CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE BEST OF 2009
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are dressed as astronauts and stand before a huge rocket ship. They wave to cameras and friends as they embark on a trip into outer space)
MA: Goodbye everyone! Don’t forget to write.
LS: They have mailmen in outer space?
MA: It’s the wireless age, my friend.
LS: I didn’t bring my laptop.
MA: Just use the ship’s computers. This is 2010. We don’t need no stinkin’ envelopes! But before we go, we have to give the readers a rundown of our favorite movies of 2009.
GIRL in an evening gown steps forward and hands them a bunch of envelopes)
LS: You were saying about envelopes?
MA (Impersonating Groucho Marx, with a mustache and a cigar): You take the envelopes, I’ll take the girl! (Flirts with her. She smiles and walks away).
LS: Well one movie I really loved this year wasn’t horror or science-fiction. It was Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. And while I can’t list it here, I thought I’d mention it anyway, because it was so damn good.
MA: You raise an interesting point. We review a lot of movies during the year, and although most are horror movies, some are not. For example, we also review science- fiction and fantasy films for CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT, and so I’m not against including movies that aren’t strictly horror on our list.
LS: Okay, okay. Stop being so understanding. Moving right along— we’ll do the same thing we did last year. Michael and I will each come up with our top 5 films of the year, and then we’ll comment on each other’s selections.
This was actually a hard one, choosing just five.
MA: Not so hard for me. The majority of movies we reviewed this year I didn’t recommend, so there weren’t that many I wanted to include on this list
LS: Well, my #5 pick for best movie of the year (rips open an envelope with a big “5” on it) was ZOMBIELAND, starring Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg. This is a big surprise for me, because I thought I was sick of zombie movies. I guess I wasn’t. ZOMBIELAND puts a fresh spin on the apocalyptic zombie plotline. The movie has great characters (especially Harrelson and Eisenberg as “Columbus” and “Tallahassee”), lots of sly humor, and moves at a really good pace. It even has a terrific guest appearance by Bill Murray (a spoiler we didn’t reveal in our original review). I just had a lot of fun with this one.
(LS opens the glass visor of his helmet to eat a Twinkie)
MA: I liked ZOMBIELAND a lot too, even more than you, I think. It made my list as well, so I’ll reserve comment on this one until later.
(WOODY HARRELSON pops up as “Tallahassee”)
WOODY: Well, HOT DOG!
LS: I thought you’d like that.
MA: Okay, now it’s my turn!
(Rips open an envelope) Coming in at #5 on my list is WATCHMEN. This is one of those movies that falls into the category of not being a horror movie. It’s an action movie about superheroes, but I feel comfortable including it on this list because it’s dark, and hands down, it’s simply better than a lot of the horror movies I saw this year.
LS: We reviewed it for Cinema Knife Fight, so of course it counts.
MA: In our original review, I called it a movie about masked heroes rather than a superhero movie, a comment you scoffed at…
LS: Because you’re an idiot!
MA: Okay, well then, let’s just call every movie about people fighting crime a superhero movie. They didn’t have any superpowers! What superpowers did they have? Except for Doctor Manhattan they didn’t have any! They just wore masks.
LS: Batman didn’t have any superpowers.
MA: Batman was a friggin genius detective. Look, I made a statement and I’m sticking by it. (Looks out at crowd. They’re all wearing masks and waving). Don’t rub it in.
Anyway, my point was it was different than your traditional superhero movie. It was a drama about people wearing masks who fight crime, and it reminded me more of a movie like THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) than say IRON MAN. This observation isn’t a knock on the film. In fact, it was one of the reasons I liked it so much.
I also liked its offbeat narrative style, where it jumped back and forth through time to tell its story, and while I didn’t like all the hero characters, my two favorite by far were Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Though at times I felt the film suffered from poor pacing and dragged somewhat, I really enjoyed this movie and thought it was fun to watch a very adult take on the superhero— er, masked hero— genre.
(RORSCACH pops up behind them)
RORSCACH: I’m not trapped in this column with you. You’re trapped in this column with ME!
LS: Yeah, yeah. Hey, I liked it a lot, too, which is no surprise considering I am a big fan of the original graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. The movie stays pretty faithful to the source material. Just like when I read the comics, Rorschach is my favorite character, too, and I loved every scene he was in. I’m also a big fan of Doctor Manhattan – the only character with actual super powers in the movie. Everyone else is a costumed crime fighter, but only Doc is the one with the real “abilities beyond those of mortal men.”
MA (Rips open envelope): My pick for #4 was the remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. This one really surprised me, because I fully expected to hate it. I did not like the original Wes Craven version back in 1972, so why would I like this one? Well, I liked this one because it wasn’t as raw and raunchy as the original.
I found myself really caring for the characters, and I felt genuine suspense during the second half of this movie, worrying about what would happen to the girl’s parents if they were found out by the criminals. Sure, some of the scenes went over the top in this one (microwave, anyone?), but for the most part THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was a hard-hitting adult tale of terror that really delivered the goods in terms of scaring its audience. I saw it in a packed theater, and it had been a long time since I had experienced an audience this frightened by a movie. There were some genuine group screams and gasps, and for a movie to do that to an audience, that’s saying something.
This was a film that really could have been exploitative, but an intelligent screenplay and smart direction kept it from going that route. Rather than being a simple tale of vicious revenge, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT evolves into a story of horrifying survival.
LS: While the remake of LAST HOUSE didn’t make my Top 5 list, it would be my choice for the Best Remake of the Year. Unlike you, I’m a big fan of the gritty original and didn’t think they could pull it off, but the remake is more like a crime thriller than an over-the-top revenge film, and it works really well as a completely separate movie, rather than a by-the-numbers remake. But I still say the original film is a genuine classic.
For my next choice (rips open an envelope with a “4” on it), my #4 movie of the year is a tie between DISTRICT 9 and WATCHMEN.
MA: A tie? Gotta pick one.
LS: Okay, how about this one? (holds out one finger and tries to poke MA in the eye, but he pulls down the visor on his helmet just in time)
MA: Nyah, nyah!
LS: Oh, a wise guy! Well, I told you it was tough to just choose five movies.
DISTRICT 9 was my favorite science-fiction movie of the year. The story of aliens who are stranded in a shantytown in South Africa works on a lot of levels, from social commentary to a just plain fun alien creatures movie. I thought the way the aliens looked was really inspired (they certainly weren’t cute) and I found the storyline to be exciting and, overall, pretty intelligent (although there are some holes in logic).
(An ALIEN from DISTRICT 9 stumbles past them, chugging a can of cat food)
MA: I liked DISTRICT 9 a lot too, and it came in at #6 on my list, just missing the Top 5. I think you liked it more than I did. I found it a bit too depressing for my taste. Now, it’s not that I can’t enjoy a depressing movie, because I certainly can, but as DISTRICT 9 turned to melodrama during its second half, I thought it would have worked better had it not been so grim early on.
LS: I liked it just fine.
The other half of my choice for #4 is WATCHMEN, easily one of my all-time favorite superhero films. The original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a monumental classic in mainstream comics, and the movie doesn’t screw around with it too much. Moore’s storyline tried to consider what it would really be like if costumed heroes were part of our everyday lives, and the movie is often pretty dark. I really enjoyed this one.
MA: And since I picked it as my #5, I enjoyed it as well.
LS: Is it my turn again?
LS: (Rips open another envelope with a big “3” on it) My # 3 movie of the year would be the roller-coaster ride which is TOKYO GORE POLICE
MA (Barfs into his astronaut helmet): Excuse me. I’ll be right back. Just the mere mention of that movie (Barfs again).
LS: While you had a problem with the gore, I thought it was a completely over-the-top cartoon come to life. It’s so bizarre and so frenetic that I don’t know how anyone could take it seriously or be offended by it. The story of a special ops team that fights creatures that have mutated in extreme ways (we’re talking severe body modification here) is a lot of fun and features a terrific performance by Eihi Shiina as the main policewoman, Ruka. I wanted to see this movie since I first heard the title months before, and it totally lived up to my expectations.
MA (Returns with a new helmet): It’s not so much that I took it seriously or was offended by it, but I didn’t get it. Why do I want to spend 90 minutes of my time watching silly senseless gore? I didn’t find it exciting, and I didn’t find it funny. Compared to the humor in ZOMBIELAND, for example, a movie that was gory and funny, it didn’t come close. So, I didn’t like it at all.
LS: I thought it was a lot of fun.
MA: And, right on cue (Rips open another envelope), my #3 pick was in fact ZOMBIELAND. Like you, I was surprised I liked this one, because I’ve had it up to here with zombie movies as well, but it was a good movie.
(WOODY HARRELSON pops up again)
WOODY: Well, HOT DOG!
MA: I thought the humor in this one really worked, and I laughed an awful lot. The main reason this one worked so well was that the humor wasn’t relegated to the zombies. There was more to the humor here than shooting zombies in the head. The characters in this film were well-defined and purdy darn funny.
I thought this movie had a sense of playfulness about it that kept the humor fresh and the story lively. If you see one zombie movie this year, make it ZOMBIELAND.
LS: Well, we agree on this one.
MA (Rips open another envelope): My # 2 movie of the year would be ORPHAN, and since my #1 pick technically isn’t a horror film, ORPHAN even though it comes in at #2, is probably my pick for the best horror film of the year.
I really liked this one. I thought it had an outstanding cast, which included Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, CCH Pounder, Aryana Engineer, Jimmy Bennett, and in the lead, as the little devil child herself, Isabelle Fuhrman. But what I liked best about ORPHAN was the screenplay by David Johnson. Johnson wrote an intelligent tale in which people act the way they’re supposed to act. As a result, in spite of being a horror movie, ORPHAN is a pretty realistic tale, even with its twist ending.
I found this one strong throughout. It tells a gripping story, and it’s frightening to boot. Definitely a must-see horror movie.
LS: I liked ORPHAN, and I thought Isabelle Fuhrman was amazing as the devil child, but I didn’t like it enough to put it on my Top 5 list.
(The kid from ORPHAN throws at tomato at LS, splattering his helmet. MA gives her a thumbs up. She then fires a tomato at MA’s helmet as well, spattering him, too. LS gives her the finger).
LS (Rips open an envelope with a “2” on it): My #2 movie of the year is one we didn’t review together for Cinema Knife Fight, but which I was pretty much blown away by, Lars von Trier’s transgressive masterpiece, ANTICHRIST.
What I loved about this movie was that it was the exact opposite of an accessible, fun, mainstream film. It was extremely dark and depressing, it was disturbing, it was gory. It had terrific but terrifying performances by Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple grieving over the death of their young son. DaFoe’s character is a psychiatrist trying to heal his wife’s pain, and Gainsbourg plays a woman who is descending into complete madness. A lot of the imagery is quite extreme, and it’s not for the squeamish. But for me, this is exactly what a horror movie should be. It should get a visceral reaction out of you. It should haunt you long after the final credits have come onscreen.
MA: Really? I thought that’s what the Nightly News was for? Seriously, that’s why I don’t like the same movies as you, because I get my visceral reactions from the sick stuff that really happens in the world. I don’t want to get it from the movies as well, but I understand your point. That being said, I didn’t see ANTICHRIST (what a surprise!) so I can’t comment on it.
LS: Yeah, we have very different philosophies as far as what horror movies should do. You think they should be entertaining, and offer some scares. I think the best ones are the movies that really leave a mark on us, long after we’ve left the movie theater. What’s the difference between that and the Nightly News? Well, for one thing, movies aren’t real, so no matter how rough they get, they’re really works of imagination. So nobody really gets hurt.
But I’ll admit, my choices for the top 2 movies (hell, my top 3!), are not for the squeamish and will certainly not appeal to everyone. In fact, it’s guaranteed that a lot of people will hate them. But I like movies that take risks.
But that’s what makes Cinema Knife Fight so interesting, isn’t it? That we have such different viewpoints?
Which brings me to my #1 pick for the best movie of 2009.
(LS rips open the final envelope in his hands. This one has a giant “1” on it)
It’s another one I saw without you, and it’s called MARTYRS.
Originally released in France in 2008, this movie didn’t get a proper theatrical release here and went straight to DVD (it was released here in April of 2009). But it is easily the most powerful movie I’ve seen this year. And, somehow, it’s even a lot more extreme than ANTICHRIST.
Another very disturbing film, MARTYRS begins with a girl who has been kidnapped and held captive in a warehouse. The girl, Lucie, escapes and ends up in an orphanage (which also seems to be a psychiatric center), where she rarely speaks and doesn’t trust anyone. She bonds with another girl at the facility, Anna, and the two become inseparable. When they come of age when they can leave the facility, Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) stick together. Lucie is obsessed with finding the people who abducted her as a child and exacting her revenge. Anna struggles to protect Lucie from herself.
When Lucie thinks she has found the people responsible, they look like just a normal family. Lucie starts doing awful things to them, and Anna finds herself caught in the middle. Are these people really to blame for what happened, or is Lucie now completely insane?
And this all happens in just the first 30 minutes of the film. As it continues, it goes off in wildly unexpected territory you’d never expect.
At times very difficult to watch, MARTYRS is once again the kind of visceral, squirm-inducing horror movie that I think defines the best of the genre. And, just to note again, this movie is clearly not going to appeal to everyone. So check it out at your own risk.
MA (Rips open his last envelope): My #1 pick of the year is AVATAR. Now, I know AVATAR is NOT a horror movie, so what’s it doing at the top of my list? Well, simply put, I view this list as the top genre films of the year, and this includes, in addition to horror, those science fiction/fantasy movies that horror audiences also flock to see.
LS: You don’t need to keep explaining that. People get it.
MA: They do?
CROWD (shouting): YES, WE GET IT!
MA: Okay, moving right along then.
First off, technically, with its impressive 3D effects, AVATAR is a marvel to behold. After seeing this movie, I wish every film were shot in 3D. It was such a pleasurable experience to see this 3D world unfold onscreen the way it does. It’s a visually stunning film, with amazing colors and bizarre, wild creatures running around. It definitely rises above movie status and becomes more of an experience.
The story of mankind exploiting the natives of a beautiful world is not original, but it still makes for compelling cinema, and director James Cameron seems to push all the right buttons with this one.
With its amazing, ferocious creatures and animals, it has more in common with KING KONG than say STAR WARS, even in its plot structure. In KING KONG, we exploit Skull Island and rip Kong away from his home, while here we’re exploiting the world of Pandora and trying to force the native peoples off their lands. I thought it was the best of the bunch in 2009.
LS: I liked AVATAR a lot, and it’s certainly one of my favorite movies we saw this year, but I had a hard time figuring out where it fits on my list. In a way, AVATAR is kind of in a category of its own. Sure, it was a spectacle of amazing visuals, due to top-notch CGI and top-of-the-line 3D effects, but I would put this in an Honorable Mention category, mainly because I’m not too sure what my reaction would have been if I hadn’t seen it in 3D, as it was meant to be seen. The story wasn’t all that original, and while the acting was mostly good, I think it would have lost a lot if it didn’t have all the added bells and whistles. I’m really not sure if it could stand up on its own without the technology. I’m sure I still would have enjoyed it, but it would have been very different than having the full experience.
Other movies I probably would have mentioned, if we went beyond a Top Five, include: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, Park Chan-wook’s THIRST, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and Sam Raimi’s DRAG ME TO HELL. And probably CORALINE - my favorite kids’ movie of the year –which was another interesting use of 3D effects to add depth and “dimension” to a story, rather than throwing things out at us. I thought CORALINE had a good story overall, too, which is no surprise, since it was based on a book by Neil Gaiman.
MA: My honorable mentions would include DISTRICT 9, CORALINE, and a low budget film I reviewed for its DVD release, RED SANDS. While not a great movie, RED SANDS was lifted by its setting, the deserts of Afghanistan. It tells a rather compelling story of a group of American soldiers haunted by a mythological creature that hates humans. It has its share of flaws, but it’s better than a lot of the other low-budget features I watched this year.
And I can’t believe I’m going to mention another zombie movie, but the movie DANCE OF THE DEAD, a horror comedy about high school students and zombies, though nowhere near as good as ZOMBIELAND, was actually pretty funny.
LS; And just for the hell of it, for my choice of “Character with Most Potential” – I’d have to go with Olas Wormius (Jeffrey Alan Pilars) from the otherwise awful remake of THE DUNWICH HORROR. I admit, this was a bad movie, but Pilars as Wormius was a real highlight. Wormius is supposed to be a three-thousand-year old wise man who the protagonist goes to for advice, but he looks like a 40-year old fat man who levitates off the floor and is surrounded by a naked harem. His scenes in DUNWICH are the only real highlights, and really left me wishing that the movie had been about him instead. I wanted to know more about this strange character, and I fear that is one mystery that will never be explored further.
(An OBESE MAN moves past them, levitating in the air)
OBESE MAN: Why thank you, kind sir. I am so glad you saw my jewel glistening in the heap of manure that was the new version of THE DUNWICH HORROR.
MA: If I had to pick a favorite character of the year, it would be young Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) from ORPHAN. She’s the most frightening kid I’ve seen in a movie in quite a long time. Come to think of it, she was scarier than most of the adult characters I saw in the movies this past year.\
And of course, from WATCHMEN, there’s Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). I would pay to see another movie about just these two guys in a heartbeat.
LS: I didn’t say what was your favorite character. I asked what was the Character With Most Potential – one that didn’t get enough screen time and deserved a movie of their own.
MA: Look, you chose two movies for your #4 pick. I can do what I want.
LS: Fair enough.
And, real quick, before we go, what would be your pick of the worst film of the year? For me it was a very easy decision. Based on the awful storyline, and the obscene waste of millions of dollars, my choice would be the overlong and incredibly boring NEW MOON. What about you?
MA (chuckling): I think my picks for worst of the year are probably films you really liked. Now, here’s a list I’d have trouble limiting to 5 picks, there were so many bad ones. But to keep things brief, let’s see, NEW MOON, for sure (by far the most boring film I saw this year), TOKYO GORE POLICE, THE DUNWICH HORROR, HALLOWEEN 2, THE FINAL DESTINATION, THE BOX, and there’s more, but I’ll mention only one last one, my pick for the absolute worst for 2009, a grade Z level movie called PLATOON OF THE DEAD. If I could incinerate just one movie this year, that would be the one.
LS: I guess that ends our BEST OF 2009 column. And now we are off into the vast expanse of outer space.
MA: How did we win this trip anyway? I don’t remember entering any contest to be a civilian in space.
LS: Me, either. It almost feels like someone is trying to get rid of us.
(ASSEMBLED PEOPLE YELL): Hurry up, get into the rocket!
MA: What’s the big hurry?
(CROWD shoves them into the rocket and shuts the door. Countdown begins)
MA: Well, I hope we get back in time for New Year’s. There are lots of new horror movies coming out in 2010.
(ROCKET roars and hurtles skyward)
UNSEEN NARRATOR: What’s this? Our Cinema Knife Fighters shot off into outer space? Is there foul play afoot? Is this some dire plot to rid the world of our friendly neighborhood movie critics?
Oh, the horror! Could this be the end?
Tune in next time to find out. Same Cinema Knife Fight time, same Cinema Knife Fight channel. The worst is yet to come!