In Part 3 of my series on memorable films of 2019, I commented on the high proportion of critically acclaimed movies that are based on true events. Today for a change, I will cover movies that counterbalance my earlier observation that Truth is stranger than Fiction. Here are four, very edgy films that are all works of fiction, and so full credit to the writers for coming up with these scripts. And interestingly in all 4 cases, the directors are the writers or co-writers.
Midsommar: It’s a pity that Ari Aster’s Midsommar which was released in July, completely faded out of public consciousness during award season. Awards committees don’t care much for horror, which is unfortunate, given that the past few years has been a golden period for quality horror/thrillers, such as Ari Aster’s own Hereditary, Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night and Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Midsommar stars one of the biggest rising female stars in Hollywood today, British actress Florence Pugh (who I mentioned when talking about Little Women in Part 3). Pugh plays college student Dani, who is recovering from a family tragedy. As part of her catharsis, she joins her boyfriend and other college buddies to attend a pastoral midsummer celebration at a commune in Sweden. Most of the story takes place in broad daylight (it is a midsummer festival after all), which is unusual for a horror movie. After all, what could go wrong in bright daylight? Plenty, as it turns out! In the beginning, there’s just some unusual commune rules and the weird behaviour of the residents to contend with, but then there are a series of events which become progressively more unsettling leading to a truly horrifying climax. Underlying all this is a study of the different characters and their relationship dynamics – how couples treat each other, how college classmates compete over a thesis topic, how there is subtle pressure to join in a group activity, etc. Be prepared for a lot of explicit and disturbing imagery.
The Lighthouse: I mentioned Robert Eggers’ The Witch earlier, his acclaimed feature film debut at Sundance in 2015. This is Eggers’ follow-up effort featuring the powerhouse acting duo of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Unlike Midsommar, the horror here is less explicit and more psychological, conveyed through the bleak black-and-white cinematography (shot in a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio), the setting of a remote stormy island, the constant clamour of the wind and waves and seagulls, the candle-lit rooms and the tortured personalities of the characters – a lighthouse keeper and his assistant. There isn’t really much of a plot, just an exploration of the human condition amplified through cabin fever. The highlight for me was a 2-3 minute Shakespearean monologue from Willem Dafoe’s character (at approximately the 1 hr mark), reacting to Pattinson’s criticism of his cooking. I rewound and watched it three times; that scene alone is worth the price of admission and am sure it will form part of Willem Dafoe’s sizzle reel for years to come. As was the case with The Witch, I felt the pacing of the film was uneven – captivating scenes separated by more meditative stretches which only serve to build the atmosphere and anticipation. Not for every taste, but worth watching if you’re looking for something different.
Uncut Gems: I am not an Adam Sandler fan and I haven’t watched any of the dozen or so hit movies he’s made in the past 25 years. But I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love from 2002 and was convinced the man could act. That opinion got solidified ten-fold after watching Sandler play a scumbag jewelry retailer in Uncut Gems. Directed by the Safdie brothers who made a splash at Cannes in 2017 with the Robert Pattinson crime thriller Good Time, this movie is their ticket to future stardom. This is the story of a pathological liar who is too crooked for his own good and ends up having to balance gambling debts, a volatile extra-marital affair, a marriage on the rocks, high maintenance celebrity customers, loan sharks and more. Adam Sandler’s character Howard Ratner has to be one of the sleaziest, most unpleasant characters to ever play the lead role in a movie. And in spite of hating him and wanting him to fail, I was still on tenterhooks hoping he will win as he takes the biggest gamble of his life with all the odds stacked against him. Be prepared for the ultimate thrill ride; the film is available on Netflix.
Knives Out: Rian Johnson is still facing internet backlash from fanboys three years after his highly contentious storytelling decisions on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But it’s clear that he himself has moved on, having written and directed this Agatha Christie-style whodunnit to great critical and commercial success. The film stars Daniel Craig in a welcome departure from his James Bond persona, and is supported by a stellar cast of character actors as well as an amusing turn by Captain America himself, Chris Evans. The movie has all the elements of a popcorn entertainer – funny dialogue, plot twists and over-the-top acting. And the good news is that a sequel featuring Daniel Craig’s character, private detective Benoit Blanc has been announced.
Still about 10-12 movies to go, so I’ll wrap this up in another 2-3 installments.