Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper Directed by: Ari Aster Rated: R Running Time: 140 minutes A24
I don’t use superlatives a lot in my reviews, but I think it’s fitting this time because “Midsommar” has one of the most unsettling and gripping openings to a horror film I’ve ever seen. The movie begins on a snowy night in the states with Dani (Pugh), frantically trying to get a hold of her parents after a trouble set of texts from her bipolar sister stating that the darkness is too much, along with remarks about their parents. Compounding the issue is Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Reynor), who seems disinterested in her concern about her sister, and why her parents aren’t picking up their phone. In fact, we find out, he’s at the bar getting drunk with friends, mulling over a potential break-up with Dani, instead of showing a single shred of worry. Christian is about to pull the trigger on their nearly four year long relationship when he gets a phone call from Dani. As soon as he answers, we hear the most horrifying cries of agony. Dani learns that her sister has taken her own life, and the lives of their parents, via carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cutting ahead to the summer, their relationship is still strained, Christian is still distant, and Dani is still dealing with grief. Escapism, for both, comes in the form of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), one of Christian’s Swedish friends. Pelle is inviting Christian and their mutual friends, Josh (Harper) and Mark (William Poulter) to Pelle’s small village of Halsingland. They’ll be privy to a true once in a lifetime event, a festival that’s only held once every 90 years. Despite this village’s knowledge of the outside world and how advanced we’ve become, the people of Halsingland hold on to some incredibly archaic, brutal and terrifying beliefs that’ll slowly unfold over the course of a few days.
Unlike Director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary,” nearly all of “Midsommar” is in the bright light of day, as the rural village sits nearly at the top of Scandinavia, so the sun, if ever this of year, doesn’t ever set below the horizon for the time that our characters are there. So much of the film’s horror doesn’t even happen in the cloak of darkness. The terror of the unknown, the secrets that this village holds, what their plans are, and what’s behind every closed door, happens in the optimistic shine of daylight. If anything, the moments in the dark are a part of a dream-like sequence or in the midst of a heavy dusk when the characters are lurking about the village, when they shouldn’t be.
The Americans in this movie should know better since the village is one constant red flag after another, but the slow boil of the plot plays into Aster’s hands as he’s given enough time to establish why each character remains there despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that says, “Run.” Josh is an anthropology student, looking to do his dissertation on the little researched village of Halsingland, shrugging off morbid rituals as cultural differences. Mark is a stereotypical horndog, thinking a lot more with his second, believing that a European excursion will get him high and laid. He’s half right. Dani seems aimless and lost in the world after the death of her entire family at the beginning, still pondering how she could ever move forward. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Christian, whose seemingly non-commital to everything, is genuinely indifferent to danger. In fact, having any sense of self-preservation in these kinds of movies gets you killed first. Two ancillary characters, who were also invited to the village by Swedish friend from England, are the first to sound the alarm, but they soon disappear.
Maybe it’s because I watched “Hereditary” and knew that Aster loved sprinkling his movie with copious amounts of breadcrumbs, but I didn’t find myself completely shocked about the things that eventually transpired, nor was I shocked by the various, gruesome revelations that stacked on top of one another. That being said, I’m sure there are dozens of breadcrumbs that I missed because Aster is meticulous. Nothing seen in this film is incidental or by accident, it all serves a purpose towards the film’s numerous themes and subject matter. As to what this movie is about, that’s a lot to unpack. I’m certain that a movie as thematically open-ended as this is sure to leave a different, long lasting impact on viewers. That might mean that there is inherently no wrong way to interpret this, but only Aster is privy to how to correctly take it all in.
Since Aster had made this film deeply personal, “Midsommar” is most certainly a contemplation of death, literally and figuratively. One could muse that Dani seems unable to let her relationship with Christian die. Even though she mentions to a friend at the beginning of the movie that she suspects Christian is ready to dump her. She seems indecisive about confronting him, while sub-consciously knowing that it should come to an end. Even as they both walk like zombies through their relationship, Dani shows another layer to this toxicity, a fear. Despite taking a leap by going to a strange country, strange village and take part in their strange customs, she holds on to this belief that letting go of what’s she become accustomed to is the end, when it’s not. It’s odd finding that nugget of commonality in humanity amongst the gore and paganism. As for Christian, the movie does a fantastic job making the audience care less and less about what happens to him, showing over and over again that he’s emotionally detached from his friends and the world because he’s inherently selfish. Dani pines for a sense of unity, while Christian views people as a means to an end. In that regard, their individual fates are fitting.
It’s hard not to compare “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” even though they’re drastically different in several categories. For example, “Hereditary” was a horror grounded in Satanism and the paranormal, whereas “Midsommar” is horror grounded in heathen ideology and violent ceremonies, without the use of supernatural forces. However both require a great deal of effort by its cast to read and act out these bizarro scenes with the utmost, straightest of faces. It’s hard to spot a flaw in any of the performances, with Pugh being the standout here as her character deals with so much emotional turmoil. One standout bit of acting by her is the opening scene where she mourns. In my line of work, I’ve had to edit clips of mothers at the scene of a homicide, sobbing loudly through the most tragic of griefs as they find out that their child is dead. Pugh captures that bone chilling wail flawlessly and it should cut into anyone.
“Midsommar” is an unsettling nightmare, showing unflinching carnage, all while smiling back at you. Aster’s sophomore effort will certainly be criticized by the mainstream audiences for being heartlessly malicious, crass, and boring, as evidenced by the handful of people that walked out of my screening at the first sign of violence in the film. I, like others, will be endlessly picking it apart in my mind, discussing it with others who’ve watched it and reading the insurmountable online articles by cinephiles attempting to do the same. I have yet to say a negative thing about this movie, which would usually necessitate a higher rating than the one I’m giving it, but this is an instance, much like “Climax” from earlier this year, where a second viewing would help me solidify my opinion on this film, and whether or not I’d rank it higher. My only hesitancy with “Midsommar” is its rewatchability, mainly because I didn’t find “Hereditary” as enjoyable the second time, nor would I ever want to watch it again. Like some high-concept films, enough time has to pass for a viewer to rewatch, analyze and appreciate during a second time, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m also fully aware that’s a critical cop out my end. However, “Midsommar” may be that, once every few years, trip to the museum, where you need a healthy amount of time to mull over and appreciate the art for what it is.
1.VICE – Like his Oscar winning THE BIG SHORT, writer/director Adam McKay gives a humorous take on the life and times of our 46th Vice President.
2. BOY ERASED – Stellar performances by Lucas Hedges and Joel Edgerton (who also wrote and directed) in a film dealing with “conversion” training. Edgerton is beginning to look like he will be one of the best filmmakers of the next generation.
3. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – The story of Freddie Mercury and his musical group QUEEN. Some complained that Mercury’s X-rated lifestyle was tamed down too much but Rami Malek’s award worthy performance is the real story here.
4. A STAR IS BORN – Damn you, Bradley Cooper! Is there nothing you can’t do? Cooper stars and directs in the fourth telling of the familiar tale, adding enough twists to make it seem new. Extra points for casting the amazing Lady Gaga.
5. BLACKKKLANSMAN – Easily Spike Lee’s best film since DO THE RIGHT THING, the film’s 1970’s era message is just as important today.
6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT – The best of the M:I films, with Tom Cruise once again risking life and limb for our entertainment.
7. CHAPPAQUIDDICK – An early film this year that looks into the fateful accident that derailed the Presidential dreams of Ted Kennedy.
8. BLACK PANTHER – Not a great Marvel Movie…just a GREAT MOVIE. With FRUITVALE STATION and CREED already on his resumé, director Ryan Coogler has proven to be a voice to be listened to.
9. HOSTILES – A January release, this is an outstanding period western starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi and, sadly, Scott Wilson in one of his final roles.
10. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? – Award worthy performances from stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant highlight this true story about an author who had to resolve to forgery to make any money.
1.BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE – I cannot speak highly enough of Drew Goddard’s follow up to one of my Halloween faves, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. Once again Goddard holes up his small cast in a single location that is not quite what it seems and is a joy to explore. And what a cast! While bigger names like Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm deliver reliably solid performances (the latter chewing all the scenery with a fabulous southern accent), the real revelations are from relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman. The Tony-winning Erivo is the film’s heart as a struggling singer who checks into the El Royale ahead of a nearby gig. When she gets wrapped up in a scheme with Bridges’ character, Goddard uses her powerhouse voice to deliver “You Can’t Hurry Love” in easily my favorite single sequence of the year. Meanwhile Pullman is just barely holding everything together as the hotel’s lone caretaker whose role entails much more than cleaning towels and whose past is bubbling beneath his boyish, twitchy surface. I really just wanted to hug him. Finally, as with CABIN, Goddard goes ahead and subverts Chris Hemsworth’s affable hero persona. This time by casting him as a vile Charles Manson type–this is the 60’s in California after all– whose limited screen time serves merely to concentrate the sinister vibes emanating off his gyrating abs. Everyone is supported by top notch production design, a rocking soundtrack and some gorgeous Seamus McGarvey cinematography. It just really sizzles.
2. HEREDITARY – This slow burning descent of one family after the death of their secretive matriarch may be an all time fave viewing experience in a packed theater. Where a lot of modern horror relies on jump scares, Ari Aster held us captive in many scenes by showing the terrors just slightly to the side in the gloom of the frame or holding on the silence after a traumatic event–all while my audience slowly lost its mind. Which was fitting, because we were watching Toni Collette’s character doing roughly the same. It’s a crime that Collette isn’t in the major film awards conversations (yet? C’mon Academy!) because she was so engrossing and almost painful to watch.
3. BLACK PANTHER – Ryan Coogler’s brilliant entry into Marvel was remarkable for so fully realizing a whole new world within a “Universe” we’ve already been living in for the past decade. And unlike some chapters of the MCU, he did it right here on Earth. Wakanda was beautiful and populated by such a well drawn cast of characters, it was nearly impossible to pick a favorite (but it’s Shuri, come on). Meanwhile, unlike some big purple menaces, Erik Kilmonger’s (Michael B Jordan) ‘villainous’ motives were some of the most complex that the franchise has dealt with. So much so that Chadwick Boseman’s T’challa had to face a real crisis of conscience that not many Marvel heroes do!
4. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU – I feel like the less I say about this film, the better new viewers’ experiences will be. Boots Riley’s take on the desolate modern economic landscape just throws a LOT at you with a notable hard turn in the second half that will likely decide where you land on this one. As someone who is rarely surprised at movies today, I was fully on board.
5. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – I knew going in that every outlet in the Disney-Marvel Marketing Machine kept saying “It’s Thanos’s movie, it’s really going to belong to Thanos” but boy, I was not prepared for…Thanos’s movie! Not only did the Russo brothers bring to life a presence worthy of scaring the bejeezus out of ten years of assembled super heroes, but that they let him Do That was a true shocker. It’s hard for me to judge INFINITY WAR fully until I see what goes down in ENDGAME because, to quote THE PRESTIGE, “making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.” But for now, I sit stunned.
1. BLACK PANTHER – The best movie of the year, BLACK PANTHER proves to be one of the two or three best titles in the 10-year Avengers odyssey. Directed by the brilliantly talented young filmmaker Ryan Coogler (CREED, FRUITVALE STATION), this supremely entertaining, comic book epic has a superb cast and an engaging, intelligent story. Its story of a young king who thinks he knows what it takes to be a ruler but is faced with a day of reckoning that turns his views upside down is a potent one. The climax is tragic to the point that it’s Shakespearean and it’s all assisted by one of the most consistently good performances by an entire cast that you will see, especially in an action movie. Michael B. Jordan, who was cheated out of an Oscar nomination for his role in CREED, is a powerful presence in the film as its lead antagonist. BLACK PANTHER has everything you could ever want in not only a superhero movie but in a movie period.
2. A QUIET PLACE – In terms of creativity and originality, A QUIET PLACE is only rivaled in recent times by last year’s masterpiece “Get Out.” A brief, yet sophisticated sci-fi horror tale brimming with mystery, A QUIET PLACE stars the husband/wife team of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as a couple struggling to keep their family alive in a world taken over by aliens who react to sound. You must pay attention to the little details in this one to spot clues to the backstory, which itself is horrifying. The story has a bit of a Stephen King-like vibe to it as the suspense builds around the impending birth of a new baby. A must-see.
3. FIRST REFORMED – Ethan Hawke shines in what is arguably writer/director Paul Schrader’s greatest cinematic endeavor. It is a work of art in every sense of the word as Hawke plays the minister of a tiny congregation in an old church in upstate New York. His character is haunted by a past that riddles him with guilt and leads him to drink. When we meet him, he has begun to keep a diary of his tormented thoughts as he tries to mentor those that are just as much pain as he is. Hawke is mesmerizing in the most brilliant performance of his career with strong supporting help from Amanda Seyfried and a nice dramatic turn by Cedric the Entertainer. The ending is haunting to say the least and will leave you and anyone you watch it with debating what it all means.
4. THE FAVOURITE – With some of the best costume designs you will see in any film, THE FAVOURITE is a wonderful historical drama containing the most splendid, witty dialogue of the year. Set against the backdrop of early 18th century England, two women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) vie to be the favorite of the increasingly sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The political intrigue is delightful as Weisz and Stone’s characters will go to any lengths to be the apple of Queen Anne’s eye, thereby having access to tremendous power. Colman delivers the best performance by an actress in 2018 and it’s not even close. She is brilliant in every sense of the word as portrays a woman teetering on insanity after having had 18 pregnancies but no living children. There are ultimately no winners in all of it. Just tragic losers.
5. LEAVE NO TRACE – While watching the powerful performance delivered by New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the drama LEAVE NO TRACE, it is impossible to not think about what director/writer Debra Granik once pulled out of a relatively unknown young actress named Jennifer Lawrence. It is perhaps an unfair comparison considering that Lawrence received the first of her four Oscar nominations for her role as a tough, teenage Ozarks girl in 2010’s WINTER’S BONE. However, as Tom, McKenzie provides something that is special to watch on the silver screen. Through her eyes alone she projects her character’s tough, determined nature which she also reveals is just a façade masking a 13-year-old girl’s desperation to please a father (Ben Foster) traumatized by war. Foster once again demonstrates how skillful he has become in recent years. Pain leaks out of every pour in Foster’s skin as his character is so consumed by PTSD from combat that he puts Tom in danger every day they are on the run without thinking about what he is doing. Based upon the 2009 book My Abandonment by American novelist Peter Rock, LEAVE NO TRACE, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, is a moving work of genuine sadness that will pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has a heart.
6. BLACKKKLANSMAN – In what is Spike Lee’s best effort in years, BLACKKKLANSMAN is an engrossing crime drama loosely based upon real events. It tells the tale of new African American, Colorado police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who infiltrates a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s via the phone. To represent himself in person, he convinces a Jewish detective (Adam Driver) to be his face. While it’s an entertaining piece of work that takes a lot of dramatic license, Lee’s effort tackles racism head-on and reveals its ugliness likes few films do. As such, it’s not without controversy but because of that it accomplishes the goal of making people talk and think about racism in America.
7. GREEN BOOK – Inspired by a true story, this period drama is a surprisingly complex, emotional work considering its director, Peter Farrelly, is best known for comedic fare like SHALLOW HAL and DUMB AND DUMBER. With GREEN BOOK, Farrelly captures the stark racial divide of 1962 America with an exploration of the relationship between white bar bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as they travel across the Midwest and Deep South. Mortensen dazzles with his knack to bring to life every subtle nuance of the characters he plays. This role is no exception as he helps make Tony Lip someone we can truly care about even though in the beginning it’s a little tough to do. Ali, a 2017 Oscar winner for MOONLIGHT, gives Don a vulnerable sophistication while also breathing out a certain degree of naïveté without seeming to break a sweat. It all adds up to GREEN BOOK being the type of rare movie where everyone can feel a little bit happier about the world when the lights go back on.
8. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – Like many other people, I grew up on Mr. Rogers so perhaps I’m a little biased, but this documentary feels like a warm and cozy sweater vest. It dispels a lot of myths about the man who wanted nothing more than to work with children. We learn a lot about this kind, gentle soul from those closest to him and it’s refreshing in this age of cynicism and character assassination to discover he was pretty much exactly like he was on the TV.
9. HEREDITARY – Simply put, this is one of the most messed up movies you will ever see. HEREDITARY is tale of a family being turned upside down when the family matriarch’s death starts a sequence of horrifying events that lead to a supernatural, head-scratching, unsettling climax. Toni Collette is fantastic as the mother of two who becomes increasingly unraveled thanks to a plan set into motion by her recently deceased mother. It goes without saying that a film is automatically creepy when it silently begins with a nondescript obituary on the silver screen. Don’t stay up too late to watch this. Otherwise you will feel the need to keep all the lights on and the covers over your head.
10. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY – Some of have criticized this film for not devoting more time to the exploration of the late Freddie Mercury’s private life. However, this rock biography is not titled “The Freddie Mercury Story.” Instead it focuses on the rise of a band with a singer who had a rock voice like none other before or since. While the story is admittedly a little glossy, the core strength of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is the incredible performance by lead Rami Malek who absolutely commands the screen. He masters every movement, every voice inflection, every insecurity, every bit of bravado of the real Mercury. It is a legendary accomplishment and is worth every penny to see.
1. EIGHTH GRADE -Back in August I wrote, “Cringy. Heartfelt. Anxiety inducing. Unflinching. Heartbreaking. Hopeful…Bo Burnham’s debut film seemingly has it all, and it does.” That still rings true after a few rewatches. Four months later, along with dozens and dozens of screeners, EIGHTH GRADE, is still my favorite film of the year because of how raw and emotional it is. It’s good for the souls of the young and old.
2. BLACKKKLANSMAN -Last year, GET OUT made me feel what it’s like to be a black man in a predominantly white situation or setting. This year, BLACKKKLANSMAN made me feel my own white guilt. Both movies are timely and timeless. BLACKKKLANSMAN is a church sermon that needs to be heard by everyone within an earshot. This is easily Spike Lee’s best film since DO THE RIGHT THING if not his magnum opus.
3. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE – Phil Lord and Chris Miller should just have their own animation studio. They were robbed of an Oscar for 2014’s LEGO MOVIE and it’ll be another crime if SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE doesn’t win best animated picture this year. It’s a trippy journey that blurs the line between comic book and cinema. Not only is it the best animated film of the year, it may be the best superhero movie of the year. Sorry Disney.
4. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU -What begins as a satire, quickly becomes a hyper absurd sci-fi that blends commentary on racism and classism, along with jabs at America’s path towards corporatocracy. Boots Riley brings a fresh voice and unique criticism that’s familiar, yet distinct. It’s the kind of film with no middle ground. You’ll either love or hate it.
5. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? -In today’s climate, the world might need another Mr. Rogers, if that’s possible. Without mentioning any names or incidents, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? feels like a pertinent documentary about the impact kindness and compassion has. Even the iciest of hearts will have a tear in their eye by the end credits.
6. VICE -Comedy doesn’t quite the praise it deserves. Ask any actor or creator how hard it is to craft something funny. Now add in a dose of reality and seriousness. Just like in THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay tackles a difficult subject and makes it palatable for general audiences. VICE is a dark riot, making us laugh and realize the expanding power of the Executive Branch.
7. BOY ERASED -Not only is this a powerful story about sexual identity, but it’s a somber reminder about how one of the America’s most heinous acts, conversion therapy, remains legal. The film does a nuanced job of highlighting the emotional, mental, and sometimes physical cruelty that conversion therapy puts it’s victims through. It’s simply tragic.
8. MANDY– What if heavy metal music became a movie? You’d have MANDY, an 80’s acid nightmare come to life, with the help of a gonzo, smiling Nicolas Cage, covered in blood. This is a midnight film that will surely develop a cult following, or at the very least, a legion of Cheddar Goblin fans.
9. WIDOWS – This is Steve McQueen’s most mainstream film, yet it’s still visually intellectual like his previous films. McQueen is a master behind the camera and weaves a caper that’s not only rich with heavy material and social themes, but engaging from beginning to end.
10. THE FAVOURITE – THE FAVOURITE is devilishly funny and cynical. It’s the kind of movie that could delight those who loathe period piece dramas, like myself. The humor and dialogue crackle for two hours as the film’s three leading ladies find new, humorous ways to stab each other in the back.
HONORABLE MENTIONS : SUSPIRIA, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE, FIRST REFORMED, ISLE OF DOGS, ROMA, BLOCKERS, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, LOVE,SIMON, CRAZY RICH ASIANS, MOM AND DAD
1. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM -The bigger the budget, the more it should be looked down upon. This movie cost nearly $200 million and it stunk like one big pile of dino crap. Just think how many good, small budget films could have been made instead, but that wouldn’t have raked in over a billion dollars, now would it?
2. BOOK CLUB -Not only do they still make crap like this, but they release in theaters and trick good actors and actresses to star in it. This is pure drivel. Keep this crap off the silver screen and keep it on the Lifetime Network.
3. WELCOME TO MARWEN -The more I think about it, the more this film makes me mad. It’s a steaming crap that’s beneath the actors in it, it soils Zemeckis’ good name and unfortunately mishandles a true story. Unlike most train wrecks, you can look away from this one.
4. SUPER TROOPERS 2 -Careful what you wish for. Fans of the original should have looked towards other fanbases who asked for a sequel, like GHOSTBUSTERS, THE HANGOVER, etc. and got a big pile of crap instead. This movie is an unfunny dumpster fire that should offer a refund to it’s IndieGoGo supporters.
5. TERMINAL – Didn’t hear about this one? Good. To reiterate my favorite word in this list, it’s crap. This is the kind of film I could easily placed at the top, but it’s not as deserving as my scorn as the other films noted above because it quietly came and went without ruffling too many feathers. Still though. This one is crap. Don’t even bother looking it up out of curiosity.
Michael A. Smith:
1.LIFE ITSELF – As I say on our Podcast, I’ve never been so happy to see someone hit by a bus. THIS IS US plots work in small doses, but on the big screen, they suck!
2. THE MEG – If my 230 pound body can’t swim by people without attracting notice, then a 50 foot shark sure as hell shouldn’t be able to.
3. OCEANS 8 – Boooooooooooorrrrrrrrrring!
4. LOVE, SIMON – What could have been a film that delivered a great message takes the easy way out by making everything peachy too easily.
5. GRINGO – I had so many high hopes for this film. Sadly, Nash Edgerton did not get any of the film making skills his brother Joel inherited.