(Originally published on In Review Online. Check out InRO for a couple extra post-Halloween DVD picks.)
Drag Me to Hell (2008) Directed by Sam Raimi [Universal]
Much has been made about Sam Raimi's journey from horror cult hero to blockbuster salary man, but Raimi marches to his own drum whether it is huge or small, great or schlocky. Ironically, Drag Me to Hell seems to be the amalgamation of all those things in the best possible way. If Drag Me feels like a return to Evil Dead, it’s because the balance between scary, funny and completely offensive is perfect. Raimi, fully aware of genre expectations, throws the handbook out the window. While most horror films these days get by on gore, torture, nihilism or some combination of the three, Raimi does more with good old-fashioned mucus, maggots and nose bleeds than Eli Roth can shake baseball bat at. Throw in a good curse, a kitten sacrifice, a girl fight and an old woman with a penchant for biting without her dentures and you have one of the most fun horror films of the year.
Fear(s) of the Dark (2006) Directed by Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire and Pierre di Sciullo [MPI]
The most frightening things are those propelled by an active imagination. The animated French omnibus Fear(s) of the Dark pulls together six artists who clearly understand the fantastical and personal nature of fear. Opting for psychological scares instead of physiological thrills, Fear(s) is composed of five shorts directed by world-renowned graphic artists Bluch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire, all linked together by the drawings of Pierre di Sciullo. The film is effective in maintaining cohesion between the individual stories through its monochromatic style and eerie soundtrack. Sinister and mesmerizing, Fear(s) lingers in the dark recesses of your mind long after the lights go up.
Orphan (2009) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra [Warner]
If Paranormal Activity hadn’t popped up out of nowhere, I would have crowned Orphan as the smartest horror film of the year. But where Paranormal excels in low-budget creativity, Orphan exceeds in clever storytelling and solid filmmaking. When the Colemans adopt 9-year-old Esther as the third child into their family, they get more than they bargain for. Inexplicitly wise beyond her years, Esther is a child psychologist’s nightmare and the audience’s puzzle. Orphan is expertly paced and brilliantly acted, especially by the three kids in the cast. But don’t get the idea that this film takes itself too seriously—the last fifteen minutes is nothing but classic horror film fodder that has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with adrenaline. Horror films tend to be throwaway money machines that are hardly ever allowed the space to be crafty without being overtly crass. Orphan belongs in a class with Them (aka Ils) and The Descent that offers a brain-powered punch.
Munyurangabo (2007) Directed by Lee Isaac Chung [Film Movement]
Definitely in the running for one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Munyurangabo is a powerful visual tome that gains its power through silent intensity and honest emotions. It contemplates the collective history of the Rwandan genocide ten years after and the very powerful effects on individuals. The film chronicles a journey made by two friends (one a Hutu and one a Tutsi) on the verge of adulthood. Representative of the collective unconscious, both seek resolution to a personal restlessness. Lee Isaac Chung makes the most out of a budget in his first feature film, tapping the natural talents of his Rwandan film students in an 11-day shoot. Chung spends over an hour pulling back his bow and finally lets his arrow fly in the form of a powerful 7-minute poem that will leave you stunned. For Film Movement subscribers this DVD was delivered months ago, but made publicly available this month.
Black Rain (1989) Directed by Shohei Imamura [AnimEigo]
Shohei Imamura’s sobering 1989 Black Rain receives an its-about-fuckin-time DVD release courtesy of the unlikely heroes at AnimEigo. Based on Masuji Ibuse’s novel of the same name, this luminescent black and white film finds Imumura returning to the family drama motifs of his teacher Yasujiro Ozu. Although the film recalls the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—with surreal and shrewd detail—the majority of the drama takes place in 1950 when the more subtle effects of the war and the bomb have taken a firm hold on the daily lives of the robust but world-weary characters. As the entire country tries to train their eyes toward the future, so does Yasuko who hopes to find a husband despite the fact that she has been turned down three times due to her exposure to the bomb’s ‘black rain’ fallout. Handled with sensitivity and restraint, Black Rain is less of a pointed accusation that it is a humanitarian document that falls perfectly in line with Imamura’s oeuvre. The DVD includes an alternate color ending and interviews with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director on the film, Takashi Miike.
Fados (2007) Directed by Carlos Saura [Zeitgeist]
This formal yet enthralling celebration of the melodramatic musical tradition of fado is less about education that it is enjoyment. Fados is Carlos Saura’s final installment to his musical trilogy that also included Flamenco (1995) and Tango. Fado is Portuguese soul music, born on the streets of Lisbon in the 19th century. Saura lends a keen cinematic eye to the musical set pieces in the film, but ultimately puts his trust in the power of the performers of fados, or fadistas, to carry the documentary to a place where only music can go. “Fados” features performances by Amália Rodrigues, Mariza, Camané, Maria de Nazaré, Vicente da Camara, Carmo Rebelo de Andrade, Pedro Moutinho, Toni Garrido, Ricardo Ribeiro, Ricardo Rocha, Miguel Poveda, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque de Hollanda, Ana Sofia Varela, Lura and Lila Downs, and each interpretation adds a new dimension of passion and melancholia.
Il Divo (2008) Directed by Paolo Sorrentino [MPI]
Yet another one of the best films I’ve seen this year, Il Divo is not what you expect from a political biopic. Director Paolo Sorrentino takes the story of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—a notorious political figurehead elected seven times to Parliament who welded unbelievable power despite his impish physicality—and turns it into a dazzling, fast-paced analytical thriller. Actor Tony Servillo plays Andreotti with physical specificity and emotional guile that is unsurpassed. Regardless of your knowledge of Italian politics, this film is thoroughly engrossing and highly entertaining.
Z (1969) Directed by Costa-Gavras [Criterion]
Costa-Gavras’ Z may not have the same impact it had when it premiered in 1969, but, like “The Battle of Algiers, it is a testament not only to the political times but to the burgeoning power of filmmaking. Based on the 1963 assassination of Greek left-wing activist Gregoris Lambrakis, Z was a very personal for of protest for Costa-Garvas against what was happening in his country. Armed with nouvelle vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Z has a street-level immediacy that is hard not to get caught up in. Criterion offers a restored version of the film as well as a handful of special features including new interviews with Costa-Garvras and Coutard.