Friday, January 3, 2014

The Year in Review: 2013

My writing has trickled off somewhat as the year came to a close, but 2013 nevertheless marked the most prolific year I've had here so far. Still, I can't claim to have seen or read even close to everything genre-related that comes out in a year, so I tend to shy away from making any "year's best" claims. What I can offer is the best moments from my own personal year of filmgoing, which will hopefully draw attention to a few films that might have flown beneath your radar.

Here are some personal highlights from the past year:

Indie films that blew me away

I'm convinced that the innovation and creativity offered by indie horror consistently outshines that of major studio productions. While it can take a little digging to uncover indie films that transcend budgetary limitations or aren't just retreading old ground, the search can be well worth it. Of the indie horror films I watched over the past year, the majority were well worth my time. The following stood out as not only great examples of what an indie film can do, but also as some of my favorite films of the year.

  • Found caught me off guard with its powerful and intelligent portrayal of a middle-school kid confronting the perils of growing up while dealing with the fact that his older brother is a psychopath. It's without a doubt one of the most disturbing and emotionally engaging films I've seen all year. I've watched it twice more since initially catching it at Durham's Nevermore Film Fest, and my appreciation for it has only grown.
  • Dead Weight was another film I caught at Nevermore, one that injects a surprising amount of humanity and depth to what I thought was a played-out sub-genre (zombies). Dead Weight delivers a gut punch in its final act that's made all the more effective by its commitment to its characters.
  • The Invoking (formerly Sader Ridge) is a haunting story about buried secrets resurfacing to destroy the life of a young woman. An understated tale of memory and loss, and one of my favorite slow-burn horror films of the year.
The weird world of Indonesian genre film

Cult oddity Lady Terminator takes all the energy and ultra-violence of an American 80's exploitation film and focuses it through the lens of Indonesian myth to produce a concentrated beam of both action and horror. I was happy to find that it wasn't just a fluke for H. Tjut Djalil, whose Dangerous Seductress is a warped image of vampirism set in what might be the most hallucinatory tourism commercial you'll ever see. Mystics in Bali is a slower burn, but one that takes on a decidedly surreal tone and immerses itself in the legend of the Leyak - one of the coolest monsters I've seen in a while. The Warrior and The Devil's Sword proved to me that Indonesian martial arts and fantasy films could be just as entertaining and surprising.

Art-house strangeness, old and new

There were a couple of odd films this year that caused a fair amount of stir in mainstream circles. Nicholas Windin Refn's Only God Forgives was a dreamlike tale of vengeance and bloody redemption with a gigantic Oedipal complex on the side. After Drive dismantled the moral integrity of the American crime-flick hero, viewers should have known better than to expect Ryan Gosling to take center stage here. Refn all but neuters him, making Vithaya Pansringa the real star of the show as a ruthlessly vengeful Thai cop. I was also blown away by Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, which lured in viewers with promises of debauchery, then bombarded them with unsettling questions regarding the intersection of race, class, and gender. It's the only time I've ever witnessed a group of teenagers get offended enough to leave the theater early. Both films seemed to get a somewhat mixed reception, but I found the way they challenged audience expectations and undermined genre tropes to be refreshing.

As far as older art-house fair, one of the weirdest films I watched this year was Arcana, Guilio Questi's surreal tale of urban magic and societal upheaval. AndrĂ¡s Jeles' The Annunciation also deserves mention for using the tale of the Garden of Eden as a jumping-off point into a baffling representation of humanity's fall from grace, all with a strangely sincere child cast.

My quest to brush up on horror literature continues

I've been working steadily backwards through the horror canon in an attempt to read all the classics that I've skipped until now. Some favorites of the year were:
  • Michael McDowell's Blackwater series, a languid Southern gothic tale of intra-family politics thrown into upheaval by an outsider born of the depths of the Perdido river. 
  • Ramsey Campbell's Demons by Daylight, a series of remarkably subtle short stories that frequently dissolve into abstract terror. 
  • Thomas Tryon's The Other, which manages to overcome the somewhat hackneyed idea of the "evil twin" with a surprisingly cruel final act. 
Some other favorites, including newer works: Laird Barron's cosmic horror novel The Croning, Gene Wolfe's extremely subtle Peace, all of Gillian Flynn's work, Joe Hill's NOS4A2 (which had me reading pretty much non-stop), and Adam Cesare's fast-paced and gory Video Night.

Re-examining my horror roots

I got somewhat introspective in a couple of thematically linked series of posts this year. The first was a return to the format of my youth where I dug into several of the VHS tapes I've bought secondhand over the years. See all posts tagged: It Came From the Thriftstore. I also re-examined the formative terrors throughout my life, ranging from films to books to real-life experiences. See A Life of FearBoth features were lots of fun to write, and hopefully of general interest as well.

I can't say exactly what's next for the site, especially since I'm becoming mired in a dissertation and a job search. The next big feature I can promise is a recap of features and shorts I'll be catching at Nevermore in February. Posts will likely be somewhat random until then. I'm really lucky to have several genre-oriented revival series within reach, and look forward to revisiting some old classics and discovering new ones. Between those and a to-watch list that only grows with time, I'm excited to see what 2014 has in store. Thanks for reading and journeying through the dark side of the film world with me.

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