Craig’s Top Ten of 2019
Gaspar Noe’s Climax exists in the delicate meridian between art and madness. Taking place in a single location, Climax sees a dance troupe plummet into bedlam when it’s discovered they’ve all been drugged with a powerful hallucinogenic. Noe’s keen ability to pair the beautiful with the profane is on full view in Climax, opening with a hypnotic dance sequence that introduces the characters before submerging them into a paranoid hellscape. Noe’s hyperbolic vision of the parasite/host relationship between art and insanity is hard to watch but impossible to look away from.
9. READY OR NOT
Ready or Not is nothing if not committed to its audacious premise: in order to appease the superstition of some elder god, a family of wealthy snobs must engage in a ritualistic tradition of hunting the newest addition on her wedding night, or face the consequences from the deity of rich assholes (Bezos-zelbub?). Samara Weaving, as the hunted bride, faces off against against her new in-laws, made up of a cadre of wonderful supporting performances, including Andie McDowell and Adam Brody. 2019 offered a panoply of exciting genre fare, none more so than Ready or Not, which is a crowd-pleasing delight throughout, culminating with the year’s most outrageous and gratifying ending.
I recently caught a few minutes of American Pie on cable and it’s horrifying to see such ugly, vicious, and retrograde misogyny painted as aspirational for young, sexually frustrated men. American Pie reignited a decades long trend of comedies aimed at young people that didn’t just treat women as less than men, but as props in their sexual escapades. These kind of teen comedies dominated the early 2000s, but the last decade saw an emergence of teen comedies that not only treat women and girls with respect, but give them actual agency over their decisions. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart is one of the best. Led by two hilarious and tender performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlin Dever (who also nothing short of brilliant in Netflix’s 2019 series Unbelievable), Booksmart captures the same angst and uncertainty at the heart of all teen comedies. But whereas so many teen comedies force female characters to conform to either the whore or madonna complex, Booksmart creates multifaceted characters that resemble actual American teenagers and hilariously inverts the status quo of teen comedies.
7. THE FAREWELL
Not enough movies capture just how goddamn weird death is. Having someone there and then not, is such a strange sensation. Even stranger is preparing someone for death. Humans have lasted by avoiding death at all costs, so actively preparing for someone to die is anachronistic to the our psyche. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell—the story of a Chinese-American woman disconnected from her culture, returning home to say goodbye to a grandmother who doesn’t realize she’s dying—tackles this weird grey area of human experience and, against all odds, is a delightful affair. Akwafina delivers an intricately layered performance of a woman at loggerheads with herself, her family, and the culture she grew up in and apart from.
6. KNIVES OUT
Director Rian Johnson endured a barrage of online hate for his beautiful, meditative 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (though the abuse Johnson suffered was nothing compared to the film’s female actresses who were and continue to be harassed simply for being female actresses). Dank, horrifying corners of the internet were lit up by tweetstorms and videos trying to “deconstruct” why Johnson is a bad filmmaker who lacks even the foundational skills of movie making. Then Johnson made Knives Out, a self-assured whodunit propelled by a razor sharp screenplay that presents its mystery with such confidence, it would be futile to even attempt to unravel the secrets. Anchored by an enormous, wonderful performance by Daniel Craig—that is both an obvious homage to famous gumshoes and a creature of its own distinction—Knives Out is the most fun I had at the theater this year. And it will hopefully serve as a polite reminder to the most impolite parts of film fandom that Rian Johnson’s got the chops.
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out was a ball of thread that slowly unraveled into just one string, a complex knot ending in a single linear line. Us, Peele’s follow-up, appears as a similar ball of thread, but when unraveled, it reveals not just one thread, but many. Whereas Get Out left the viewer with only one conclusion, Us is an open-ended metaphor that reflects on the unease and discomfort of living in the United States in 2019. Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance is genre defining and instantly iconic, making just the tilt of her head a shocking threat. And though Us’s conclusion isn’t quite as satisfying as the more tightly wrapped Get Out, its portrait of the duality of life in America is haunting and powerful.
4. UNCUT GEMS
In 2016, the experimental electronic duo Matmos released Ultimate Care II, a single track album consisting only of beats, tones, timbres, and samples made off of the duo’s washing machine. What begins as a weird cacophony of familiar sounds morphs and shifts into rattling beats and aching, bellowing half-melodies, leaving the listener asking “is this art?”. And as that question circulates, the sounds coalesce into unmistakable beauty, an operatic catharsis that turns chaos into grace. The Safdie Brothers’ anarchic crime thriller Uncut Gems, operates in a similar fashion, throwing recognizable elements into the frame and allowing the chaos to build to an apex until it all clicks into place. The Safdie’s tireless camera—whirling and spinning in an almost futile attempt to keep up with the dialogue—paired with Daniel Lopatin’s energetic score and Adam Sandler’s dangerous spirit, turn the sound and fury of Uncut Gems into perfect choreography.
With grief comes a constant state of anxiety and uncertainty, an inability to find yourself amidst a world now devoid of the thing or things you once loved. In his horrifying debut Hereditary, Ari Aster examined the way internalized grief can tear a family apart. In Midsommar, Aster’s follow-up, grief is an isolating force, one that when not allowed to exist in a healthy environment, becomes destructive. Florence Pugh as Dani finds every bit of nuance in this vulnerable state and channels it into a performance that unnerves the audience for just how tangible her grief feels. Midsommar isn’t a static meditation on grief, but one that is vibrant and alive—at times, quite literally, as the flowers in a brooch or crown pulse with the wearer’s own heartbeat (and eagle-eyed viewers have found the hidden imagery of the surrounding forest literally taking the shape of Dani’s grief). And for the horror hounds, Midsommar is a very worthy follow-up to Hereditary, building its scares on a foundation of dread, creating a monument of existential terror.
2. THE LIGHTHOUSE
2019 was an incredible year for young horror filmmakers making their second feature. The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, joins Us and Midsommar as outstanding sophomore efforts from burgeoning horror icons.
Eggers’ moody ode to Lovecraft by way of Ernest Hemingway, is like watching two hostile amoebas under a microscope, slowly dancing around each other, waiting for one to consume the other. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson turn in two of the best performances of the year as weathered wickies, charged with maintaining a lighthouse on a desolate rock off the coast of New England. Just like his first film The Witch (which topped my Best Of list in 2016), The Lighthouse is textured with misery, brought to life by Jarin Blaschke’s oppressive, beautiful black and white cinematography that exists on some ethereal planet between heaven and hell.
For those sensing a trend, yes, my top four favorite movies of 2019 prominently feature rocks as metaphors. Howard’s opal in Uncut Gems is everything he thinks he needs but still leaves him unsatisfied. The ornamental rock, decorated with runes and streaked with blood, in Midsommar represents a violent cleansing. And the rock in The Lighthouse is the small island that contains the many mysteries and horrors of life that Thomas and Ephraim confront. But the meaning of the rock in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite—an ornamental stone gifted to the poverty stricken Kim family by a wealthier friend—is a much more slippery metaphor. It’s a reminder to the family’s aggrieved status and follows them like a haunted relic that keeps coming back to its perplexed owner.
The Kim family find themselves at the end of their rope, all jobless and unable to procure fundamental necessities when one small lie coalesces into an unsteady facade. Whether he’s making a monster film, a dystopian fantasy, or a domestic comedy, Bong’s filmography is almost singularly dedicated to dismantling the notion of capitalism as an equitable system. There comes a moment in all of Bong’s movies where his empathy and deviancy intersect. In Parasite, that intersection is profound and hilarious.