In this, the harrowing year of 2016, I could jump into the Oscars talk. I could pick groundbreaking films that reminded me time and again that movies are alive and more vital than ever, like the heartbreaking Moonlight, the soul-stirring Queen of Katwe, the force-of-goodness 13th, the subtle and sweet Certain Women, the blissful American Honey, the transcendent The Fits, the fantastic The Lobster, the hilarious Toni Erdmann, the mind-bending Elle or the punch-in-the-emotional-gut that is Fences — all of which should be on Top 10 lists (see what I did there?). But what I'll look back on and remember most this year is the horror of it all. Frankly, I'm scared.
Karyn Kusama's film about a handful of old friends invited under false pretenses to a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills is flat-out chilling, a testament to how many blood-red flags people will overlook in the service of niceties. Kusama also unearths something deep and scary about the ways that cult figures test boundaries, who say or do something outrageous and then walk it back and call you crazy for thinking they might have an ulterior motive. It's a tightrope walk right up until its heart-bursting final image.
Nazi punks fuck off, indeed. Jeremy Saulnier's PacNW-set violent shocker pits a good-natured punk band against the white supremacists who try to get rid of them after they witness a murder. Despite the machetes, guns and trained attack dogs, the focus is only half on the gore. Saulnier is also attentive to the emotional and physical toll that other people's hate takes on everyone else — even the dogs.
The Eyes of My Mother
What is scary is often unseen. Nicolas Pesce takes this idea to the Nth level, crafting an aural masterpiece, where foley work and sound design sharply hint at violence, while the black-and-white imagery has so much texture and depth that the red of blood isn't even missed. The lonely daughter of a murdered mother grows into a curious, quiet homicidal maniac — who keeps the man who killed her mother locked in the barn like a pet. As a woman, that daughter comes to be more and more like the man who ruined her life.
The Love Witch
Anna Biller is at the top of my list of filmmakers I want to corner at parties to talk all things psychedelic Italian giallo horror. The Love Witch is faithful to the genre in terms of precise production design, make-up and costuming, but Biller's also subverting tropes at every turn, making her heroine into a case study for uncomfortable but revelatory discussions about feminism. If that sounds dry, the movie's not. It's a total romp about a spell-casting woman whose men keep crying and dying on her. Is she a murderess? Are the men just weak? It's all part of the grand, alluring mystery!
Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution hit me like a bolt of lightning. Well, an extremely slow-moving bolt, but the jolt was just the same. She explores the sexual awakening of boys raised on a remote island by mysterious, alienlike women. These adolescents' depth and vulnerability is rare for male characters. This sci-fi tale offers some fantastic gender-flipping — what would happen if men evolved to birth children? — and the cinematography is as gorgeous as it is unnerving.
Under the Shadow
Horror filmmakers have a beautiful habit of crafting allegories for contemporary social issues. Babak Anvari takes a less subtle route with this tale set amid the 1980s' Iran-Iraq war: A woman is denied re-entry to medical school for practicing "left-wing" ideology and is repeatedly admonished for not wearing her hijab, all while she stubbornly refuses to take her daughter away from Tehran amid Iraqi missile strikes. Oh, and there's an evil djinn spirit haunting her daughter. She refuses to see the spirit or the coming attacks, even when they're right in front of her; obsessive denial is dangerous in a hostile political climate.
Marcin Wrona's tale of a happy Polish groom who's suddenly possessed by the spirit of a murdered Jewish girl is a vivid and haunting depiction of mental illness, but also exemplifies the real horrors that seemingly good people can inflict on others when riled up by a dangerous demagogue. Wrona, who died before the film was released theatrically, researched a dark spot on Poland's past during WWII and turned the story into a gorgeous, elegiac piece with little flourishes of the darkest humor imaginable.
I welcome every argument with everyone who will tell me that Jackie is a drama, not a horror film. But I also respectfully disagree. Just listen to Mica Levi's Herrmann-inspired score! Pablo Larraín has created a haunting thrill-ride through the mind of a singular, grief-stricken woman whose every move and word is analyzed by the world. It's psychological horror at its greatest. Jackie is both heroine and villain, and her all-too-famous mirror of perfection shatters the second a hunk of her husband's skull ricochets into her pink Chanel suit.
This tight thriller truly shocked me by how much director Sophia Takal could do with little more than a remote location and two top-of-their-game actresses. With flourishes suggesting Robert Altman's camerawork, she shows us her two co-stars verbally whittling each other down to raw nerves, until no sign of sanity is left. And, somehow, Takal makes this a statement on the confines the entertainment industry places on women, always at the whim of men who will make their careers if only they'll show a little nip in return.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
True, this isn't horror. But let's make room for the light at the end of the tunnel. Taika Waititi's under-the-radar gem of a family film is one I've recommended to every person I've met — no matter their age or tastes. Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison light out for a bush adventure that is as emotional as it is funny, which is very. Years from now, I'll remember all the horror and anguish of this time reflected in our movies, but I'll also remember that amidst this, a story about a 13-year-old orphaned Native troublemaker triumphing over the system with willpower and ingenuity broke through all the darkness.