WalkingDeadMy personal story of this year’s Cinefessions Summer Screams Challenge was really all about The Walking Dead. I fell in love, and became that creepy, obsessed stalker almost immediately. I had watched the first season last year, and enjoyed the hell out of the show, but for whatever reason, never got around to watching the second season (even though I had owned it since its release). Thanks to television programs counting toward the weekly themes, and my desire to earn some easy points, I decided this month would be a great time to catch up on season two.

Then the addiction set in.

I devoured season two in a matter of four days. Then I had to take to “other” methods of finding season three because there was no way I was going to be able to wait until the end of August to watch it. At my lowest, I managed to fit in eight (8) full episodes of The Walking Dead in one day. Oh, and I attended a Detroit Tigers baseball game that night. Needless to say, it was a perfect way to spend a day off.

So even though this top five list won’t include television series, know that the best thing I watched this past month was definitely The Walking Dead, and anyone who enjoys episodic storytelling owes it to themselves to check out this series. It doesn’t matter if you love or hate zombies, because that isn’t what the show is about. It is about how a small group of humans survive the end of days. The event that brings about this end just happens to be a zombie apocalypse. I cringe whenever I see someone turning up his or her nose at the show because they “don’t like zombies”. That’s their loss, I guess.

With the gushing out of the way, let’s move on to the top five films I viewed for the first time during CSSC2.

WarmBodies5. Warm Bodies (2013) dir. Jonathan Levine

I’ll be the first to admit that the reason Warm Bodies made the cut on this list is because of how much I expected to dislike it going in. It looked like a dumb teen romance that used zombies simply because they’re popular. But what is it? Well, it’s a dumb teen romance that uses zombies because they’re popular, but with really likeable characters. Warm Bodies will not be on my top ten of 2013 list, I don’t imagine, but it sure surprised me.

Once I was able to get over the fact that I wasn’t dealing with “real”, Romero-inspired zombies, but rather romanticized zombies aimed at attracting a teenage viewership, I could allow myself to enjoy the relationships that the film created (which, admittedly, wasn’t until about 20-minutes in). Nicholas Hoult (R) and Teresa Palmer (Julie) share a wonderful chemistry, and R is a humorous, awkward zombie that literally comes to life more in every scene. Seeing John Malkovich as the militant father is pretty fun, too. I laughed way more than I should have, and am not ashamed to admit that the ending simply left me feeling good. It’s light, zombie-themed romance – a zomance? – that I enjoyed a lot more than I expected.

Man of Steel4. Man of Steel (2013) dir. Zack Snyder

I’ve seen a total of three real films in theatres this year, and two of them came on a double-feature day at the end of the Challenge with Man of Steel and World War Z. Going in, if I were to guess which film would end up on this list, it would have definitely been World War Z (my #1 most anticipated summer film). I like my summer action flicks to have a certain epic feel, and though World War Z was a good, solid movie, it pales in comparison to the level of bad assery (yes, I’m still using that made up word) that Man of Steel presents.

As someone who has never been a huge Superman fanatic – the most time I’ve spent with the character is with Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television series – I don’t have a problem with the change in origin story, nor do I mind that, in order to save the population, he destroys a few buildings. Sure, a few buildings are demolished, but Superman is doing all that he can to try and prevent the evil General Zod from bringing the apocalypse to humankind. Sue me, but I would trade a few million dollars to save a few billion lives.

The visual style that Zack Snyder is able to maintain throughout the film is fantastic. It has an independent film feel that one rarely sees in such large budget studio films. Man of Steel is a decidedly Snyder film, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Amy Adams is strong and beautiful as Lois Lane, and works perfectly alongside Henry Cavill as Clark Kent (though their relationship in this film only really works because of what the audience already knows of the two). Michael Shannon is solid as General Zod, but I’d rather see him playing characters like Peter Evans in Bug any day of the week.

Even though Man of Steel isn’t perfect, it’s still a perfect example of what summer blockbusters are all about, and a whole hell of a lot of fun. It is epic in scope, and Snyder is able to leave his mark on this one, which is a good thing in my book.

AlienResurrection3. Alien: Resurrection (1997) dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Haters gonna hate, but Alien: Resurrection is a great example of dialogue writing trumping story, and helps cement the Alien series as one of the strongest out there.

I started watching through this series during last year’s Challenge, but for whatever reason, never made it all the way through. A lot of that probably had to do with the fact that I’ve heard nothing but negative things about both Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. Turns out I love them both, so shame on me for not checking them out sooner.

Where Alien 3 made it onto my good side thanks to the direction by one of my favorites, David Fincher, Alien: Resurrection does so thanks to the script, which is written by Joss Whedon. The dialogue is smart, witty, funny, and just on-point from beginning to end. I’ve heard some argue that it is too over the top for their liking, but I find that it fits perfectly with the style that Jean-Pierre Jeunet is going for.

The story grabbed my interest from the get-go: a human/alien hybrid Ripley 200 years in the future? Yes, please. Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Ron Perlman, Michael Wincott, and Brad Dourif all play excellently together, and just do a great job of making Alien: Resurrection a fun, memorable experience. Frankly, I don’t get all the hate at all, and even though this would rank third amongst the Alien franchise for me (behind Aliens and Alien, in that order), it still manages 4-stars, and is highly recommended.

Re-Animator2. Re-Animator (1985) dir. Stuart Gordon

This one hit me completely off-guard, but won me over within the first 60 seconds. I love strolling through the Netflix suggestions during these Challenges, seeing what looks good in the moment, and thanks to the Blu-ray of this being released recently, it was one that I had been wanting to see. Luckily Netflix had it, and I was in the mood. Hitting play that day was one of the best decisions I made throughout the entire month.

Re-Animator is the epitome of over-the-top horror that would become big in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it does it better than 99% of the other trash out there. Not only is the gore absolutely insane, but the story is also wonderfully bizarre, and the characters are all fully realized. The star of the film, and the reason why I already want to go back and watch this one, along with the sequels, is Jeffrey Combs. He understands the type of film he is in, and finds a perfect mix of genuineness and camp that defines why some of us are obsessed with “bad” movies. His partner in crime, and the human side of the duo, Bruce Abbott, is almost as entertaining, but in a much more realistic way. Cult icon Barbara Crampton is smoking hot as the love interest as well, which is a nice bonus.

This is about as fun as campy ‘80s horror/sci-fi movies get, and with a couple re-watches, I can see this creeping in to the conversation with some of my favorite horror films of all-time. Re-Animator is simply the right way to do these types of films, and anyone who has missed out on this gem in the past should absolutely remedy that as soon as possible.

Stake Land1. Stake Land (2010) dir. Jim Mickle

When I selected this film as one of the Featured Films for CSSC2, I only really did so because it was a Blu-ray I had sitting around, and Danielle Harris was in it. Luckily Stake Land – like Re-Animator – proved to have a much bigger impact on my month than I ever could have expected.

Stake Land tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by bloodthirsty vampires. (Why this has happened doesn’t matter; how our characters will survive it is king.) We are introduced to a random boy and a random man who just happen to cross paths at the worst moment of the boy’s young life. The man, only known as Mister throughout the whole movie, is as mysterious as they come, but takes the boy in as he tries to find salvation across the country. He teaches him everything he knows as the two battle vampires and attempt to make it to a safe haven.

What makes Stake Land special, though, is how well this story is told. There are so many twists and turns along the way, and director Jim Mickle never pulls any punches. This creates a world that is beautiful in its ugliness and bleakness; a perfect post-apocalyptic America. Mickle’s direction emphasizes the emptiness of the entire situation, mostly thanks to the picture perfect filming locations used. It is a visual stunner, but in a much different way than, say, Oz the Great and Powerful. There are images that Mickle finds that will stick with the viewer long after the film has ended, and not just because they are gross or violent, but because of the severity of some of the moments he is able to create. Stake Land is a great example of nearly perfect directing.

So little is given in terms of back-story that one might expect the characters to play second fiddle to the vampire killing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Mickle manages to make the character’s history matter much less than where they are now, and where they are heading, keeping everything in the present. Keeping things in the here and now make the characters thrive, and each one is special, and unique, and the audience cares for every one of the survivors. Like all the best post-apocalyptic films out there, Stake Land is a study of human interaction that merely uses vampires (or zombies, or whatever other monster may be present in other films) as a catalyst for telling this human story.

Stake Land is not only one of the best films I watched during CSSC2, but one of the best films I’ve seen all year. I’m sure I will be talking more about this at the end of the year because Stake Land struck me in a way that only the best films can. It mixes my love for the post-apocalyptic setting, vampires, beautiful cinematography, and smart, insightful storytelling. Frankly, it is a film with a message, and it’s much better than it has any right to be. If you’ve waited on viewing this gem, now’s the time to watch it. Stake Land is a quintessential four-star film that everyone who has any interest in the subject matter needs to see.

Looking back on the month of June, I can’t help but be ecstatic about CSSC2. I got to watch a lot of great movies, and talk about them with my fellow twitter friends. That’s what the Challenge is all about. The twitter film community is a wonderful place, and this niche of horror and sci-fi houses the best of that community. I want to take one more second and thank all of those that participated in this year’s Challenge for the final time. It would be nothing without all of you, so thank you for your efforts. Hopefully I’ll see you all again in the Challenge next year! In the meantime, keep checking Cinefessions for more guest reviews and other film-related articles.

Those are some of my favorites of the past month, so what about you? What are your top five films from CSSC2? Leave a comment below and let me know!