30. The Sixth Sense (1999) directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Before he spiraled into a critical nose-dive from which he’s yet to recover, M. Night Shyamalan was heralded as the next great American filmmaker. (No, seriously.) Before his gimmickry become obvious–all the twist endings, the important details withheld, trickery in lieu of genuine cleverness–Shyamalan crafted a genuine masterpiece that remains as potent as ever, regardless of the spoiling of its sneaky surprises. Bruce Willis has never approached the grace and subtlety of his performance here; his empathetic, sorrowful turn as a child psychologist searching for redemption deserved an Oscar nod. Maybe he woulda gotten one had this movie not come out in the insanely good movie year of our lord 1999. Willis is matched every step of the way by Haley Joel Osment, giving one of the great childhood performances, and lending credence to lines that could have been pure ham in lesser hands. Does Shyamalan have to manipulate us in order to get the big surprise to pay off? Of course, but so did Hitchcock in Psycho. Compared to the colder, less humanistic The Usual Suspects, a ploy of a movie that exists solely to trick its viewers, The Sixth Sense is a genuinely warm film that cares about its characters. Shyamalan may be the Weezer of filmmakers, never able to make anything remotely good after creating a masterpiece (Pinkerton is Weezer’s, btw), but isn’t one masterpiece enough?
29. Freaks (1932) directed by Tod Browning
Even as American Horror Story: Freakshow accrues a bunch of viewers, Browning’s career-killing film is still the most upsetting, most earnest portrayal of carnie folk (well, Katherine Dunn’s brilliant Geek Love gives it a run for its money, but comparing books to movies is silly). Hewn and bastardized by producers, who responded poorly to the film’s highly distressing premiere, Freaks survives in an hour-long sliver of its original incarnation. David J. Skal’s The Monster Show, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of horror (I hope that’s you), debunks a lot of Browning myths and casts the film as the baseline for all modern horror (Browning’s Dracula, which most horror films will admit isn’t actually very good, gets a back-handed smack from Skal, who depicts Browning as a studio lackey dependent on others to help him clean-up his films). Freaks is now best-remembered for its “One of us, gooble gobble” scene and that nightmarish end, with the freaks chasing after the woman who betrayed them (the vermilion, limbless man slithering through the mud will stay with you until the moment you die), but there’s so much warmth and compassion here. And that’s what makes the tar-and-feather climax so upsetting: freaks are people, too, and they’re capable of beinfg hurt, and capable of hurting you.
28. Don’t Look Now (1973) directed by Nicolas Roeg
The most astonishing thing about Nicolas Roeg’s ethereal, psychological film is how nothing really happens in the synapse between the opening and the climax. It’s almost an entire film worth of fore play (and one hugely influential sex scene) for the now famous ending, that rare movie twist steeped in genuine irony; you know Roeg wore a wicked grin when he put this thing together. The film opens with a tragedy: we’re given little plot, little characterization, just glimpses of everyday life for Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s family. A pretty young girl in a red jacket runs along the gleaming bank of water like a fleeting memory; her brother rides his bike through autumn leaves. Sutherland peruses slides of a church he’s restoring, and he sees a character that resembles his little girl in the picture. But that can’t be… Roeg has a truly different kind of aesthetic, from the wavering camera and copious zooms, and his elliptical editing style is even more impressive when you think about how difficult it is to hew and splice celluloid (today a few clicks would achieve a similar but lesser effect). He turns Venice in a fairy tale nightmare realm full of temporal images: the dissolves of glazed eyes fading into sinuous bodies of water; the dilapidated churches; all those boats cruising the canals like the guides of so many lost souls; the young girl in the red jacket running through the labyrinthine city like the figment of a dream pulled into reality. If you get the chance to catch this in 35mm (the current print touring the US is beautifully faded and decrepit, and only adds to the film’s unique depiction of death and degradation), make it a priority to see it.
27. Berberian Sound Studio (2013) directed by Peter Strickland
A seriously weird psychological thriller in faux-technicolor, Strickland’s sophomore effort sears and seethes with passive-aggressive vibrancy. It takes its time going nowhere in style; as a professor once told me w/r/t a different film, it’s not what that matters here, but how. It’s best to go in completely unawares–not there’s any trace of plot to ruin. It’s like The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, but actually good; reds burn in the dark, electronic fuzz cackles in the distance, characters seem to exist solely on a dream-logic plane, and images are manipulated beyond celluloid capabilities (an advantage of digital). One of the most stirring moments shows a woman in a sound booth abruptly being pulled away from us, and she keeps receding further, and further, and further into the distance, impossibly far, like a telescopic lens from a different realm. Aesthetically stunning and cerebrally engaging, this criminally under-appreciated gem amalgamates Lynchian weirdness, giallo eccentricity, and arthouse ambition into some kind of monster. Watch this late at night, in the dark, with the sound turned up LOUD.
26. The Wicker Man (1973) directed by Robin Hardy
(From my Slant review of last year’s restoration, which I caught at the IFC Center after watching Q: The Winged Serpent at Videology–a Helluva night.)
The dichotomy of modernity and tradition transects the film; restored to the original look of glorious 35mm, it feels perversely modern and timeless. Like a passage from the Bible, or a 14th-century oil painting, The Wicker Man is at once epochal, rooted in a specific time (the wake of the summer of love) and place (a Scottish island village), and somehow transcendent of reality. You slowly sink into its bizarre charm, and by the time its sinister epiphanies begin to proliferate, you’re too deep to get out. Edward Woodward is Sergeant Neil Howie, an uptight Christian who’s intolerant and ignorant while preaching morals–“a privileged fool,” you could say. After receiving a letter that claims a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has disappeared on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle, he takes off in a sea plane, by himself, set on finding her. Every composition has the quirky precision of a postcard, the compositions are refined and deliberate, and Hardy layers his shots with Kubrikian dexterity; flamboyant characters are captured by fleeting, flamboyant camerawork. The contrast of Woodward’s veracious insults and the locals’ genial tolerance is roll-on-the-sticky-theater-floor funny the first time you see it, but once the denouement arrives, and the day’s dying breath gives way to a bleeding sky, and the camera is sucked up into the fervor of the setting sun, accompanied by howls and singing, all of the joy, the fun, the humor of the proceeding 80 minutes become retrospectively horrifying. Like the locals warning Howie that he doesn’t belong there, that he won’t enjoy participating in their rituals and that he should leave, Hardy plays fair. He doesn’t cheat us, doesn’t manipulate us or throw in improbably twists to guise lazy writing. The Wicker Man demands an assiduous eye, a sense of humor, and trust–and, of course, in the end you get burned, but you can’t say you weren’t warned.
25. Carrie (1976) directed by Brian De Palma
When Quentin Tarantino put Carrie on his Sight & Sound poll, they all laughed at him. They said, “Tarantino has such bad taste!” They said, “Creepy Quentin, creepy Quentin!” And then they started to think, and the inclusion of De Palma’s film, the first great fetid depiction of high school as Hell, seemed less conspicuous. While watching Carrie, a good friend of mine once told me that being a girl in high school is the scariest thing ever. I missed out on that life experience, but after seeing De Palma’s film many, many times, I believe her. De Palma knows how to craft great movie moments, even in his lesser efforts (Mission: Impossible, no one’s idea of a good movie, has the iconic Tom-Cruise-Hanging-From-The-Ceiling scene, and The Untouchables has that slow-mo staircase shootout, which makes Kevin Costner tolerable, amazingly); in Carrie, De Palma strings together a series of great moments, laced with caustic humor, captured in that gorgeous omnipotent floating style. Even if the narrative of a sheltered, tormented, telekinetic young girl (Sissy Spacek, as sympathetic and tragic a female character as American horror has ever given us) and her God-crazed would-be missionary mother (Piper Laurie, showing us how to do histrionic right) is shot-through with inconsistencies and the occasional plot hole, De Palma wrings so much fear, trepidation, and laughs from Stephen King’s trashy novel that it doesn’t matter. De Palma’s always been the funniest Hitchcock descendent, and his tar-black sense of humor is what makes his best films work so well; the remake is awful because it eschews humor in favor of heavy-handed horror hijinks. Plus, Julianne Moore is no Piper Laurie, and never will be. Laurie’s stygian characterization of a dogmatic religious fanatic scares the shit out of me, but also makes me smirk in perverse glee. That a white cisgender Baby Boomer man with a Hitchcock obsession made one of the great feminist films of the second half of the century is amusing and strange, though not nearly as amusing and strange as the film itself.
24. Dead Ringers (1988) directed by David Cronenberg
I occasionally meet people who are turned off by the grotesque and disgusting, which pretty severely limits which Cronenberg films I can show them. I won’t show them his post-Spider stuff because its not really the same Cronenberg, but I can’t imagine being friends with someone who can’t handle a true Cronenberg, let alone dating them. The Fly ends in an orgy of bodily fluids and secretions; The Brood features the violent bastard offspring of a demented woman beating an elementary school teacher to death in front of a classroom of children; Crash has car sex; Scanners has exploding heads full of Campbell’s soup. So it all falls squarely on the shoulders of Dead Ringers: it’s not overtly violent, at least not initially, but it’s deeply disturbed, immaculately composed and simultaneously astringent and tenderized, like a body prepped for surgery. One of the Canadian master’s tightest narratives, it cleverly features Jeremy Irons in the dual role of twin gynecologists, one of whom develops a bad drug habit, slowly loses his mind, and develops an obsession with mutant genitalia. Irons had the difficult task of playing two different characters who often share the screen years before CGI and computer-assisted cameras could facilitate such tricks, and it’s maybe his most astute performance(s). If the Academy made good decisions, they’d have given him two statues. Though devoid of the graphic body mutilation so prominent in Cronenberg’s earlier films, Dead Ringers is profoundly upsetting, strung-out and strung-through with haunting images that have since been incorporated into cult pop-culture (NBC’s Hannibal, the best drama currently on TV [yes it fucking is], channels the blood-red surgical scrubs of Dead Ringers in season 2). Slower and more subtle than Cronenberg’s body horror stuff, this marks a change in the director’s oeuvre, a bid for “legitimacy.” Gender has always been a fascination of his, and few penis-having directors have been so unflinching in their portrayals of masculine masochism, and Cronenberg never delved deeper, or with more incisiveness, than he did in Dead Ringers. Actually, I can kind of see why no one’s ever been able to finish the movie with me.
23. Les Diaboliques (1955) directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Though Clouzot’s narrative and aesthetic are intimate, almost quaint, an air of dread hangs over virtually every scene of Les Diaboliques. A masterclass in sustaining atmosphere with minimal resources, the film depicts an emotionally abused school teacher (Vera Clouzot), her treacherous husband (Paul Meurisse) who gets what’s coming to him, and his mistress (Simone Signoret). The two women conspire to kill the horrible man, but things, of course, go awry. Clouzot (the director) creates a claustrophobic, ouroboros world of windows and long dark hallways, where everyone seems to vaguely know everyone and rumors make the rounds like a night patrolman checking on the sleeping children. The writer-director allegedly snatched the rights to the book right out of the encroaching hands of Hitchcock (there are doubts to the rumors authenticity, however). Though plot-heavy and reliant upon its heady twists to deliver the goods, Les Diaboliques isn’t just clever–it’s smart, and sharply-cognizant, and a whole lotta fun. Vera, Clouzot’s real-life wife, died shortly after the film’s release, as she suffered from the same heart condition as her character, which makes the film feel all the more tragic.
22. Shaun of the Dead (2004) directed by Edgar Wright
Is this even a horror movie? Absolutely–it just happens to favor side-splitting hysterics over brain-eating terror. (It certainly doesn’t skimp on the gore, though.) A paean to the zombie genre that doesn’t shy away from full effrontery in the face of genre norms, the first installment of Edgar Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy is a modern classic. It arrived before the living dead over-saturation of the last decade, but displays none of the irksome tendencies of the too-many zombie flicks that have plagued theaters since 2004. It’s less progenitor than prescient. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have impeccable timing and inimitable chemistry, and though the ambition of Wright’s films have grown, their scope widened and their budgets inflated, Shaun of the Dead remains the trio’s most intimate affair. From the moment we see Shaun stagger out of bed, in that realm between sleep and wake, the film has an adroit rhythm attuned to the anxieties of the Tony Blair era, insinuating that the zombification of Brits occurred long before the literal dead walked among the living. The cast is all-around incredible–I’ve been a huge Bill Nighy fan for a long time, and I still think that he makes everything better; too bad he has poor taste in film roles. Revisiting the film in the wake of The World’s End, I was surprised at how sophisticated the humor is. The visual slapstick absurdity coexists with deft wordplay, sly allusions to the genre, and self-referential moments that openly welcome the viewer. The film has the warmth and inclusiveness of a family gathering. An undead family gathering.
21. High Tension (2003) directed by Alexandre Aja
Sexually malicious, vaguely homophobic, blatantly spiteful of all humanity and unrepentant in its depiction of female mutilation, Aja’s film has earned its share of detractors. If you loathe this movie, maybe the lowest-brow example of the French New Extremity, I won’t hold it against you. It also has a lot of very vocal fans, for whom Claire Denis’ work is probably too enigmatic. The ending is a cheat, and basically unravels everything we’ve been told; compared to, say, The Sixth Sense, or the more recent Inherent Vice, both of which divulge important information late in the game and consequently shed new light on what we’ve already seen, High Tension (whose better but lesser-known title is Switchblade Romance) just flat-out says “Fuck you” to its viewers, to whom it’s just subjected intense violence. So why is this disgusting, resentful, often illogical slasher flick so high up on my list? Because it’s fucking terrifying. Once you see this, you can’t un-see it. Ever. In his hugely underrated vivisection of modern horror Dans Macabre, Stephen King opines that there are three kinds of horror: the terrifying, which is that genuine, penetrative sensation, that chill down your spine and, in King’s eyes, the apex of the genre; the horrifying, that bedrock from which cats jump out of shadowy alcoves and Herrmann-esque strings cut through the silence, consorting sharp objects in much the same motion; and, finally, the gross-out, which is axiomatic. High Tension is an exquisite display of horrifying gross-out moments, with occasional shades of terror. The early scene of a bloated, dirty man sitting in a truck getting an unusual blow job is one of modern horror’s great disgusting shock moments. It exists solely to disturb, and it does that very well. And the home invasion scene is a formal display of virtuosity: the cinematography is far beyond what other slasher flicks were doing in 2003, and Cecile de France delivers a better, more upsetting performance than Aja had any right to ask of her. The violence channels Fulci but the tone is severe and serious. Every time I’ve shown this to someone on a date, they’ve resented me, but they also sleep very poorly that night. (There are no second dates.) High Tension is probably the worst movie on this list–the dubbing is awful, the twist absurd (not in the Camus sense, though maybe it is?), and the use of Muse in the soundtrack is a bit distracting, plus Muse kinda sucks–but it’s also an artful exercise in emotional manipulation, the slasher equivalent of, say, Terms of Endearment. It carves its way into your memory walls, a nasty, brutish bully vibrantly leaving his mark.