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Fear the Best

Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company

This list must be prefaced with the following: Each of these films should be happy (if cinema could actually emote, that is) that Martin Scorcese's "Shutter Island" got pushed back to February 2010. Something tells me that I'm going to adore that one like none other, and that something hopefully isn't the fact that the same-titled, original Dennis Lehane novel is a personal favorite. The point being here that "Shutter Island" could have easily knocked one of the following flicks off this rundown had it made its once-scheduled October release date.

Missed opportunities aside, cinema in 2009 was all over the place, in a good way. Combing through the year's list of eligible films, I found it difficult to select a dime's worth of standouts. Really, these kinds of lists are hopeless endeavors; the second you submit or post your own, a good five or six films tap your shoulder and whisper, "You forgot about me, sir. I thought you loved me?" Like a neglected lady friend, only less affectionate. The forgotten films go on to torment your thoughts, remind you of your now-sealed 2009-filled time capsule. Sadly, there's no Wite-Out available here.

For me, the approach was simple: Remember that you're a passionate horror freak, yet also keep in mind that you're well-versed enough in prestige films to have the staunchest of film critics on your side. I fancy myself as "A. O. Scott-meets-Kim Newman," though infinitely less accomplished; those quotes directly signify that I'm saying that, not any else. A young film-loving writer can daydream, can't he?

In a perfect world, I could have extended this list to 12 and acknowledged two of the year's most underappreciated eccentricities: "Adventureland," a tender joy of a comedy that was foolishly marketed to the "Superbad" crowd; and the all-kinds-of-perverse "Orphan," which begs for its own midnight revival run. There's also Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," the unlucky number 13 on my list, or, as I'll forever remember it, the only film in 2009 that genuinely made me wince while covering my eyes. And I thought Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's "Inside" had made scissors cut to my core.

Without further long-winded rambling, let's start the show. A nice mix of the obvious and the eyebrow-raising, a few of the same titles seen on every other Best-Of ticker, as well as a few curve balls. All, however, are worthy in my eyes. As a bonus, I've also compiled my favorite straight-to-DVD (and others that were dumped into a single-digit amount of theaters) horror films of the year. My Kim Newman side demanded it.

Matt Barone's Top Movies of 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS This year's first quarter found me reading Quentin Tarantino's leaked "Basterds" script five times; plowing through its breathless dialogue, audacious remixing of history and whopper of a climax was a joy each time. To live up to its screenplay, the rushed-to-make-the-Cannes-Film-Festival "Inglourious Basterds" needed to be a mind-blower. Thankfully, it was, and still is. Mr. Tarantino's WWII free-for-all is supreme entertainment on all levels, and holds up as this year's strongest balance of intelligence, wit and buttery popcorn.

UP IN THE AIR The perfect piece of recession cinema, Jason Reitman's crackling examination of corporate emptiness versus familial necessity is both disarming and rewarding. The performances are wonderful across the board (most notably George Clooney's, of course, as well as the lesser-hailed but great turn from Vera Farmiga), and the script consistently wows. And for those who've lost a job in 2009 (yours included), it's incredibly cathartic.

DRAG ME TO HELL Sam Raimi's glorious return to slapstick horror is the most enjoyable EC Comics tale never written. Screw being subtle; Mr. Raimi's yarn about a pissed-off demon enacting vengeance on a mousy loan officer leaps over the top, hits the ground running and goes back overboard for a relentless 90 minutes, and it's damn good fun.

THE HURT LOCKER Kathryn Bigelow's suspense show, about the mental effects and compulsion resulting from war, pulsated along from one goosebumpy set piece to another, all anchored by intense performances from a sharp group of I-know-that-face characters actors (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie). To shower "The Hurt Locker" with further praise feels rather ho-hum, since every critic from here to Roger Ebert has lauded it with force. Truth is, though, "The Hurt Locker" really is a dynamite, should've-been blockbuster.

DISTRICT 9 Along with Duncan Jones's impressive "Moon," first-timer Neill Blomkamp's "District 9" made 2009 an exemplary year for mature science fiction. Mr. Blomkamp's innovative showstopper is the better of the two. The message (aliens as oppressed minorities) hits home, but what pushes "District 9" beyond simple goodness is its fully realized world, conceptualized on an independent production's budget. Down to the smallest detail (cat food scams), the picture's extraterrestrial-inhabited version of Johannesburg, South Africa, is a creative marvel. That the final act's lively gore doesn't diminish the overall film's elegance is no small potato.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL A slew of horror filmmakers have tried resurrecting the genre's 1980s spirit in recent years, and all have failed more than they've impressed. With "The House of the Devil," though, 29-year-old Ti West has single-handedly captured both the charms and quirks of that decade. The synthesizer-heavy opening credits jam (an ode to beloved '80s horror flicks such as "Night of the Demons") sets expectations high; by the time the should-now-be-infamous line "You're not the babysitter?" cues the year's grandest shock moment, those expectations are entirely met.

A SERIOUS MAN Joel and Ethan Coen, the film industry's most reliable tag team, smacked movie lovers over their unsuspecting heads with this truly haunting black comedy. With stellar lead work from Michael Stuhlbarg (an actor to watch, folks), "A Serious Man" questions why terrible things happens to undeserving people, and never finds an answer. Not that one is needed here, though; the film's power comes from its existential voyeurism, how it alternates between pleasure and discomfort while seeing one man's life crumble for no acceptable reason. The Coen brothers also deliver a paralyzing final image that trumps any other closing shot this year. And possibly last.

SIN NOMBRE Writer-director Cary Fukunaga's devastating look at Mexican immigration features some fierce punches to the gut, a series of violent and, fortunately, still plot-advancing events. It's tough not to flinch repeatedly throughout "Sin Nombre," but it's also a task not to be moved. Poetic at times, Mr. Fukunaga's film treats its serious subject matter with the delicacy and heart that it deserves. This one's an emotional powerhouse.

AN EDUCATION Combine the best traits of every disposable, Hollywood-produced rom-com about a young girl coming of age and you'd still come nowhere close to Lone Scherfig's delightful "An Education," easily the year's best romantic comedy. The breakthrough performance of young Carey Mulligan is a revelation, no doubt, but that's not the film's only selling point. Nick Hornby's brainy, 1960s London-set script is full of surprises, and Ms. Scherfig's direction is glamorous while remaining inconspicuous enough to let her actors do the talking. Even when the narrative veers into sad places, "An Education" still charms your knickers off.

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Seeing Greek director Dennis Iliadis's remake of Wes Craven's notorious 1972 debut on my best-of-2009 list is shocking even to yours truly. Where as "A Serious Man" ends on an amazing note, "The Last House on the Left" draws its curtains with an endlessly infuriating money-shot, a tacked-on head explosion that undermines all that came before it. Up until its last shot, though, this brutal horror pic's harsher moments, from a never-ending rape to living-room lung surgery, offset an otherwise stylish dazzler. Beautiful cinematography, daring camera angles and bravura sequences (a booming SUV crash, for example) abound. Toss in a group of unflinching performances (Garret Dillahunt and Aaron Paul make for two of '09's more intimidating baddies), and you've got a first-class piece of unfairly-maligned exploitation cinema.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Matt Barone's Top Straight-to-DVD (or Stricken to Painfully Limited Theatrical Releases) Horror Movies of 2009

[REC] Stateside theatergoers got last year's capable-but-flawed "Quarantine," while festival attendees and other international movie lovers experienced the original Spanish masterpiece, "[REC]," on the big screen. Quite sad, really. Although we've been forced to watch this found-footage triumph on mere idiot-boxes, that doesn't detract from the film's greatness. A cameraman and a news reporter follow firefighters into a Barcelona apartment building, where an enigmatic infection turns the residents into relentless killing machines in rapid succession. Co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza utilize the first-person perspective to full advantage, culminating in a see-it-to-believe-it coda shot in night-vision and terrifying to a blink-free point.

THE CHILDREN Britain's Tom Shankland takes the overused creepy-kid setup and reinvents the wheel. An extended family's Christmas weekend at a secluded vacation home derails once the rugrats in attendance catch an evil bug and turn into homicidal drones. If you thought little Esther in "Orphan" did some taboo-crushing things, wait 'til you get a load this film's sickness. Quality acting and an unpredictable script round this rather brilliant horror package out.

MARTYRS French auteur Pascal Laugier's existential freak show earned a notorious reputation from the various film festivals it played last year, and for good reason. Playing on religious themes and Clive Barker-esque perversions, Mr. Laugier's take on the afterlife's powerful allure is equal parts disgusting and fascinating. The film's two leads, Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui, are superb; and the tonal shift that comes midway is an insane uppercut. Most importantly, though, here's a horror film that demands thoughtful discussion, whether for or against it, once the end credits roll.

TRICK 'R TREAT It took more than two years for Warner Bros. to bless the horror scene with Michael Dougherty's kinetic anthology, but the wait was totally worth the frustration. Giving Halloween a timeless film not featuring one Michael Myers, Mr. Dougherty's four-tales-in-one gem gives the genre its own "Pulp Fiction" puzzle, not to mention granting Oct. 31 with its own "A Christmas Story," pumpkin-headed Sam being horror's new Ralphie.

EDEN LAKE One of the year's bleakest films, no matter what genre, this U.K. chiller pits an unassuming, loving couple (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender, both marvelous here) against a terrorizing band of hoodie-wearing delinquents. Writer-director James Watkins isn't afraid to cross all lines, and a few of the scenes (including one where a little boy is set ablaze) would come off as despicable if the film as a whole wasn't so well-executed.

VINYAN Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz is now two-for-two when it comes to subverting different horror traditions. His 2004 debut, "Calvaire," gave the tired "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" motif a homoerotic and masochistic makeover; "Vinyan," though, is a vast improvement for the writer-director on all fronts. A husband and wife (Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell), whose son was swept away in a tsunami, embark on an obsessive search for him through the Thai-Burmese jungles. Let's just say that things don't end well, no thanks to a tribe of feral kids and the couple's own marital woes. Beautifully shot and full of nightmarish imagery, "Vinyan" is agonizingly slow at times, but its overall impact is tough to beat.

SURVEILLANCE The supposed twist in Jennifer Lynch's multiple-murder mystery "Surveillance" is elementary enough for a gumshoe to unravel. Which is why this nihilistic whodunit is such a deft exercise in mood, employing a "Rashomon" structure to relive a gruesome highway slaying in all of its extremities. Bill Pullman hams it up quite well, and Julia Ormond, as a two-sided detective, has never been this sexy (and that's saying something). Even when the obvious reveal shows itself, the manner in which Ms. Lynch (the daughter of cinema's biggest eccentric, David Lynch) pops the top is so wild, you don't care. You're left exhilarated, as well as disturbed.

DONKEY PUNCH Six attractive young adults respond to a sexually-bent murder by staging a bloody battle of the sexes — picture "The Real World" set in hell. Oliver Blackburn, the film's scribe and shot caller, avoids falling into a pit of cliches by shrouding the picture in a LCD-like haze. Hypnotic techno music pummels the senses while inventive death scenes shock and awe. It's not an incredible work of art by any means, yet there's a special level of peeping-Tom pleasure at play.

HOME MOVIE Another camcorder-shot, cinéma vérité horror film, you may think? Only this time, we're watching a series of domestic vignettes focused on parents trying to cope with their increasingly-evil twins. Not much to see here, right? Dead wrong. "Home Movie," from the mind of first-timer Christopher Denham, requires multiple viewings to catch its many small details, a pile of winks and nods that all pay off quite wonderfully during the film's sadistic climax.

LEFT BANK Consider this "The House of the Devil" for Belgian audiences. Like Mr. West's aforementioned winner, this tale of an injured female athlete seeking some R&R in a shady apartment building is a 80-or-so-minute buildup to an outburst of ritualistic satanism. This one's director, Pieter Van Hees, makes slick use of said apartment building, achieving a tone not unlike that of "Rosemary's Baby" via oddball neighbors and a suffocating paranoia.


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