Get Out (2017)
In the age of endless remakes and reboots, comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele established himself as an exciting and unique filmmaker with just one movie, based on a socially resonant original story. With his debut feature Get Out, he set out to make, as he once put it, a kind of “horror-thriller that’s never been made before.” He accomplished this, and landed an unexpected box office smash, by carefully constructing an incisive modern-day allegory about the gentle tyranny of benevolent racism—the kind quietly practiced by white suburban NPR listeners all over America. Taut, exhilarating, repulsive, and hilarious, Peele’s film deserves to be ranked among the formative “social thrillers” that helped inspire it, from Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead.
If movie goers were surprised that a comedian could craft such a gripping and haunting film, they shouldn’t have been. If comics and horror writer/directors understand one thing, it’s timing. Every beat in the script of a good scary movie—every jump scare, reveal, and kill—is planned with surgical precision, and comedians consider rhythm, tempo, and pacing while writing the most effective version of a joke. Plus, Peele had already demonstrated his knowledge of the horror genre several times over in the various Key & Peele sketches that sent up tropes from vampire, zombie, and torture-porn flicks. It’s hard to write a good parody without intimate knowledge of and keen insight into a genre.
Peele’s adeptness as a filmmaker also comes through in his casting choices and the ways he exploits the strengths of the members of his varied ensemble, which consists of a healthy mix of industry veterans, newcomers, and comedians making their first foray into the horror genre (Lil Rel Howard, most notably). Daniel Kaluuya’s star turn took him from being a relative unknown to an Academy Award nominee. Peele also brilliantly weaponized Bradley Whitford, an actor best known for making white liberals feel morally righteous via the countless Aaron-Sorkin-penned monologues he delivered on The West Wing. —MAGGIE SEROTA
Read our 2017 review of Get Out here.
First Reformed (2017)
Writer and director Paul Schader’s First Reformed provides an urgent dramatic context to examine an issue whose importance to ours and all future eras which is impossible to overstate. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small and sparsely attended historic church in upstate New York, who spends his days reading, fighting for funding from the church’s slick owners, mourning the loss of his son in the Iraq War, and drinking whiskey. When a young and pregnant parishioner named Mary asks him to counsel her husband Michael, an environmental activist whom she fears is about to commit some sort of radical violence, Toller obliges.
The scene in which they first meet glows with formal accomplishment and ripples with moral force. Philip Ettinger delivers a brief but indelible performance as Michael, who is unwilling or unable to close himself off to the raw truth of climate change, the way many of us do in order to maintain the sanity and stability of our everyday lives. He speaks of crops withering, continents flooding, societies falling into anarchy, comrades dying, children growing up in a world that would be unrecognizable to their forebears. He gives other small indications of the storm brewing within him: fidgeting, stuttering, a stare that could put a hole through a wall. Toller uses every strategy he knows to talk Michael down—to convince him, ultimately, that it’s worth bringing his and Mary’s baby into the world, and being alive to see the baby grow up. We understand immediately that Michael isn’t buying it, and eventually that Toller isn’t, either.
For the reverend, the encounter with Michael sets off a crisis of faith in God and in humanity, leading him down a path of alienation and rage that clearly recalls the arc of Taxi Driver, Schraeder’s first screenplay. (“At some point, I realized that the poltergeist of Taxi Driver, of Travis Bickle, had slipped into the room and as watching me,” Schraeder has said of writing First Reformed.) There is one key difference: the anger of Taxi Driver is nihilistic, while First Reformed’s righteous fury is humanistic. After watching the former, we might ask ourselves what circumstances could drive people like us to behave in the manner of a person like Bickle. After watching the latter, we might look around and wonder why we haven’t already strapped our torsos with explosives and barbed wire.
The power of Schraeder’s unhinged, expressionistic, and occasionally polemical film lies in that question. Most viewers will share Toller’s conviction that the stakes of global warming are life and death, but few if any will follow that belief to the same conclusion as him. Is he crazy, or are we? And if his response to our situation is inappropriate, what might an appropriate one look like? —ANDY CUSH
Minding the Gap (2018)
Few filmmakers have closer access to their subject matter than Bing Liu, the young director of Minding the Gap, a startlingly poetic documentary about skateboarding, domestic violence, racism, and working-class malaise in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Liu trains his camera on himself, his close friends, and their families, and he augments the film’s new footage with an archive of tape he shot in adolescence as the resident videographer in his local crew of skater kids. This sort of intimacy between documentarian and subject can be a powerful incentive toward elision of uncomfortable details: It would be easy to edit out the ugliest parts of an interview when the person you’re questioning is your own mother, as in one of Minding the Gap’s most unsparing and memorable scenes.
But Liu never looks away. The film’s turn comes when he learns, unintentionally, about behavior from one of his characters that reinforces the notion of abuse as a trauma that replicates itself across generations. Liu has since spoken publicly about the “moral crisis” this revelation provoked in him, and as you watch, you feel some sliver of the overwhelming anxiety he must have felt as a filmmaker and a friend. Onscreen, he proceeds with clarity and empathy, indulging neither in high-handed judgement nor easy equivocation. His resolve allows Minding the Gap to probe convincingly at several of the central issues of our current American crisis. His eye for the balletic grace that his friends possess as skaters also provides the film with a note of cautious optimism. In any circumstances, Minding the Gap suggests, people will find ways to create their own beauty. —ANDY CUSH
When we meet Lena (Natalie Portman), the biologist at the center of Alex Garland’s psychedelic science fiction film Annihilation, she’s lecturing a college class about cell division. The process of one becoming two, she explains as cells divide onscreen, is fundamental to the propagation of life on Earth, but also to death. These are cancer cells we’re watching, it turns out, turning a body’s normal process of growth and repair against it until it breaks down entirely. Lena soon finds herself whisked out on a secret government expedition into Area X, a quarantined zone where a mysterious contaminant is causing the environment to behave in ways that undermine our normal understanding of such divisions and dualities. A deer has flowers on its antlers, and seems to move in tandem with its companion as a single being. People turn into plants. An alligator’s teeth grow in rows like a shark’s.
Lena resolves to enter Area X in part out of a sense of duty to her husband, who is the only known survivor of all previous expeditions there; recently, he has returned home severely diseased and emotionally unrecognizable. Over the course of Annihilation, we learn that his decision to accept the mission was probably related to his relationship with Lena. She replays a particular scene from the past in her head several times, unable to take back her own disloyalty or perhaps even to understand it. It also becomes clear that the distortions of Area X are psychological as well as biological: the monsters that roam the earth run parallel to the beasts that Lena glimpses in the corners of her own mind. She and her cohort cling to their roles as observers, even as the barrier between them and the untamable nature they traverse proves to be illusory. In one of the decade’s most spectacularly overwhelming sensory experiences, Annihilation’s conclusion dramatizes these dual senses of alienation from yourself and connection with your landscape, playing out like a thunderous DMT-assisted update on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Garland adapted Annihilation from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, but the film resembles the book only in mostly superficial ways. At a time when unimaginative and crassly commercial takes on existing franchises dominate the movie industry, Garland deserves recognition for using an adaptation to pursue an idiosyncratic original vision, rather than simply cashing in on preexisting fans. (Sadly, his audaciousness probably contributed to Paramount’s apparent disinterest in the film and its subsequent failure at the box office.) Annihilation is an audiovisual marvel and a feat of genre storytelling, one that finds meaningful resonances with contemporary life despite its outlandish premise. To live in the 2010s was to experience regular fragmentations of one’s own consciousness: attention dispersed across multiple locations at once, seemingly incompatible identities dissolving into one another. Historical egocentrism tempts us to chalk this feeling up to the effects of the internet, and that’s surely a contributing factor. But Annihilation reminds us that these fragmentations are as deep and primal as our very cells, as old and terrible as awareness itself. —ANDY CUSH
Read our 2018 essay “Annihilation Deserves Much Better Than the Raw Deal It Got From Paramount” here.
The Korean New Wave movement emerged from a country destabilized by economic insecurity and social stratification. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis of the late ‘90s, filmmakers like Park Chan-Wook, Bong Joon-Ho, and Lee Chang-dong responded to a changing cultural landscape with films that dealt explicitly with these tenuous conditions. IMF bailout packages and crumbling generational business models inspired movies about betrayal, memory, masculinity, and the long shadow cast by Western interventionism. Think of The Host’s explicitly American antagonist, or Oldboy, which has as much to do with class relations as with kidnapping and hypnotism. Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 film Peppermint Candy was an unflinching portrait of corruption and crisis, told backwards, tied up in the story of a single man across a single lifetime. It dealt with brokenness—cultural, personal, and economic—and with weak, pitiless men.
The South Korean economy changed significantly between Peppermint Candy and Lee’s 2018 film Burning. Korean millennials, like American millennials, were fucked over by their parents’ generation; class divisions are starker than ever, and prosperity isn’t promised. “The millennials living in Korea today will be the first generation that are worse off than their parents’ generation,” said Lee in an interview with Variety. “They feel that the future will not change significantly. Not able to find the object to direct their rage at, they feel a sense of debilitation.”
Essentially a thriller about credit card debt, Burning is very much in the tradition of the Korean New Wave, tackling the personal as a function of the economic. But its approach is singular, and uniquely global. Our protagonist is Lee Jong-su, an aspiring novelist living near the North Korean border, who finds work where he can. He winds up in a strange kind of love triangle with his one-time neighbor Hae-mi and a slick, globe-trotting rich kid named Ben (Steven Yeun, never better.) Ben’s “fun”-oriented lifestyle, his Porsche, and his Gangnam apartment signal his inherited wealth, and, over the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, contribute to mounting tensions between the characters. The possibility that a murder has been committed exacerbates the situation, and the slow smolder of cultural division becomes a literal conflagration. Rendered digitally in rich blues and violent golden-hour oranges, Burning is a primal scream on behalf of a generation, and one of the decade’s most compelling depictions of the millennial situation. —WILL GOTTSEGEN
High Life (2019)
Great sci-fi tends to have an aesthetic responsibility. The images in 2001: A Space Odyssey are cold and measured, presenting space as medium for evolution, rather than its endpoint; the sepulchral dinginess of Blade Runner works in parallel with its questions about identity, technology, and the ambiguities of memory; in Solaris, psychological instability is mapped onto the rippling green of a hostile ocean. These high-minded epics use their own visual grammar to approach the limits of human experience, and to conjecture about what comes next, suggesting that what a new historical age might look like is as important as anything else.
Claire Denis’ vision of the future is organic, physical, and overwhelmingly orange. High Life tracks a group of death row prisoners from earth to space, where they’re ostensibly given a second chance, hurtling towards a black hole in the hopes of collecting valuable data from the outer reaches of the universe. The ship is both prison and laboratory, with Juliette Binoche as a sort of witch doctor using the crew for experiments in human reproduction (one character calls her a “shaman of sperm”). Visually and thematically, Denis is more concerned with bodies than with environments. She coaxes primal, animalistic performances from her cast, lingering on sweat, saliva, blood, shit, and semen. We see people eat, sleep, and fuck. There’s even a recurring shot of the ship’s mechanism for separating human byproducts into grey, white, and black water.
Space isn’t supposed to look like this. The future isn’t supposed to look like this. Denis posits that for all our technological progress, and our dreams of a sterile, asexual future, there are certain physical realities we’ll never escape. The prisoners describe the sensation of near-light speed travel as that of “moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer.” The deviant aesthetics of High Life seem to mirror that sentiment, foregrounding human limitations over fantasies of the stars. — WILL GOTTSEGEN
Read our April essay “Claire Denis’s Harrowing High Life Is a Sci-Fi Movie About Prison, Not Space” here.
All images screenshots except: The Social Network (Columbia/Kobal/Shutterstock); Bridesmaids (Suzanne Hanover/Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock); Frances Ha (Pine District/Kobal/Shutterstock); Mad Max Fury Road (Moviestore/Shutterstock); OJ: Made In America (M. Osterreicher / Courtesy of ESPN Films); Minding The Gap (Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection)