It’s time! The year has come to its end and we need to sift through all the glorious horror 2019 had to offer and put it in some kind of order. Four of the most promising names in horror— Peele, Eggers, Kent and Aster—join some bold newcomers including Jennifer Reeder, Issa Lopez, Lane and Ruckus Skye to lead a pack of unforgettable horrors.
Truth is, there were an awful lot of great films that we had to leave off this list. But that just means the actual list is that strong. Here you go:
10. Ready or Not
At midnight on Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex’s (Mark O’Brien) wedding night, everyone assembles in the Le Domas family game room: Mom and Dad (Andie MacDowell and Henry Czerny), Aunt Helene (Nicky Guardagni), other siblings and in-laws. It’s a ritual. Just one quick game of hide and seek. What could go wrong?
The inky black comedy plays like a game of Clue gone mad with arterial spray, the film’s comic moments coinciding most often with the accidental slaughter of servants.
The filmmakers take advantage of Weaving’s grit and comic timing, skipping from one bloody comic set up to the next. The plot and the chase move quickly enough to keep you from dwelling on the shorthand character development, the errant plot hole and the occasional convenience. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s a bloody mess.
Hey, club kids, it’s a Gaspar Noe dance party!
Noe’s usual reliance on extended takes, stationary cameras and overhead shots makes the dance sequences utterly intoxicating, the performers’ energy creating exciting visual beauty and a palpable exuberance for their art. These seductive odes to dance are interspersed with sometimes graphically sexual conversations between the dancers, sharpening character edges and laying down an interpersonal framework that will soon be turned on its head.
What spurred this sea change, and who is to blame? Noe turns that mystery into a greater conversation about the opportunity of birth, the impossibility of life and the extraordinary experience of death, and as is his wont, batters your senses while doing it.
Welcome to Reckoning, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed. One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, Reckoning peoples the hills of Appalachia with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Danielle Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating her character’s low key tenacity is a thing of beauty.
Reckoning remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, Reckoning shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.
It’s a stunning film, and a rare gem that treats Appalachians not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.
7. One Cut of the Dead
For about 37 minutes, you may feel like Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead delivers, cleverly enough, on a very familiar promise.
One Cut opens as a micro-budget zombie movie, which soon reveals itself to be a film within a film when real zombies show up on set. As the bullying egomaniac director continues filming, ecstatic over the authenticity, Ueda appears to deconstruct cinema.
And though that may sound intriguing on the surface, the truth is that what transpires after that 37 minute mark officially defines Ueda as an inventive, gleeful master of chaos and lover of the magic of nuts and bolts filmmaking.
6. Knives and Skin
Falling somewhere between David Lynch and Anna Biller in the under-charted area where the boldly surreal meets the colorfully feminist, writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin offers a hypnotic look at Midwestern high school life.
Knives and Skin’s pulpy noir package lets Reeder explore what it means to navigate the world as a female. As tempting as it is to pigeonhole the film as Lynchian, Reeder’s metaphors, while fluid and eccentric, are far more pointed than anything you’ll find in Twin Peaks.
And everyone sings impossibly appropriate Eighties alt hits acapella. Even the dead.
5. The Nightingale
The Nightingale is as expansive and epic a film as Kent’s incandescent feature debut The Babadook was claustrophobic and internal. In it she follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict sentenced to service in the UK’s territory in Tasmania.
What happens to Clare at the hands of Leftenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British officer to whom she is in service, is as brutal and horrifying as anything you’re likely to see onscreen this year. It’s the catalyst for a revenge picture, but The Nightingale is far more than just that.
Kent’s fury fuels her film, but does not overtake it. She never stoops to sentimentality or sloppy caricature. She doesn’t need to. Her clear-eyed take on this especially ugly slice of history finds more power in authenticity than in drama.
4. Tigers Are Not Afraid
Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style.
Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.
But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.
3. The Lighthouse
Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies (Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson), on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.
For everything Eggers brings to bear, from the Bergmanesque lighting and spiritual undertones to the haunting score to the scrupulous set design to images suitable for framing in a maritime museum – not to mention the script itself – The Lighthouse works because of two breathtaking performances.
This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy.
In Midsommar, we are as desperate to claw our way out of this soul-crushing grief as Dani (Florence Pugh). Mainly to avoid being alone, Dani insinuates herself into her anthropology student boyfriend Christian’s (Jack Reynor) trip to rural Sweden with his buds.
Little does she know they are all headed straight for a modern riff on The Wicker Man.
Like a Bergman inspired homage to bad breakups, this terror is deeply-rooted in the psyche, always taking less care to scare you than to keep you unsettled and on edge.
From a Santa Cruz carnival to a hall of mirrors to a wall of rabbits in cages—setting each to its own insidious sound, whether the whistle of Itsy Bitsy Spider or Gregorian chanting— writer/director Jordan Peele draws on moods and images from horror’s collective unconscious and blends them into something hypnotic and almost primal.
Loosely based on an old episode of Twilight Zone, Us is a tale full of tension and fright, told with precision and a moral center not as easily identifiable as Get Out‘s brilliant takedown of “post racial America.”
While it’s fun to be scared stiff, scared smart is even better, a fact Jordan Peele has clearly known for years.