Category Archives: Found Footage

Best Movies I Saw in 2013

First, some movie-related conclusions I reached in 2013:

1. How to avoid “bad” movies. It seems like I’m getting pretty good at avoiding movies I probably wouldn’t have liked (Cloud Atlas, the Carrie remake). How do I know I wouldn’t have liked them if I haven’t seen them? Fair point. Here’s what I do know: There were only 4 (minor) disappointments this year compared to 5 last year that I felt pretty strongly about. And out of the 165 movies I watched this year, there were only 18 I didn’t like (including only 2 that I strongly disliked, and only 1 that I actually saw in a theater). So I think as long as I stay away from the multiplex and continue to do my movie-watching via my local art house theater and Netflix, I’ve got about an 89% chance of seeing a movie I’ll enjoy.

2. Curtis Loves Documentaries. It seems like some of the most emotionally powerful stories being told by contemporary filmmakers are documentaries. Maybe this says something about me personally, maybe it says something about our cultural craving for “real” stories, maybe it says something about the world (may you live in interesting times), or all or none. Whatever the reason, more and more I’m finding myself drawn to documentaries.

Top 12 Movies Released in 2013
(Plus 13 Movies from Previous Years That I Saw for the First Time This Year)

Of the movies I saw in 2013, these are the ones I loved—not to be confused with “best,” whatever that means. I ranked them based on how likely I am to rewatch the movie (and in some cases I’ve rewatched them several times just this year) plus the emotional impact the movie had on me.

  1. Silver Linings Playbook (2012): The movies that get me the most are the ones focused on small, personal stories that illustrate some truth about the human condition. In this case: Everyone is crazy in their own way. Sure, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were entertaining as hell, but this movie is my favorite of the year because it made me feel like maybe I’m not the f’d up alien that I so often feel like I am.
  2. SpectacularNowThe Spectacular Now (2013): With a flip of a coin this movie could have just as easily taken the #1 slot. In fact, after seeing it at my local art house theater, I made a point to go find the Executive Director and thank her for choosing to screen it. At the risk of hyperbole, The Spectacular Now changed me. The main character’s desperate attempt to live in the present moment and escape it at the same time is a paradox I understand all too well. Plus it tackles alcoholism in a very real-feeling way, not demonizing it and not glorifying it, but ultimately showing it as a symptom of deeper psychological problems. I kept waiting for that inevitable Hollywood-style punishment that would befall the main character…but it never comes. He’s punished himself enough.
  3. The Grey (2012): Probably the saddest, most tragic, yet also most exhilarating and life-affirming story I’ve yet to experience. More than just Liam Neeson vs. the wolves, The Grey is a wake-up call for those of us squandering the gifts we have in our life.
  4. Mud (2013): Mud has been touted as a kind of Stand By Me coming-of-age story, and while it is to a degree, that’s not what I enjoyed most about it. The way the boy’s relationship with the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey) serves as a metaphor for romantic love — starry-eyed infatuation followed by the inevitable heart-break when we realize that the version of the person we fell in love with never existed in the first place — is an insightful exploration into the idealism of love vs. the realism of love.
  5. Gravity (2013): Alfonso Cuaron gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise — Sandra Bullock in space! I relished the 2D visuals so much I quickly went to see it a second time in 3D (and then a third again in 2D). This is probably the closest someone like me gets to having a religious experience. Earth is now my higher power.
  6. The World’s End (2013): Such a smart and well-crafted comedy from the team that created one of my all-time favorites, Shaun of the Dead. It gets better with each viewing, revealing more and more layers of clever social commentary and humor.
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013): I went to this movie not as the new Iron Man movie but the new Shane Black movie, and it rocked on both counts! He set the bar pretty high with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and managed to move it even higher this time. So happy that Shane Black is back and on a roll!
  8. Pacific Rim (2013): Pacific Rim gets right what many of the other blockbusters got wrong this year. I don’t care if Spock punches the bad guy in the nose. And why does Superman have to punch the same bad guy in the nose for 30+ minutes? But give me a whole movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the nose, and that’s something worth seeing! And though I wished we’d gotten at least one robot vs. monster brawl in the full light of day, nevertheless, I giggled with glee throughout this movie, and that’s pretty rare.
  9. Inocente (2012, short): It’s no wonder Inocente won the Academy Award for best documentary short film. This inspirational story of a young homeless girl who makes art her emotional home should be required viewing in every high school.
  10. Serenity (2005): I became a fan of Joss Whedon via last year’s Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, so I had some catching up to do. Serenity, a follow-up to the Firefly TV series, is a quality sci-fi movie that puts some of the recent blockbusters to shame. Great characters, great story, great writing.
  11. MarwencolMarwencol (2010): This beautiful and inspiring documentary about a man recovering from a violent attack that left him with brain damage poses the question: When does art become therapy or therapy become art?
  12. 12 Years a Slave (2013): Great dramatization of a tragic true story. The filmmakers do their best to stay invisible and get out of the way of the powerful narrative, only stumbling for one scene towards the end. My only gripe is that the title gives away the ending — spoiler alert, anyone???
  13. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): I had a blast watching this unnecessary but well-executed Wizard of Oz prequel. Great supporting characters, especially the monkey and the china doll. And a solid (minus one gaping plot hole) story from beginning to end. Not art, but excellent entertainment!
  14. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008): Speaking of Joss Whedon, I also caught up with this playful and funny musical web-series he created. But as good as it is (and it is excellent), the ending is sublime. To say more would risk spoiling what is one of the bravest creative choices I saw all year. Um, hope I didn’t build things up too much.
  15. Senna (2011): This thrilling documentary about the career of a Formula One race car driver uses only archival footage of its subject with little (or no) narration. It plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, made all the more tragic because it actually happened.
  16. Don Jon (2013): Promising directorial debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A funny and fun look at how men (and women) sacrifice authentic intimacy for control and fantasy.
  17. The Parallax View (1974): The 1970s is my favorite decade for American movies, and I love paranoid political thrillers. Combine the two and I’m clapping my hands like a mental patient. It’s so much fun to “discover” great movies from the past.
  18. American Hustle (2013): On the surface it looks like it’s going to be the Abscam version of Goodfellas or Casino. But David O. Russell is more interested in the personal and neurotic ways his characters con each other and themselves in order to “survive” (as they define it). There’s little judgment in this movie, and lots of frenetic energy and good laughs.
  19. Blue Valentine (2010): Not to be confused with 2013’s Blue Jasmine (a movie I did NOT like). What sounds like a gimmick (cross-cutting between scenes of a couple’s relationship beginning and that same relationship ending years later) is handled exceptionally well in this movie. A lot of the credit goes to Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling who drew me so much into their stories that the structure of the movie quickly became invisible.
  20. Before MidnightBefore Midnight (2013): (Pair this movie with Blue Valentine for one big bummer of a double feature.) The likeable couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset return a lot less likeable in this third entry in the Before… series. The dreamy love we saw blossoming in those first two movies is showing the strain of reality. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have to the courage to challenge the Hollywood notion of a happy ending. “Love stories” don’t end with the lovers riding into the sunset; familiarity breeds contempt no matter how “destined” two people are to be together.
  21. Dark City (1998): Although I’d technically seen this movie back when it first came out, watching it again this year truly felt like seeing it for the first time — seeing it with new eyes, perhaps. There’s a very Buddhist feel to Dark City‘s underlying questions: Who are we without our memories? Does identity have any meaning if there’s no past? And how do we know the past is not just a story we’ve fabricated? The best science fiction plants important philosophical questions like these in a thrilling story, and Dark City fits right in with the best of them.
  22. The Fog of War (2003): I don’t believe in evil and I don’t believe in monsters, but I do believe in misguided humans who create chaos, hell, and destruction with the best of intentions. This documentary takes a fascinating look at one of these humans, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, through his own words and candid reflections.
  23. Enough Said (2013): I’m such a sucker for movies about genuinely good-hearted people struggling through life’s challenges, learning from mistakes, and trying to be kinder and happier people. Both leads were charming as all hell. It was bittersweet to watch James Gandolfini in his final role. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus knocked my socks off. I knew she was funny, but she can really act her way across the whole spectrum of human emotion.
  24. The Hillside Stranglers (1989): Surprisingly effective for a TV movie, The Hillside Stranglers tells the real-life story of two cousins who committed a series of murders in the late 1970s. Helter Skelter made an impression on me at an early age (and may even be responsible for my love of horror movies), and this movie has a very similar feel. Add to that a great performance by Dennis Farina, and it’s no wonder it made this list.
  25. The Pianist (2002): This is one of those movies that makes you ask yourself, “What the hell do I have to complain about really?” Movies about the Holocaust can so easily feel manipulative, but Polanski for the most part gets out of the way of the story and lets the events have their way with us.

Top 7 Movies You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
(a.k.a. My Top Recommendations)

This is my list of movies I loved (or really liked) that didn’t get a lot of exposure as far as I can tell. If you check any out and like them, spread the word.

  1. The Spectacular Now (2013): What more can I say about this spectacular movie? Okay, here’s one more thing: Go see it now.
  2. InocenteInocente (2012, short): As with most short films, you’ll probably have to seek this documentary out, but you’ll be rewarded if you do by this young girl’s contagious spirit of hopefulness.
  3. Marwencol (2012): Whether you’re drawn in by the subject’s life story or by his inventive artwork (or both — can we even separate the two?), this will probably be one of the most unique documentaries you’ve ever seen.
  4. Enough Said (2013): On its face, Enough Said might seem interchangeable with a hundred other romantic comedies, but give it a chance. I found it to be much more honest, and a truly delightful movie-watching experience.
  5. Sightseers (2013): Took a little time to warm me up but I ended up really liking what is probably the darkest romantic comedy ever made. Ben Wheatley is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors (his Kill List was one of my favorites last year). If you like off-kilter indie movies that blend genres, check him out.
  6. The Pact (2012): This independent horror movie surprised me by how skillfully and cleverly it blended the slasher and haunted house sub-genres.
  7. The Battery (2013): Not a perfect movie, but this indie zombie film has a great soundtrack, great chemistry between the two leads, and a fresh take on a well-worn genre. Most definitely worth seeking out.

Top 7 Surprises

The ingredients for me to be happily surprised by a movie typically include some combination of low expectations and ignorance.

  1. GravityGravity (2013): I didn’t think I’d even like this movie let alone fall head over heels the way that I did. And to think I almost didn’t go see it… I shudder at the thought.
  2. The Tall Man (2012): Considering this one was almost universally trashed because of it’s apparently misleading trailer (which I never saw), I thoroughly enjoyed the playful (and frequent) plot twists.
  3. The Hillside Stranglers (1989): After Dennis Farina died, I did a quick search on Netflix and was surprised to discover a Farina movie from the 80s that I’d never even heard of. How I missed it baffles me. But what a thrill it was to see him in a “brand new” movie from my favorite time period of his career.
  4. Frances Ha (2013): What a delightful indie film about friendship, self-acceptance, and the challenges of living your dream! I typically have an aversion to movies with an “Aren’t we weird and cute?” tone to them, but after about 20 to 30 minutes, this movie won me over. Rare to see a platonic love story, and a really good one at that.
  5. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): Another delightful movie-going experience! I usually find these kinds of CGI extravaganzas to be heartless and excessive, but Oz was a happy exception.
  6. The Great Gatsby (2013): Here’s another CGI extravaganza that I was pretty sure I’d hate. The wild card, of course, was Baz Luhrmann. I found it to be an entertaining and pointed criticism of contemporary greed and entitlement.
  7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): After the disappointing first Hunger Games movie, I was unsure of what to expect. Catching Fire was the weakest book IMO with a very thin plot, but that same quality benefited the movie by giving it some space to breathe.They smartly downplayed the whole teenage girl drama and played up the political/social revolution plot elements. Could end up being the best movie in the series.

Top 4 Disappointments

The ingredients for me to be disappointed typically include a mix of high expectations and a lot of excitement. Sprinkle in nostalgia for an extra kick to the groin.

  1. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Coming off the heels of the 2009 Star Trek reboot (which I loved), I was almost certain this would be great (especially given the rumors that Khan would be in it). And though I liked some of it, especially the way it played with the events from previous episodes in the series, I found the action sequences mostly uninspired and tedious. But my biggest complaint was that it’s whole raison d’etre seemed to be the scene where Spock beats up the bad guy. Lame. Who are these doppelgangers? Aren’t there enough movie action heroes? Isn’t there room for Spock to just be Spock? Ugh.
  2. Man of Steel (2013): More like Meh of Steel. Christopher Nolan is no fun.
  3. The Purge (2013): Great premise, poor execution. I actually laughed out loud the tenth time a main character was suddenly saved at the very last second before they were about to be killed.
  4. Only God Forgives (2013): This is a borderline disappointment. I really liked it, but it felt like a misstep by director Nicolas Winding Refn, and I’m a bit worried that his style may be edging into self-parody.

Top 13 Movies from 2013 I Missed
(and Am Looking Forward to Seeing)

  • The Act of Killing
  • Stories We Tell
  • The Conjuring
  • Spring Breakers
  • This Is the End
  • Fruitvale Station
  • Computer Chess
  • Let the Fire Burn
  • The Gatekeepers
  • Short Term 12
  • You’re Next
  • Much Ado about Nothing
  • Trance

If you’d like to see the “full” list of movies I saw in 2013… Continue reading

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31 Scary Movies for October & Halloween

To celebrate my favorite month of the year (scary + fun + cool weather + colorful leaves + pumpkin = awesome!), I’ve compiled a list of 31 horror movies I recommend. They are grouped in helpful categories but in no particular order. So pick a movie, grab a pumpkin beer, and enjoy!

NOTE: I’ll be writing short descriptions for each and adding streaming links throughout the month (and maybe adding more movies to the bonus section), so come back whenever you’re looking for a scary movie and see what I’ve added.

Fun Horror

The Loved Ones [CLM Review | Amazon Instant]: I’ve been championing this wonderful Australian horror movie for a few years, and I’m excited it’s finally readily available to US audiences. Excellent filmmaking combined with a great script make this one of my favorites.

Trick ‘r Treat [Amazon Instant]: Proof that a horror anthology can work on film. Also, it’s one of the few horror movies that’s actually set on Halloween night, so it makes it an especially good selection this time of year.

Scream: [currently unavailable for streaming] Some people like to blame Scream for the glut of awful horror movies that followed in its wake, but this slasher movie is smart, funny, and genuinely scary. That opening scene is sadistic and brutal in the best way. And the whodunnit ending paid off better than any other slasher movie I can think of, including the classics.
Scream 3 [Netflix Instant]: I know I may get a lot of shit for this one, but I found it to be a lot of fun. Yes, it jumps the shark, but the franchise needed that. I mean, Scream 2 was just bor-ing. And how can you not love Parker Posey and Courtney Cox scooby-doo-ing their way through the studio basement archives as the two Gale Weathers? Face it, you don’t enjoy this movie, you’re just no fun.

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn [Amazon Instant]: This is the movie horror geeks geek all over themselves about. To paraphrase Bruce Campbell: “These are goofball movies made by goofballs for goofballs.” (Currently streaming on Amazon for only $1.99!)

The Cabin in the Woods [CLM Review]

Piranha (2010) [Netflix Instant]: The 1978 version is a classic, but this remake is super fun. From the 45-second naked underwater ballet to Ving Rhames chainsawing fish with an outboard motor, what more do you want from a movie? Seriously.

Trollhunter [CLM Review | Netflix Instant]: A horrible idea for a movie. “I know! Found footage and trolls!” But somehow it works. And boy, does it work!

An American Werewolf in London [Netflix Instant]: This one set the bar for horror comedies. Genuinely scary when it wants to be, hysterically goofy in spots, and just plain bizarre at times. A real crowd-pleaser, this one’s a pretty safe bet if you’re looking for something to watch with a group of friends.

Severance [Netflix Instant]: Not for everyone, but if you like subtle, dark humor give it a look.

Classic Horror

Halloween (1978)

Friday the 13th (1981)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (“Part 4”)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Psycho (1960) [Netflix Instant]

Ghost Stories

Lake Mungo [CLM Review | Netflix Instant]

The Others

Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity 2 [CLM Review | Netflix Instant]
Paranormal Activity 3

The Frighteners

Found Footage

The Blair Witch Project

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

The Last Exorcism [Netflix Instant]

Extreme Horror

Martyrs: Probably the most uncomfortably torture-y movie, I’ve ever seen. But the film actually uses that to say something pretty deep and meaningful about life. Existential torture porn, anyone?

Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) [Netflix Instant]: Two things struck me about this movie. First is how different this movie looks and feels from its predecessor—almost as if it were a totally different genre. Second is how it’s completely exploitative and over-the-top yet doesn’t have that shocking-for-the-sake-of-being-shocking feel of A Serbian Film, for example. The things you see in this movie you can’t unsee, so consider yourself warned.

Quirky / Genre-Bending Horror

Kill List [CLM Review]

Lo [CLM Review | Netflix Instant]

Lost Highway

Bonus (aka Curtis Loves More Than 31 Movies)

The Strangers

Let the Right One In [Netflix Instant]

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil [Netflix Instant]

The Fog (1980) [Netflix Instant]: Not a great movie by any standard (except maybe nostalgia), but I still love it. I was 9 when it came out. I remember asking a babysitter what she would do if “the fog” suddenly showed up that night and she said, “There’s nothing we could do.” Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) [Netflix Instant]: This near-perfect “monster in the house” movie has that great Poltergeist mix of playful and spooky. And Katie Holmes can act!

What did I miss? Any oversights that have you screaming at me through your computer screen? Hit me with comments to share your favorite movies for the Spooky Season!

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V/H/S (2012)

In my formative teen years, I watched a re-run of the 1976 TV movie, Helter Skelter, and my love of verisimilitude in horror began. So any movie that uses the “found footage” conceit is intriguing to me right out of the gate. Simply on that level, I enjoyed V/H/S, an anthology of six short horror stories presented as VHS tapes found in a mysterious old man’s house. But ultimately V/H/S was unsatisfying, and unlike other found footage movies I enjoy enough to revisit, one viewing of this movie is enough for me.

I think the problem has more to do with the anthology structure than the stories themselves. First, it requires each story to be short, which leaves almost no room for character development or the building of a mythology, two key components to a good “found footage” story.

The Blair Witch Project is the gold standard for these kinds of movies, and the reason why it worked is that we got to know the three kids very well (through character development) and we got to understand the threat they faced (through mythology building). The stories in V/H/S are all missing at least one of these components and often both. For example, there’s the story of the couple on the road-trip. Yes, we get to know them a little, but the threat they face is perfunctory right until the very end. Combine that with a twist that comes completely out of nowhere and contradicts what little character development there was, and this viewer was yanked right out of the movie.

The second problem with mixing an anthology structure with found footage is what I’ll call the compounding of irresolution. Another key trope of the found footage genre is an unresolved story. The stereotypical “abrupt ending” is an example of this, though it’s not necessary (see The Poughkeepsie Tapes for a counter-example). This lack of resolution creates a nice sense of mystery that (when it works well) will lend itself to multiple viewings. It’s the feeling that if I just watch it enough times I can gather clues to figure out the mystery. It’s compelling when it’s done right.

But V/H/S is comprised of six stories (including the frame story), each of which is left unresolved. That’s a lot of irresolution to ask a viewer to endure. (Not to mention that this lack of resolution can hardly be earned in a 20-minute story.) I found myself disengaging from the viewing experience more and more as this fundamental story problem compounded with each new “tape.”

Now to be fair, there’s a lot of cool stuff in this movie. Some very creepy moments, inventive story twists, fun horror set-pieces, and truly memorable visuals. Some examples include the surprise aerial footage in one of the early stories, the video-distortion killer in the woods, the hands coming out of the walls, and the ghost children haunting the girl’s apartment.

I do believe anthology in horror can work. Trick ‘r Treat is a great recent example. But it’s not enough to simply staple together a collection of short films. The skilled filmmaker will also consider the relationship of those individual stories to each other and to the whole. The whole must be more than the sum of its parts or else the result will be dissatisfying and forgettable—my final verdict on V/H/S.

More info at IMDb, RottenTomatoes, and

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Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

(Streaming on Netflix as of 10/25/2011)

I liked the original Paranormal Activity, but wanted to like it more. See, I was one of those early fanatical fans of The Blair Witch Project, and I had been looking forward to Paranormal Activity since they began their whole “Demand It” campaign to get the movie into theaters.

But seeing it in the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have liked it more had I seen it at home at night in my bedroom with the lights out, just like where the scariest parts of that movie take place. Now I know because that’s exactly how I watched Paranormal Activity 2, and I really enjoyed it.

It’s rare when a sequel can surpass the original, and I expected Paranormal Activity 2 to feel a bit stale, and it very well could have because it follows the exact same structure as the first. But that’s also why it kind of makes sense that it’s better than the first. The Paranormal Activity franchise is a procedural (like Law & Order, for example) with a set format: People set up cameras in their homes to try to understand how and why something is happening, shit gradually gets weirder, and things finally climax in spooky violence. It makes total sense that the filmmakers would get better at executing this format from the first movie to the second.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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Trollhunter (2010)

(Streaming on Netflix as of 9/25/2011)

First of all, do NOT watch the trailer for this movie. It gives away every surprise and shows way too much. If you have seen the trailer, bang your head against something very hard until you can’t remember anything…um, then how will you remember I recommended the movie…? Okay, forget that.

How does one recommend a movie without spoiling the fun of discovery? Well, you could just trust me. 🙂

Trollhunter (also known as The Troll Hunter) is presented as “found footage,” a la The Blair Witch Project. It’s a little slow at the beginning, but once the first big reveal happens, you’ll be glad you put in the time. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what that reveal was without losing all credibility with you, and even as I was watching it happen I was thinking, “This is silly, this shouldn’t be scaring me.” But it works. Somehow, thankfully, it works.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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