10. Spring Breakers (2012)
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers took us all by complete surprise in 2012, with its neon-lit delusion taking on empty contemporary American ennui and fashioning a run-down but delicious rainbow with it.
Vanessa Hudgens is Candy, a college student who, along with her shallow pals, Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez), find themselves penniless leading up to spring break, and so they ill-advisedly rob a dinner to afford a trip down to Florida. Befriending a drug dealing, wannabe rap artist named Alien (James Franco), the gang alludes the law and embrace a bizarre life of crime, until… well, perhaps the less said the better. No spoilers here.
A word of advice for those who try watching this film and are easily put off by the film’s bratty slow build, work past the first 30 minutes and wonderful and very worthwhile awards will await you (not to mention the eye-popping visual delicacies!). Spring Breakers spins a seductive web, hewn with immense and colorful artistry in what Huffington Post critic Emma Seligman describes as “Scarface meets Britney Spears.”
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
When A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night debuted at Sundance in 2014 it was hailed by New York Times critic Brooks Barnes as “the first Iranian vampire Western”, and even that is a loose approximation of what the film truly is. The directorial debut from Ana Lily Amirpour (The Bad Batch), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a moody, misty vampire film set in a fictional Iranian borough called Bad City. But a closer eye reveals the film to also be a Beckett-like conception, recognizable in its dark shadows are the shapes and styles of a Spaghetti Western, a feminist revenge fantasy, and much more.
Sheila Vand stars as the unnamed madam protagonist, a distant relation to Sergio Leone’s and Akira Kurosawa’s rōnin heroes. Clad in a destined-to-be-iconic ebony chador—a traditional, body-length garment worn by Iranian women—Vand, like an avenging angel, protects Bad City from black marketeers, violent pimps, and wannabe tough guys. There’s also a nimble gender-reversal love interest angle, and an adorable cat, in this familiar yet fresh arthouse astonishment.
8. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
This whip smart horror comedy from scribes Drew Goddard (also his directorial debut) and Joss Whedon features one of the most fiendishly unexpected plot turns in recent cinema in what I’ve frequently described to the uninitiated as “the Matrix meets the Monster Squad.” And therein lies much of the film’s appeal
After a brief preamble that seems to be from an altogether different movie––something about two middle-management types (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in a secluded, science-y facility, whose mundane shoptalk seem to hold no bearing on the fright flick we’ve signed up for––the proper film kicks in with an overly familiar and predictable horror setup; a group of five good-looking college chums on a weekend vacay to an isolated rural retreat, the titular cabin deep in the woods.
Amidst shades of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre and some stoner Scooby Doo antics soon things take a decidedly dark twist. No spoilers here, but let’s just say The Cabin in the Woods takes a grisly and blood-flecked inquiry into ideas of sacrifice and ceremony, while making the audience implicit of its own enjoyment of onscreen depictions of exploitation and bloodshed. Sound like fun? You bet it is!
7. The Beach Bum (2019)
Writer/director Harmony Korine took his time following up his decadent, neon-lit, and extravagant 2012 cult hit Spring Breakers (also on this list) with this, the ultimate shaggy-dog saga, The Beach Bum. Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast in a role he seems born to play, as the bedraggled beat poet Moondog, a Dude-like layabout, laissez-faire sophisticated in women’s dress and fanny pack, reciting poems that in real-life were penned by the late great Richard Brautigan.
As Moondog, a South Florida eccentric, once famous for his verse, now seems to drift around his beachside town’s many places of ill-repute, smoking weed, guzzling booze, and bedding beautiful women, after all “that’s what feeds the juices up here in my nugget, man.”
Moondog navigates from one loony contingency to the next, reconnecting with his lovely but estranged wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), hang time with crass millionaire rapper and BFF Lingerie (Snoop Dog), Margaritaville American institution Jimmy Buffet, and a rogue’s gallery of washups played by the likes of Zac Efron, Jonah Hill, and Martin Lawrence, The Beach Bum never rests.
Aided by a fabulous, feel-good soundtrack, fully envisaged by Korine’s go-to cinematographer Benoît Debie, who makes even Florida’s seediest spots a fervently and deliriously colorful trip, The Beach Bum wants you to feel the hedonistic highs along with Moondog. Even when our affable stoner hero appears browbeaten or his misadventures veer a little too grimly picaresque, Korine wants you to feel bliss and boundless wonder.
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Eve (Tilda Swinton) is one part of an incurably cool vampire couple whose husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is having self-harming thoughts in Jim Jarmusch’s (Mystery Train, Dead Man) chic shocker, Only Lovers Left Alive. Tough-as-nails and fiercely romantic, this vampire film is full of leitmotifs involving fear, exhilaration, alienation, isolation, creativity, art, music, literature, life, and death. It’s not at all full-on in your face horror, but it does have classic Gothic sensibilities, jets of blood, moments of mortal fear, piercingly sad genuflections, and painfully poignant ruminations on unending love.
More visual than it is verbal, this elegiac and eerie film displays, amongst other things, the wraithlike dissolution of Detroit, the unearthly otherness of Tangier and many amusing and macabre tableaus of the undead, their uncanny mores and their outlandish dwellings. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual spree detailing the haunting harmony of ageless sweethearts in perpetual midnight and it’s marvellous.
5. In Fabric (2019)
This ulta-stylish deference to Euro-horror from sly English writer-director Peter Strickland may just be his most outlandish, over-the-top, and batshit brilliant coup de cinema yet. In Fabric ostensibly tells the tale of a cursed killer dress and the ill-starred humans in helpless orbit around it.
When overlooked and underappreciated single mom Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) braves the bustling winter sales season at a literally hellish department store, an eccentric and rather spectral saleswoman Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) entices her into purchasing a voodooed garment. Unsuspecting, Sheila’s fate is sealed, and she won’t be the first, nor the last, to fall under the dress’s strange spell and utter savageness.
As In Fabric unravels before us a raucous and meticulous madness descends, along with Strickland’s uncanny knack for displaying tactile pleasures, visual responses, and barbed perceptions of consumerism and the occult.
Tim Gane’s score perfectly suits the fetishistic adulations to the psychedelic sex-horror and maudlin melodrama of Jesús Franco and Jean Rollin, and there’s enough blood-curdling shrills to conjure Dario Argento and David Lynch to the table, but Strickland’s bizarro mashup of cult European cinema, giallo, midnight movies, softcore erotica, and flagrant psychedelia still makes him an absolute original, as imaginative and resolute as they come.
4. A Field in England (2013)
Blurring the lines between dream and reality is a right-hand aspiration for Ben Wheatley (Kill List), and his fourth feature, the incomparable A Field in England, exemplifies this to the nth degree. This is a black comedy masquerading as an arthouse horror film set in mid-17th century England.
Screenwriter Amy Jump outdoes herself with a literate and completely corrupt screenplay that follows Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) as he absconds from a demonic alchemist named O’Neill (Michael Smiley) amidst a bloody English Civil War battle. Cursed and accompanied by a trio of deserters this ill-starred crew, high on psilocybin mushrooms, are soon at the mercy of O’Neill.
Cinematographer Laurie Rose shoots a monochrome world of creepy close-ups and other odd and ominous tricks as the trippy pastoral mise en scène mutates into a Grand Guignol chamber of horrors. It’s an inspired, utterly loopy, psychotropic Möbius strip that embraces moral ambiguity, resists tidy resolutions, and is more lively and enjoyable than it perhaps ought to be. It’s also the perfect midnight movie if you’re brave enough to visit it.
3. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
“We’re vampires, we don’t put down towels,” argues Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) with his flatmates, also vampires, and each rather stubborn when it comes to things like getting on each other’s nerves, and tidying up after their often gruesome dinners.
Clement, co-writing and co-directing along with fellow Kiwi, Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit), net lots of laughs and attains assured cult hit status with the comedy-horror mockumentary monster mash, What We Do in the Shadows.
Having already cut their teeth together previously on numerous projects including Flight of the Conchords, and Eagle vs Shark, Waititi and Clement have again assembled a great cast of comedians to join them in cracking wise and deadpanning for the camera as they recount the trials and travails of Wellington, New Zealand’s vampire population, along with some rival werewolves, witches, and a few zombies, too. It’s a quotable procession of slapstick, splatter, satire, and farce. Few parodies work as well as What We Do in the Shadows does, and the lampoonery here has bite, sopping up serious howls, ensuring death by laughter all ye who see it.
2. The Love Witch (2016)
Anna Biller’s delightfully macabre exercise in sassy seduction and strange, vintage sensations feels like it was made in another era but adorned with bracingly modernistic designs. The Love Witch is stunning to see and thrilling to think about as it throws back to the Technicolor melodramas of the swinging 60s and the sexploitation cinema that supervened. Starring a smashing Samantha Robinson, who looks like she stepped out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is note perfect as Elaine, the eponymous witch.
Beautiful but bloodthirsty, Elaine is determined to find the man of her dreams and will cast spells and brew strange potions to manipulate the men around her until she finds her ideal muse, even if her mental health is in constant question.
Biller’s inspired and kaleidoscopic set design, sumptuous costumes, and deliberately superannuated aesthetic is a crafty coup de cinema, combined with an excellently effective soundtrack that makes The Love Witch a ravishing and ineffable entertainment.
1. Mandy (2018)
Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is a deeply personal film entwined in the most hallucinatory, messed up, heavy-metal-meets-80s-movie-mashup packaging imaginable. And when we say 80s movies, we’re talking Blue Velvet, Evil Dead 2, and Hellraiser here.
Set in 1983 somewhere in the Pacific Northwest near the Shadow Mountains, Red Miller (Nic Cage at his most Noc Cage-iest) and his fantasy-obsessed artist girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) eke out a peaceful existence. But their idyll is short lived in this ultra-violent fantasy of revenge and bloodlust.
Conventional definitions of good and bad go by the wayside, but it feels like Cosmatos has made exactly the kind of uncompromising, obsessive, stoner prayer to the church of psycho cinema he’s always dreamed of.
Cage is gloriously off the chain, inhabiting a blood-speckled world of alien sunsets, King Crimson forests, Christ-dreading demon bikers, drug-crazed freaks, psychedelic insects, and Cheddar Goblins. Bolstered by a haunting Jóhann Jóhannsson score, stunning visuals (including some astounding animated dream sequences), Mandy is an extreme genre journey that beautifully weds grindhouse and arthouse in startling and stunning ways.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.