5. Trick 'r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007, USA) This lean, nimble anthology film weaves together five separate stories over the course of a single Halloween evening. The way Dougherty connects each narrative is reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Slackers—both films are brimming with individuals seemingly disjointed from one another, but like Linklater, Dougherty eventually reveals an interconnectivity that not only speaks to a sense of community, but also a real sense of dread, horror, and, surprisingly, humor.
4. The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2003, USA) Zombie's gleeful ode to exploitation cinema remains his greatest effort as a filmmaker. Improving on the enjoyable but slight House of 1000 Corpses, the film is imbued with idiosyncratic characterization and deliriously terrifying imagery, but perhaps most impressive is Zombie's zestful knowledge of not just genre cinema, but cinema in general. The hilarious "Groucho Marx/Elvis Presley" scene is truly remarkable.
3. The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001, Spain/Mexico) Del Toro's early films are buried under the weight of his more popular work, but this eery, classically crafted ghost story remains far and away his best film. He imbues history and memory with a sort of spiritual sadness, suggesting the scariest scenarios often reside in the recesses of our minds. This is just as much a humanist drama as it is a chilling horror film.
2. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009, USA) More than just a mere throwback to the satanist craze the 80s, West's measured chiller proves that atmosphere and setting still have a place in horror cinema. As an antidote to the torture porn that pervaded the decade, the film's sustained tone felt fresh even as it paid tribute to previous styles. Jocelin Donahue delivers one of the more underappreciated performances in recent memory—in a horror film or otherwise.
1. Frontiere(s) (Xavier Gens, 2008, France) A product of the so-called New French Extremity—a term coined by James Quandt to describe a style of French filmmaking determined "to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement"—this deeply disturbing but strangely exhilarating horror film owes much to the "body horror" of David Cronenberg. Truly not for the faint of heart, it perfectly encapsulates Quandt's notion of an "extreme" cinema. But it's also notable for its subversive treatment of imperialistic order, marked by Gens's transgressive approach to both narrative and form.
Honorable mentions: There are lots. Here's a quick rundown: Greg McLean's Wolf Creek (2005), David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), Frank Darabont's The Mist (2007), Pascal Laugier's Martyrs (2008), Brad Anderson's Session 9 (2001), Fabrice du Welz's Vinyan (2008), William Friedkin's Bug (2006), James Mangold's Identity (2005), Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001), and Ryuhei Kitamura's The Midnight Meat Train (2008).