Honorable Mentions: Jojo Rabbit, Frozen II, Doctor Sleep, 1917, Ready or Not, The Dead Don’t Die, Honey Boy, Ad Astra, Lords of Chaos, Hotel Mumbai, Child’s Play, Gloria Bell, Escape Room, Her Smell, The Death of Dick Long, Rocketman, The Peanut Butter Falcon, The Two Popes, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Terminator: Dark Fate, Booksmart, The Day Shall Come, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
Not much more needs to be said about Jordan Peele’s masterful handle of the horror genre, but for those who wondered if “Get Out” would be a fluke, you only need to watch the home invasion scene in “Us” to see that Peele knows what he’s doing. “Us” shows what Peele can do with a bigger budget and a full canvas to paint on, broadening and expanding on the social-horror commentary that made “Get Out” so powerful. The film’s center is the unbelievable Lupita Nyong’o, playing dual roles as both the heroine Adelaide and the villain, Red. Her extraordinary performances are the key to the movie, with each character telling us more about the other than themselves. The quality of Red’s voice makes us lean in and pay more attention to Adelaide’s elegancy and Adelaide’s worry of some horror around the corner shows us just how long Red has been lurking. The iconic gold scissors sporting and red jumpsuit clad doppelgangers enacting revenge on those above them is one of the themes Peele is exploring, along with identity and nature vs. nurture.
The characters revolving around Nyong’o are equally as exciting and entertaining, with “Black Panther” breakout Winston Duke bringing much of the comic relief during the course of the movie. The two children also deliver phenomenal dual performances, with Evan Alex putting in a creepy physical performance as the mute Pluto. The movie starts as a simple home invasion flick and soon evolves into a full-on apocalyptic nightmare that gets scarier and stranger with each scene, including my favorite sequence of the film inside Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker’s waterfront home. Peele masterfully sets up every little thing throughout the film and satisfyingly pays each off later in the movie. Both “Get Out” and “Us” are such exciting and rewarding films for horror audiences and movie fans alike; from the dynamic performances to the social themes and the truly terrifying moments that make the theater scream and squirm, “Us” succeeds in every way.
4.) The Art of Self-Defense
Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self-Defense” flew under the radar when it was released in July, but it absolutely blew me away. It’s a pitch black comedy that feels like the bastard child of “Fight Club” and “The Lobster,” a perfectly paced monotone look at the absurdity of masculinity and violence. Jesse Eisenberg leads the film as Casey Davies, a recently attacked man who stumbles upon a karate studio while on his search for self protection. There he encounters Sensei (played to perfection by Alessandro Nivola as the year’s best ‘hate him so much you love him’ asshole) and Imogen Poots’ Anna. The sharks smell blood and soon indoctrinate Casey into their world of violence and chaos, and the results are equal parts hilarious and horrifying.
Truly, there is no movie like” The Art of Self-Defense,” and it’s hard to talk about without giving away the most surprising moments of the movie. But it is a total journey that had me laughing and gasping throughout. If this flew under your radar I urge you to run out and watch it immediately, you won’t regret it. I can’t wait to see what Stearns does next.
3.) Portrait of a Lady on Fire
This one feels a little bit like a cheat since it was only released in Los Angeles and New York in December 2019 and doesn’t open wide until February 2020, but I saw it in December and have not been able to stop thinking about it since. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of the most beautiful and engrossing love stories I have ever seen on screen. The film, set in France during the late 18th century, is about a painter, Marianne (played with subtle perfection by Noemie Merlant), who is commissioned to secretly paint a portrait of the mysterious young Heloise so it can be taken back to France to aid in marrying her off. Heloise is portrayed with striking vigor and sensitivity by Adele Haenel who will not sit for her portrait because she does not wish to be married. The two women clash at first until a beautiful friendship and trust forms between the two that develops further and further. Director Celine Sciamma has crafted an exquisite romance that breaks your heart and then fills it back up with love.
The film also features some of the most stunning cinematography of the year from Claire Mathon. She captures the nuances of the two women’s expressions as beautifully as she captures the ocean and sweeping landscapes of the island or the dark castle where most of the film takes place. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is one of those movies that fills you with such emotion it is hard to describe. It’s not a plot heavy film, but a movie that is as interested in the little twitches of the eyebrow and the stroke of a paintbrush as it is in the drama and conversation. It’s a love story as seen through the eyes of women, with an almost all-female cast dealing with love and life as women and handled with tenderness like I can’t remember seeing before.
Director Bong Joon-Ho had already long ago shown the world he is a force to be reckoned with by making classics such as “The Host,” “Memories of Murder,” and the English language “Snowpiercer” and “Okja.” But with 2019’s “Parasite,” Bong has created his “Citizen Kane.” A film that summarizes everything he’s been making films about so far. A film that is so meticulously crafted and executed, every inch of the frame is filled with information about the characters and the story, and every type of genre represented.
“Parasite” is a singular and defining achievement by one of the world’s greatest working directors. How does one even attempt to describe “Parasite”? Like a few films on this list (“Knives Out,” “The Art of Self-Defense”) describing too much about the plot robs the viewer of experiencing some truly memorable moments firsthand. The trailer alone for the film is masterful, showing you just enough of the movie to entice you while telling you absolutely nothing about what will happen during the course of the movie. What the trailer doesn’t tell you either is how absolutely entertaining and fast moving “Parasite” is. It’s a film that switches gears and genres every 15 minutes or so, moving from satire to thriller to heist film to flat out comedy then to moments of horror and devastating drama.
The cast is a who’s who of Korean talent, with Song Kang-Ho (of “The Host” and “Thirst” fame) portraying the patriarch of a poor family struggling to get by in a basement apartment. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Cho Yeo-jeong as Park Yeon-gyo, a rich but simple mother of two who lives in a sprawling modern home with personal drivers, tutors, and a nanny for her kids. The two families meet in a surprising way that changes all of their lives. The movie is also the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and has proved to be a box office hit. The themes of class and the dehumanization of the poor by the rich has been explored heavily in 2019 and on this list (“Us,” “Joker’), but “Parasite” is the absolute perfect representation of class warfare on film, and Bong Joon-ho has the most to say about it in surprising and diverse ways.
What do you get when you cross the existential breakup elements of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with the xenophobic folk terror of “The Wicker Man”? You get my No. 1 movie of the year, Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” A 2 ½ hour (unless you watch the superior director’s cut, then it’s an almost three hour) descent into a sunny pit of despair anchored by one of the greatest horror performances of all-time. “Midsommar” starts by showing the rocky and toxic relationship at its core, Florence Pugh’s Dani calls her boyfriend Christian (played by the most hated boyfriend of 2019, Jack Reynor) to confess she is feeling anxious about an email she received from her suicidal sister.
The scenes that follow setup the relationship of Christian and his group of college buddies and how they feel about Dani and their upcoming trip to Sweden, and leads to a horrifying crescendo that sets the events of the movie into motion (and also features my favorite title reveal of any movie in 2019). The film takes a hallucinatory turn when they arrive in Sweden for the Midsommar festival and the horror begins to set in. “Midsommar” is a movie that literally opens with a folksy tapestry that depicts the entire plot of the film, but stills keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.
It’s also packed with hidden imagery and visual trickery that sets up the climax of the film, including faces hidden in trees and paintings that appear innocent on first viewing but become sinister on a second watch. Not enough can be said about the revolutionary performance Pugh delivers in “Midsommar.” You instantly love and sympathize with Dani, when she’s scared you’re scared, and when she’s arguing with Christian you want to slap him across the face. Dani is one of the best characters in recent horror memory and her journey through the Midsommar festival is instantly iconic and memorable.
Equally memorable are her gaggle of American friends and fools, including Will Poulter as a hilariously brash, vaping idiot and The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper as the culture obsessed student with a thesis to write at any cost. The film drags you along and surprises you at every turn. It features some of the most grisly and trippy visuals and heightens all the way to its insane final act where all of Ari Aster’s cards are revealed.
“Midsommar” is less supernaturally spooky than Aster’s debut, “Hereditary,” but it is far more psychologically scary, hammering down on Dani and Christian’s relationship and showing how brutal a break up can be when two people don’t communicate honestly. At its core, “Midsommar” is a horror film about breaking up and the painful decisions that must be made to end a relationship (much like “Marriage Story,” but with more exploding heads and bears). The story of Dani and the May Queen will continue to haunt me, confound me, thrill me, and bring me back time and time again, which is why “Midsommar” is my No. 1 movie of 2019.
Read part one of Nick’s Top 10 movies of 2019 list here