The Absolute Best Horror Cinema Offered in 2019
2019 was another great year for the horror genre, and while we could have easily listed about thirty movies we’d love to recommend, we decided instead to narrow it down to our fifteen favourites.
We here at Sordid Cinema believe horror transcends explicit gore, jump scares or supernatural content, which is why you’ll soon notice that our list ranges from independent art films to psychological thrillers to parodies to satire and more. Whether you’re a fan of psychological terror, sci-fi dread, traditional slasher flicks, or gory splatterfests, we hope you’ll find at least one movie on this list that you’ll enjoy.
Editor’s Note: In order to qualify, a movie must have been released either theatrically or on VOD in 2019. We are not including any of the amazing horror films we watched at film festivals that have not yet been released. In addition, because it was such a strong year for horror films, we also listed some special mentions below. That out of the way, here are the fifteen best horror movies of 2019.
During the lead-up to Gaspar Noé’s most recent provocation, Climax, he released a one-sheet that’s one the more honest bits of film advertising ever created: “You despised I Stand Alone, you hated Irreversible, you loathed Enter the Void, you cursed Love, now try Climax.” Nothing it says is wrong — each film has its defenders and detractors, but few filmmakers can turn off viewers like Noé. What’s most amazing about his latest is how completely enjoyable it is for the first 45 minutes or so. What follows is peppered with his standard touchstones: sex, sexual violence, regular ol’ violence, and hallucinogenic drug trips. Noé fans will find everything they like about his films here in Climax, but even his usual critics may be seduced by his style — at least until the drugs take hold.
Climax telegraphs where it will go in its opening minutes. After a quick flashforward to future violence, we see a series of interviews with dancers on an old TV circa 1996. The on-screen text suggests the film is based on real events from 1996, but it’s all a fabrication on Noé’s part. His performers are congregated in a dance hall with their choreographer (Sofia Boutella, the film’s only professional actor), who plans to take the troupe on a US tour. In Climax’s first section, they perform a choreographed dance soundtracked with incessant ‘90s dance music. Even the staunchest Noé critics will have trouble finding fault with the voguing (the actors are all professional dancers and YouTubers), but someone has spiked their bowl of sangria with LSD, and the stylish music video soon turns into an even more stylish nightmare.
Noé’s camera is as fleeting and energized as the dancers in front of it. His regular cinematographer, Benoît Debie, plays up the garish club lighting — a candy-colored rave nightmare. There’s a virtuoso sequence toward the end where the camera flips upside down (mirroring its acrobatics in Irréversible), which cleverly dehumanizes the dancers. When looking at faces upside down, our brains struggle to reorient them; we can figure out who the character is through isolated features, but they look foreign, alien. The LSD has warped them into panicky monsters, and the camera allows us to see them in this new light by actually transforming them.
There’s plenty that’s sickening and offensive, including the fate of a child unfortunate enough to be roped into the debauchery, but few Noé films allow the audience to sit back and revel in the music and images quite like Climax. His movies always sit uncomfortably at the precipice of horror, and this one is more delightful than anything in his oeuvre in its first half, and more destabilizing than any of his films (aside from Irréversible) in its back half. Chances are, you’ll have a much better trip than the unfortunate souls on screen — that is, if you don’t vomit first. (Brian Marks)
Though little in the script elevates it above your average SyFy creature feature, director Alexandre Aja’s Crawl offers plenty of tightly constructed, toothy thrills courtesy of some sharp direction and a lead performance that consistently buoys even the more ridiculous bits (and bites). While it may not live up to “you’ll never go in the water again” standards, this is nevertheless breezy horror entertainment that delivers enough murky spooks and gruesome attacks to make audiences think twice about wading in the reedy shallows.
Sporting a simplistic plot that could have just as easily been titled Gatorcane, Crawl sees Florida college swimmer Haley (an incredibly game Kaya Scodelario) trapped in a flooding basement with her father and some bitey reptiles during a massive storm. This type of setup has all the makings of classic B-movie schlock, but Crawl manages a better grade thanks to production values that are a cut above most ‘killer beast’ fare. Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake, Piranha 3D) creates a creaky, muddy, desolate place for his characters to be trapped in; the dripping dankness is palpable, while the diffused light keeps the water shimmering — and goads viewers into constantly searching for scaly movement.
A subplot involving the now-distant daddy-daughter relationship is clumsy, but mercifully takes little time away from the tense cat-and-mouse action; some typical monster physics issues also arise. Regardless, Crawl slithers past any flaws on the muscular strength of its merits. This is a spare, confident creature feature that gets quickly where it wants to go, and doesn’t ease up on the tension. Perhaps not quite apex predator material, but definitely near the top of the summer horror entertainment food chain. (Patrick Murphy)
The Dead Don’t Die
Director Jim Jarmusch has worked in many genres and styles over the last three decades, but The Dead Don’t Die might be his most delightful film. It’s a star-studded zombie comedy that pays equal homage to George Romero and Frank Zappa, in which the characters seem to be aware that they are characters in a movie.
The film has so many fun touches, from Sturgill Simpson’s repetitive, eponymous theme song, to Carol Kane asking for coffee, to Rosie Perez’s TV reporter character’s name being “Posey Juarez.” And I don’t know that I’ve gotten a bigger laugh out of any sight this year than that of the very tall Adam Driver driving a very small smart car. (Stephen Silver)
It: Chapter Two
Where, It: Chapter One uses the fight against Pennywise as a metaphor for the characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood, Chapter Two tackles themes of memory and childhood trauma, exploring the loss of innocence decades after our heroes faced off against the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a habit of eating kids. And like Chapter One, Chapter Two deals with grief, insecurities, trauma, and guilt. These characters may be older, but they continue to be haunted by their own personal demons, and they have ways to go before they can ever heal.
For better or for worse, It stands out as one of the rare films that have attempted to remain as true as possible to the source material and despite the running time, there’s a lot to like here, as It: Chapter Two oozes with spectacular scenery, stupefying effects, an epic score, and plenty of nerve-jangling scenes that will have viewers shrieking. In between the odd prologue and the disappointing climax is roughly two hours of well-crafted filmmaking and fifty minutes of excess. (Ricky D)
It’s difficult to nail down the exact start of cinema, but historians generally peg it to December 1895, when the Lumières exhibited ten of their short films in Paris. So far, the rising filmmaker Robert Eggers has set both of his feature films in this pre-cinema period, with The Witch taking place in barely colonized America of the 1630s, and his newest, The Lighthouse, occurring sometime around the 1890s. With his first-period horror film, he drew on the style of meticulous (and meticulously slow) period films that began to flourish in the 1960s and ‘70s. But he’s taken a differing approach with The Lighthouse, which finds him working in chilling black and white. Though the settings appear to be a note-perfect (owing to Eggers’ past as a production and costume designer), the style and tone of his latest film evoke the madness-inducing mood of German expressionism. In place of the twisting, snaking sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), he utilizes the rocky coast of Nova Scotia to create an alien world that seems inhospitable to human life.
Robert Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow, a mush-mouthed wanderer who has moved to a lighthouse on a remote island for a four-week rotation in which he’ll care for the giant beam and its upkeep. Joining him is the more senior Thomas Wake (an astounding Willem Dafoe), a grizzled veteran of the lighthouse duty who fancies himself the boss, even though they’re ostensibly of the same rank. As in another film that he clearly admires, The Shining (1980), Eggers establishes an immediate sense of dread. We know something terrible will happen — it’s just not clear what that is. He eschews easy scares, or even the kind of harmless jumps that make you chuckle with relief afterward. Instead, he lightens the oppressive mood with plenty of humorous interactions between the salty seadogs (and fart jokes galore). The greatest horror directors often know the maximum amount of humor they can inject without toning down their frights, and Eggers walks that line delicately. Not that his frights are all that piercing to begin with. His two features to date have been masterful exercises in style, and their success depends wholly on whether or not one gets on his wavelength. But anyone who connects to The Lighthouse’s meticulous compositions and deliberate pacing will be richly rewarded by its final bloody moments. (Brian Marks)
Ari Aster’s Midsommar centers on Dani (Florence Pugh) and the slow dissolution of her relationship with distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), as they accompany his school friends to remote Swedish festival that soon spirals into a blood-soaked nightmare. The film deserves acclaim for its excellent cinematography, acting performances, and originality. The entirety is shot in a way that lends direct praise to the director of photography Pawel Pogorzelski, but there are several choice scenes throughout Midsommar that are pulled straight from Aster’s screenplay — evidence of how tightly his directing plays into his screenwriting.
For instance, a simple scene transition from a city apartment to an airplane bathroom is instantly transformed into a remarkable shot; the camera floats seamlessly overhead as Dani is transported onto a transatlantic flight. The direction works in tandem with Pugh’s performance, preventing her character from fully escaping the constant panic attack that threatens to overwhelm her.
Later on, the effects of drugs used throughout the film are echoed in the scenery and camera movements, creating a disorienting climax. As characters’ faces blur and colors appear to ooze through the screen, Aster’s directing style is simultaneously powerful yet purposefully disconcerting, which might as well be the thesis for Midsommar itself.
Although the dialogue is less overtly dramatic than that of Hereditary (Aster’s film debut), the passive death of Dani and Christian’s relationship is painted with a delicate but knowing hand. During press for Midsommar, Aster disclosed that he wrote the screenplay in the aftermath of a nasty breakup. While certain liberties are taken with his story (the bear carcass, for one), personal trauma is written all over Midsommar. For anyone who has lived through a slow and inevitable breakup, the depiction of Dani and Christian’s relationship cuts close to home, and is even palpable from their first scene, in which Dani talks to him on the phone, pleading for reassurance as she downplays her anxiety.
It’s also worth noting that Pugh’s portrayal of a young woman grappling with an anxiety disorder is visceral in every scene. Whether it’s shown through primal screams or a quiet, unending hum, Pugh embodies her anxiety — as well as her battle to dampen it at every turn — perfectly. While the early plot development of Dani’s mentally ill sister killing herself and both of their parents is a symptom of a disappointing trend in horror films to make synonyms of the concepts “crazy” and “evil,” the rest of Midsommar does an enviable job of validating Dani’s anxiety. When the climax finally allows Dani to fully feel everything, and ultimately shed those worries for a new life, the moment feels earned. In short, Midsommar is by no means flawless, but it’s a welcome entry in an art form that’s quickly running out of creative corners to turn to. It’s beautiful, it’s disgusting, and above all it’s cathartic; all the traits of a modern horror film destined for cult status. (Meghan Cook)
Luz is directed with such care and such precision, that what could have been a simple chamber drama ends up being one of the best-directed and best-edited films I’ve seen all year. It really is an incredible achievement given how much mileage the cast and crew get out of a small budget. Even more impressive is that from my understanding, Luz began as a student film, and was Tilman’s thesis project while attending the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Not bad for a first feature!
The story of Luz is a relatively simple one (even if it is told out of sequence, using a series of vignettes), but if you’re open to films that twist the conventions and bend the language of image and sound in creative new ways, you won’t want to miss this. Tilman Singer’s take on demonic possession is a breath of fresh air, and Luz is a real treat for fans of vintage horror cinema (in particular, the experimental Giallo genre). The fun of watching Luz is admiring how Tilman and his very talented team rely on old tricks of the trade used before the age of computers and digital effects. (Ricky D)
One Cut of the Dead
A giddy, hilarious, invigorating celebration of the spirit of movie-making, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead cleverly plays with technique in carefully crafting a bonkers story of a micro-budget film crew tasked with shooting a C-level zombie pic in an abandoned warehouse. Things start going wrong, blood starts splattering, and the ragtag group of goofballs must come together to overcome a maniacal director, bad improv, severed arms, method acting, axes to the head, untimely slips, and zombie vomit in order to come out on top and survive until the credits roll. The result is simply one of the most entertaining movies about making movies that you will ever see.
The one-take opening act might catch viewers off guard, as in addition to the spurting neck bites, flailing hatchets, and the obligatory sprained ankle, audiences also might notice how awkward the whole thing comes off. Odd looks, wonky camerawork, jerky timing, and strange asides remind one of late-night horror schlock. And yet…there’s no doubt that even the most gracious horror audiences will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and be wishing that there was a bit more. Luckily, the real fun is just beginning.
Suffice to say, as One Cut of the Dead begins to flesh itself out, that ambitious (if somewhat clunky on the surface) opening pays off in such a supremely satisfying way that many viewers will immediately want to immediately re-watch it in order to spot little moments that they initially missed. A cast of unknowns admirably puts their passion on full display, all the way through a resoundingly satisfying end. From the expert crafting of its revelations to the blatant love for filmmaking’s cavalcade of catastrophes, One Cut of the Dead is a wonderful treasure that needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who delights in both the magic on screen, and the passion behind the scenes. (Patrick Murphy)
The notion that pain and suffering make for great artistry is an idea as old as art itself. However, few films use that conceit to as chilling an effect as The Perfection.
Charlotte (Allison Williams) was a child prodigy cellist. She learned from a world-renowned instructor, and could be playing in concerts today if she hadn’t been forced to take care of her terminally-ill mother. Now, years later, her mother has passed and Charlotte hopes to regain her glory. There’s just one problem: someone has taken her place. Lizzie (Logan Browning) is now the belle of the ball, and if Charlotte wants her place back at the head of the class, she’s going to have to get nasty.
With enough twists and turns to keep things remarkably fresh for its 90-minute runtime, The Perfection is a great piece of original horror for an October night. Just note that this one isn’t for the squeamish, in terms of both subject matter and gruesome violence. (Mike Worby)
Ready or Not
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.
There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course, there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions. (Ricky D)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Movies depicting the scarier side of life aren’t often made for teens, and either skew too young (Goosebumps) or older (Hereditary). Still, there’s a space in the market out there for horror that rides a fine line between condescending and inappropriately gory. With Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) manages to walk that tightrope, albeit with few wobbles.
The plot is fairly generic — a group of friends discovers a sinister-looking book in the local haunted house, demise ensues — but it’s simply a by-product of the genre; what makes this movie work is the imagery and scares that come when the book starts to write itself, going after each teen in turn. Pushing the boundaries of its PG-13 rating, the young cast is violently turned into scarecrows, covered in spiders, and chased by a terrifying creature called the Jangly Man, with segment having unique and disturbing imagery.
It may not go down in history as one of the best horror movies of all time, but with some decent scares, captivating images, and a good cast (Zoe Colletti as lead Stella, in particular, is excellent), it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and refreshing ride. (Veronica Cooper)
One of those films that sticks long after, even if you’re not sure why, Starfish‘s story of a woman coming to terms with the death of her friend — as well as the appearance of inter-dimensional portals that bring stalking beasts to the streets of a small mountain town — is more about mood than motives, willing to test boundaries by going to some weird places. It’s also strangely hypnotic, even during unbroken shots of its protagonist simply staring straight ahead, or trippy fourth-wall-breaking moments like a visit to the film’s own set (more unsettling in context than it sounds).
Much of this is due to wide compositions that capture the loneliness of the post-apocalyptic environment, yet also manage to convey the safety and comfort of familiar surroundings. The use of effects can also be particularly startling in their quality, whether portraying frightful, stalking beasts or magnificently beautiful, towering behemoths (there are inklings of The Mist in its mix of terror and awe). Rarely is there not something to look at, no framing that highlights an object of interest. Anchoring all of this is Virginia Gardner, who seems strangely grounded and otherworldly at once. Though her character is not especially talkative, Gardner’s nebular face is often the most fascinating thing on screen, conveying just enough pieces of her puzzle to lure viewers into her quest, all while never overplaying her hand.
These elements add up to a fascinating cinematic experience. A.T. White’s debut is an opaque, meandering film definitely more interested in exploring inwards than reaching for the philosophical cosmos, but though its frigid atmosphere and sparse narrative can sometimes be hard to penetrate, there’s something magnetic at play here — a sci-fi siren’s song that lures viewers in with an engaging lead performance and often stunning visuals. (Patrick Murphy)
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, with an opening text screen detailing the horrific loss of human life in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The voices of schoolchildren enter the soundtrack, as they recount the creatures and heroes of fairy tales. Moments later, their classroom falls into chaos as gunfire begins to thunder outside, and bullets perforate the walls over their cowering heads. The dichotomy is striking, and purposeful; ‘What use are fairytales to these children?’ the film seems to demand. ‘What business do princes and genies have when we’re confronted with such brutality, such callous disregard for life?’ Tigers Are Not Afraid spends the rest of its runtime grappling with these questions, and the result is one of the best and most urgent fantasy films in recent memory, destined to be a classic among fans of socially-charged fantasy and horror. It stands alongside works like Pan’s Labyrinth in contrasting the fantastical and the brutal, but speaks in its own voice from the first moments to the last. (Thomas O’Connor)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a smashing hit back in 2017 — a biting satire on racial tension in America that won Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was one of the most talked-about and commonly dissected horror films of the decade, catapulting the first-time director firmly into the spotlight. Now, two years later, Peel has returned with his sophomore effort, the physiological thriller US, that pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
Where Get Out took a simple premise and turned it into a brilliant allegory for what it’s like to be black in America, Us structures itself as a home invasion thriller that touches on issues of class, capitalism, gender, and on the lasting effects of trauma and/or mental illness. It’s a smorgasbord of terrifying sights, sounds, and images, with a climax that will likely leave audiences with split opinions. For some, the reveal will enhance the experience, but for others, it will leave a bitter taste in their mouth. Regardless of where you stand, US demands to be seen a second time, as it is the sort of film that will be over-analyzed for years to come — something the best horror movies all do. (Ricky D)
Dan Gilroy’sVelvet Buzzsaw is a quirky, quasi-ghost story involving cursed paintings that terrorize an already cutthroat Los Angeles art scene. Those able to parse the pseudo-intellectual gibberish will find some bloody genre thrills beneath a savage critique of self-obsessed artists, vapid dealers, and elitist tastemakers. Brightly shot and darkly funny, this cultural roast may seem like low-hanging fruit, but Gilroy’s sharp dialogue coupled with off-beat performances from his stellar cast keeps things zipping devilishly along even when the story gets bogged down in trying to explain its own silliness.
Involving the discovery of a series of haunted paintings that are picking off elitist tastemakers like it’s back in style (did it ever leave?), Velvet Buzzsaw finds snooty art critic Morf Vandewalt (an entertainingly mannered Jake Gyllenhaal) poking his nose in search of answers. Much of the fun of Velvet Buzzsaw is watching him interact with the comfortable bubble he and his cronies have blown for themselves, then be forced to deal with outside forces they don’t understand. Cocktail parties are rife with the kinds of people who would blindly applaud the Emperor’s new clothes, wannabe geniuses desperate to lap up any scraps from the table of their gallery masters, all the while conniving their own ascent. In one wickedly funny moment, a gruesome murder scene is obliviously mistaken for an installation; reality is checked at the door for these people.
Determining exactly why these people are biting that dust is like looking at an impressionist painting up close, but viewed from a distance, Velvet Buzzsaw is a skillful romp. The brush strokes might be too broad for those who like their slices more incisive, but outsiders curious about this specific world will find much to revel in. Dan Gilroy has painted another part of his town red, slathering satire over slaughter. It may not be art, but I know what I like. (Patrick Murphy)
‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie
The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.
Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.
Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.
Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.
There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.
Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.
Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.
Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces
Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.
I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.
The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.
Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.
Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker
Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.
Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.
Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.
Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.
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