A site dedicated to cinema—in its bleakest, most gruesome and viscerally glorious forms. put bluntly, we just want to recommend and discuss some (mostly) lesser-known titles to lovers of thrillers, crime and horror.
There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.
Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)
It’s a gas…
Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.
The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)
Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…
I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.
Didn’t Mean Streets already warn us not to play with fire?
The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanic—another man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.
I never said Elvis was on the level.
The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.
Writer and lead actor Nickola Shreli (LR) channels an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen in Cash Only.
I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territory—and with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.
Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.
While this blog is a recommendation site and I do believe I’ve done my due diligence in that regard over the past few years, my last three picks in this series were, admittedly, an attempt to come up with worthwhile suggestions that I knew the vast majority of you readers wouldn’t have seen. As such, they weren’t all necessarily as savagely palatable as the typical fodder promoted herein.
They Look Like People, Bob and the Trees and We Are Still Here are all indie movies made on a shoestring budget. I think the most famous actor among all three was Barbara Crampton—a name only dedicated horror fans would recognize. That’s not to say I think I fucked up—I actually really liked all three—but this weekly pick series is an experiment, and your feedback has been hit or miss on said titles. Which means it’s time to recalibrate the meat grinder.
Back to the ol’ drawing board…
Moving forward, I’m still going to err on the side of lesser-known titles, but I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m one of the few fuckers who’s exhausted the near entirety of everything bleak and horrific worth watching on Netflix. Point being that a hidden gem to me might justifiably be viewed as nothing more than a shiny pebble to you folks out there who have, ya know, lives.
That is why this week I’m going to offer up a really fucking awesome flick that any suspense-horror fan should be able to get behind. So without further adieu…
The Invitation Yep, that’s Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones (played in real life by Michael Huisman). See? This movie is already more relatable and less obscure!
The Invitation starts with a grieving father and his new lady going to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife and her new feller (Daario Naharas, played by Daario Naharas). Actually you might also recognize the lead dude. It took me awhile to place him. At first I thought it was Tom Hardy from The Revenant reincarnated, but then I realized I knew him from … The O.C.
Apparently I’m not the first to notice that Bane has a doppelgänger…
That was another life. Moving on.
Anyway, a big group of folks who were tight two years ago get together. It’s an awkward reunion of sorts as no one’s really seen anyone else since the son of O.C. guy and Liv Tyler-lookalike ex-wifey tragically died in a freak pinata accident. (If there are truly 6 million ways to die, that sure is a motherfucker…)
It’s important to note that this is all taking place at a swank and secluded pad in L.A., which becomes a recurring excuse as to why everyone keeps acting so fucking weird. At one point a character even says of the freaky, culty, hippie-dippy hosts, “Yeah, they’re a little weird. But this is L.A. They’re harmless.” Famous last words, punto. Go ask Sharon Tate.
“No More Parties in L.A.” The one time Kanye gave good life advice…
One thing I love about The Invitation is how its first half is such a meticulous play between ebbing macabre suspense and one man’s struggles with grief, paranoia and anger. It’s like a delicately wired stage play that could easily go the route of heady psychological flick. Actually, unless you’d seen the previews (I hadn’t), this thing could have unfolded down several genre pathways at that midway mark—all with complete plausability. I even found myself thinking, Shit, I might be in for one of those moody indie dramas about coming to terms with loss and emotions and stuff.
Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body: Never was self-immolation so hot.
With that in mind, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body—starring Megan Fox and little else) deserves major credit for wielding such multi-layered sleight of hand in such deft fashion. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out exactly what type of film it is, but apropos of my earlier comments, let’s just say that there is nothing unresolved or left to the imagination here.
For comparison’s sake, think of something in the vein of Would Your Rather, Knock Knock and Kidnapped (Secuestrados). Then imagine the grown-folks’ version of Would You Rather, what some elements of Knock Knock would have been like if that movie had a pulse, and what Kidnapped would have been with better direction, a more fully evolved narrative and less torture porn.
All in all, The Invitation serves up the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” subgenre in delectable, ornate and satiating fashion. Look also for a brutally chilling monologue from the great character-actor John Carroll Lynch (who you may remember as Eastman from one of the greatest music videosWalking Dead episodes of all time!).
Four film movements over the past several years have kept me optimistic about the direction of bleak cinema. In no particular order, there’s the new-wave of oft-’80s-inspired horror pioneered by Ti West and the like (see: You’re Next, V/H/S/2, House of the Devil, It Follows). Then there’s the existentially bleak bloodbaths on the Outback frontier of Neo-Ozploitation (see: The Rover, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, Son of a Gun). I’ve also waxed gushy about my fondness for the “country noir” subgenre, highlighted by films like Winter’s Bone, Joe, Mud and Cold in July.
Last but not least, of course, is the most profilic of these movements, and coincidentally the one that Netflix sources most constantly for its streaming catalogue. I’m talking about South Korean revenge-murder thrillers, all recognizable through their dependence on the cultural notion of “han”—perhaps one of the most brutal concepts to ever spawn a cinematic revolution.
American Han Korean Han
Eventually I’ll need to make a comprehensive list of the top films in this subgenre, but for now, suffice it to say that all the following should be watched:I Saw the Devil, The Man from Nowhere, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, The Chaser, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host, Bedeviled.
If you’re a budding South Korean cinephile like myself, chances are you’ve seen most of the aforementioned titles. Or you’ve read about them on previous posts here. So let me offer forth three lesser-known South Korean flicks I just watched and thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not going to say they’re on the level of I Saw the Devil or Oldboy. They’re also all more fast-paced action-thrillers than what you might expect out of a Park Chan-wook film (i.e., they might be more accessible to those with weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans). Either way, if you have any interest in this movement, here’s a trifecta of very good titles that Netflix streaming currently offers:
A Hard Day Falling thematically somewhere between Infernal Affairs and Headhunters is director Seong-hoon Kim’s A Hard Day. The Infernal Affairs comparison comes from Hard Day being about a deadly game of cat-and-mouse involving crooked cops. The Headhunters one is mainly because Hard Day is the most nerve-wracking, tension-riddled thriller I’ve seen since that incredible piece of Norwegian cinema.
On the way to his mother’s funeral, homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Sun-kyun Lee) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run. He goes to excruciating levels to cover his tracks, with each of his deceitful moves testing the clock in James Bondian fashion.
“I’m sorry mama!”
As his nightmarish evening continues, internal affairs exposes him and some colleagues for taking bribe money. And so it is that we begin our journey in rooting for a crooked, murderous cop, who somehow ends up being one of the film’s more endearing characters (that’s South Korean cinema for you).
As a multilayered web of duplicitous corruption unravels, our hero finds himself in an all-stakes deathmatch with a cunning psychopath who is essentially the South Korean Michael Myers (I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers).
Taking a page from common horror tropes, fast-action thrillers, and even Breaking Bad, A Hard Day is not a film for those suffering from heart problems, onychophagy or trichotillomania (although it may give your cinematic brain an erection lasting longer than four hours).Does it go beyond suspension of disbelief at times? Perhaps. But it’s also one of the most action-packed and entertaining South Korean thrillers I’ve ever seen.
GRADE: B+ / A- IMDb: 6.7
No Tears for the Dead So about the title of this post: A main commonality between No Tears for the Dead and A Company Man is that they both follow world-weary assassins who are beginning to give in to a softer side when they’re roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. (It should be noted that this is a very common theme in “han” films.)
No Tears for the Dead is, after all, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowhere—a slightly superior film about… a world-weary assassin who is beginning to give in to his softer side when he’s roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. Often these offenses take place in the form of wives or young girls being kidnapped or murdered (happy holidays, by the way!).
Our lead here is Gon, a hitman who has a change of heart after an assignment goes south. As his comically evil bosses press him to take care of a woman he’s beginning to fall for, he decides to go rogue and flip the script on them. What ensues is one of the most action-packed, high-budget thrillers this genre has spawned. Die Hard is channeled in bloody, explosive tower scenes. Flashy, well-choreographed action comes straight from the Jason Bourne playbook. Taken is also an obvious thematic influence.
No Tears also has some nice side roles from recognizable han-thriller regulars, including the creepy fucker who likes to bowl with human eyes from Man from Nowhere (Hee-won Kim), and the ever-sinister Dana Lee (OK, you might know him more as Mr. Takahashi from Curb Your Enthusiasm)…
As for drawbacks, Jeong-beom Lee lays the melodrama on a little heavy here just as he did in The Man from Nowhere, but I guess that goes with the geo-cinematic territory. Also, as the film attempts to emulate some of the aforementioned American action-thriller classics, there are some hammy performances that unnecessarily rely on actors attempting to say hard-ass things in English when they clearly have no grasp of the language. (As opposed to, say, my immaculate mastery of the Korean tongue.)
Still, production and action-wise, this film accomplishes as much as any American action-thriller blockbuster in recent memory. It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.
GRADE: B+ IMDb: 6.7
A Company Man
While A Company Man is predicated on the not-so-subtle parallel between the dehumanizing realities of Asian corporate servitude and the commitments of a hitman, I’m more interested in recommending it based on it being one helluva bitchin’, kickass action-thriller.
In this installment of world-weary South Korean assassins and their moral awakenings, our man Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) works for a company that does ruthless contract killings. Of course, he meets a beautiful lady with a kid and he decides it’s time to hang up his cleats. Of course, this doesn’t work. I honestly have no reason to give you more of a premise, because it’s the exact same thing that was done in No Tears, Man from Nowhere, etc. The thing is, it’s a formula that works, and Hyeong-Do is just as brooding, handsome and homicidally superhuman as any of his cinematic forebears.
The action is especially strong here, including a wall-scaling, bullet-eluding opening sequence that would make both Jackie Chan and Neo from The Matrix proud. And then there’s that Office Space on PCP moment where our man goes to town on a knife-wielding foe with a rolled up office calendar.
“If you could get me those TPS reports, that’d be greeeat…”
The production value and cinematography here are certainly not on par with No Tears or Hard Day, which is why I’d say try one of those first (Hard Day is the best of these three, in my opinion). That said, the action is first-rate, the thrills and kills come a mile a minute, and there’s at least a semblance of something to chew on intellectually here—as opposed to No Tears. If, per chance, you viewed Assault on Wall Street (it was bannered on Netflix for awhile) and deemed it at least somewhat worthwhile, Company Man is basically the same movie. But with much better figurative and literal execution.
If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.
While this film is not for the faint of heart, it’s also a bit of a departure from the material I typically recommend on this blog. It’s slow-burn suspense at its best—chiller, not thriller; horrific, not horror. It’s also a reminder of how many fantastic, bleak movies are coming out of South America (and often landing on Netflix) without ever getting much of any widespread appreciation (see: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Pescador, Carlos).
Essentially, where slum tales like Amores Perros and City of God left off, a new generation of excellently devastating filmmaking is taking place south of the border. So without further ado, here’s the rundown on another black diamond in the rough I stumbled upon deep in the ether of Netflix’s foreign catalogue:
Wolf at the Door The film begins with a panning shot set to creepy synth music that leads us to the door of a preschool. It’s here that a mother learns her daughter was taken by an unknown woman posing as a family friend. The investigation for the girl is Wolf at the Door‘s narrative premise, but the story unwinds in a much more elegant and mysterious structural fashion than your typical whodunit thriller.
As police investigate, we meet our key players: Sylvia, the slightly clueless neglected wife; Bernardo, the creepy father who’s a slimy John Turturro lookalike; and Rosa, the psychopathic, attractive young mistress who for some unexplained reason is stalkerishly drawn to a slimy John Turturro lookalike.
“Ladies love the creepy teeth, bro.”
What unfolds is a series of Rashomon-style flashback scenarios leading us to the kidnapping and its underlying motivations. The cards are laid out slowly, but the chaos and unsettling psyches of two of the main characters only plummet to grotesquely deeper realms as we get to know them.
Wolf at The Door accomplishes the task of seamlessly humanizing and then dehumanizing what on the surface would seem to be very ordinary people. It also excels as a captivating movie that runs for 101 minutes without really introducing a single likable protagonist.
Hell hath no fury like a psychopathic mistress scorned…
Every detail here counts, so I won’t go much further. But if you liked Prisoners (one of my favorite dark thrillers of the past few years) and don’t mind a slower-paced, less Hollywood-friendly suspense flick, Wolf at the Door is up there with other grim, foreign-language abduction tales like Big Bad Wolves and The Silence (both on Netflix, by the way). The performances by Milhelm Cortaz (Bernardo) and Leandra Leal (Rosa) are also insanely good, with both actors exhibiting a diabolical range that catapults an otherwise-solid suspense tale into an unforgettable prism of human savagery.
Every couple of years, there’s that indie-horror darling that gets critics horny to affix their names to movie posters via hyperbolic soundbites. Thus was the case with The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut about a mom and son who are haunted by a scissor-handed, pop-up book character come to life.
OK, to be fair, the most hyperbolic of these critics wasn’t actually a critic. It was William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who tweeted, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” That’s rather lofty praise from the guy who made what everyone and their mother seem to agree is the greatest horror flick of all time. (NOTE: I disagree with you and your mothers.)
Still, this seemed to unleash an avalanche of critical praise that built the flick up to near-Blair Witch levels of hype. So when I went to go see it in theaters last year, I knew a letdown was inevitable.
The Babadook is actually a damn good horror movie. Let me illustrate this to you with my own superlatives. … It’s the best horror movie of 2014 (not a great year for the genre, but still); it’s one of the most emotionally compelling horror films of the past decade; and it features one of the best female lead roles in the history of the genre.
Enough quotables for you? Let’s talk about the movie…
The Babadook Amelia (Essie Davis) lives with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a creaky, barren two-flat in Nowhere, Australia. She’s a lonesome, sex-deprived widow whose husband died six years ago when he was transporting her to the delivery room.
Samuel—the reward of that tragic night—is an amateur magician who shoots other kids with darts, is prone to fits of rage, believes in the bogeyman and regularly screams like a dying hyena. In short, he’s the type of problem child that makes one feel sympathetic toward the Chinese government’s stance on population control.
Note to self: forget about fathering children…
Samuel is also the first of several shopworn genre motifs that Babadook introduces. He’s the prescient, mommy-coddled oddball plagued by demons (see: The Sixth Sense, Insidious,The Ring, etc.). I truly look forward to the day when the creepy-kid formula is thrown out the window of horror filmmaking. In the meantime—and to Wiseman’s credit—Samuel is more of a believably tortured soul than he is Child of the Corn. (It’s actually a very strong child-acting performance; I personally have just had enough children in my goddam horror movies.)
Anyway, one day Samuel stumbles on an ominous red book called “Mr. Babadook.” Amelia hesitantly reads it to him—until she realizes it’s basically an Edward Gorey bedtime story from the depths of hell. And thus an unspeakable evil is released.
While all this may sound incredibly sinister, it should be noted that The Babadook is not the standard jump-out-your-seat horror thriller. It’s more slow-building, high-tension psychological horror with strong emotional overtones tied to the concept of grief. What makes this formula work so incredibly is, first and foremost, the transformative work of Essie Davis.
Her beautiful-but-disheveled Amelia wears an exhaustive home life on her face, and the weight of her hellish, grief-stricken burden is beyond just palpable. Davis’ acting is the kind of stuff Oscars are made for. Unfortunately, The Babadook is an indie horror movie, and therefore unpalatable to the mild-mannered octogenarian elite who bestow such honors. (I’d venture that the late Johnny Cochrane would find it humanly fucking impossible to make a compelling argument that Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is on par with what Davis did here.)
It should also be mentioned that this flick is the best tale of grief in horror since The Descent (a personal horror top-five). I can’t really go into the uncanny similarities between the two films without giving much away, but I think you’ll get the gist.
Another strong point of Babadook is that despite its tendency to rely on horror tropes, the narrative and emotional undercurrent of the film are anything but formulaic or stilted. The film is about the roots of a troubled child’s dark imagination as much as it is about a mother coming to terms with hell on Earth. Narrative analogies in the form of old cartoon and movie clips played in Amelia’s home bring both wit and ominous artistic flair to the mother and son’s predicament. (In particular, digging into the annals of Georges Jean Méliès’ work to provide imagery for the titular character is a stroke of cinematic brilliance.)
You might recognize Georges Jean Méliès’ work from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.
All said, while The Babadook is by no means one of “the most terrifying films of all time,” it is a beautifully imaginative horror flick, and one that relies more heavily on acting and psychological drama than the CGI, torture porn and “jump” factors that seem to dominate much of the genre’s modern-day output.
Sure, it’s slow and has its fair share of contrivances. But while you might want more monster out of something that masquerades as a monster movie, you couldn’t ask for more out of Essie Davis, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better allegory for the pitfalls of grief in any genre.
If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.
In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.
And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.
What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?
But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.
On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.
But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.
“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”
Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.
One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.
In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.
In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…
“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013
You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.
“You don’t know nothin’.”
And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.
Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:
(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…
I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.
After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, ConAir is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.
Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.
At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.
Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.
So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:
Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.
Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.
Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.
EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection). For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&Dmade a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.
Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.
Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)
But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.
GRADE: A- IMDb: 6.9
NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.
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!
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:
Blue Ruin Bittersweet 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 A 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 Idiocracy 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 Fucking 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 God. B+
Headhunters This 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 Like 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 The 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 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 This 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 At what whatpoint 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 Aside 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 Michael 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 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 An 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-
Black Mirror Did 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 If 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 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 “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-
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!
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.).
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
For the meager contingent of American viewers not averse to subtitles, Netflix Instant has a king’s ransom of great suspense flicks (and horror, for that matter). I’ll cover some disturbingly sinister Korean flicks in an upcoming post, but for now let’s focus on Northern and Western Europe, the birthplaces of two of the best modern thrillers you’re likely to see. From a Norwegian art thief battling a Game of Thrones villain to France’s answer to The Fugitive, these picks just might change your attitude on how badass things can be in the lands of reindeer and berets.
Headhunters Norway has become a relatively quiet and peaceful place ever since the vikings battled and killed off the last of the trolls in the 1400s. Known chiefly for lutefisk, good healthcare and really nice people, it’s not exactly the most thrilling spot on the globe. However, Norway did produce the great author Knut Hamsun (literary father of John Fante and Charles Bukowski), and has more recently been churning out some eerily good cinema (Trollhunter, Dead Snow).
Lutefisk makes malort taste like Hawaiian Punch.
Headhunters (2011) is a brilliant thriller that significantly bolsters Norway’s list of hallmark achievements. It tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a corporate job recruiter (“headhunter” is a fitting entendre here) who moonlights as an art thief. Aksel is a deceptive, philandering little man who’s main concern in life is making enough money to keep up the lavish lifestyle that he believes will keep his Norse goddess of a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund)from leaving him. His concern is palpable. After all, wifey could be a doppelgänger for a younger Heidi Klum, whereas Roger looks more like the middle-aged brother of Christopher Walken and Ron Weasley. (#nodisrespecttochristopherwalken)
Photo courtesy of norwegianancestry.com
Headhunters—or as I’ve retitled it, The Roger Brown Affair—spirals into a thrilling manhunt after Roger decides to steal an original Rubens painting from a mysterious, dashing man he’s introduced to at wifey’s art show. The “victim” in question is Clas Greve (Kingslayer from Game of Thrones, who plays Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in real life). Clas is an ex-special ops assassin who specializes in military tracking methods. From here, things literally go to shit for Roger (see: the best use of an outhouse since Slumdog Millionaire).
Slay on, Slayah!
The game of cunning deceit that unravels is filled with striking imagery, non-stop suspenseful action and some great tongue-in-cheek Norwegian humor (you might notice a Lillyhammer cameo, if you bothered to watch that halfway-decent show). All said, Headhunters is a bloody thrill ride that’s some of the most damn elegant popcorn entertainment on Netflix Instant. Plus, it’s got the fucking Kingslayer going balls out as a special ops manhunter, for Chrissakes! Almost makes me want to down some lutefisk and hop a jet to Norway.
IMDb: 7.6 Grade: A-
Tell No One
If I had to make a list of the top ten thrillers of the last decade, it would include the 2006 French film Tell No One. That may sound bold, so if you can’t take my word for it, take the word of Sir Michael Caine. Actually, Master Wayne’s Cockney butler listed director Guillame Canet’s film among his all-time top ten—regardless of genre. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that Tell No One is easily one of the best modern movies on Netflix Instant.
…says, “Watch this bloody film already!”
Thematically, it falls somewhere between The Fugitive and, I don’t know, The Bridges of Madison County ? I write that hesitantly because romantic movies ain’t really my area of expertise. My idea of a great love story story would be something along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas or Blue Valentine, movies that most normal folk would call more depressing than being locked in a closet with a mime.
“You have to understand, honey. This is my way of making it up to all the guys who sat through The Notebook.”
Don’t get me wrong—this movie is definitely bleak and morbid enough to fit within the not-so friendly confines of this blog series. But part of what makes it so great is that not only is ita masterful thriller, but it’s a masterful thriller that somehow pulls off a love story with enough soul to live up to Otis Redding’s version of “Your Precious Love” (as played during an opening scene).
This rarely occurs in a genre wherein love is almost always used as an ancillary tool, carelessly crapped in to appease the Hollywood formula (did you really give two shits about what happened to Jason Bourne’s girlfriend?). Here, love manifests itself in a way that only makes the quest of our protagonist more thrilling, more suspenseful. The stakes are that much higher simply because of the vicariously personal, life-altering possibilities tied to our man’s mission.
Said man is Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet, aka the French Dustin Hoffman). Beck is a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years ago as they went night-swimming in a lake they used to frequent as children, when their romance began. He’s a good man, but he’s gloomily pensive and hasn’t really moved on from his wife’s death (he visits her parents every year on the anniversary of the occasion). Out of the blue, he gets an email from a woman claiming to be his dead wife. And that’s where an exceedingly complex plot begins to take root.
Hoffman (L) in Rain Main, a movie about a guy who counts toothpicks and suffers from autism. Cluzet (R) in the lesser-known Le Raine Man, a movie about a guy who counts cigarettes and suffers from B.O.
There’s not much more that can be said without divulging details of a narrative in which every intricate detail counts. What can be said is that Cluzet’s performance is remarkable, that this film has one of the best chase sequences I can think of, and that I haven’t been so smitten with anything French since I was a 12-year-old schoolboy in love with a Provençal exchange student.
Maybe that’s a good way to end, because Tell No One is about young love, everlasting love and what happens when the two are shattered. (And also what revelations can be found when you start picking up the jagged little pieces.) If you’re sick of me waxing mushy, remember that this is one of the best (and most suspenseful) thrillers you’ll ever see. And even if you don’t trust me, it’s not like you’ll turn down a sniff from My Cocaine.