Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. In that entry, I argued that Hermann’s scores dramatically impact the films they accompany to the extent that we should question the status of auteur imparted upon these films’ famous directors.
One of the films I discussed at length was Psycho, whose director I need not mention by name. Of all the films Herrmann scored, Psycho represents his most memorable contribution, if slightly less brilliant than his haunting composition for Taxi Driver. It was with great pleasure, then, that I attended a screening of Psycho tonight at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, with the Oregon Symphony performing the score live. The screening offered a rare opportunity for the audience by mixing of live performance with the moving image, and I am so glad that I took advantage.
For one, it made me think about what it must have been like for movie audiences over a hundred years ago when musicians regularly performed the music for otherwise silent films. The liveness of the music contrasts the fixity of the film, reminding us of that film must be produced–musicians must sit in a room for hours on end, rehearsing the sheet music before them, and then record it, hitting their cues and maintaining the tempo. The score, which so often seems invisible, becomes visible through live performance.
Beyond the novelty of seeing the score performed live, it was also a pleasure to see the film in a public setting. I’ve seen Psycho so many times, but never in a room full of strangers. It was fascinating to note how often we laughed at lines of dialog that seemed dated as well as those intended to be funny (“Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers!”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience members cried out and screamed not during the famed shower scene but over the second killing of the private investigator, Arbogast. My theory: that audience members are primed for the shower kill and, knowing less about it, get taken by surprise during that second kill. The final scenes, though, didn’t seem to terrify anyone–the big reveal of the corpse mother was met with laughter as was Norman in drag.
All of this is to say that experiences such as the one offered tonight by the Oregon Symphony remind us to continually look at film classics from a different angle. Just when you think you know a film front-to-back, you see it again and realize you missed something the first hundred times you saw it.
The past ten years have not been the finest. The Bush administration did a number on this planet with its aggressive wars, assertive deregulation of banks, and passive response to tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. 2009 seems to have been the culmination of these mistakes, and for that reason, I look forward to two of the right digits rolling ahead instead of just one.
Reflecting back, it seems that the horror films of the past ten years say much about the turmoil suffered and survived in the decade we’ve only recently decided to call the aughts. Rather than place an artificial limit on how many films can make the cut, I’ve selected 27 films total and separated them into tiers. The top tier represents the films of the highest quality and horrific impact of the decade, the definitive picks that everyone should see. The second group includes films highly recommended for viewing. The third tier includes honorable mentions–films that may not fully fit under the horror banner or may be fundamentally flawed but offer significant commentary on the human condition and/or entertainment value. This list is less of a generic “best of list,” since it is with an eye for my column that I have developed it. As always, I play fast and loose with the term horror: social evils can supplant demonic killers and a momentary shocking act can replace a string of murders. Ultimately, my assessment is my own, a gut instinct and many individuals will not identify with my tastes. For that reason, I encourage lively debate and suggestions for revisions. For now, here’s my list:
TOP TIER FILMS
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007, Poland, Dir. Cristian Mungiu) – A woman (Gabriela, played by Laura Vasiliu) attempts to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in Communist-era Romania with the help of her college friend Otilia (the brilliant Anamaria Marinca). The events that transpire reveal the cruel consequences of anti-abortion policies. Most disturbing: the manipulative dealings of a backroom abortionist, the unpleasant duty of disposing of the fetus, and, in the midst of all this drama, Otilia’s obligatory visit with her boyfriend’s bourgeois parents. The film unnerves through subtle suspense and a realist aesthetic that draws attentions to the details of everyday life. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a quiet but powerful movie.
Audition (2000, Japan, Dir. Miike Takashi) – Some might simplistically describe this as a Japanese Basic Instinct, but such a crude comparison elides the dramatic, aesthetic, and structural complexity of this twisted romance. What starts as one widower’s quest to find a new wife by holding a fake audition leads to a terrifying confrontation between the man, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), and the much younger woman he pursues, Asami (Eihi Shiina). In the process, the film critiques traditional rituals of courtship that reify standard definitions of femininity and masculinity. The famous final scenes (no spoilers intended) raise questions about the relationship between love, power, and violence in a profound and frightening way.
Caché – (2005, France/Austria, Dir. Michael Haneke) The Parisian host of a literary television talk show (Georges, played by Daniel Auteuil) receives surveillance videos from an unknown source. His desire to discover the identity of the sender leads Georges to reflect upon a troubling past incident in which he accused a young Algerian immigrant (Majid, played by Maurice Benichou) adopted by his family of misdeeds. Georges’s recollections of the incident and confrontations with the now-adult Majid parallels the tensions that persist in contemporary France over race, class, and ethnic identity.
Drag Me to Hell – (2009, USA, Dir. Sam Raimi) – In many ways the most apocalyptic horror film of the year, Drag Me to Hell struck the perfect balance between entertaining generic treat and ideological critique. The film follows Christine (Alison Lohman), an up-and-coming loan officer at a Los Angeles bank who makes the unfortunate mistake of denying an old gypsy woman an extension on her loan payment. The remainder of the film follows Christine as she attempts to rid herself of the curse, which stands in for deeper anxieties surrounding gender, class, and race. The punch to the gut ending subverts Hollywood notions of appropriate resolutions based on viewer identification with the so-called “hero,” which the film reminds us is based in great part on American capitalist notions of individualism and upward mobility.
Mulholland Dr. – (2001, USA, Dir. David Lynch) – Like Drag Me to Hell, Mullholland Dr. takes place in the city that signifies all that is right and wrong with America: Los Angeles. Appropriately for the location, the film follows the ambitious Betty (Naomi Watts) as she arrives in Hollywood to give the movie business a go. In the process, she comes upon a beautiful woman suffering amnesia (Laura Harring) who takes the name Rita until she and Betty can determine her origins. Of course, Lynch complicates this seemingly standard plot-line with bizarre happenings, strange subplots, and major shifts in character half-way through the film. These twists require work on the part of the viewer not usually required in a film viewing experience. The final product manages to both satisfy and puzzle. This is not to say that Mullholland Dr. lacks flaws; quite the opposite, actually, given the film’s problematic alignment of lesbianism with criminality. Still, the pleasure of the enigma put forth by the film cannot be denied.
Teeth – (2007, USA, Dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein) One of the most inventive horror films of the aughts, Teeth contemporizes the myth of the vagina dentata in the guise of a teenage girl. Dawn (Jess Weixler) attempts to lead a chaste life as the leader of her school’s pro-abstinence group, but when her boyfriend attempts to sexually assault her, she discovers an incredible defense mechanism: teeth in her vagina. While this mutation (adaptation?) would function as a gimmick in a lesser film, the filmmakers of Teeth use it to reveal the anti-intellectualism that fuels ideological debates over education. No wonder Texas serves as the film’s setting, given that it is ground zero in troubling debates over public school curriculum.
SECOND TIER FILMS
Capturing the Friedmans (2003, USA, Dir. Andrew Jareki) The convenience of home video has enabled families to document their most precious moments; the flip-side, however, is the ability to record the most troubling events with unprecedented verisimilitude. Capturing the Friedmans does just this by assembling interviews and footage taken by the Friedman family, a middle-class Long Island clan whose patriarch is accused of child molestation in the 1980s. The audience becomes a witness to the family’s painful destruction as a result of the community’s witch hunt.
The Descent (2005, United Kingdom, Dir. Neil Marshall) – A horror film in the vein of Alien, The Descent follows a group of women on a caving trip. The claustrophobia-inducing setting is made all the more so by impressive set and lighting designs, but its the nicely paced plot and intense action sequences that make this film a thrill to watch. If you haven’t seen it, go in completely blind lest you ruin the shocking twist that occurs about mid-way through the film. In other words, don’t watch the trailer below.
Elephant (2003, United States, Dir. Gus Van Sant) Van Sant’s interpretation of the Columbine Massacre captures the existential angst of the teenage years through the exploration of the mundane and an avoidance of cliches. He films the violent acts of his teenage killers in a cold and detached manner that avoids sensationalizing the events while still packing an emotional hit.
Fat Girl (2001, France, Dir. Catherine Breillat) Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), an awkwardly overweight young adolescent, witnesses the romance of her beautiful older sister during a family vacation. Breillat uses this story to explore the violence of seduction through both quiet contemplation and shocking horrific moments.
Mysterious Skin (2004, United States, Gregg Araki) Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of my favorite performances of the decade as Neil, a teenage hustler who survived childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his handsome baseball coach. The character’s response reveals the emotional complexity that accompanies such traumas, as does the parallel story of Brian (Brady Corbet), a nerdy kid obsessed with UFO’s and convinced of his own abduction. The film does not shy away from the subject-matter, confronting it with both sensitivity and intensity that will leave you devastated.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Spain, Dir. Guillermo del Toro) – Don’t let the quaint cover art for this film fool you: the dark subject-matter of Pan’s Labyrinth reminds us that fears lie at the heart of most fairy tales. In this case, the Spanish Civil War serves as the bloody backdrop as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) copes with her mother’s remarriage to a cruel general in the fascist army.
Taxi to the Dark Side (2007, USA, Dir. Alex Gibney) The aughts proved to be an excellent decade for political documentaries. Taxi to the Dark Side might be the best with its meticulous examination of the torture policies of the Bush administration Post-9/11. The film effectively makes the case that torture not only fails to yield the intelligence it purports to extort but also distracts us from obtaining the facts necessary to fight terrorism and damages our reputation abroad.
THIRD TIER FILMS
28 Days Later… – (2002, United Kingdom, Dir. Danny Boyle)
Bowling for Columbine – (2002, USA, Dir. Michael Moore)
Coraline – (2009, USA, Dir. Henry Selick)
Dogville – (2003, Denmark, Dir. Lars von Trier)
Ginger Snaps – (2000, Canada, Dir. John Fawcett)
Grindhouse Anthology – (2007, USA, Dirs. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)
High Tension – (2003, France, Dir. Alexandre Aja)
Hostel – (2005, USA, Dir. Eli Roth)
Let the Right One In – (2008, Sweden, Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Mean Creek – (2004, USA, Dir. Jacob Aaron Estes)
No Country for Old Men – (2007, USA, Dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen)
There Will Be Blood – (2007, USA, Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Three Extremes Anthology – (2004, China/Japan/South Korea, Dirs. Chan Fruit, Park Chan-Wook, Miike Takashi)