Ari Aster’s profoundly beautiful, deeply fucked-up Midsommar opens with a howl of despair in the claustrophobic confines of darkness, then blossoms into a full-blown horror show under eternal, unremitting sunlight. Few filmmakers could find the inherent sickliness in sun-drenched atmosphere, but Aster is one-of-a-kind, as his equally masterful Hereditary proved in 2018. This is not a film that will welcome many people into its clammy grasp, but from the opening moments of Midsommar, I found relatability and truth in its horror. This is not simply a Wicker Man reboot, or a dumb slasher movie about college kids going to a Swedish festival. Any complaints that it’s all too easy to see where the film is going are ultimately void because Aster knows you know where this is going. Hell, he even SHOWS you in the sneaky mural that opens the film. The point isn’t where the film goes, or even how it gets there. Midsommar is about the inevitable and the inescapable flowering into full-blown reality, right under the Swedish sun. This is the best film of 2019.
This year’s Oscar Best Picture winner is, finally, the right choice. There’s probably lots of fancy words I could use to describe Parasite, but the only two that came to mind when I first saw it are “holy shit”. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, director of badass films like Snowpiercer, Okja, and The Host, has made a full-blown masterpiece out of what is probably his most subtle and classical film. There’s no crazy special effects, over-the-top performances, or anything else that calls attention to itself. It’s just a great story, well told, exciting and stimulating from start to finish. I can’t remember the last time a movie made me realize I had no fucking idea where it was going. You’ll know the moment when it comes. As a movie-goer, there are few things in the world as thrilling as not expecting where a story is taking you. On top of the twists and turns, Parasite is one of the most clever movies ever made about class relations. Everything, down to every little camera angle, has a deeper metaphorical meaning relating to this dichotomy that defines the film. With its timely messages about the exploitive relationship between host and leech (and which is which), Parasite is so universal, this excellent Korean film is now a major hit in America, deservedly so.
At 31 years old, Trey Edward Shults has made a great movie (Krisha), an interesting movie that didn’t work for me (It Comes at Night), and now a sucker-punch of a movie. That Waves comes from such a young new filmmaker is at once exciting and inspirational. This is the kind of film that major directors at the height of their careers would dream of making. Waves begins by being presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1, pretty normal for a theatrical release. It fills the entire screen. But as the film progresses, the ratio begins to shrink. By the climax, the ratio has been shrunk as to completely narrow the focus of the imagery. Startlingly, the climax of the film is not near the end, but in the middle. The rest of the movie opens back up, the ratio expands, and by the end, we are back at 1.85:1. This kind of trickery may seem gimmicky but it’s key to the movie working so well. As the pressure and intensity of the story heightens, the film’s perspective narrows to a darkened pinpoint. Whenever tragedy strikes, there are moments that add up to the event like clockwork. Like puzzle pieces waiting to be put together. The closer we get to the tragedy, the more narrow the focus is. And after tragedy, we grieve and we mourn, but then something curious happens; we begin to move forward. We open back up. Waves is a heartbreaking film about how tragedy can strike a seemingly normal and promising life and how it touches everyone involved. Sometimes there are no villains, only victims of circumstance, of emotion, of life. And like waves, these moments crash thunderously into our souls before retreating back into the sea.
Jojo Rabbit features a sequence that is so lovely, so tragic, so haunting and magnificent and jaw-dropping, you can hardly believe it comes smack-dab in the middle of a comedy about Nazis, but here we are. A lot of people might have a hard time stomaching a movie about the Holocaust that is largely played for laughs and cuteness, but the brilliance of Taika Waititi’s film is that it is sensitive and heartfelt and even monstrous when it needs to be. Because it is all told from the perspective of a child who’s beliefs have been twisted by a hate-filled dictatorship, the film is defined by confusion stemming from goodness being co-opted for evil. Few films have captured childlike wonder so fascinatingly and so endearingly. There are some who believe a movie about Nazis should not be comedic at all, but there’s a difference between laughing at, and laughing with. As humans, we HAVE to laugh or we’ll dissolve into full-blown misery. Waititi finds the perfect balance of comedy, tragedy, naivety, and profundity. And Scarlett Johansson’s shoes. Shit.
Jordan Peele has made two movies and I’m ready to call him the new master of suspense. I said what I said. With Us, Peele lets himself play around in the sandbox of his mind, diverting from the singular punch of Get Out to a more elusive and difficult metaphor. Initially playing like a home-invasion thriller with a supernatural element, Us descends (quite literally) into the depths of horror defined by political, social, and cultural unrest. Its villains, in their identical red jump suits, are harder to define than the villains in Get Out, their motives less susceptible to audience nit-picking. This is the kind of movie that won’t hold up if you incessantly attempt to define every aspect of it. But Peele is working on mood, he’s working on atmosphere, on emotion, and on the slippery and insurmountable unrest of dissent leading to chaos and eventually to a full-blown nightmare. This is the genius of Jordan Peele; horror that evolves naturally from the unrest and uncertainty of our place in society.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time… at home while on Letterboxd, I was making my best of 2019 list and I had this movie at #10. By last week I had moved it to this spot at #6 but by the end of this sentence I will probably rethink that. The point is, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is like a fine bottle of something people drink that just gets better with age. Most of Tarantino’s films have the pleasure of existing in their own way inside your memory. That’s because his movies are pretty much just that; fever dreams of pop culture references that existed at a time, filtered through Tarantino’s head, and realized again through film. This one works, perhaps better than any of his previous movies, on that simple pleasure. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and Hollywood is pure nostalgia. No complaints here. Tarantino is absolutely doing his thing and loving it. There’s an entire sequence on Spahn Ranch – the former movie studio slash playground for Charles Manson’s ‘family’ – that is pure horror. There’s other scenes, such as Sharon Tate watching herself on screen at a downtown theater, that exude unfettered joy. Tarantino takes control of what happened the night of August 9, 1969, and you know what? It’s a hell of a lot better than what really happened. THAT’S cinema.
I love this movie in the same way I love enjoying homemade chicken noodle soup in a mug while watching snow fall outside. It’s cozy and comforting and a little melancholy but it ultimately makes you feel like you’ll be alright. Little Women, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is as good a modern retelling of this timeless story can be. Maybe it helps that I had never read the book or seen any previous iterations before watching this. But I also feel that Gerwig genuinely made this story interesting and timely even for people who are very familiar with the story. Little Women is a passion project for Gerwig, and every scene, every moment, radiates that passion and love. The way the past and present are represented in a golden nostalgic glow versus the cold uncertainty of the present is gorgeous and brilliant. The writing is so incredibly delicious and punchy and playful and thought-provoking. The performances all around are stellar, with Florence Pugh’s Amy being a standout. I dunno. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It’s soul-soothing. With her second directorial feature, Gerwig has really solidified herself as a filmmaker to get excited about.
My mom hated this movie because she said it gave her way too much anxiety. I said, “yeah, same. I loved it.” I guess some people don’t like to feel uncomfortable and anxious for entertainment? Notice that I DO have Midsommar as my number one favorite film of the year, so, you know. Love ya mom. Anyway, Uncut Gems is a hell of a film. The Safdie Brothers (Josh and Benny) direct this with the intensity of early Scorsese. It’s fast and gritty and mean but you feel the energy in your bones. Whether you loved it or hated it, you FELT it. I love any movie that can genuinely make me feel such a strong reaction that I’m sitting on the edge of my seat, biting my nails because I’m so anxious about what will happen next. Uncut Gems is that movie. Adam Sandler is so damn good you wish he’d do this kind of thing more, especially during a sequence that defines the entirety of the movie: Sandler’s character breaks down and cries in desperation and defeat, then realizes he has one more chance to gamble his way out of his situation, and immediately stops crying and goes into manic mode. It’s a great moment that perfectly captures an addict driving rapidly into oblivion.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a horny film, and a sexy film, and that it is such without even a real sex scene is pretty amazing. This is a movie about looking and about not looking. Those secret glances you give to someone who you just want to notice you and look at you. It’s about two women during the late 1700s who have to contend with their love for each other in a world where that is impossible. I’m already crying. No, but really, this is a French film so you know it’s classy and sexy, but it is also just astonishingly, flat-out gorgeous. The cinematography, the costumes, the production – all fabulous. It’s also directed by a woman (Céline Sciamma), with two lead female roles (Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant), so there isn’t a male gaze present anywhere. They don’t make love stories like this anymore, and this one wrecked me.
Knife + Heart
Speaking of horny movies, Knife + Heart tells the charming story of the cast of a gay porn film crew in 1970s France being picked off one-by-one by a killer wearing a leather mask and wielding a dildo with a switchblade attachment. It’s a good one. Heavily inspired by Giallo films from the likes of Dario Argento – and some Brian De Palma in the mix for good measure – this is a stylish and rather wonderful homage to film past as well as its own original, diabolical, and sexy thing. If Deep Red, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and Blow Out are recognizable movie titles to you, you’re going to want to see this. The imagery is wildly colorful and cinematic, the score by M83 is dope as hell, and the LGBTQ+ themes are not only present, but explored in subtle, effective ways.
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order)
- The Irishman
- Knives Out
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- The Lighthouse
- Marriage Story
- The Souvenir
- Toy Story 4