It’s time for all of the year end, best-of, top-ten, or whatever you want to call the lists of favorite movies that writers like to make. Because everyone sees the same movies, these lists are usually very similar. You’ll be seeing a lot of lists that contain titles like The Babadook and Starry Eyes (and deservedly so, as both are great), so I’m going to give you something a little different; these are my favorite fringe horror films of 2014. These movies are not pure horror, but they all walk the thin line between science and superstition. There will be no masked killers or ghosts-in-mirrors on this list, but there should be something in each entry that will keep you up at night. And now, the movies…
- Jodorowsky’s Dune
Jodorowsky’s Dune is the least-horror entry on this list, so let’s get it out of the way first. It’s a fascinating documentary about cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make a movie out of Frank Herbert’s quintessential sci-fi novel Dune in 1975. The movie was scrapped before a single frame of film could be shot, but the story of its failure and the influence that it has had over seemingly every sci-fi film made since is unbelievable.
- Blue Ruin
A festival favorite from 2013, Blue Ruin finally got a legitimate release in 2014. This gritty flick is about a vagrant who learns that the man who murdered his parents years ago is being released from prison. He plans his revenge, but things do not go quite as smoothly as he had hoped. A revenge tale that is heavy on the violence, Blue Ruin is like Quentin Tarantino meets Sam Peckinpah with just a dash of Chan-wook Park. Macon Blair is amazing in the lead role, too.
- The Signal
The Signal tells the story of a trio of kids who are driving cross country when they get a message that leads them to an abandoned shack. They wake up in a hospital-type setting with no idea how they got there. The Signal is a creepy science fiction movie with an amazing cast that includes Brenton Thwaites (Oculus), Olivia Cooke (Ouija), and Beau Knapp (Super 8) as the three travelers, and the inimitable Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix) as the head of the hospital.
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with the apes now in control of the world while people live within isolated pockets of humanity. Ape and human clash when the humans need something from the apes’ territory. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a visual effects masterpiece, and someday the Academy will recognize the talents of Andy Serkis (who plays Caesar, the head ape) as an actor and not just a motion-capture performer.
- Cheap Thrills
Two guys walk into a bar. A third offers fifty bucks to the first one who can do a shot. The night goes on, the dares get more risky, and the stakes get higher. That’s the premise of Cheap Thrills. It’s a highly entertaining study of how far some people are willing to go for money, and how much money it would take for some people to do unthinkable things. This one is anchored by stellar performances from Pat Healy (The Innkeepers) and Ethan Embry (Late Phases).
- Under the Skin
Although it’s unlike any of her other movies, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johannson of The Avengers fame. The starlet is stripped of the glamour and glitz of Hollywood, barely recognizable in a retro-disco curly wig. Frat boys everywhere flocked to this one thinking that they were finally going to see her naked, and they did – but, let’s just say that the experience was not quite what they were expecting. ScarJo plays an alien who stalks and abducts men on the streets of Scotland, all the while being followed by a strange man on a motorcycle. This is a weird, artsy film, but if you don’t mind doing a little of the thinking for yourself, it’s great.
Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) as a man who discovers his own doppelganger (also Gyllenhaal), and the two men play a scary game of cat and mouse with each other’s lives. When I first saw Enemy, I left the theater wondering what the hell I had just watched. As confused as I was, I could not get the movie out of my head for weeks. The entire film is laced with an underlying feeling of dread and uneasiness. It’s a very slow burn of a movie, so you’ve got to want it, but patient viewers will be rewarded with the most WTF ending in recent memory.
- Grand Piano
Elijah Wood (Maniac) stars in Grand Piano as a stage-fright stricken pianist who is attempting to make a comeback. At his first concert back, he notices a red sniper dot on his sheet music that points to a message that says “play one note wrong and you die.” Talk about pressure! Grand Piano is a heavily stylized film, shot beautifully and edited flawlessly. This is the Brian De Palma film that Brian De Palma wishes that he had made.
- The Guest
Written and directed by Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard (the team behind You’re Next), The Guest is about a stranger who shows up at the door of a family who lost a son in the Afghanistan war. The stranger claims to be an army buddy of the fallen solider. At first, the family welcomes him with open arms, desperate to feel a connection with their lost son. They soon discover that their houseguest is not who he claims to be. Everything about this movie is great: the writing, the performances, the action sequences, the soundtrack. Everything.
Nightcrawler is not only good enough to be considered the best horror film of the year, but it’s the best film of the year, period. It’s also the second Jake Gyllenhaal movie on this list. In this one, Gyllenhaal channels both Patrick Bateman and Travis Bickle as a freelance news photographer who takes his job of shooting bloody crime scenes a little too seriously. This movie is dark, disturbing, and downright creepy. Nightcrawler is the type of movie that will make you feel uncomfortable for wanting to laugh at it. I loved every second.