Best of the Bleak: Eighteen Top Lesser-Known Crime, Thriller and Horror Netflix Instant Titles from 2014

Best movies of 2014 netflix instant
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Consider this post a witches’ brew. The contents started as a liquid composed of every crime, thriller and horror feature on Netflix Instant. Then I cranked up the heat and gave it a year-long simmer, meticulously skimming away the fat and nasty bits. After that, I spent the next three months tasting and testing till I finally had a small saucepan of the darkest, most delectable demi-glace. I then took that shit and poured it over the finest unicorn liver and paired it with a nice barrel of chianti. And now… Dinner is served, cabrones!

hannibal lecter drinking

Bon appétit!

Wait. Did you catch all that?

Essentially what I’m saying is that I spent a year combing through Reddit subthreads, countless hours watching every imaginable film and series on Netflix Instant, and three months writing about my favorite lesser-known titles (along with the help of my partner-in-crime, Adam Fox). I’ve now condensed all this research into a list of 18 of the best horror, crime and thriller features that you may have not seen on Netflix Instant.

Are a few things missing? Sure. No list is definitive, and that’s what next year is for. But consider this a damn good menu, with every item coming highly recommended by the chef himself.

Here’s the list, graded and alphabetically ordered, with titles linking back to our initial long-form posts:

MOVIES
headhunters

Blue Ruin
blue ruinBittersweet revenge. That’s what Dwight (Macon Blair), a dumpster-diving hobo, is after when he hears the man who killed his parents is getting out of prison. Blue Ruin delivers as one of the most beautifully shot, darkly comical and poignant films of 2013. If you liked Shotgun Stories or are simply a fan of revenge and vigilante justice flicks, look no further. B+/A-

Fish Tank
fish tankA charming Irishman enters the life of a teenage breakdancer who lives with her drunk mom and foul-mouthed sister in the slums of East London. Michael Fassbender (pre-Magneto fame) provides one of his best ever performances as a boozy savior who seems too good to be true. This film creates a riveting wave of suspense, despite being the only title on this list devoid of much action or overt violence. A-

God Bless America
God Bless AmericaIdiocracy and the 1970 hippie-slaughter-fest Joe meet Network in Bobact Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black satire on American media culture and narcissism. Bill Murray’s brother, Joel, is phenomenal as an everyman who finally hits his breaking point and goes on a monstrous killing spree… inspired by human compassion. B+/A-

Gomorrah
gomorrahFucking hell, this is a bleak one. Director Matteo Garrone takes a page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s book and intertwines four slum tales, using the gang-ridden streets of Naples as his canvas. Ranked by A.O. Scott as the sixth-best film of 2008, I’d highly recommend this to fans of Amores Perros and City of GodB+

Headhunters
Nikolaj Coster-WaldauThis fast-paced Norwegian thriller tells the story of an art thief who gets in over his head by stealing from a special ops manhunter. Said manhunter is Game of Thrones‘  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who brings all his kingslaying charm to what is perhaps the most throughly entertaining movie I watched all year. A-

In Bruges
in brugesLike I said, “mostly lesser-known” titles. If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly wry flick about a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) holidaying in the “fucking fairytale” town of Bruges, consider this a must-watch. For those who have seen it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Bad Lieutenant-esque Irish cop. (I’m quite eagerly anticipating director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, which hits Netflix DVD queues on Jan. 6). A-

El Infierno
Joaquín CosioThe best lesser-known movie on Netflix Instant. Period. A Mexican man is deported back home from the States, only to find his nation in ruinous drug violence. So what does he do? Break bad and become a narco hitman, of course. Rarely is sociopolitical commentary as entertaining to watch as in director Luis Estrada’s masterpiece. My top recommendation on this list—which would explain why I wrote a fucking novella on it (see link). A

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devilI didn’t write about Oldboy because if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it thirteen times. I Saw the Devil continues in the tradition of Park Chan-Wook’s gut-wrenchingly violent Vengeance Trilogy and is, with perhaps the exception of Oldboy, the best film made in the landscape of prolific gore-horror that is South Korean cinema. Alongside El Infierno and Tell No One, this rounds out my top three recommendations within this list. A-/A

Let the Right One In
let the right one inThis Swedish kiddie vampire tale makes Twilight look like Sesame Street. If for some reason you haven’t seen this, please do—it’s arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. A

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
At what what point do I just give up and dedicate my entire blog to South Korean revenge movies? That’s a question this grim story of a mysterious Asian Jason Bourne putting his life on the line to save a young girl brings to mind. While not quite as devastatingly sinister as The Vengeance Trilogy, director Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 flick is every bit as good—and much more action-packed. B+/A-

Stake Land
stake landAside from Let the Right One In, it could be argued that this devilish, little vampire road movie is the best bloodsucker flick since Dusk Till Dawn. It’s basically a much smarter, more artfully crafted and fully realized version of The Walking Dead. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of vamps, do me a fucking favor and skip that hipster trash that hipster critics are raving about, Only Lovers Left Alive. I consider Jim Jarmusch a god among directors, but that was his most pretentious bit of bullshit ever. On a more upbeat note, keep an eye out for the Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I nominate for best horror-film title of 2014. As for Stake Land… A-

Tell No One
tell-no-oneMichael Caine named this 2006 French mystery thriller as one of the top ten movies ever made. While I don’t fully agree, I also wouldn’t call that hyperbole. This story—about a doctor who uncovers a secret about his dead wife—somehow manages the task of being both one of the most beautiful love stories and most action-packed thrillers in recent memory. One of my top three picks on this list. A

The Taking of Deborah Logan
the taking of deborah loganThe found-footage genre finds new life in this jump-out-your-seat scary flick about a lady with Alzheimer’s who becomes possessed by demonic forces. While my smug, Masshole co-writer Adam Fox may disagree, I’d easily call this one of the best horror movies of 2014. B+/A-

You’re Next
You're nextAn Australian survivalist chick winds up at the dinner party from hell as a cast and crew of mumblecore jag-offs redeem themselves by creating one of the best slasher films in years. If there was any justice in this world, Dwight Twilley would win an Oscar for “Looking for the Magic”—which director Adam Wingard uses immaculately here.  B+/A-

SERIES
peaky blinders

Black Mirror
jessica brown findlay sings in black mirrorDid I just give a shout-out to Adam Fox? He’s the guy who’s been writing up Black Mirror for this here site. Charlie Brooker’s series of seven (so far) unrelated stories is a menacingly bleak futuristic take on technology, dystopia and human fallibility. So far we’ve posted on Fifteen Million Merits (B+), a glimpse of what happens when The Running Man meets American Idol in hell; and The National Anthem (A-), which deals with a British prime minister deciding whether he should follow through on a terrorist threat to fuck a pig.

Happy Valley
blogIf you haven’t watched Happy Valley yet, perhaps it’s for some of the same reasons that it took me so long to get around to it: The marquee image on Netflix displays an unknown, middle-aged actress in a British cop uniform. Meanwhile, there are several other British series plastered on the same page containing well-known actors in their prime, like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumbertwat. So why should you choose Happy Valley, a show about a small-town detective who gets involved in a high-stakes kidnapping case? Let the record state that I am not comparing it to Breaking Bad… but it is the best show I’ve seen since the best show ever made ended. That’s why. A

The Fall: Season One
The FallThe Fall is perhaps one of the most intelligent cop shows on TV this side of True Detective, and now that Rust and Marty are out of the picture, Gillian Anderson’s lead as icy investigator Stella Gibson is perhaps the best character in the genre. The only downfall of this first season—which trails a sadistic Belfast serial killer—is that it left us with an asshole of a cliffhanger. Quit dicking around, BBC—deliver the goods! A-

Peaky Blinders: Season One
peaky blinders“When you walk through the garden…”. That was the line that Tom Waits opened episodes of The Wire with. “Take a little walk to the other side of the tracks” is the line Nick Cave opens Peaky Blinders with, and his “Red Right Hand” is the best intro song to any show since David Simon’s deservedly heralded series. There’s also a lot of other awesome shit happening here, like Cillian Murphy—as the leader of a Birmingham street gang—slashing people’s faces with razor-embedded scally caps. Blinders isn’t the most highbrow fare, but its first season is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in years. The second season falls a little short, but that’s another story for another time. A-

-Sam Adams

NOTE: A big year-end thanks to everyone who’s patronized this site, commented on it and given their support over the past three months. It means the fucking world. Also, a huge thanks to my man Adam Fox for helping me keep the ship afloat. We’ve got much more in store for 2015!

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Outback Invasion: Mystery Road and the Need for Neo-Ozploitation on Netflix Instant

outback invasion
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Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.

the rover

“Time to grow up and act, Pattinson. Fuck Team Edward!”

The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.

The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.

the man from nowhere

The Man from Nowhere introduces us to the increasingly popular South Korean sport of bowling with human eyes.

While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.

bush whacked

Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (1971): a boozy, Ozploitation classic.

Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?

I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.

Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)

Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Wolf Creek 2


 ….

Mystery Road
mystery road
Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.

This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.

mystery road, clint eastwood

Clint as The Man with No Name and Aaron Pederson as Det. Jay Swan: a pair of badass, cowboy-hat-wearing loners who don’t say much.

Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.

A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.

jack charles

Jack Charles: Australian for God.

But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.

mystery road

This Stephen Shore-esque still pretty much sums up the amount of action Mystery Road delivers for the bulk of its two hours.

That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…

So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.

only god forgives

“Wanna fight? … Or would you prefer mood-lighting and an open mic?”

For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)

Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.

Black Mirror on Netflix Instant: Twilight Zone for the ADD Generation, Part II

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BY ADAM FOX

1987’s The Running Man was one of my favorite movies growing up. While I likely appreciated the bravado of one Arnold Schwarzenegger and the video game-like levels of its plot as a kid, it wasn’t until later that I finally grasped what the hell was really going on. The Running Man was quintessential ’80s action at its cheesiest, to be sure, but it did ask a pretty good question: How far are we willing to go for entertainment?

Schwarzenegger running man

“I’m not into politics, I’m into suh-vival:” A slogan the Governator used to great effect in both Running Man and his California GOP campaigns.

I bring up Paul Michael Glaser’s magnum opus because its story is not dissimilar to the second episode of Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits.” “Fifteen” introduces us to a futuristic environment in which presumably working class citizens—never changing from their dull-gray jogging attire—spend their days accumulating a collection of points, or “merits,” on stationary bicycles. To help prevent this process from getting too tedious, a selection of video games are offered as an overlay to the exercise, including scenic backdrops or risqué sex scenes.

Fifteen million merits

Hell… on wheels.

The merits are permanently saved to inhabitants’ profiles and can be used to purchase things like food, entertainment, or entry fees to any of the enormously popular game shows that play throughout the day. One of them even involves unleashing high-pressure hoses on the morbidly obese.

Unlike Running Man, these spinners/SoulCyclers aren’t hardened criminals, whether real or imagined. They’re certainly prisoners in their screen-covered cells, but most lack the self-awareness to grasp their predicament—except for Bingham “Bing” Madsen (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya, who American audiences might recognize from Kick Ass 2).

kickass black death daniel kaluuya

Daniel Kaluuya, kicking ass and drinking beer

Bing is disillusioned with this dystopia of rampant materialism and unfulfilling labor and refuses to buy into it, becoming the Winston Smith of his era. He begrudgingly starts the grind anew each day until he meets the beautiful Abi (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay). His crush develops into an impassioned affair when he stumbles upon Abi quietly and masterfully singing to herself in the bathroom.

black mirror fifteen million merits

“Nice jumpsuit. GAP?”

Bing encourages Abi to compete on the American Idol-style talent show “Hot Shots,” believing she possesses the talent to harness her singing and earn a one-way ticket out. The Hot Shots entry fee is a steep 15 million merits, and since Abi is new to the bikes, she has a minimal number saved. Bing, in a selfless act, volunteers his own merits to gift Abi an entry ticket, draining his entire account in the process.

jessica brown findlay sings in black mirror

Jessica Brown Findlay channels her Orwellian Kelly Clarkson

What ensues creates for easily one of the more tragic and unsettling editions of Black Mirror. Initially appearing to be a somewhat typical revenge story a la Mad Max, “Fifteen” transforms into a bold, hard-to-stomach statement on everyone having a price. The acting is particularly outstanding in this episode on the part of the two leads (Kaluuya and Findlay) who portray a seamlessly organic love story sans Nicholas Sparks sap. The emotional poignancy of the middle part of the episode proves that good writing isn’t just confined to lengthy Oscar-bait—although the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up should’ve put that notion to bed a long time ago.

up movie

UP: The happiest fucking movie ever referenced on this blog.

This episode is one of the least “dark” of Black Mirror’s library, but its message is certainly still consistent with the rest of its titles. Viewers expecting a shock-value follow up to the swine-sexing antics of “The National Anthem” will be a little disappointed, but the bulk of “Fifteen” is so goddamned interesting that it manages to provide one hell of a scintillating ride.

“Fifteen” is also the longest episode of the first season, clocking in at just over an hour and giving it the feel of an actual film with its deeper set-up and lengthier scenes. Black Mirror is also a decidedly British show, so while the American Idol-type format of “Fifteen” might feel like a dated reference to an American audience, X Factor is very much a thing overseas much like Idol was in its heyday. Everyone who watches should be able to agree, however, that the ramifications of elevating the modern game show can go far beyond just Richard Dawson slipping your girlfriend the tongue.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 8.1

The Slum Kids Aren’t Alright: Fish Tank and Gomorrah on Netflix Instant

Gomorrah
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On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.

Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.

Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.

Fish Tank
Fish Tank kids smoking
Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).

Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.

kip napoleon dynamite

This about sums up how seriously I can take white British gangstas

To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)

Fish Tank head butt

“Oi!”

Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”

fish tank

Mia: Drinkin’ beer and smokin’ dope and fightin’ round the world!

If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.

fish tank

Bad, bad mommy…

One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.

Fassbender Fish Tank

“Top ‘o the mornin’.”

Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.

But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank

sleazy fassbender fish tank

Does it get any sleazier?

As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.

When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:

Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.3

Gomorrah
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It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.

The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.

Gomorrah

“GTL, baby.”

Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.

gomorrah slum

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one.  Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.

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Tony Montana                                     Bony Montana 

As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.

gomorrah

Walter White would be proud.

Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.

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Don Ciro, the sketchy payoff guy

The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.

With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.

Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.

Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.

Black Mirror on Netflix Instant: The Twilight Zone for the Attention-Deficit Generation

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BY ADAM FOX

I clearly hadn’t done my due diligence on bleak boob tube when it was announced that British TV series Black Mirror would join the ranks of Netflix Instant. This, of course, happens on a weekly basis to many a television show of typically shoddy quality, but when I started to hear comparisons to The Twilight Zone and promises of pitch-black satire stuffed in each episode, I couldn’t help but give it a watch.

I can happily say with confidence that Black Mirror in its entirety is one of the best things on Netflix Instant, especially if the above-mentioned description appeals to you in the slightest. How could something so right up my alley from 2012 have Trojan Horsed me so? I don’t necessarily have my finger on the pulse of current British television, but after watching a handful of episodes of Black Mirror, I was surprised that something of such high-quality, pervasive creepiness evaded me for so long.

After the initial shock wore off, I was in for a real treat. Black Mirror is the brainchild of English satirist and broadcaster Charlie Brooker. It’s far from a traditional television series in that each of the two “seasons” contain a mere three episodes, clocking in at just under an hour each. Much like The Twilight Zone before it, each episode contains a completely unique premise with its own host of characters. It’s only in Brooker’s persistent thinly veiled social commentary that, as with Rod Serling’s legendary  narration in Twilight Zone, a thread of continuity exists. You don’t need to watch Black Mirror in any type of order, although it does help build anticipation for the gold nugget sandwiched in the middle of Season 2 (“White Bear,” which is probably the best of the bunch).

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The late, great Rod Serling

Every episode of Black Mirror is bleak as hell, has a lot to say, and is set in the not-so distant future. The most appealing part of Brooker’s science-fictioned setting is how engrossing and completely plausible it is. Brooker skips the hover-board and sports-gambling hypotheticals in exchange for something that hits a little closer to home.

Keep it. I've got a Pitbull now!

“Keep it. I’ve got a Pitbull now!”

Modern technology in its entirety is taken to the woodshed here, examining the roles of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Farmville as antagonists in the journey to be, and become, human.

The first episode of the series, “The National Anthem,” focuses on British Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) and the abduction of Princess Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont (Lydia Wilson). The Princess is a much-beloved public figure with the people’s interests at heart, much like a Princess Di or Kate Middleton before her (the comparisons being undoubtedly intentional). The kidnappers are wholly unknown, but whoever is behind the plot filmed a ransom note in the form of an eminently sharable YouTube video showing a bound Susannah directly addressing PM Callow. [MINOR SPOILERS] To ensure her safe release, he must fuck a pig on live television by 4 p.m. that afternoon.

david cameron pig sex

David Cameron says, “I’d fancy me a proper swine shaggin’.”

It’s certainly pitch-black comedy and it’s intended to be, but the tone of the episode flawlessly descends from lighthearted to soulcrushing as we’re put in the place of a man in a position of power faced with a very real decision. The attitude of the British public changes as well, with 87 percent of the population wholeheartedly supporting sex with swine so long as it leads to seeing their beloved Princess Susannah once again. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s hardly explicit while simultaneously being difficult to watch as we see Callow risk everything in the face of the seemingly omnipotent court of public opinion, exacerbated by the potency of social media.

the national anthem black mirror

“Things were so much simpler when all PMs had to do was terrorize Ireland and imperialize third-world nations…”

“The National Anthem” is an excellent, scathing initiation into the futuristic environs of Black Mirror. It’s not the strongest episode of the set, but like those that follow after it, it will disturb the shit out of you and keep you reflecting on it long after it’s finished. This characteristic, to me, is the linchpin of any work worth its weight. I was skeptical at first upon being lambasted with endless Twilight Zone comparisons that heightened my expectations, but Black Mirror has soundly exceeded every one of them. “The National Anthem” offers plenty of satire that might only truly stick with native Brits conscious of their own political state, but it’s also a strong word of caution that echoes universally.

Grade: A-
IMDb : 8.1

Stake Land on Netflix Instant: Vampocalypse, Now!

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An original narrative is roughly as valueless to a post-apocalyptic film as a stack of Benjamins is to its characters. Need proof? Indulge me for a moment:

  • In Zombieland, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man after being trained by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead.
  • In Season 4 of The Walking Dead, the gang (including a boy who’s become a man through zombie-killing) goes in search of a reputed safe haven where a thriving society is promised.

Zombieland is, of course, a parodied recapitulation of every zombie movie ever (wherein boozing pretty much goes hand-in-hand with walker-slaying). And that Walking Dead premise of searching for the sanctum away from the undead hordes has been done ad nauseam (28 Days Later, I Am Legend, etc.).

harrelson zombieland

“Just ask my guy Rust Cohle—it takes whiskey to fight monsters.”

In 2010’s Stake Land, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead, with whom he takes off for a reputed safe haven. Yes, the concept is about as fresh as a decomposing corpse in a farm house off a shady dirt road. But, as in all matters of postapocalyptic survival and success, its the execution that counts. And for a low-budget, devilish little vampire road-movie, Stake Land hits the wooden pike on the head.

stake land drinking

“Didn’t you see Zombieland, kid? We ain’t gettin’ nowhere without some car drinkin’.”

The acting is formidable enough, and the vamps—while nothing special—are far superior to the CGI bastardization that occurred in the aforementioned “meh”-inducing adaption of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel I Am Legend.

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I Am Legend: CGI that made South Park look like photorealism.

So if I’m pointing to one reason why Stake Land is among the best postapocalyptic films of the past decade, it comes down to one man: Jim Mickle.

Mickle is one of two up-and-coming, grim-bent directors whose every project I eagerly await (the same way I did for Neil Marshall after Dog Soliders and The Descent… Let’s just pretend Centurion and Doomsday never happened). The other would be Jeff Nichols, who’s basically the Daniel Woodrell of cinema. Nichols’ Take Shelter and Mud (on Netflix Instant) are both of the must-watch caliber. And his 2007 project, Shotgun Stories (also on Instant), is a great companion piece for anyone who liked Blue Ruin. I also love that Nichols has chosen to make the great Michael Shannon the Dicaprio to his Scorsese.

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Michael Shannon delivering one of Take Shelter‘s more memorable lines.

But back to Mickle. He’s got a deft hand for filming the bleakest and moodiest of landscapes and imbuing his pared-down tales with an unrelenting current of suspense. After knocking it out the park with Stake Land, he did We Are What We Are (also on Netflix Instant—wouldn’t highly recommend it, but again, great cinematography and totally worth your while). His most recent project was Cold In July, which just so happens to be my favorite movie released this year (rent it if ye can).

OK, let’s get into the meat and bones of Stake Land—the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In. Our aforementioned boy-and-man duo are Martin (Connor Paolo) and  his mentor, known simply as “Mister.” After a crash-course in vamp killing played over title credits, Martin becomes the Karate Kid to Mister’s Mr. Miyagi (you obviously can’t go wrong with a good Mister.)

What also makes Mister cool is that he’s a dead-ringer for Jimmy Smits’ Nero character on Sons of Anarchy.

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“Let’s kill some vamps, mano!”

An opening montage of stark countryscapes is narrated by Martin, who lets us know that D.C. has fallen and with it, the nation as we know it. Major cities are to be avoided, and religious zealots run the show, capturing and unleashing vamps upon their enemies in the form of bipedal biological weapons. To avoid this shitstorm, Martin and Mister decide they better make their way to a purported sanctuary known as “New Eden.”

On the way, we’re introduced to several interesting vamp mutations. There are “beserkers” (the oldest of the vamps, and hard to kill), “scamps” (kiddie vampires who are still in the teething stages), and a more evolved brand of vamp that harkens the character of Robert Neville from I Am Legend. There’s also some great George Romero camp thrown in by the way of an undead Santa.

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All I want for Christmas is my two front fangs...

Stake Land borrows across genres, tropes and oft-explored notions (Does garlic work? Maybe, maybe not, but it can’t hurt.) In no way is this film reinventing the wheel, but for a beautifully shot, low-budget vampire thriller, it really couldn’t get much better. Fans of The Walking Dead, particularly, should watch this without hesitation. After all, it does in 98 minutes what that show’s been grinding at for five years.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.6*

*Remember: IMDb grades for horror movies run much lower than for dramatic fare of equal caliber.