough, so much so that the whole package feels like a mere upgrade rather than another groundbreaking experience. Yet the game still sold millions instantaneously, and despite the rampant shit-talking, it still found its way onto our list, because nobody can argue that it isn’t insanely fun to engage in. It’s truly a relief to know that the consumer still has some say in how a game is put together, even if they remain willing to shell out the cash for a less-than-satisfying final product.
Anyone who contests that nostalgia doesn’t play a substantial role in 2011’s most praiseworthy games is simply fooling themselves. Super Mario, Kirby, Rayman, Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda—these are all beloved franchises that hold special places in the hearts of many. You could likely set the clock back 10 years and find most of our editors locked away in their rooms, devoid of adequate sunlight, attempting to defeat the final boss or collect every last item before they pass out from lack of sleep. This year brought back those treasured feelings of both frustration and elation, reverting grown men to fervent fanboys, as the classic meshed with the modern to give birth to a distinctive set of games that point the current decade in the right direction for a supreme proliferation of artistry. If nothing else, 2011 provided a crop of visually spectacular games. There’s not a single title on our list that could be considered homely in any respect. Three words do well to sum up the year adequately: All is well. Mike LeChevallier
Execution trumps originality in iD Software’s long-in-the-making Rage, a game that hews to an awfully familiar post-apocalyptic Fallout-style template in terms of story and environmental design, and yet nonetheless manages to thrive on the basis of its excellent gameplay, outstanding visuals, and expansive single-player campaign. While weapon-customization, item-upgrading, and other RPG-ish elements are rampant throughout, the game rests on the back of its straightforward FPS action, which is bolstered by diverse enemies that one combats in consistently well-designed, inventive battle arenas. The obligatory chitchat with other characters proves to be more of a chore than an enlightening means of creating immersion, and monotony does eventually creep into the action. But between the recoil-charged physicality of its weaponry and the sheer pandemonium of its many centerpieces, it’s a game that, while not the epic it aspires to be, delivers a wealth of visceral, nerve-jangling in-the-moment pleasures. Nick Schager
While Suda51’s attempts to make gaming’s Never Mind the Bollocks got increasingly tedious this year, the Gaijin team created gaming’s Ramones Leave Home with Bit.Trip Flux, a self-consciously primitivist masterpiece that reaches back to the roots to create something unprecedented. At a quick glance, this is just good ol’ Pong with an interactive soundtrack. But the magic isn’t in the description, it’s in the experience, and Bit.Trip Flux is the most purely joyful gaming experience I had this year. The game’s enthusiastic screwing with the player induces the familiar forward lean of a gamer facing off with a designer, and as you’re tilting toward the screen, it yanks you in with a driving yet warm sound-and-light show to merge you and your Wii into a single musical cyborg. This may be the purest work of art that the medium has ever produced, an experience unimaginable in any other form, and it’s simply perfect beyond description. Daniel McKleinfeld
Amalgamating design and gameplay aspects from nearly every Super Mario quest to come before it (with a firm emphasis on Super Mario Bros. 3), Super Mario 3D Land is an outstanding example of why Nintendo remains the best development team working today. Ostensibly without much stress or pressure from the surge of FPS and MMO mongers, the company is continually able to please their devoted followers and, at the very same instant, manages to entice digital-gaming virgins, be they six or 60 years of age. Showcasing stunning attention detail at every corner, an intuitive control scheme, colorful, ahead-of-the-handheld-curve visuals that make elegant usage of the 3DS’s autostereoscopic prowess, and a tremendous amount of fan service, SM3DL is not only a more than worthy successor to Nintendo’s current platforming high watermark Super Mario Galaxy 2, but a fine introduction to the franchise for anyone just breaking into the wide, wondrous world of video gaming. LeChevallier
A sequel to the lauded 2008 puzzle platformer, LittleBigPlanet 2 welcomed players back into Sackboy’s dazzling textile wonderland of cardboard-box fortresses, sentient calendar creatures, stickers galore, and obstacle-filled planetoids made of craftwork bric-a-brac. In terms of gameplay, the Story mode is as beautiful as it is varied. Mount a canine steed that shoots sonic barks, swing over pits of lava with a grappling hook, or gun down enemy spacecraft in a Gradius-inspired aerial shooter, which even takes on full 8-bit, old-school glory in one level. And of course, there’s the beloved Create mode. The level design game-within-a-game offers users an almost intimidating amount of creative resources to fashion their own LBP stages to share with the world. Some players’ brainchildren include Halloween-themed levels, stages that turn into hip-hop music videos, and levels that send Sackboy skydiving—all of which are as fun and wacky as anything in the already stellar Story mode. Bryan Lufkin
Since the first Kirby game, 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land for the Game Boy, Kirby has been Nintendo’s perennially adorable puffball. He can also kick a lot of ass. Kirby’s Return to Dreamland reinstates the latter. Although 2010’s Kirby’s Epic Yarn possessed a delightfully inventive art style, it was a little too toothless of an experience for some hardcore platformer fans. Dreamland remedies that negative with its vibrant level design, easy drop-in/drop-out four-player options, and screen-clearing special attacks. So many games in 2011 push the player into a harsh world filled with shadows. Kirby’s dreamscape is a welcome antecedent. Instead of bombed-out landscapes and slate-gray corridors, it has DayGlo clouds and little winged orbs that flit about your head like drunken flies. It’s a game that harkens back to the golden age of platformers and slashes the difficulty for the Angry Birds generation. Nearly 20 years later, Kirby is still reveling in its own accessibility Kyle Lemmon
Within the first day of its release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold over six million units, which meant Gamestops and mall parking lots across the land likely saw some light warfare of their own. Shattered sales records aside, MW3 delivered the classic, gritty, battle-torn mayhem fans of the franchise have grown to love and expect. The game offered some of the year’s finest in first-person shooting, and introduced a new, and challenging, Survival Mode, which pits you against an onslaught of increasingly formidable foes. And while the satisfying campaign lasts five hours, the reason the franchise is so successful is the tried-and-true multiplayer, which was brought back in full bloody force for the latest in the series. Sixteen battlegrounds, unlockables aplenty, and unyielding trash talk help made MW3 a must-own for war game lovers in 2011. Lufkin
The Mass Effect universe was too big to stay confined to one platform, and with Mass Effect 2, Bioware finally let PS3 owners explore the galaxy on their system of choice. Gamers will probably be divided forever about whether this sequel streamlined or dumbed-down the combat, but the appeal of the Mass Effect series isn’t the fighting, it’s the world. Lots of design docs have concept art that seems straight out of OMNI magazine, but only Mass Effect 2 managed to implement that in-game, creating thousands of beautiful planets with obsessively detailed backstories for everything on them. Even more than the ambitious Elder Scrolls games, Mass Effect 2 realizes the potential of video games for executing the kind of rich world-building that fantasy and sci-fi fans love, and very much unlike Elder Scrolls, they tell the story with acting, writing, and direction that you don’t have to apologize for. McKleinfeld
While Batman: Arkham City has rightfully dominated gaming headlines as a preeminent example of superhero-sagas done right, Sucker Punch’s sequel to 2009’s inFamous is no slouch in that department either. Bike-messenger-turned-do-gooder Cole MacGrath remains a reliably entertaining proxy for one’s superpowered fantasies; his lightening attacks, wall-climbing talents, and telephone wire-skating travel techniques combine to form an excellent skill set for the open-sandbox mission that this lengthy adventure throws its protagonist’s way. The choice in inFamous 2 to play as a hero or villain is again a serviceable if somewhat unremarkable gimmick, but Cole’s new abilities—upgraded throughout by completing missions and tasks—afford endless opportunities for all sorts of satisfyingly urban-warfare, mass-destruction craziness. Throw in a beautifully rendered metropolitan locale that teems with opportunities for squashing crime and/or causing trouble, via both the main campaign and numerous side quests, and the result is a follow-up that builds upon its ancestor’s thrilling sense of power and freedom. Schager
Atlus’s much buzzed over title, Catherine, generated a fair amount of hype prior to its North American release in July. The infidelity-inspired anime-drama treatment of a puzzle game was certainly something new, and got a lot of people talking. We weren’t disappointed when the game hit shelves. It blended genres like puzzle and horror in a way that we can only hope will be oft-repeated in 2012 and beyond. Throughout the game, we were bounced between the moody storyline of protagonist Vincent, engaging barflies in conversation about his romantic woes, and his vaguely Escher-esque nightmare realm of survival puzzles. The pretty graphics, slick presentation, titillating storyline, and intriguing mélange of genres certainly made Catherine stick out as one of year’s finest games, as well as one of the most memorable. I mean, this is a game about a dude getting drunk and sexted by day, and then scrambling up a crumbling tower, in his underwear, in a frightening not-world by night. What’s forgettable about that? Lufkin
Modern military first-person shooters are often compared to flashy, albeit linear, theme-park rides. Trailing a generic non-player character into the war zone is mindless fun, but you know what’s coming around nearly every corner. Battlefield 3 isn’t entirely immune to the Call of Duty malaise, but its creators have avoided several of the genre’s niggling tropes. It’s another graphically impressive and thrilling single-player experience. Although that segment of the game hasn’t quite wrestled out of its genre straightjacket, the multiplayer portion of DICE’s latest delivers an incessantly enjoyable experience. The adrenaline rushes, rolling thrums, and unpredictability of a combat experience are bottled and released for the player. Overall, Battlefield 3 performs like a hard-edged war veteran. The epic online battles feel like they have real stakes and the well-balanced four classes from Bad Company 2 return for fans of the popular series. This amounts to a marquee game that shirks common misconceptions about a mega-popular genre and points toward a way that shooters can inspire once again. Lemmon
Besides the superb HD graphics, spectacular gore, a great “best-of” character roster, and an excellent online component, NetherRealm Studios’s glorious reboot of iconic fighter franchise Mortal Kombat really transcends its competitors with an engaging, fully fledged story mode, retelling the narrative from the first three series entries from multiple perspectives. Beloved characters are dismembered and maimed in a lengthy, clever campaign with actual weight—a first for a fighting game. Borrowing and fine-tuning mechanics from current 2D fighting games, Mortal Kombat is accessible for those new to the genre but also deep enough to engage diehard fans. The extreme nature of the violence pushes buttons, as it should, but the game is both fun to play and fun to watch. Complete with a compelling Challenge Tower and extras alongside a traditional arcade mode, Mortal Kombat is not just an amazing fighting game, but one of the best games of the year. Ryan Aston
Who would have thought that the most graphically gorgeous game of 2011 would be a strictly two-dimensional side-scroller featuring Ubisoft’s limbless, all-but-forgotten mid-‘90s, attempted Mario-killer mascot? Rayman Origins is truly a feast for the eyes, a meticulously crafted work of art that demands to be displayed in the modified museums of the future. Being hypnotized by the game’s engrossing exquisiteness is almost unavoidable, so much so that the steadily increasing difficulty level can soon prove to be a daunting challenge due to the ongoing onslaught of ravishing sights and sounds that slyly envelops the player. Vibrant, monumentally clever environments (the sand zone is built on reactionary didgeridoos, for heaven’s sake) do well to mask the skill level necessary to progress through the later stages; making your way through series creator Michel Ancel’s dreamy utopia of oddball flora and fauna is demanding without being a gamepad-shattering endeavor. Every inch of the game is embroidered with adoration for the medium, and, most importantly, it’s a refreshing respite from the current gaming generation’s countless blood-and-guts, brutal-assassination-is-your-only-objective titles. LeChevallier
Plain and simple, Pokémon Black/White is the video-game equivalent of crack cocaine. Once you’re locked in the cycle of exposure, it’s impossible to escape. There are now 649 species of Pocket Monsters to battle, catch, train, and trade; developer Game Freak implemented a stroke of genius in allowing Pokémon from previous installments to become available for obtainment only after the main storyline is completed. In doing this, even the most familiarized player is able to partially relive the fresh experience of playing the earliest Pokémon chapters for the first time, and because of this, for rookies, it’s likely even more pleasurable. Pokémon Black/White is a remarkably refined RPG that amends just about every misstep taken by the previous Nintendo DS entries Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and the expansion, Pokémon Platinum. Game Freak doesn’t make these games with a profit in mind. From the outset, Pokémon has been about spawning and maintaining a colossal fanbase, and as long as Bulbapedia and 4chan’s /vp/ remain at the top of my bookmarks tab, I wholeheartedly believe that sentiment will never change. LeChevallier
Dispensing completely with any notion of serious tone or narrative, Saints Row: The Third builds on everything that made Saints Row 2 the amazing alternative to the depressive Grand Theft Auto IV by being the single most ridiculous, hilarious, insane experience this medium has to offer. And it’s wonderful. The open-world game to end all open-world games, Saints Row: The Third is a joy to behold, offering the player a dynamic sandbox with which to cause havoc as the head of a fully customizable gang—who can be ninjas, or spacemen, or whatever—taking over the streets of Steelport with the most imaginative and creative implements of destruction conceivable. Its missions and optional activities are fun and varied, with a phenomenal character creator and an experience system that rewards play. Complete with excellent co-op and intelligent satire, Saints Row: The Third might be the most fun you can have playing a game this year. Aston
With Dance Central 2, “the only reason to buy a Kinect” became “a great reason to buy a Kinect,” and left pretty much every other dance game in the dust. Make no mistake, Dance Central 2 isn’t a casual-friendly party game; it’s a hardcore challenge, all the tougher for being full-body. Coordinating arms, legs, hips, and rhythm will demand skills most gamers let atrophy long ago, and there will be plenty of times you’ll curse the camera for denying you points that should rightfully be yours. But like the best music games, Dance Central 2 is ferociously satisfying to master, and just gets better the more you play it. If Harmonix can keep up the DLC, and even tie it into what’s hitting at the clubs, this may be the next great game-as-platform. But even if they never update it again, it’s the one I intend to spend much of next year playing. McKleinfeld
In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston
Developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi has always pursued an aesthetic of the digital spiritual, finding transcendent beauty in vector math. In Child of Eden, he leaps past his previous games with an unprecedented visual fusion of the technological and the organic. This game will rightly be compared to synaesthetic masterpieces like Rez or Space Invaders Extreme, but it equally merits comparison to games like Zeno Clash or Final Fantasy XII, in which the appeal is a guided tour through a world you’ve never imagined, where it’s hard to say if you’re on water, land, or air, and where glowing whales sprout bioluminescent cacti among many other gorgeous and strange sights. In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the rail-shooter genre, as developers explore its capacity for immersive cinematic experiences—not to mention its easy adaptation to motion control. But Child of Eden does those action-movie simulators one better by taking you someplace you’ve never been and then delivering the best acid trip you’ll ever book. McKleinfeld
The year’s finest first-person shooter came courtesy of the PS3-exclusive Resistance franchise—a considerable surprise given that the series’s previous two entries had been serviceable but unremarkable works of genre craftsmanship. This third go-round, however, is a superior slice of FPS gaming insanity, largely doing away with conventional cutscenes and unnecessary narrative convolutions in order to maintain primary focus on the title’s hectic, muscular, and satisfying warfare. Better yet, Insomniac mixes and matches various gameplay modes with aplomb, veering from stealth missions to chaotic battles with dexterity, thereby affording tonal shifts that keep the shoot-everything-in-sight action fresh. While enemy AI lacks consistency, the game’s gorgeous, highly detailed graphics add to the enveloping doom-laden atmosphere of a colonized Earth crumbling under the weight of alien siege—though finding opportunities to stop and admire the scenery amid Resistance 3’s blistering action is, ultimately, even more difficult than completing its sterling first-person campaign. Schager
A game that, like its predecessors, flaunts its aggro-manliness like a medal of honor, Epic Games’s gung-ho threequel breaks little ground but delivers the murder-mayhem goods like few other third-person actioners. Once again placing you in control of steroidal superhero Marcus Fenix in a battle against the Earth-invading alien Locust, Gears of War 3 is a polished piece of regurgitation, amplifying scope and scale while generally keeping things on a familiar, and still solid, duck-and-cover combat level (albeit with a greater, and satisfying, focus on hand-to-hand brutality). Despite its gameplay sophistication, a sense of repetition is persistent, and ignoring the superfluous story is, as usual, the key to fully enjoying this bloodbath. That task, however, is made quite easy by the game’s predictably outstanding aesthetic polish and borderline-frantic pace, all of which help contribute to making this third Gears of War go-round something of a franchise Ultimate Edition. Schager
Visceral Games aims for perfection, not innovation. Dead Space 2 has little that survival-horror players haven’t seen before, but it refines the formula to bone-cutting sharpness. Most notable is the canny pacing; monsters always jump out two beats before you expect them, providing more sudden shrieks than an anesthetic-free visit to the dentist’s office. That pacing is enabled by the game’s cunning level architecture, which functions both as a narrative element (the visit to Unitology headquarters reveals as much as all the tie-in comics) and as a subtly placed track that steers players toward precisely the right spot for a nasty surprise. They got the basics right too, with just enough enemy and weapon variation to keep you on your toes without overwhelming you with choice, a dismemberment mechanic that adds a lot of strategy to your running and gunning, and minimally intrusive cutscenes. Combine that with ooey-gooey visuals and solid-B+ writing, and you’ve got a perfect thrill ride. McKleinfeld
Skyrim can be a broken game at times. Characters will get stuck in walls for hours. Horses soar high into the air. At one point, I saw a dragon skeleton lumbering in the middle of a tiny village. Every time I go back it’s still chilling there. Skyrim’s occasional brokenness is just another aspect of the series’s charm, though. There are endless ways to play through the game’s open world and the quest log will never be empty. For such a fantasy setting, Skyrim tries to mimic the delightful and sometimes mundane routine of real life. Skyrim is bursting with spirit and technique and a vigilant attention to detail. Bethesda doesn’t fret over the fact that you may never uncover that one treasure buried deep within a dungeon in the crook of your map. The game doesn’t mollycoddle and that’s why it’s so incomparable. Bethesda has finally crystallized their dream of crafting a world where any player could play as whomever they wanted, however they wanted. Lemmon
Given its knack for tactfully emulating cinematic flair, it’s a herculean task to not examine Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise as if it were a collective of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, and, let’s face it, part threes usually suck all kinds of ass. There are some exceptions to this (Return of the King, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and Toy Story 3 spring to mind as uncontested examples), but I must admit that the stigma has proved quite the opposite when it comes to video games. Uncharted 3 succeeds across nearly all critical categories because, after two projects to fully comprehend the capabilities of the hardware at hand, Naughty Dog emerges as true masters of the TPS/adventure genre. From its polished graphics and the tight controls, to the sharp scriptwriting and spot-on vocal performances (and a drastically improved multiplayer to boot), Nathan Drake’s third, action-packed, surprisingly emotional exploit is an endlessly absorbing crusade that stands alongside any of the year’s finest entertainments, video game or otherwise. LeChevallier
In the five years since the Wii’s launch, few games have used the console’s motion-sensing capabilities as effectively and seamlessly as the latest in the 25-year-old Legend of Zelda franchise. Between the masterful storytelling of Link’s battle against Demon Lord Ghirahim and the pitch-perfect motion-control swordplay via the Wii MotionPlus, this latest in Shigeru Miyamoto’s definitive dungeon-crawler series proves why Link has a throne set aside for him in the Valhalla of video-game icons. Brandishing your sword and using new accessories, like the flying beetle, felt smoother than a Zora’s thigh, thanks to the game’s intuitive, natural-feeling controls. They bring out the best in the Wii, and are a great example of how motion-sensing has revolutionized the industry. Throw in complex puzzles, a sprawling world, and a beautiful soundtrack peppered with orchestral tracks, and Skyward Sword has become the gold standard not only the Zelda series, but games in general. Lufkin
Batman is an icon that finally received a just video-game treatment with Rocksteady’s classic Batman: Arkham Asylum. That Metroid-esque action-adventure title utilized its gothic environment to full effect. It’s even-better sequel, Batman: Arkham City, could have turned out to be just an open-world expansion of its predecessor’s formula. Thankfully, it’s anything but that. Exploring Gotham City’s quarantined ghetto is the game. The Dark Knight runs across snowy rooftops, dive-bombs off a gargoyle, only to grapple onto a shady-looking factory up ahead. Sure, there’s the formula of hitting a waypoint, entering a building, fighting through a horde of goons, and rumbling with a boss. The sinew between those familiar muscles is where Arkham City succeeds. Chase after every Riddler trophy or uncover Azrael’s furtive subplot. Or, just explore for exploration’s sake. The options are furtive and ingenious. The brooding, gothic quality that oozed out of Arkham Asylum’s pores is expanded and shot through with a new revelation: Batman’s ominous metropolis is the true star of Rocksteady’s excellent franchise. Lemmon
Portal 2 is a masterpiece. Valve is the rare developer that completely understands the language of video games, using the medium to craft a compelling and enriching narrative experience that expands upon everything that made their 2007 hit exceptional. Once again, Chell finds herself at the mercy of psychotic AI GLaDOS, forced to take on ever more elaborate “testing” that comprises complex and satisfying physics-based puzzles while exploring the darkly hilarious history of Aperture Science. This world builds around the player, first as GLaDOS reconstructs her gorgeously detailed test facility following decades of neglect (the graphics are second to none, with every image beauteous and meaningful), secondly as the origin of the deeply unethical research corporation is revealed, headed by the increasingly insane Cave Johnson (voiced by a phenomenal J.K. Simmons). He’s just one of many memorable characters introduced across the involving narrative; Stephen Merchant in particular delights as insipid “Personality Core” Wheatley, the perfect antagonist and intellectual nemesis for GLaDOS. Beyond the wonderful single player campaign, a unique cooperative campaign offers an entirely new challenge working through intricate puzzles with a partner, continuing the narrative under the watchful, vengeful eye of GLaDOS. Portal 2 is a worthy sequel and the best game of 2011. Aston
Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35
We’re taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.
Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)
I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.
MTV Video Music Awards (1984)
Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.
Music Video (1984)
Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.
Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.
The Girlie Show (1993)
The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.
MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.
Confessions Tour (2006)
In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.
MDNA Tour (2012)
Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.
Rebel Heart Tour (2015)
After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.
See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Interview: Max Richter on His Ad Astra Score and its So-Called Planetary Instruments
Richter discusses how he connects his classical schooling to one of his other early passions: outer space.
NASA launched its Voyager program over 40 years ago, and since then, sci-fi films like James Gray’s Ad Astra have been drawing inspiration from the journey that the program’s twin robotic probes have made through our outer solar system. And for the film’s post-minimalist soundtrack, influential composer Max Richter actually pulled plasma wave data from the Voyager probes and used it to make music that would embody the story of the long and precarious journey that an existentially fraught astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), makes through space to find his famed father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
Though Ad Astra’s music is written with an interstellar scope in mind, Richter is modest when speaking about his diminutive “notes on the page.” “If you don’t get the notes right on the piano, they won’t sound right when they are being played by an orchestra,” he says in a straightforward way. Ad Astra is also a bit of a return to a childhood dream for the musician, as one of his first memories was being woken up in the middle of the night by his parents to watch the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white TV set in their living room.
Speaking with German-born British composer while he takes a break from recording his next album, we discussed how he connects his classical schooling—he studied composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio in Florence—to one of his other early passions: outer space. In doing so, we also discover that the distance between two broken human psyches sometimes feels as though it’s on an interstellar scale.
How are you doing today after the recent U.S. tour?
I’m recording today, so I’m good. I’m recording a new project for next year.
Is there anything that you can share about it yet?
Well, it’s very much the vein of my other kind of storytelling projects around society and culture, like Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks. So, it has a kind of a sociopolitical, activist dimension. It’s very much in the vein of Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks.
Both of those albums posit the idea of the democratization of music and getting it out there, and you’ve continued that commentary on sociopolitical things. What are your thoughts on the choice to perform the eight-hour composition Sleep at the Great Wall of China? Obviously sleep, shelter, and food and water are common denominators across all cultures and governments.
Sleep is a piece which is about finding a place to rest and repose. It’s a moment to pause and reflect, and I think music can provide that. Artworks can provide that. They can provide a place to think—to think about what we’re doing. That’s one of the most important things I think that music can do. I felt that bringing Sleep to that setting was, in a way, my way of contributing to that debate to what was going on over there, what is going on over there, and to try and make a kind of a plea for kind of a humane behavior. I think that’s really one of the things that Sleep is about. So, yeah, it was very, very interesting.
I saw that when you were approached to work on Ad Astra, you saw a rough cut. What were you originally struck by as a composer even in that early stage of the edit?
There are really two films in Ad Astra. There’s the father-son psychodrama and then there’s the voyage in space. I like the way that these two films are superimposed on top of one another. I then started thinking about the two kinds of musical language. The first being that kind of personal instrumental language, which speaks to the dynamic between Roy and Clifford, and the second being the kind of big-picture music.
I had kind of traditional instrumentation for them and their story and then I thought, “What about the big-picture music, what about the physics, and, you know, all of that science?” So I thought about the Voyager I and II probes, which have actually made the journey that’s depicted in the film. I contacted Iowa University’s Department of physics & Astronomy, which got data that the Voyager probes recorded on their journey.
They actually measured the plasma wave data all the way out and sent it back. We got a hold of the data and transformed it into musical sounds. That allowed me to use almost like a location-recording approach to the electronic music so that when Brad’s character goes past a planet, you’re actually hearing data collected there, transformed into music. As well as being illustrative and embodying the journey, you’ve actually got real objects from that place. That was the sort of jumping-off point for the electronic music parts.
Is the data that you manipulated throughout the soundtrack or does it only pop up on select tracks?
Oh yeah! We’ve actually built computer-modeled instruments out of that data. So, there’s that kind of raw and cooked versions of that data [on the soundtrack].
I enjoyed the classical parts of the score meeting those electronic ones. It got me thinking about your background in Renaissance music. I immediately think of angelic things when I hear the harp on the soundtrack. First Man employed it in a different way. I was curious about that instrument choice.
I mean, there are a lot of sounds which kind of evoke traditional religious music or choral writing. There are these kinds of glassy, high-frequency tones and they sort of transcend them in some way. They evoke those colors. The reverberation I’ve used in the score throughout is a digital model of the Notre Dame in France. It’s a kind of a virtual cathedral [laughs] that all the music is being played through. I think that kind of affects us. It makes us think about big stuff and the sort of big questions. The film is about big questions. So, we’re trying to sort of populate the sonic universe of it with these sorts of emblems, which remind us of those things.
I watched an Estonian TV show in which you likened the Brexit situation to someone willfully stepping off a fast-moving train, and though the story for Ad Astra is highly personal, there are some moments, almost like Easter eggs, that are commentaries on what life might be like in that situation. Did you find any contemporary, socioeconomic elements coming out in the writing against those images?
Well, yeah. I mean, I think James Gray is a realist. You know, he’s a very, very smart writer, and he’s very sanguine about the present and the future. Certainly, the way the moon is depicted in Ad Astra is the big thing, as it’s got subways and stuff all over it and there’s a war going on. It’s like we’ve just exported all the problems of Earth and put them on the moon. That’s basically what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, it’s actually very sad. I think Brad’s character actually says this [about the moon]. He says something like, “You know, if my dad was here, he would certainly be so depressed.” So, James is very sanguine about the potential for humanity, but he does show humanity’s habit of falling back on these sorts of conflicts.
I read that you’re closer with your mother and I was curious if there was anything that you found with your personal journey with your father that came up as you were working through the soundtrack?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I think all father-son relationships have an element of confrontation [laughs] that Roy and Clifford have. It seems to be something about the male psyche isn’t it, somehow? There’s always something of that and hopefully [laughs] not as much as they have. Yeah, I think it speaks to people because of that. Roy is somebody who can’t connect to other people. That’s his kind of challenge and that’s his journey and connecting sometimes is hard. It’s also like the most important thing we do actually. Yeah, there’s a paradox in that. I think the film does speak to people in a personal way. And, certainly, to me.
You’ve done versions of classical pieces throughout your career, most notably on the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, but I really liked the rendition of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. What did you want to convey with that on the soundtrack at that point in the film’s narrative?
Bach’s music is kind of like the most perfect music in my brain. It’s like divine music, you know? “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion translates as “have mercy.” You know, obviously it’s in a religious context in that film. What I was thinking is, “Well, this is really what Roy is asking for from his father.” He’s saying, “Have mercy,” and the father is saying, “No, not in this way.” It just seemed to sum up their dynamic and, obviously, it’s fantastic music. It was a nice opportunity to kind of revisit that and then I think there’s something about Bach’s music which just sort of connects to some of those sorts of very archetypal, cosmic images. It’s because of the incredible perfection of the geometry of Bach’s music.
I really enjoyed the orchestra’s energy and thrum on “Encounter” and “Forced Entry.” They show more of the menacing side that you have as a composer and it’s definitely reflected in the film. It seems like there’s some kind of electronic-like processing on the instruments for those tracks.
Yeah, there is. I basically just put guitar pedals on the orchestra for just sort of gritty energy in various places. There’s quite a bit of that kind of stuff, and aside from the so-called planetary instruments made from the Voyager data, there’s also the synthesizer that I use most is a Moog System 55. Apart from being like an archetypal synth and my absolute favorite, it also comes from, you know, 1969, which is the Apollo 11 landing year. It all just sort of made sense. All of that quite gritty, analog-sounding electronics stuff is from the Moog 55 and it’s there because of its association with, you know, that moment in history. It has kind of a cosmic vibe.
What did you see as the main thread that went throughout the score as you were working on it?
Well, I guess it’s mostly about the sort of image of music, which can evoke something beyond ourselves. So that’s why it sort of connects a little bit to traditional religious music or historical religious music. It’s got this kind of slow-moving ritual quality and, you know, very extreme registers, kind of low-density, low-information density, so that the listener sort of completes the piece. [That is the impact] of those kinds of things on the soundtrack; I almost feel like they’re drones, but they’re not, they’re just very slow-moving music. There’s just something about very slow-moving material which makes it feel big. I don’t know why that is. I guess we’re used to seeing, you know, large, slow-moving objects in real life, and there’s something about that that we imprint on the music somehow. All of those sorts of ideas. Honestly, for any film, you’re really just looking for material which feels like it belongs to that world. When you find it, that’s it. I mean, of course, it’s a very technical and cerebral process on one hand, and on the other hand it’s completely intuitive.
A Space in Time: Doclisboa 2019 Explores the Politics of Memory, Space, and the Image
The film image opens a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Just before the start of this year’s Doclisboa film festival in Lisbon, the organizers put out a press release protesting the Brazilian government’s apparent crackdown on independent filmmaking through censorship and abrupt budget cuts to Ancine, the South American country’s state-supported cinema fund. Given the close ties between Portugal and its former colony—which include shared memories of 20th-century dictatorships—it’s not surprising that Doclisboa felt compelled to address Brazil’s ongoing crisis, unambiguously decrying the Bolsonaro government’s “dismantlement of democracy” and installation of a dictatorship, and announcing additional screenings of anti-dictatorship films from Brazil.
Several Brazilian films, of course, were already on Doclisboa’s docket this year. One of the standouts of the festival’s international competition was Jo Serfaty’s Sun Inside, which follows four Rio de Janeiro teens as they struggle to find their identities in the summer after school ends. Featuring compelling, naturalistic performances from each of its young leads and practically radiating hope for the future represented by Generation Z, the film has the makings of an American award-season darling.
But Sun Inside qualifies its own sense of hope: Its fun, woke teens know they live in a time of change, crisis, and inequity, and neither the script nor Serfaty’s camera offers an easy path toward transcending the cramped spaces and precarious circumstances they navigate in Rio. The film, which suggests a very muted version of Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, is as much about a milieu as it is about its characters.
Serfaty’s socially minded film shares its exploration of the politics of narrative form and the cinematic image with much of the 2019 Doclisboa slate. And Brazil isn’t the only former Portuguese colony represented at the festival: The Sound of Masks explores the traumatic history of Mozambique in the decades since it freed itself from Portuguese rule in 1975 by focusing on Atanásio Nyusi, a renowned dancer of the mapiko, in which a solitary male dancer dons a wooden mask. For Nyusi—and for director Sara CF de Gouveia—his tremulous mapiko dance serves as a record of the trauma Mozambique experienced over a century of colonialism and civil war. His jolting movements and often frightful bearing toward his audience implicitly speak of pain and terror, but the fact that he and his company continue to perform suggests perseverance and pride.
Nyusi, appropriately, also manages his community’s archive of mapiko dancers, the existence of which by itself points to the fact that the dance isn’t some timeless tribal practice. A crucial subtext in The Sound of Masks is that precolonial practices aren’t objects frozen in time, but bear the marks of history like any form of transgenerational human activity. Throughout, de Gouveia uses television footage from the days of colonialism and the civil war relatively sparingly, illustrating through montage the events that she and Nyusi understand his dance to be evoking. This expressive use of archival footage is combined with haunting footage of Nyusi’s performances—both contemporary and from when he was young—and slow-motion shots of Nyusi or other members of his company in full makeup against a black backdrop, staring directly into the camera. In this way, the documentary is utterly transfixing, often as strange as it is revelatory.
A confrontation with Portugal’s colonialist legacy is also implicit in Welket Bungué’s I Am Not Pilatus, one of the short films in the festival’s international competition. It’s composed of cellphone footage of two recent racist incidents in Lisbon, one of which took place on the Avenida do Liberdade, down the street from Cinema São Jorge, where many of Doclisboa’s screenings are held. The unseen woman doing the recording stands on one of the broad commercial avenue’s many plazas, filming at a great distance a confrontation between Lisbon police and a group of black youth and, though she admits she cannot see what’s happening, making racist conjectures. Bungué manipulates the footage, mockingly distorting the woman’s voice, flipping the footage upside down, looping her racist or obviously hypocritical lines, and ironically splicing in footage from a police beating that undercuts her assertion that the police are there to keep order.
Aesthetically, I Am Not Pilatus hardly breaks new ground, but it’s an instructive reminder of a certain activist filmmaking credo: Because reality is already structured by unjust systems, it’s incumbent upon artists like Bungué to use film as an instrument of intervention, rather than merely reproduce unjust realities. However slight, I Am Not Pilatus is an admirable and coherent political intervention, simmering with righteous anger at the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments apparently on the rise in Portugal, which recently elected a far-right representative to parliament for the first time since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.
Other distinctly political shorts—like Josip Lukić’s The Rex Will Sail In and Filipe Oliveira’s Há Margem, which screened together out of competition in the “Green Years” section—explore the manifestation of bigger socio-political structures in the lives of the underclass. The Rex Will Sail In concerns a Croatian family supported by their matriarch Marina’s work on a cruise ship, which sends her away from home for months at a time; the stress of working in the neoliberal tourism industry has taken its toll, and Marina uses the camera as her therapist, monologuing her buried anxieties about her sons’ behavior and upcoming changes at work. By and large consisting of close-ups, and filmed mostly in Marina’s car and small apartment, the short conveys the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an unforgiving, often unpredictable profession.
Há Margem is also in part about feeling closed in. “It’s tight in here,” says one subject about a narrow alley that bends between buildings, and that remark resonates throughout the film. Capturing slice-of-life footage from Segundo Torrão, a neighborhood on the other side of the Tagus River from Lisbon whose homes are all illegal because the land there isn’t appropriately zoned, Oliveira’s poetic documentary looks at the ways people make what they can out of a life on the margins (“There’s Margin” is the English translation of the film’s title).
Spatial politics also play an important role in Christian Haardt’s A New Environment, an essayistic film with rather esoteric interests and a dry tone. Composed of archival footage edited to the audio of an interview with the architect Heinrich Klotz, it covers, among other topics centered around 20th-century architecture, how national character and memory is revealed or hidden by major building projects like the postwar reconstruction of Frankfurt. Klotz’s thinking can be intriguingly dialectical: Suspicious of modernity’s penchant for reproductions, he nevertheless embraces the design principles of Disney World because even if it represents the pinnacle of fabricated living, it contains the dream of a unique and specific utopia. But Haardt’s sparse, quiet film has a monotonous quality that often makes it easy to lose the stakes of Klotz’s extended discourse.
Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, which won the Caligari Prize at this year’s Berlinale and screened at Doclisboa in the “From the Earth to the Moon” section, is more effective in grappling with German history. Heise delves into his own archival material—letters, diary entries, photographs, even a resume—to reconstruct the effect that the tragedies of the 20th century had on his family. At one point, he reads an exchange of letters between family members from the ‘30s and ‘40s—some in newly annexed Vienna, some in their adopted home of Berlin—over scrolling images of deportation lists. As the dispersed family reports of the increasing persecution they face and expresses their growing fears of being deported and murdered, we wait in anguish for the inevitable appearance of their names on the lists. In this sequence and others, the film’s deliberate pace demands intellectual engagement, compelling us to look and truly consider the material reality of the past.
Heimat Is a Space in Time’s title uses the German word for “homeland” in an evocative, paradoxical phrase that suggests the historically mutability of the concept, and the problem of a notion of homeland for a German whose family was shattered by the most notorious and inhumane of the 20th century’s nationalist movements. By contrast, Wook Steven Heo’s Under-Ground is a far less personalized confrontation with significant historical spaces affected by the chaos that nationalist aggression set loose in the world. Wook sends his camera contemplatively into the cold landscapes of factories and industrial campuses where the Japanese forced Korean captives to work, through now-empty caverns under Okinawa where Korean prisoners died alongside Japanese soldiers, and around Japanese anti-war memorials, looking to capture spaces of suffering that were forgotten even as the rest of the world memorialized their fallen.
The film’s anonymous feel suits the legacy of dehumanization Wook is concerned with—Under-Ground is in large part a protest against Japanese steel giant Nippon’s refusal to reckon with its historical participation in war crimes—but at times its presentation can feel a bit cold, suggesting a particularly somber travel film. Finding a more metaphorical way of dealing with the spaces of the past is Clayton Vomero’s Zona, a documentary-narrative hybrid that draws parallels between the spread of individualism among young people in the ‘80s, which helped bring an end to Russia’s totalitarian communist state, and today’s Russian subculture.
Zona’s title is surely a reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which a mysterious event creates an exceptional zone of temptation in which wishes come true. One of the veterans of the so‐called second Russian revolution in 1991 describes post-communist Russia as permanently existing in the state of exception declared during the military’s attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia here appears as a metaphysically suspended space, caught between the dream of the West its young people had at the turn of the ‘90s and the reality of a country that managed to successfully adopt neoliberalism but not democracy.
The attitudes of today’s counterculture youth, which the film represents through scripted but veracious interviews, offers a glimpse at the possibility of a more open Russia, but it’s clear now that this open future won’t be achieved by building more McDonalds. The problem with global capitalism, one of the Gen-X rebels interviewed notes in despair, is that “in the end, everyone will just be American.” Finding a Russian identity that doesn’t depend on such a perverse dream may require finally canceling the state of exception that the film proposes the country has found itself in for nearly three decades.
The selections cited here represents a miniscule portion of the 303 films showing at Doclisboa. Many, like Heimat Is a Space in Time, have already received attention after playing other festivals earlier this year. Werner Herzog probably counts as the biggest name with a film at Doclisboa, with his strange new Japan-set drama Family Romance, LLC, about an actor (Ishii Yuichi) who works for a company that hires him out to impersonate the missing father to a 12-year-old girl (Mahiro Tanimoto). It played Cannes earlier this year. Eric Baudelaire’s disarming documentary A Dramatic Film, made over the course of four years in collaboration with a diverse group of pre-teen children at a Paris school, premiered more recently at Locarno.
Gathering such already-premiered films under the Doclisboa umbrella—or, as a recurrent advertisement for the fest suggests, baking them into the same cake—invites us to consider their politics alongside their experimental aesthetics. When a director chooses to allow a black French child to record his walk home for inclusion in his film, when an established German director elects to make a film about the mechanization of family relations in Japan with Japanese principles, they’re not merely aesthetic choices, but political interventions that color the films’ reconstruction of the real. As Doclisboa’s program and emboldened stance against the burgeoning democratic crisis in Brazil attests, film may be a form of action as well as one of thought. Its images open a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Doclisboa runs from October 17—27.
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
99. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
98. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
97. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
96. Basket Case (1982)
Unsaid yet implicit in Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case is the notion that outsiders can sniff each other out. Yet self-loathing can estrange someone from even an accepting society, and Henenlotter is attentive to the literal and figurative scars that Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his brother, Belial, carry as social rejects accustomed to companionship only from the other. Women are attracted to Duane, yet he carries guilt over Belial’s much worse lot in life, as well as a steadfast conviction in his own essential “ugliness,” which Belial metaphorically physicalizes. This poignancy complements the purposefully and amusingly tasteless plot—a variation on lurid stories of conjoined twins and aborted children who miraculous live—and informs the film with a tangy emotional texture that’s intensified by Henenlotter’s resolute lack of pretension. Horror is said to be driven by a fear of death when the genre is often more viscerally concerned with rejection and loneliness. Henenlotter feels these emotions in his bones. Bowen
95. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
94. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
93. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
92. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
91. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
13 Obscure and Underrated Horror Movies to Watch This Halloween
At the very least, these 13 weird movies can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.
Halloween is a time for horror, and if you’re no stranger to John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Val Lewton, George A. Romero, Alfred Hitchcock, the Italian giallo, or Universal Horror, then you may be hankering to unearth a few obscure sleepers made by directors and stars half-forgotten in the sludge of time. This list of 13 weird movies all seem to reflect fear of their own obscurity: aging actresses camping it up before the mirror with highballs and axes; younger actresses having Antonioni-esque meltdowns; and space ships following the Alien slime breadcrumb trail. They throw normal reality to the wind, yet never lapse into whimsy or sentiment. They explore collective human mythos with a stout heart of darkness, and with scant budgetary means. At the very least, they can hold your attention, and deliver decent chills, especially with a nice buzz and low expectations.
The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)
The Black Pit of Dr. M’s plot unfolds like a whole season of The Twilight Zone collapsed into a single surrealist fever dream. Dr. Mazali (Rafael Bertrand) asks his dying colleague to arrange a means by which he can visit the realm beyond death and then return to tell the tale. A pretty difficult thing to ask, but after his death, his colleague’s spirit appears to assure him an elaborate chain of coincidence is in play that will fulfill the macabre request. A beautiful dancer, an dangerous female lunatic, an acid-scarred orderly all play parts in an experience that will answer all Dr. M’s questions. The bombastic plodding score is like an inexorable countdown to some horrific destiny, and some of the light and shadow patterns recall early Orson Welles. In sum, 71 minutes of unusually mature and poetic Mexican horror cinema, its rich minimalist dream ambience worthy of Edgar G. Ulmer or Val Letwon.
Juli Reding is a ‘50s pulp-novel cover come to life as Vi, a jealous jazz pianist’s ex-lover turned ghost, haunting the louche Tom (Richard Carlson) after he lets her fall from the top of a lighthouse so he can marry Meg (Lugene Sanders) and her money. The next morning there’s footprints in the sand following Tom home, and soon Vi’s disembodied head is taunting him and her hand scuttling after his. He has to keep killing to keep his shadiness a secret until after the wedding, and it’s up to Meg’s disillusioned younger sister (Susan Gordon) to convince the adults to call the whole thing off before she’s next on Tom’s kill list. Joe Turkel makes a rare early appearance as a hipster beatnik, dropping crazy slang no real beatnik probably ever said while still maintaining that Satanic stare as he shakes Tom down for a cut of the take. Carlson, the terminally sincere good guy scientist in so many ‘50s horror movies, is gamely playing against type too. Bert I. Gordon, the director behind The Amazing Colossal Man, gets a lot of flak for his chintzy special effects (his colossal man was see-through), but he usually brought some bizarre twists and humanity to his films, here the double-exposure effect fits the ghost material, and it works as a masculine character study as well as a streamlined all-American pulp-horror romance.
Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)
Tina Gloriani, who plays the gorgeous heroine in this atmospheric Italian horror film by Renato Polselli, looks a lot like Eva Marie Saint, and though the “busload of dancing girls stranded on tour near an old castle menaced by a vampire” plot was old-hat even in 1960, she’s so luminous, and the crumbling castle ruins so atmospheric in crisp black and white, that it feels fresh. The troupe’s improv vampire dance routines, and the natural rapport between Gloriani’s Francesca and her equally blond roommate, Luisa (Hélène Rémy), conjures weird echoes of Stage Door and Persona. The male vampire wears a goofy mask with ping-pong eyeballs when he needs blood, becoming younger and normal-looking after drinking some—an unusually smart touch that taps into the vanity at the dark heart of Italian masculinity (as soon as his lovely young victims come back, he stakes them, shouting “I’m master of my domain!” as he kicks their coffins shut). Most available versions of the film are in Italian with English subtitles, which is the ideal way to soak up the arty, weirdly neorealist vibe.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
With its child nursery rhyme-style title, naturalistic acting, eerie ambiguity, complex portrait of mental illness, and sense of America as a land of eternal limbo, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death has a uniquely ‘70s approach to horror, one borne of encounter groups, Valium, women’s lib, LSD, and suburban swinging. Zohra Lampert stars as Jessica, a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown by moving with her husband and a Meathead-mustached buddy to a remote island apple orchard, where she soon learns that just because you’re delusional doesn’t mean the constant whispering you hear is an auditory hallucination or that the hippie chick (Gretchen Corbett) squatter you let stay over isn’t a vampire, or that she’s just trying to seduce you rather than drown you. Horror films from the ‘70s were steeped in such paralyzing self-doubt, and this is perhaps the subtlest, creepiest example.
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (1973)
Jane Birkin—her long straight hair like gossamer gold in the candle light as her character, Corringa, investigates strange goings on in her aunt’s mansion—is just one reason to discover this European mod update to the dark-house horrors of the 1930s. Genre staples abound: secret passages, secret heirs, even a guy in an ape suit. The plot involves the usual ornate mansion full of scheming eccentrics, one of whom killed Corringa’s mother; the doctor says it was natural causes, but he’s sleeping with Corringa’s aunt, who’ll hold onto the mansion at any cost to those around her. At night, Corringa’s mother appears as a vampire, invoking her lineage’s birthright, declaring that Corringa must avenge her death. The killings are strangely observed by a big orange tabby cat, and the suspects include Doris Kunstman as a bisexual, self-diagnosed “slut” and Hiram Keller as a cloistered, Byronic pretty boy. (Birkin’s husband, Serge Gainsbourg, even appears as a drowsy constable.) It’s not particularly scary, but the Ennio Morricone-esque score by Riz Ortolani and the fairy-tale tableaux conveyed by Carlo Carlini’s beautiful cinematography make it ethereal.
Messiah of Evil (1976)
This impressive debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation.
Interview: Nadav Lapid on Synonyms and Our Conflict with Existence
Lapid discusses how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
Nadav Lapid is one of the most exciting Israeli filmmakers to emerge in recent years. His first two features, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher, are hypnotic studies of the nature of power and resistance. His latest, Synonyms, tackles similar issues, but Lapid’s approach to his material here is almost as obfuscating as it is illuminating.
Tom Mercier, in a phenomenal screen debut, plays Yoav, a twentysomething Israeli who exiles himself to Paris, refusing to speak Hebrew or return to his homeland. Yoav is intense and enigmatic, whether sharing stories of his military experiences or practicing a form of wordplay while walking, head down, through the streets of the French capital. Whether he wants to or not, everyone is drawn into his orbit, from the young couple (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte) who finding him naked and helpless in the bathtub of an apartment adjacent to theirs, to the various men who work security at the Israeli embassy.
At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lapid sat down with me to discuss Synonyms and how he sought to confront audiences with questions about belonging, nationalism, and identity.
While there’s a narrative to Synonyms, it feels deliberately very episodic, creating emotions and moments of high drama but also ambiguity. What was your approach or purpose to tell this story in this way?
I arrived at the conclusion that I might be a strange person, because people find unusual and irregular things in the way I construct my movies. Policeman was divided into two parts, which was normal to me, but people found that strange. I try to be as close as I can to what I see as existence. And existence, as I see it, is composed as a series of events, and these events are composed of one single melody. Synonyms doesn’t have a classic narrative line, though its narrative is simple: Yoav gets to a place that he thinks will be his salvation and he’s disappointed. But even if the narrative structure isn’t classical, the film is one movement, or melody, even though it has a thousand variations.
I admire how deliberate the film is in its depiction of and ideas about storytelling. Yoav narrates photos, and he gives—and takes—stories from Emile, Quentin Dolmaire’s character. How do you find meaning in art, or inject meaning into it?
When we create art, there’s this desperate attempt to create stories that, on one hand, are full of beautiful storytelling moments. They may be the only way we have to communicate ourselves, our essence, and our past. On the other hand, there’s something very artificial in the way art and life tell stories. It’s as if we treat the world as if it has suddenly stopped and nothing is happening except for the stories we tell. The other person is only the ears. As we know in real life, everything is mixed, so we can tell a story with only words. Our body will deconstruct it, or reconstruct it, or give it another meaning. There’s something artificial in this desire to detach this moment of storytelling from the person.
In cinema, there are stories, but they have a peculiar relationship with the actual moment. Maybe this is also true of the storytelling of my film. It’s a classical narrative: Yoav arrives in the big city, tries to find success, and in the end is rejected. Maybe this is the peculiar, unique, singular thing, and it’s the film interfering with this simple narrative line? It spoils this naïve attempt to just tell the story. There’s something naïve and interesting that movies that are applauding their own stories. It touches only a thin layer of life.
There’s a specific emphasis on language, words, contrasts, and meanings in Synonyms. How did you land on the specific words you incorporated into the film.
I think that I tried to keep a certain balance between accidental and instinctive choices. I had this picture of Jackson Pollock hitting a painting in an accidental, or automatic, way, like the surrealists. I was also interested in the texture of words. Words have bodies and organs. I was walking, and talking to myself, and I can’t imagine how people looked at me! But I tried to feel and let my tongue lead me. And at the same time—and this is the nice thing about words—you can’t only reduce them to syllables. They have meanings, and the meanings have choices.
Are you into wordplay? Do you do crossword puzzles or other word games?
No. I read, and when I read books, I’m fascinated by words. I can’t bear the idea that people say that art cinema should be without words, and that words aren’t cinematic. There are films of acts and films of words. I think it comes from the fact that people treat words on a content level, and their only role is to mean or represent something. If you detach words from the story, or don’t want to say something by using words, then life changes.
Do you, as Emile suggests in the film, drink before writing to ward off the fear?
I drink when I write my shooting plan. I encourage myself to be courageous—to not to fall to convention.
I loved the dancing in the film. The women outside the bar, the nightclub scene with Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” and even a scene of Yoav dancing alone in his apartment, though he almost looks like he’s fighting. A scene of Michel and Yaron fighting is like a form of dancing, too, no?
I like when people dance by themselves for the audience in films. They come to the camera and say, “Here I am, look at me!” On another level, Synonyms goes further; it dances by itself with complicated mise-en-scène and trashy music. You cannot classify me! I am this and I am that. I’m fancy mise-en-scène and “Pump Up the Jam.”
Your film is, of course, erotic, not just because of Yoav’s often naked body, but his relationship with Emile is homoerotic, and his passion for Louise Chevillotte’s Caroline is palpable. She’s so sexy just sitting on the couch looking at Yoav or playing her oboe. How did you approach this element of desire?
When I think about desire, I’m guided by the idea that we all have a body. I’m trying to create movies where the existence of sex and the possibility of sex is in each and every second—rather than creating a film where there are sex scenes. There are sex scenes in my films, but they’re not the hottest scenes in my movies. There’s a permanent existence of the body, and that has a sexual potential. I sound like a new French philosopher! I’m not like this at all!
Speaking of bodies, how did you work with Thomas Mercier on the role of Yoav? Was there guidance you gave him to elicit this remarkable, full-bodied performance?
Tom was like a miracle. The work was intense but easy once he was cast. I bought him a French dictionary and I wanted him to study five new words each day and five new synonyms for each word. That was the work. He understood it so well. He prepared for a year because he was the thing itself. He was a judo champion and then became a dancer. He had a tenderness and fragility, and was very sexual, but he also had a violence and fury. You feel it. He could explode at any second. He was limitless.
All of your films address issues of desolation and madness. Why are these such key themes in your work?
I think my films are about people that take themselves very seriously—not in an ego way, or a stupid way, but in a way where they feel as if they understand or grasp something and follow these things until they find hell in paradise. They follow it until they recognize the deeper truth. But when you follow a principle to the end, it puts you in conflict with existence. And in odd moments, you lose your sense of humor and why life has humor.
You also explore issues of identity and nationality. There are ideas here about birth and corruption, the individual versus the masses, citizenship and rights. It seems like you deliberately set out to make viewers puzzle over lots of things.
I think Synonyms is broadly a political film. For Yoav, his national identity and Israel is like a dragon that he should kill and destroy and fight against—this mythological enemy. And, as you know, these mythological enemies are always yourself. Like Rosemary’s baby—the devil is inside you. But the film is attracted and seduced and fascinated by all the elements of nationalism. I read somewhere that Synonyms is anti-nationalist, but I wouldn’t define the film so easily. The moment in the metro where Yaron is humming the Israeli national theme—it creates a polemic in Israel, but [Yaron] has his problems. At the same time, it’s a powerfully charismatic, embracing moment. He’s humming the hymn of a nation that was annihilated. Whatever it means, I’m on the opposite political pole. I think the film has a right to flirt with nationalism while condemning it. You can’t hate a country if you’re not attracted to it.
The 20 Best Zombie Movies of All Time
If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
Zombie movies not only endure, but persist at the height of their popularity, neck and neck with vampire stories in a cultural race to the bottom, their respective “twists” on generic boilerplate masking a dead-eyed derivativeness. For the zombie film (or comic book, or cable TV drama), that boilerplate was struck by George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and its subsequent sequels established a loose conception of the undead threat: lumbering, beholden to no centralized authority, sensitive to headshots and decapitations.
If, according to Franco Moretti’s “The Dialectic of Fear,” the vampiric threat (at least as embodied in Count Dracula) operates chiefly as a metaphor for monopoly capital, binding those English bourgeois interlopers to his spell and extracting the blood of their industry, then the zombie poses a more anarchic, horizontalized threat. In post-Romero, hyper-allegorized zombie cinema, the hulking undead mass can be generally understood as the anti-Draculean annihilation of capital. Flesh and blood are acquired but not retained; civilization is destroyed but not remodeled. If zombies seem infinitely spongy as functional allegories for this or that, it’s their non-hierarchic function that retains the kernel of their monstrousness.
At their apex of their allegorical authority, zombies may fundamentally destroy, as attested by our favorite zombie films of all time. But that doesn’t mean their inexhaustible popularity as monster du jour can’t be harnessed to the whims of real-deal market maneuvering, their principally anarchic menace yoked to the proverbial voodoo master of capital. John Semley
20. Night of the Comet (1984)
Night of the Comet’s scenario reads like the bastard child of countless drive-in movies, in which most of humanity is instantly reduced to colored piles of dust when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet that last came around—you guessed it—right about the time the dinosaurs went belly-up. Then again, just so you know he’s not adhering too closely to generic procedures, writer-director Thom Eberhardt irreverently elects a couple of pretty vacant valley girls—tomboyish arcade addict Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her blond cheerleader sister, Sam (Kelli Maroney)—and a Mexican truck driver, Hector (Robert Beltran), to stand in for the last remnants of humanity. With regard to its bubbly protagonists, the film vacillates between poking not-so-gentle fun at their vapid mindset, as in the Dawn of the Dead-indebted shopping spree (obligingly scored to Cindi Lauper’s anthemic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), and taking them seriously as agents of their own destiny. Lucky for them, as it happens, that their hard-ass old man taught them how to shoot the shit out of an Uzi—and look adorable doing it. It also doesn’t hurt that Eberhardt filigrees his absurd premise with grace notes like the cheeky cinephilia informing early scenes set in an all-night movie theater. Budd Wilkins
19. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
In The Living Dead Girl, the gothic ambience that elsewhere suffuses Jean Rollin’s work smashes headlong against the inexorable advance of modernity. The film opens with the vision of bucolic scenery blighted by the scourge of industrialization: rolling hills sliced up by concertina-capped fences, billowing smokestacks visible in the hazy distance. When some dicey movers deposit barrels of chemical waste in the family vault beneath the dilapidated Valmont chateau, a sudden tremor causes the barrels to spring a leak, reanimating the corpse of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard) in the process. Despite the gruesome carnage she inflicts on hapless and not-so-hapless victims alike, it’s clear that Rollin sees the angelic Catherine, with her flowing blond tresses and clinging white burial weeds, as an undead innocent abroad in a world she can no longer comprehend. The flm builds to a climax of Grand Guignol gruesomeness as Hélène (Marina Pierro), Catherine’s girlhood friend, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her blood sister. It’s an altogether remarkable scene, tinged with melancholy and possessed of a ferocious integrity that’s especially apparent in Blanchard’s unhinged performance. The film’s blood-spattered descent into positively Jacobean tragedy helps to make it one of Rollin’s strongest, most disturbing efforts. Wilkins
18. Messiah of Evil (1976)
This debut feature from future Lucasfilm writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz stars Mariana Hill as Arletty, the emotionally vacant daughter of a disappeared artist (Royal Dano). There’s a hushed quality to Messiah of Evil, all the better to hear the waves crashing in the distance. Nobody shouts until they’re about to die, usually at the hands of cannibal mobs. A super-chill dandy, Thom (Michael Greer), and his two girlfriends, Laura (Anitra Ford) and Toni (Joy Bang), join Arletty in an attempt to unravel the mysteries afoot in this secluded, unfriendly location, and as Thom busts a move on Arletty, the girlfriends disappear into the ominous blackness. Among the film’s more haunting elements: photorealist faces peering through windows and a wall weirdly painted with a full-size escalator. At any moment, this empty house seems as if it could warp into a nightmarish shopping mall—one of many bizarre evocations of a film that cannily mixes Lovecraftian dread with Antonioni-esque alienation. Erich Kuersten
17. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
16. Zombi (1979)
Zombie lacks Romero’s allegorical undercurrents and horror-comedy hybridization, substituting instead a streamlined narrative that owes a substantial debt to H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau and an all-encompassing mood of claustrophobic desolation. Taken on its own terms, it works quite agreeably as a visceral blow to the breadbasket, with one of the most outrageous and apocalyptic final scenes in the entirety of the subgenre. Some of the film’s most inventive shots are from zombie-cam POV, as the dead rise, shake off clods of dirt, and slouch toward the mission church. Attacks come fast and furious now, setting a frenzied pace that later zombie films like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive will utilize to infinitely more comic effect. By film’s end, only one couple remains, fighting their way back to a crippled ship. Adrift on the open sea, they catch a radio broadcast from New York. As it will in every mid-period Fulci film, hell has broken loose, and zombie hordes have overrun the outlying boroughs. In the fantastic final shots, as the panic-stricken newscaster narrates the zombie invasion of his radio station, a mass of zombies cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. Wilkins
The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
50. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them after seeing it because it’s scary without being grisly or full of cheap jump scares. Instead, it’s a marvel of precise timing and action choreography. The silence that deadens the air between each new assault becomes more and more disquieting as the film goes on. Likewise, the house where Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
49. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Nick Schager
48. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
47. Midsommar (2019)
Anybody who’s seen Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man or similar folk horror films will hardly be surprised by any of the plot turns in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. From early on, there’s no doubt that the pagan rituals at the film’s center will spell doom for the group of friends who visit rural Sweden in a quasi-anthropological attempt to observe a cult’s summer solstice festival. The film masterfully builds itself around the inevitability of a mass terror, aligning our foreknowledge of that with the anxiety felt by the main character, Dani (Florence Pugh), in the wake of a recent family tragedy. The result is a deeply unnerving film about the indissoluble, somehow archaic bond between self and family—one more psychologically robust than Aster’s similarly themed Hereditary. And it’s also very funny. Pat Brown
46. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Ed Gonzalez
45. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
44. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
43. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
42. 28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is a post-apocalyptic zombie movie indebted to the traditions of John Wyndham and George A. Romero, opening with its young hero wandering abandoned streets calling out “Hello! Hello!” into the void. A marvel of economic storytelling, the film follows a handful of survivors that evaded a deadly “Rage” virus that tore across England, the riots and destruction that ensued, and the legion of infected victims who roam the streets at night for human meat. A bleak journey through an underground tunnel brings to mind one of the finest chapters in Stephen King’s The Stand; similar such references are far from being smug in-jokes, but rather uniquely appreciative of previous horror texts. The Rage virus itself feels particularly topical in our angry modern times. But maybe the more appropriate metaphor is that anyone who’s struggled through a grouchy, apocalyptic mood during 28 days of nicotine/drug/alcohol withdrawal will find their hostile sentiments reflected in this anger-fueled nightmare odyssey. Jeremiah Kipp
41. Piranha 3D (2010)
Piranha 3D tips its cap to Jaws with an opening appearance by Richard Dreyfuss, yet the true ancestors of Alexandre Aja’s latest are less Steven Spielberg’s classic (and Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s more politically inclined 1978 original Piranha) than 1980s-era slasher films. Unapologetically giddy about its gratuitous crassness, Aja’s B movie operates by constantly winking at its audience, and while such self-consciousness diffuses any serious sense of terror, it also amplifies the rollicking comedy of its over-the-top insanity. Aja’s gimmicky use of 3D is self-aware, and the obscene gore of the proceedings is, like its softcore jokiness, so extreme and campy—epitomized by a hair-caught-in-propeller scalping—that the trashy, merciless Piranha 3D proves a worthy heir to its brazen exploitation-cinema forefathers. Schager
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