The Top Twelve Genre Films of 2011

 

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order, and if you’re interested in my overall top ten list, it’s posted here.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.

***

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.

***

Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.

***

Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.

***

I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”

***

The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.

***

Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.

***

The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.

***

Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).

***

Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.

***

The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.

***

The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive Angry, Wrecked, Burke & Hare (which I wrote about here).

26 Responses The Top Twelve Genre Films of 2011
Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 12:32 pm

I also thought Attack the Block was the best genre film of the year, although it’s not as original as some say it is (it’s basically Invasion of the Saucer Men transplanted to South London) and I think the actual subtext of the movie was lost on most critics. Despite what some say, it doesn’t romanticize its gang of multicultural thugs. It makes it very clear that their actions at the beginning are not only wrong, but that they are forced to be accountable to them, and it’s also well aware of the irony that these toughs who possessively defend “their block” against the aliens are themselves alien invaders of a sort, and they must themselves become the very xenophobes who have supposedly put them down, essentially forcing them understand what their victims have been going through.

I really wonder what it is going to take break the shackles of the Cult of Carpenter. Nearly all of his films over the past twenty-five years have been awful, and he demonstrates no signs of improvement yet his followers keep insisting he’s some of genius whose every film is worthy of veneration or they keep telling us “wait, wait, don’t worry, the NEXT one will be really good!”

Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 12:32 pm

I also thought Attack the Block was the best genre film of the year, although it’s not as original as some say it is (it’s basically Invasion of the Saucer Men transplanted to South London) and I think the actual subtext of the movie was lost on most critics. Despite what some say, it doesn’t romanticize its gang of multicultural thugs. It makes it very clear that their actions at the beginning are not only wrong, but that they are forced to be accountable to them, and it’s also well aware of the irony that these toughs who possessively defend “their block” against the aliens are themselves alien invaders of a sort, and they must themselves become the very xenophobes who have supposedly put them down, essentially forcing them understand what their victims have been going through.

I really wonder what it is going to take break the shackles of the Cult of Carpenter. Nearly all of his films over the past twenty-five years have been awful, and he demonstrates no signs of improvement yet his followers keep insisting he’s some of genius whose every film is worthy of veneration or they keep telling us “wait, wait, don’t worry, the NEXT one will be really good!”

Posted By Heidi : December 20, 2011 1:27 pm

Great list, thanks for posting. I have seen a couple of them, but will look for the others.

Posted By Heidi : December 20, 2011 1:27 pm

Great list, thanks for posting. I have seen a couple of them, but will look for the others.

Posted By Tom S : December 20, 2011 1:40 pm

@Commander Adams

If you said the last 20 years, I might agree with you, but Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are both from the past 25 years. And I wouldn’t say The Ward is being cultishly adored, it seemed largely to go unremarked upon or derided, even by most of Carpenter’s serious fans. As he’s only made one movie in the last ten years, it seems churlish to act as though he’s clogging up the cinemas with his work.

Posted By Tom S : December 20, 2011 1:40 pm

@Commander Adams

If you said the last 20 years, I might agree with you, but Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are both from the past 25 years. And I wouldn’t say The Ward is being cultishly adored, it seemed largely to go unremarked upon or derided, even by most of Carpenter’s serious fans. As he’s only made one movie in the last ten years, it seems churlish to act as though he’s clogging up the cinemas with his work.

Posted By Trailers : December 20, 2011 2:22 pm

Cowboys & Aliens is other movie not mentioned about by many others but is in my top 10

Posted By Trailers : December 20, 2011 2:22 pm

Cowboys & Aliens is other movie not mentioned about by many others but is in my top 10

Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 4:27 pm

I think Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are both very bad. Big Trouble is a noisy, chaotic mess, full of dumb slapstick and one of Kurt Russell’s worst performances (and the end theme is one of the worst ever from the Eighties, up there with that from Dragnet). The only scary part of the moronic They Live is the realization that Carpenter apparently thinks anyone who disagrees with him is no better than an inhuman monster or a mindless zombie, an attitude that most people sadly seem to share.

Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 4:27 pm

I think Big Trouble in Little China and They Live are both very bad. Big Trouble is a noisy, chaotic mess, full of dumb slapstick and one of Kurt Russell’s worst performances (and the end theme is one of the worst ever from the Eighties, up there with that from Dragnet). The only scary part of the moronic They Live is the realization that Carpenter apparently thinks anyone who disagrees with him is no better than an inhuman monster or a mindless zombie, an attitude that most people sadly seem to share.

Posted By swac : December 20, 2011 5:11 pm

I was hoping to see some love on here for Hobo With a Shotgun (which was shot up here in New Eden). It kicked genre’s butt all over the place.

Posted By swac : December 20, 2011 5:11 pm

I was hoping to see some love on here for Hobo With a Shotgun (which was shot up here in New Eden). It kicked genre’s butt all over the place.

Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 6:07 pm

I also loved Another Earth, the best art-house science fiction films since Primer. I’ve long wished Krzysztof Zanussi would direct a science fiction film, and this movie gives a good idea as to what one would look like. On the other hand, The Skin I Live In was a disappointment. Pedro Almodovar’s trademark sexual obsessions and stylistic showiness are there, but this is basically a cross between a less interesting version of Eyes Without a Face and a more competently made (though no less explicit or perverse) Jess Franco film.

Posted By Commander Adams : December 20, 2011 6:07 pm

I also loved Another Earth, the best art-house science fiction films since Primer. I’ve long wished Krzysztof Zanussi would direct a science fiction film, and this movie gives a good idea as to what one would look like. On the other hand, The Skin I Live In was a disappointment. Pedro Almodovar’s trademark sexual obsessions and stylistic showiness are there, but this is basically a cross between a less interesting version of Eyes Without a Face and a more competently made (though no less explicit or perverse) Jess Franco film.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 21, 2011 12:23 am

Unknown and Insidious were pretty good. I was surprised how much I liked Fast Five. The others were garbage. Maybe The Rock had something to do with it. The Mechanic was fairly forgettable. The best part was at the beginning (Who has a black pool?), but the rest was kind of “been there, done that” for me. Oh wait. I had seen The Mechanic before, and slightly better done.

I don’t know if you would consider Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol a genre film or not, but I saw it tonight and it was pretty damn good. I liked it more than all three previous films. Some of the action scenes were breathless. And….you could actually see what was happening in the action scenes. There was much less too close, rapid editing nonsense than there is in most action movies made these days.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 21, 2011 12:23 am

Unknown and Insidious were pretty good. I was surprised how much I liked Fast Five. The others were garbage. Maybe The Rock had something to do with it. The Mechanic was fairly forgettable. The best part was at the beginning (Who has a black pool?), but the rest was kind of “been there, done that” for me. Oh wait. I had seen The Mechanic before, and slightly better done.

I don’t know if you would consider Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol a genre film or not, but I saw it tonight and it was pretty damn good. I liked it more than all three previous films. Some of the action scenes were breathless. And….you could actually see what was happening in the action scenes. There was much less too close, rapid editing nonsense than there is in most action movies made these days.

Posted By Bob Turnbull : December 21, 2011 12:35 pm

Nice list…You have me curious to see “The Robber” and “The Yellow Sea” and I may even add “Unknown” to my list (after seeing its poster back when it was released, I pretty much have totally ignored it – this is why I love these end of year lists, so that I can find out the little gems that snuck by).

I was worried when I finally got around to “Attack The Blcok” that it would be a disappointment after some early major hype, but it ended up being a great deal of fun and completely engaging. I should probably try to watch “Detective Dee” again (I saw it towards the end of my Toronto Film Festival crop from 2010, so I was exceedingly tired going into it), but it never once had me – the CGI bothered me and it felt completely scrambled. Numerous people found more to like about it, though, so I may revisit…

I enjoyed “Fast Five” (I haven’t seen the others in the series either), but don’t quite get a lot of the very intense affection it’s getting. The characters were completely bland, dull and uninteresting so everything in between the action was rather tortuous. The action scenes themselves were impressive, but never quite got me to gasp or wince or really become involved in which way things would end up. Boy those cars were pretty though…

If I didn’t completely love Point Blank, Insidious, I Saw The Devil and Stake Land, I did like all of them a great deal, so it certainly was a solid year for well-constructed genre cinema (I simply can’t include The Ward in that list though – not terrible, but pretty forgettable for me).

A few others I really liked that I hope get wider release:

“Father’s Day” – The Canadian team called Astron-6 delivered what may very well be the perfect exploitation film. Don’t be thrown by the fact that it’s a Troma release – the Astron-6 team have a genuine fondness for Grindhouse and their sense of humour is far more advanced than you would expect from Troma. The film mashes together all sorts of standard conventions and is exceedingly fun, but it also terribly disgusting and likely to offend many. So they hit the mark spot on.

“Midnight Son” – Akin to George Romero’s best film (IMO) “Martin”, but with superior acting and even more sympathetic characters, this succeeds on just about every level as a storytelling vehicle: a genre exercise, a different spin on a well-worn legend, an examination of several themes (loneliness, self-realization) and a simple love story.

“Absentia” – One of the better small Indie horror films you’ll see. Even if it slightly fumbles some of its jump scares (though it does nail one of them), the anticipation it builds and the mood it creates carry it through very effectively.

“The Innkeepers” – Ti West’s follow-up to the excellent “House Of The Devil” adds well-scripted character-based humour, keeps the creepy atmosphere and doesn’t rush his story just to try to scare you.

“The Raid” – This is going wider in 2012 and I simply can’t believe that it won’t be all over next year’s end of year lists (it’s on mine for this year). A SWAT team invade an apartment building to flush out a drug kingpin, but end up being trapped within it. It’s even more efficient than “Point Blank” in jumping into its action and contains some of the most sustained, brutal fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

Posted By Bob Turnbull : December 21, 2011 12:35 pm

Nice list…You have me curious to see “The Robber” and “The Yellow Sea” and I may even add “Unknown” to my list (after seeing its poster back when it was released, I pretty much have totally ignored it – this is why I love these end of year lists, so that I can find out the little gems that snuck by).

I was worried when I finally got around to “Attack The Blcok” that it would be a disappointment after some early major hype, but it ended up being a great deal of fun and completely engaging. I should probably try to watch “Detective Dee” again (I saw it towards the end of my Toronto Film Festival crop from 2010, so I was exceedingly tired going into it), but it never once had me – the CGI bothered me and it felt completely scrambled. Numerous people found more to like about it, though, so I may revisit…

I enjoyed “Fast Five” (I haven’t seen the others in the series either), but don’t quite get a lot of the very intense affection it’s getting. The characters were completely bland, dull and uninteresting so everything in between the action was rather tortuous. The action scenes themselves were impressive, but never quite got me to gasp or wince or really become involved in which way things would end up. Boy those cars were pretty though…

If I didn’t completely love Point Blank, Insidious, I Saw The Devil and Stake Land, I did like all of them a great deal, so it certainly was a solid year for well-constructed genre cinema (I simply can’t include The Ward in that list though – not terrible, but pretty forgettable for me).

A few others I really liked that I hope get wider release:

“Father’s Day” – The Canadian team called Astron-6 delivered what may very well be the perfect exploitation film. Don’t be thrown by the fact that it’s a Troma release – the Astron-6 team have a genuine fondness for Grindhouse and their sense of humour is far more advanced than you would expect from Troma. The film mashes together all sorts of standard conventions and is exceedingly fun, but it also terribly disgusting and likely to offend many. So they hit the mark spot on.

“Midnight Son” – Akin to George Romero’s best film (IMO) “Martin”, but with superior acting and even more sympathetic characters, this succeeds on just about every level as a storytelling vehicle: a genre exercise, a different spin on a well-worn legend, an examination of several themes (loneliness, self-realization) and a simple love story.

“Absentia” – One of the better small Indie horror films you’ll see. Even if it slightly fumbles some of its jump scares (though it does nail one of them), the anticipation it builds and the mood it creates carry it through very effectively.

“The Innkeepers” – Ti West’s follow-up to the excellent “House Of The Devil” adds well-scripted character-based humour, keeps the creepy atmosphere and doesn’t rush his story just to try to scare you.

“The Raid” – This is going wider in 2012 and I simply can’t believe that it won’t be all over next year’s end of year lists (it’s on mine for this year). A SWAT team invade an apartment building to flush out a drug kingpin, but end up being trapped within it. It’s even more efficient than “Point Blank” in jumping into its action and contains some of the most sustained, brutal fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

Posted By suzidoll : December 23, 2011 12:22 am

Stake Land made my list, too.

Posted By suzidoll : December 23, 2011 12:22 am

Stake Land made my list, too.

Posted By John Baxter : December 23, 2011 2:30 pm

Great list, most notably for the Fast Five recommendation (I haven’t watched any of the others as I have an aversion to Paul Walker) and The Robber which looks excellent.

Posted By John Baxter : December 23, 2011 2:30 pm

Great list, most notably for the Fast Five recommendation (I haven’t watched any of the others as I have an aversion to Paul Walker) and The Robber which looks excellent.

Posted By Jenni : December 24, 2011 3:54 pm

Really enjoyed Fast Five, and hoping for a sequel. Any flick that pairs Vin Diesel and The Rock is a must see in my book. You’ve piqued our interest in seeking out Insidious, too.

Posted By Jenni : December 24, 2011 3:54 pm

Really enjoyed Fast Five, and hoping for a sequel. Any flick that pairs Vin Diesel and The Rock is a must see in my book. You’ve piqued our interest in seeking out Insidious, too.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 25, 2011 9:15 am

They just announced Fast Six and it’s going to be released in two parts, so it will be Fast Six Part I and Fast Six Part II. I think that’s kind of silly. They could just call them Fast Six and Fast Seven, but whatever.

Posted By dukeroberts : December 25, 2011 9:15 am

They just announced Fast Six and it’s going to be released in two parts, so it will be Fast Six Part I and Fast Six Part II. I think that’s kind of silly. They could just call them Fast Six and Fast Seven, but whatever.

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