Swedish death cults, alligator hurricanes, Rudy Ray Moore, and two men masturbating in a lighthouse. It was definitely a bonkers year for cinema. So why don't you say we dispense with all those niceties and formalities and get right into it?
Here are the top ten films that stood out to me this year:
10. Under the Silver Lake
David Robert Mitchell's long-anticipated followup to It Follows is the quintessential #10 film. Utterly divisive among audiences and critics upon its release, the general consensus seems to be that, while Under the Silver Lake does have many positive qualities, it was ultimately a sophomore misfire. And that's a shame.
Sure, due to its unwieldy, unfocused nature, it's pretty easy to point out its flaws. However, that completely diminishes how special the film actually is. For all the doomsday-naysayers flouting "we never get anything new in theaters anymore," take heed: this weird-ass fucking thing played in theaters! It's downright inspiring to see such personal artistic expression being screened in multiplexes.
Part L.A. noir, part Lynchian mindfuck, part Alice in Wonderland parable, part screwball comedy, Under the Silver Lake is definitely what happens when no one is allowed to say "no" to a director. You could say that sort of environment doesn't usually lend itself to flawless cinema, and you'd be right. But it sure makes for goddamned interesting cinema, and I'd rather watch ten, flawed Under the Silver Lakes a year than one focus-grouped-to-death, lifeless Star Wars or Marvel movie.
Many critics are also quick to point out that the ending is a letdown, given the insane two-hour lead up, for which I think doesn't give the film enough credit. Despite its complexities, the film is simply an unfiltered, stream-of-consciousness look into the mind of Millennial disillusionment. Being letdown is part of the point. The idea that the elites and older generations have completely screwed us for their stupid, uninteresting reasons spoke to me as a hopelessly bitter Millennial.
So if you're still on the fence with this one, give it a whirl. While you may not take to it completely, I promise you'll get something valuable out the experience. If anything, see it for Andrew Garfield's fearless performance. Probably his best work.
Halfway through Yann Gonzalez’s giallo throwback, Knife+Heart, I suddenly had a new bone to pick with the universe: fuck you for not making me a gay man in 1979 Paris. Yeah, that's how enjoyable and charming this film is.
Boogie Nights is Knife+Heart's closest cinematic cousin, with the latter's slasher element more of a smattering of breadcrumbs for the genre crowd. This is, above all, a hang out film. Like Boogie Nights, you're a fly on the wall, watching a close-knit, likable cast of characters make porn--just this time, it's zero-budget French gay porn. In the tradition of the best slashers, each kill is devastating, as you love the characters you've spent the entire film rooting for.
Shot on 35mm with a boss righteous synth score from M83, the film oozes neon, sleaze, and heart. Overall, a huge win for queer genre cinema.
I don't have much to say about Crawl other than "more badass alligator movies, please!" Director Alexandre Aja takes the gator-run-amok genre to his trademark bloody heights and delivers a rad, R-rated treat for fans of this sort of thing (me). Put this in the Gator Pantheon next to Alligator and Rogue.
7. Ready or Not
I thought I knew what I was getting into with Ready or Not, given the buzz and trailer. And that's pretty much what I got: an above-average horror-comedy in the vein of You're Next with rich pricks in a big house killing each other. What I wasn't expecting was such assured, exceptional direction from duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and a breakout performance from Samara Weaving.
Ready or Not is not going to change the world or anything, but its well-earned success is going to be a real shot in the arm for mainstream horror cinema, proving there is a market for original properties. That's reason enough to celebrate it. At the very least, Samara Weaving will probably be a household name by this time next year.
6. The Lighthouse
Oddly enough, this #6 slot was the hardest one to fill. I sort of had it reserved for The Irishman, but in the end, I felt like Robert Eggers' followup to The Witch deserved it more. No knock on The Irishman, as I'm sure every other critic out there will be writing about it, but it just didn't land with me the same way it apparently did with others. Alas, a film as bold as The Lighthouse certainly warrants highlighting over a film that thought CGI blood and gore coming out of a wood chipper was a good idea. (I mean, I know budgets are tight these days, but Jesus Christ.)
And bold is the operative word here. Shot in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio and telling the story of two characters trapped in a lighthouse--to say Eggers is not the type of filmmaker to compromise may be bit of an understatement. Yet, despite its inherent pretensions, the movie never quite succumbs to the art house batshittery. Its surreal backdrop, instead, only serves to flesh out the dark humanity of the two men confined to their forced companionship.
This is in no small part due to the two performances, Willem Dafoe's especially. I am typically not a fan of big performances (for the usual cynical reasons), but Dafoe is completely transformative here. The point of his character is to be larger than life and full of shit, lying as much to himself as he is to Robert Pattinson. Yet, it never feels like Dafoe is lying to us...if that makes any sense.
The style and subject matter may keep people away from this one for a while, but I highly recommend it to anyone who's into more of the art house variety. Then maybe ya'll can tell me what it all means. Because I'm still trying to suss it out...
5. Dolemite Is My Name
Anyone who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter knows just how important Rudy Ray Moore is to me. Simply put, he's one of my favorite entertainers ever. His films, regardless of the qualities we traditionally associate with good cinema, are of purest heart (which is particularly funny, given their content). There's nary a cynical bone to be found--just a sincere desire to entertain. And Dolemite Is My Name somehow finds this earnestness, taking the story of one of the most vulgar comedians in history and transforming it into a teary-eyed, all-inspiring testament to belief in one's self and passion for filmmaking.
Eddie Murphy is Rudy Ray Moore in this movie. So much so, that about ten minutes in, I stopped thinking of Eddie as Rudy. It was just Rudy on screen, and it felt good and slightly delirious (hehe) to have him back. Murphy's commitment and reverence to Moore in this love letter finally makes it feel like this once esoteric figure has been legitimized.
And all I gotta say is that it's about fucking time. Put your weight on this one.
After just two films, Ari Aster has skyrocketed to the status of Major Contemporary Director. Honestly, it's hard to even overstate the unusual nature of his crossover appeal. There isn't a filmmaker working currently that has the combined veneration of cinephiles, hipsters, horror nerds, and the general public alike. Though, to be fair, I was still taken aback by the commercial success of Midsommar.
When I wrote my review earlier this year before the film was released, I predicted its length, slow deliberate pacing, and bonkers payoff would actively piss off audiences at the multiplex. Now I sit here, post-Halloween, after Midsommar costumes were among the holiday's most popular, eating crow. And I'm happy to do so!
But is Midsommar a masterpiece? Time will tell, but it certainly has all the hallmarks of one. Aster’s assured hand on the wheel is nothing short of stunning, giving us such a singular piece, a truly uninterrupted vision. The experience is so immersive, the pacing so deliberate, that it lulls you into a kind of hypnotic trance, its beauty providing an odd comfort in spite of the dread. So when the film takes its inevitable, horrific turn, the jarring sensation is as effective as anything you could hope for in a horror film.
One final note on the director's cut: it is the definitive version of this film. The added length does dilute the tension considerably, but the additional character beats and extra time to live and breathe in that world makes the payoff ten times more emotional and understandable in the end.
3. One Cut of the Dead
This is a hard one to discuss without giving away the game, so I'll tread lightly. Suffice to say, Shin'ichirô Ueda's Japanese zombie comedy is a film about filmmaking and the passion of those, behind and in front of the camera, to churn out something to be proud of, despite the thanklessness nature of filmmaking. It's a sincere portrait of collaboration, teamwork, creativity, and the shedding of ego--which, as the film points out, are not only the ingredients required for a successful film production, but the virtues needed to sustain a healthy family dynamic.
If I was blown away and inspired by what Snowflake did with a $50,000 budget last year, I am downright flabbergasted what Ueda accomplishes here with just $25,000. The first shot is an intricate 35-minute single take (though I'm pretty sure I saw a couple cheats here and there) of a film crew making a zombie movie when the actual zombie apocalypse starts. It only gets more insane from there.
One Cut of the Dead is a celebration of DIY, no budget filmmaking. Equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, it would actually make a great pairing with Dolemite Is My Name. Or Bowfinger. Or, if you really need a deep cut, 1976's Hollywood Man (directed by Jack Starrett of Race With the Devil "fame").
Seriously, is Bong Joon-ho human? The question need not be rhetorical, as the man is on a run of films that would suggest some kind of divine providence, or at the very least, a Faustian bargain with a very un-divine providence. Like, I reiterate, seriously: Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Okja, Snowpiercer--and now, Parasite. If he were American, we'd be hailing him as the second coming of Spielberg.
And make no doubt about it, Parasite is a masterpiece. Joon-ho's neo-noir dark comedy is a master class in juggling tone, genre, and story. It's a timely, punch-to-the-gut satire that feels more like living in our world than actually living in our world. Naturalistic in the literary sense, the film refuses to place judgement on any character, as we see how the economic divide in our society rots our souls (on both sides).
Parasite follows an extremely impoverished family as they con their way--one by one--into the home of a wealthy family, working as school tutors, driver, and housemaid. In order to succeed, they must backstab fellow members of their own class, creating unforeseen consequences that could spell doom for both families. Where, in the beginning, you're actively rooting for the poor family, you begin to sense, with increasing dread, that your "heroes" are in for some kind of Tales from the Crypt comeuppance.
The film, therefore, is asking if it's a fate they deserve or just the result of the unfair distribution of wealth and justice. As with the best of films, its answers will lie in the eye of the beholder. And Parasite is the best of films.
1. Dragged Across Concrete
Before you can say it to me, I'm gonna quickly turn it around on you: "ya'll be smokin' that shit when it comes to this movie."
Dragged Across Concrete is, by far, the most criminally underappreciated film this year. I don't know if it's because people couldn't get past its (supposed) right wing leanings or the fact that Mel Gibson is still toxic--but man, this one didn't seem to get a fair shake.
For my money, S. Craig Zahler is the best director working today. We haven’t seen such an individual, singular voice arrive on the genre scene since Tarantino showed up in the early 90’s. There is no mistaking Zahler dialogue or a Zahler scene for anyone else’s. He’s one of a kind, and just like Tarantino, has the uncanny ability to bridge that gap between obscure genre cinema and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
And his newest film may be the most Zahler of his films--which is probably what turned a lot of folks off. His irreverent dialogue and characterizations come off like anti-matter in our faux outrage cultural moment. The extended plot detours and long takes scream fuck you self indulgence. His violence is cruel and disproportionately distributed.
But that's Zahler! It's weird everyone took those elements in stride with his first two features, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, but not here. And it's truly a shame, because I feel like he finally has something to say.
Zahler consistently takes heat for the racism and misogyny in his films, but here we need not confuse the film’s lack of judgment of the characters for sympathy towards them. It may come as a surprise to anyone caught hopelessly inside the Woke Twitter Machine, but most people don't live their lives according to the online whims of 5,000 power drunk cultural warriors. Zahler's gift to us in Dragged Across Concrete is an honest depiction of a very flawed Regular Joe, who's trying to do right, but is destroyed by the moral rot of income inequality.
These inane intersectional arguments we’re forced to make now overshadow the fact that this is an unabashed liberal critique of the failures of capitalism. Zahler shows us how the structural problems with modern capitalism create the environment that breeds characters like Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. Therefore, I think the fact that the film makes us uncomfortable means it’s doing its job. Perhaps we’re better off understanding how the system produces racism and misogyny instead of superficially attacking its byproducts?
Ten years from now when we're reflecting upon Zahler's early career, Dragged Across Concrete will be heralded as his unsung classic. It's not too late to get in on the ground floor...