Callum Petch’s Top 20 Films of 2019: #5 – #1

Bust a beat for these films!

Welcome once more to My Top 20 Films of 2019 countdown.  If you’re just joining us, we’ve already knocked off 15 out of the 20, with the first half of the list having been covered on Saturday (go here for a refresher) and #10 to #6 getting their spotlight yesterday (go here for that).  Today, we’re wrapping it up with The Top Five.  Also, as a heads up, this gets really, perhaps uncomfortably personal at a certain point and we kinda stop talking about the movies in question as objective art and more about how they relate or reflect my own subjective life experiences, even more so than usual once we get this high.  Just, fair warning.  Anyways, I’m a Firestarter, twisted Firestarter…

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.

05] Beats

Dir: Brian Welsh

Star: Christian Ortega, Lorn Macdonald, Brian Ferguson

Beats is gay as fuck.  Johnno (Ortega) and Spanner (Macdonald) may not openly state their burgeoning homoerotic lust for one another, with their big “I FUCKING LOVE YOU, MAN!” at the climactic Revolt rave being meant as a platonic declaration of best friend-hood, and Johnno almost manages to get off with one of the girls the duo end up tagging along with.  But make no mistake, this is a queer love story as the outstanding pre-epilogue final shot of the pair laid together one last time on Johnno’s bed, their faces aching to try and say something meaningful that can somehow stop Johnno from leaving but ultimately coming up with nothing, makes abundantly clear – it’s basically the Scottish Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which wasn’t released in the UK this year).  A doomed romance thanks to an insurmountable combination of unspoken mid-90s working class homophobia, class-dividing prejudices unfairly miscategorising Spanner as a corrupting influence, and the looming spectre of New Labour centrism plus the continued damage of a decade of Tory rule combining to denigrate and criminalise those who just wanna get loaded and wanna have a good time.

As alluded to in my Farmageddon write-up, albeit with that one specifically fixated on Brexit, British cinema as a whole this decade has proven to be either simply disinterested or outwardly terrified of addressing the collective nation’s current social and economic realities.  A full decade of Tory austerity, the Brexit movement, the rise of manufactured and mainstreamed far-right “populism” and nationalism with their accompanying hate speech, etc.  By and large, the national cinema has instead spent its time stuck in the past, fetishizing past stories and period pieces with little to no current resonance; attempting to ape Hollywood blockbusters and American cult/art cinema, such as that period in 2016 where all our new breed of British and Irish auteurs collectively shunned the island which made their names in favour of providing their own takes on 70s American New Wave; or straight-up dog-whistling to the conservative Olds in the audience through otherwise milquetoast glorified ITV sitcom movies.  The only two filmmakers whom I can think have actively and consistently tried to tap into the Now are Joe Cornish (who spent the entire mid-decade silent) and Ken Loach (whose movies are shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit).

Brian Welsh’s adaptation of the Kieran Hurley play may root itself in the specific Scottish working-class 1994 – set as it is during the week of New Labour’s Party Conference and in the run up to the passing of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – and the dying days of rave culture, but it’s also one of the most topical and accurate communications of modern British working class malaise that I have seen in a long time.  His film courses with an anger and passion, subtly calling attention to the parallels between 25 years ago and today in a manner which gives Beats added potency without overdoing it, using that emotion as fuel for an affectingly honest character study rooted in specificity.  The deep-seated self-loathing in those who managed to scrape and claw their way out of the poverty line for their origins and how that expresses as outward disdain for those who can’t or won’t pull up their boot-straps.  Authoritarianism in government and police policies disguised as trying to protect the working classes from themselves.  The knowledge for those in the thick of it that a magic night out really might be the best their lives will ever be and their almost-zen acceptance/resignation of said fate.

So, yeah, it can be a heavy film.  For a movie pitched in the mould of Trainspotting and Human Traffic, Beats foregrounds the melancholic cloud which overtakes those antecedents in their second halves.  But Welsh and Hurley come at their subject from an empathetic character-centric angle, affording surprising depth to all of their characters – perhaps most surprisingly Johnno’s new police officer stepfather who gains so much from the film’s refusal to play him as a completely stereotypical antagonistic figure, and even Spanner’s monstrous older brother gets a deceptively complex denouement – and just enough bursts of sweet humour which has the movie wearing its heart on its sleeve.  Welsh’s direction is, as mentioned, coursing with anger and vitality but it also has a rollicking good time, finding and fixating on the moments of communion and fun which lighten the existential load for those caught in the barely-over-poverty-line trap.  And when we finally reach the Revolt rave?  Honestly, I don’t think I have ever seen a better cinematic communication of the power of dance music, and raves specifically, than what Welsh does here; losing himself as his characters do in the ecstasy of the music, the sensation of being a part of something bigger than yourself, and that brief euphoric moment where every last trouble in your life that’s happened or is to come instead floats away into utter meaninglessness.

But that high is only temporary and reality will come stamping back in with the force of a dozen deliberately antagonistic truncheons, as the quietly gutting epilogue makes abundantly clear.  Johnno and Spanner won’t say anything, they’ll just lay in silence and await the inevitable, at once heartbreaking and beautiful.


04] Hustlers

Dir: Lorene Scafaria

Star: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles

2019 saw a surprising number of Scorsese movies, including an attempt by the man himself to bury that entire strain of film six feet deep, and Hustlers was by far the best out of all of them.  Believe me, I am just as surprised as you are.  I’m not meaning to undermine the prior filmography of writer-director Lorene Scafaria – previous of pleasant-enough indie dramedies like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World – or the career of Jennifer Lopez – who, by and large, stopped acting for much of the decade since I started doing this whole critic thing – or the million-dollar logline of “Goodfellas with strippers” but… like, who the hell thought that this movie was within that combination of factors?  A movie this much fun, this propulsive, harbouring this much surprising emotional depth and moral nuance?  Hell, one only need look at The Kitchen to see how horribly this could have gone; a hyperactive, insincere and kinda ugly attempt to graft on superficial feminist bona fides rather than being in any way truthful, the results coming off as a film school undergrad’s barely-passable imitation of Scorsese.

By the time I had reached the release of Hustlers in this endless and thoroughly unimpressive year, I had gone through a relative up period for theatrical releases – Pain and Glory, The Mustang, Mrs. Lowery & Son, and Good Boys had come forth in the August weeks prior – but, for as good and well-made as those listed films were, none of them pulsated with such immediately hypnotic and intoxicating energy as Hustlers did.  This is one of the Most Directed films of the year, no question, but it’s also one of the Best Directed.  No exaggeration, I could list at least 25 contenders for Scene of the Year from this movie alone.  Hell, I can name six of them that occur in just the first half hour!  The opening tracking shot on Destiny’s first night at the club.  The Fiona Apple-backed introduction of Ramona.  The hard cut from 2005 Destiny and Ramona’s smoke-break to 2014 Destiny being interviewed by Elizabeth with handcuff-reminiscent jewellery.  The pre-shift banter exchange.  The motherfucking “Gimme More” montage and its immediate follow-up, the Usher visit!

Honestly, the whole “Goodfellas with strippers” logline is kinda misrepresenting what Scafaria is trying to do here, even with the blatant invocation and jacking of Scorsese’s signature visual tricks.  For one, those flashily-edited, constantly in-motion, power-centric camera tricks and cinematography languages manage to bring a new and feminine energy when properly recontextualised to a story about women rather than the typical male-centric take.  Most obviously, there’s how the film’s early sequences on the pole carry a seductive energy which is fixated more on the power and confidence of the woman performing rather than titillating any member of the audience.  But there’s also the thrill in watching how she recontextualises Scorsese’s tightrope-balance of shooting the fun-times material wealth and initial group violence in a manner which gets the appeal whilst quietly condemning said behaviour.  In your standard Scorsese flick, that would be drugs, booze, fast cars, and groups of wise guys bearing menacingly down on vulnerable business owners or debtors.  Here, those are hot-ass clothes, champagne, iPhones and fur coats and giant-ass bags, and groups of idealised glammed-up ladies strutting confidently towards a somewhat sleazy Wall Street bro.

But more than that, Goodfellas is, by necessity, quite a nihilistic film about purely horrible and selfish people – “as far back as I can recall, I always wanted to be a gangster” are the opening lines of the film, lest we forget – whereas Hustlers operates from a much queasier and more precarious vantage point: desperate people screwed over by society bending the rules and morals until they break.  Scafaria asks for and provides empathy, and at times sympathy, to most of her women then refuses to either valorise or stick the boot in.  It’s daring, since getting the execution even slightly wrong risks accidentally turning the film into something morally repugnant, but not only does Scafaria manage to equally balance the personal character study with a wider societal condemnation of the entire concept of the American Dream, she does so by focussing mostly on the unconventional love story at her narrative’s centre between Destiny and Ramona.  (In fact, that whole concept of non-traditional love stories is what groups much of the Top 5 for the year together.)  How their various sins, stubbornness, and character flaws – not to mention how the framing device beautifully and succinctly sets up Destiny as an unreliable narrator intentionally making herself look better than Ramona to engender more sympathy – cause the mother of all partly-toxic co-dependent relationships.

Anybody can make a Scorsese film.  Directors across all the arts mediums have been cribbing his style, themes, and reference points for literal decades.  Anyone can superficially make a Scorsese film.  But to understand the mechanics of why some films turn out like Taxi Driver whilst others turn out like Joker, and to then twist those mechanics to work for the kinds of protagonists that are outside of the narrow White male mid-30s Catholic niche Scorsese has carved out in a manner that ends up truly fresh and exciting?  That’s indicative of true talent.


03] Booksmart

Dir: Olivia Wilde

Star: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Billie Lourd

As I have gotten deeper into this particular decade and better understood the maelstrom that is my mind, I’ve come to the realisation that I am perhaps a queer feminist and emotionally-confused teenaged girl from the late-90s trapped in the body of a perpetually neurotic quarter-life-crisis guy in the late-2010s.  I’m being deliberately humorous in the delivery of such info for this piece, granted – rest assured, that is a subject for a whole other time in the unspecified future once this new mental health specialist has finally gotten back to me – but the fact remains that a lot of the movies which I have heavily gravitated towards and felt, for lack of a better term, “seen” by are coming-of-age teen girl comedies.  (And also Diane Nguyen from BoJack Horseman but that’s a conversation for after the last half-season drops.)  The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, and now Booksmart.  These are the films which instantly make a beeline for my heart and set up cool-ass indie coffee shops inside of within minutes of their start.  Writing phenomenally entertaining, richly textured, believably conflicted, highly ambitious and just slightly abrasive teenage girl protagonists, then having them deal with that swirly mass of hormones and splintering friendships turns out to be the fastest way to get me to stan something with the vigour and loyalty of an unquestioning army soldier.  Who knew?

To be clear, Booksmart is not just this high on the list because it checks so many of my personal “YES YES ALL OF THESE THINGS I LIKE AND WANT ALL THE TIME THANK YOU” boxes – actually strong female protagonists, stories about female friendship, high school movies, high school/teen movie soundtracks, a proudly feminist heart, an appearance (however short) by Jessica Williams – although I am not going to lie and say that didn’t help it along at all.  Rather, Booksmart is this high on the list because it is one of the absolute best films of 2019, and would be one of the absolute best films of whatever year it was released in, no exceptions.  For starters, it is utterly fucking hysterical.  Quite frankly, I don’t think I have laughed this hard and this relentlessly at a new release movie since Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping back in 2016.  Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman’s screenplay just keeps tossing out fastballs with such a natural effortlessness it is quite frankly insulting that there are other comedies which deign to exist despite having barely a tenth of the instantly memorable characters, brilliant comic setpieces, inspired details, and fantastic one-liners of this one film.

Said screenplay is performed by one of the tightest comedic ensembles to light up a feature film in a long time.  Everybody, no matter how minor a role they play, manages to make one hell of an impression.  Victoria Ruesga as endearingly awkward-cool dream-girl crush Ryan, Skyler Gisondo as the sweetly desperately pathetic Jared, Jessica Williams’ worryingly real overcompensating borderline-trainwreck Miss Fine, Austin Crute’s brilliantly egotistical Alan and Noah Galvin’s scene-stealing George, the latter of whom ends up in a deathmatch with Billie Lourd’s drugged-up sweet-soul Gigi for ultimate scene-stealing champion.  And, obviously, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever whose joined-at-the-hip chemistry is so winning, so infectious, and so evident from the opening frame that it could frankly power an entire six-season sitcom by itself; I would gladly follow these girls around on their various further adventures for literal years.  Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde takes to directing with aplomb, bringing an almost punk sense of concision and energy.  For as much as the spectres of Rogen/Goldberg and Ferrell/McKay comedies hang over proceedings, none of them move like Booksmart does, barrelling forward with every joke lasting precisely as long as it needs to for maximum effect and not a beat longer (credit to the masterful editing from Brent White and Jamie Gross) and a refreshing sense of active style, shot composition, and carefully-chosen colour-grading which lasts the entire movie but doesn’t get showy at the expense of story.

But what truly makes Booksmart one for the ages is how authentic it feels.  This probably sounds absolutely ridiculous for a movie that involves Barbie doll drug-trip hallucinations, a serial killer who gives lectures about the dangers of getting into stranger’s cars, and enough super-rich condos to set an entire season of The Hills around; and whose principal creative voices are all long out of high school and teen age.  Which, fair.  But teen movies always have some level of escapist fantasy or exaggeration to themselves, it’s baked into their DNA, and that never ends up a problem so long as the core voice and the core heart feel attuned to right now.  Booksmart feels tuned in to right now, understanding the emotional truths of the current generation of teenagers – the way in which the old clique system has lost its sway but how the underlying prejudices and social conformities still persist in different forms, the increased insecurities over projected self-image vs. how peers perceive you, even the natural way that many self-styled feminists are able to rattle off touchstones in the same way adults do figures of their own youth – and playing to that frequency with pride and empathy.  Even though I don’t know anybody the ages of Molly & Amy, I do know girl friends of mine (not much older) who have the same type of relationship as Molly & Amy and this movie nails that.

Thanks to its criminally short theatrical run – because none of you assholes bothered to go see it, how dare you – and the bewildering refusal by its UK distributor to issue the film on Blu-Ray despite getting such a release in every other country, I have only been able to see Booksmart twice so far yet I would more than happily watch this thing dozens of times in a row without breaks.  It’s that excellent.  That said, I consider the character of George to be a personal attack against me, so Wilde, the writers, and Galvin shall be hearing from my non-existent lawyers any day now.


02] The Farewell

Dir: Lulu Wang

Star: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Diana Lin

Six years, one month, and nineteen days ago, I lost my granddad to lung cancer.  It was a recurrence, having first appeared a few years before when he dealt with it rather quickly, and this time it was terminal.  My brother and I were only told about this roughly a month before his death, but the rest of the family knew immediately and kept this information to themselves until the fact of the matter could not be avoided any longer.  I still recall the day of the news, roughly a week into my first year of university, coming back home in the morning with my mum, picking up my brother from ours and being told that we were off to see nan and grandad at their home, which seemed like no different from any other time we went to see them and I was excited to tell them both about my first few days of uni.  Before going in, my brother and I were simply told “he’s very ill” which was why he now had an oxygen tank.  Afterwards, on the drive back, mum and dad (who had driven there himself) explained to us the full facts of the matter.  I was to not worry, go back to university, focus on my life and studies there.  I’ll see him again.

One month later, I came back up and was taken to see him on a nursing bed in a hospice, incapable of even speaking, drifting in and out of consciousness.  Since I had lectures in the coming days that I could not miss (and my parents would not let me miss), I was unable to stay with him despite my wishes.  As I left the hospice, and again after I was dropped back off at my accommodation, I ordered both my parents and my nan to ring and tell me the second that anything happened, good or bad, regardless of whether I was in the middle of a lecture (they had my entire timetable), asleep, out, whatever.  I did not want to be the last to know.  Not again.  Two days later, he passed.  The afternoon following, and conveniently right after my lecture for the day had concluded, I got a text from my dad telling me that he was on his way to my accommodation and would need letting in.  He did not say why, but I knew.  When we came face-to-face after I got back to the flat and let him in, then I was told.  Since my brother lived at home at the time, I was the last to know.

Quite honestly, I think I am still on some level resentful of how that all went down.  At every step of the process, my agency was taken away from me and my wishes, which boiled down to “just be honest with me and tell me things,” were ignored out of a belief that it was somehow best for me to be kept in the dark.  The biggest time in my life to date where I needed the people I rely on the most to listen to me, and they simply didn’t.  But what stings so very much about that still-lingering resentment as I get older is how, with time, I get it.  I get why they made that decision.  There really was nothing that could be done.  Finding out sooner would not have magically increased the amount of time I had with him before he died, cos I had to finish the exhaustive prep-work for university, and it’s not like I would’ve been able to do anything at all with him had I the time, he was heavily reliant on the oxygen tank during that home visit to get even the smallest sentence out, besides feel sad in his presence for even longer than I already did.  And not only was it indeed too early to miss out on those foundational Film Studies lectures, as I quickly reasoned to my supportive tutors when they offered to let me miss a few weeks to grieve, doing them gave my mind something constructive to fixate on rather than spiral into an abyssal misery.   (Plus, obviously, my grief was not somehow more important or special than those of everyone else around me.)

I am telling you this story because it is the biggest reason why Lulu Wang’s incredible The Farewell got to me so much.  Sure, her screenplay is a thing of beautiful genius with a pitch-perfect tone that’s funny and affecting without ever once being quirky or cute.  Sure, her direction is achingly raw and tenderly delivered, just the right kind of understated to ensure that there’s not a dry eye in the house.  Sure, her cast are all legitimately revelatory, particularly the exceptional Awkwafina – who has had one hell of an 18-month run, for real – the perfect Zhao Shuzhen and the all too understandable Diana Lin.  Sure, the cinematography by Anna Franquesca Solano is low-key gorgeous and the score by Alex Weston is near-enough my favourite of the year.  Sure, the exploration of Chinese-American dysphoria and ideological culture clashes are fascinating and seamlessly interwoven.  Sure, that shot from the backseat of the taxi at the ending is without a doubt the single most devastating of any film this year.  All of those are big reasons as to why The Farewell is one of the very best films of 2019 and all things I appreciated.

But the reason why The Farewell got to me so much that I was left a sobbing wreck after viewing it, and why it is at #2 on this list, is because it dredged up my past baggage and helped me understand it from a different angle.  To see and hear the arguments as to why what happened happened, even if the scenario and details in-film are not the same as what happened in my own life.  Lulu Wang’s film forced me to re-confront my past and, with the help of both the film and my maturation over these last six years, resolve it in a manner which allows the whole thing to sting a little less.  I needed this.  Call your grandparents, if you still can.


01] Midsommar

Dir: Ari Aster

Star: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter

NO, SERIOUSLY, MAJOR SPOILERS AND DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION

So, I guess we need to finally talk about that public panic attack, huh?

I feel a lot of emotions when I experience media of all kinds.  For some reason still unbeknownst to me, I am largely incapable of crying in day-to-day life, even when I feel extremely sad and could really do with having a cry for that cathartic sensation of letting it out.  Unless my mind is in a complete and total breakdown state, I am just unable to cry at events in my life, instead sort of regressing into either a state of shock or a state of melancholy.  The same is true of extreme joy, my mind immediately gravitating to scepticism and disbelief, or anger, which is quickly subsumed by shock and numbness.  But when I experience narratives or profoundly moving images or sensations in books, television, videogames, or movies, I get that cathartic release.  I am able to cry, I am able to experience unrestrained joy, I am able to properly process anger.  I do not know why this is the case and is definitely something to discuss with whomever my next therapist is because it doesn’t seem particularly healthy, but it is what it is.

What I have never felt during the experiencing of a piece of media before is a full-blown panic attack.  I have felt overwhelmingly anxious thanks to a work of art before, most especially anything to do with the horror genre where my weak stomach for sudden surprises and catastrophes see me bolting for the pause and frame-forward buttons with regularity, but never have I had a short-of-breath, gripping on tight to myself, unable to control and unable to look away panic attack brought upon as a result of experiencing a work of art.  What’s strangest about this is that my fragile evil-ass mind is actually very easy to trigger into a state of blind panic, even the most passive thought about the inescapable eventuality of death will be seized upon and fixated on no matter how much I try to stop it with an intensity which renders me almost incapable of functioning for bursts at a time as a sheer and total terror overcomes my being.  In fact, I can still vividly remember the night that the first such instance of this occurred, being 13 and in unstoppable floods of tears over this horrifying fact of life that my mind simultaneously could and could not comprehend.  It’s been a constant presence ever since, usually tied into concerns that I am wasting my life.

But lots of works deal with death and dying, and whilst they often give me strong emotional reactions which sometimes outsize what the movie objectively deserves – as for one example from 2018, The Leisure Seeker is a trifling little movie with massive tonal issues and an unearned and brazenly manipulative ending that I nonetheless spent in a constant state of tears for how it inadvertently played upon the baggage detailed in this and the previous entry – they don’t give me panic attacks.  Similarly, lots of works of art deal with depression, toxic relationships, grief, the difficulty in enacting and accepting the need for great personal change, and the complexity of sex, many of which have done so in the form of the horror genre, but none of those have given me panic attacks either.  I have related strongly to many of them, and gained comfort and understanding from the biggest and best examples I’ve come across – frankly, it’s gotten to the point where I don’t think a Top 5 list of mine can be considered canon if it doesn’t include at least one film and one long diatribe about depression somewhere within – but that’s about as far as it goes.

On the 13th of July this past year, that changed.  As the credits ran on Midsommar and a whole bunch of other patrons very loudly started laughing and derisively exclaiming “what the fuck was that?!” to their friends as they exited the cinema screen, I remained gripped in place in my seat unable to move.  I was hyperventilating, I felt tremors – not goosebumps, tremors – shooting up and down my whole body, my face was leaking tears at a rate comparable to waterfalls, and I was in a dazed state of alternately shock and awe.  Eventually, I managed to recover just enough to be able to leave the screen, but was still too in the throes of its effects to go far or do anything else, so I stumbled past the non-plussed patrons who hadn’t gone home yet to the (thankfully empty) toilets in an effort to compose myself.  10 minutes pass, not much progress had been made and a Cineworld staffer poked their head in to ask if I was alright which I took as a signal that I should probably go my car already.  It took another 20 minutes sat in my car before I was in any fit state to drive home.

As I stressed at the time, I recognise that this might all scan as hyperbole to those of you reading but I am telling the god’s honest truth.  This happened.  And I genuinely didn’t see this coming, either, because for 90% of Midsommar’s runtime I was entranced but not really scared or properly frightened.  Ari Aster’s highly ambitious and purposefully difficult follow-up to his head-ripping Hereditary (my #5 film of 2018 as we all know) covers a lot of the same thematic ground as his instant classic debut with a lot of the same visual techniques which contrast expertly-arranged suggestive off-kilter stretches with sudden bursts of jarring and truly disturbing violence, but has a much more elegiac and deliberately-paced tone.  His film unsettles, it confuses, it draws proceedings out, it makes you go “wait, is that plant actually breathing?!” but it also deliberately flattens those reactions into a very passive state of being where something feels off but never fully enough so to add a sense of urgency and flight.  Hereditary is in a constant futile state of battling against the inevitable, whilst Midsommar has accepted its outcome pretty much the second after Christian answers his phone to hear Dani’s horrifying screams of grief.

If you thought that Hereditary was the work of a filmmaker 100% in control of their craft and fully confident in their abilities, then Midsommar is here to prove that, with Aster, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  The intoxicating, occasionally suffocating atmosphere which permeates this movie is to die for.  Returning cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski managing to make the commune’s clearing stretch on for seemingly miles and finding the perverse beauty in everything that Aster’s camera captures, editor Lucian Johnston drawing out every cut to an extent where time almost collapses in on itself, The Haxan Cloak’s unnerving folk-tale score disentangling proceedings from any comfortable reality.  All of them combine to create a haunting and hypnotic effect, a spell infrequently broken by some uncomfortably accurate cinematic depictions of anxiety attacks – that relatively early sequence where Dani (the best Florence Pugh performance of the year which is saying a lot) is having a pleasant drug trip only to inadvertently spiral the second somebody mentions “family,” minus the drug trip, could genuinely have been yanked from many such instances in the past several years of my life.  But like I said, these were brief intrusions.  I was hooked, occasionally humoured by the bursts of some of the blackest comedy I have seen in a film in a long time, but not frightened.

And then Ulf, one of the Hårga’s willing sacrifices, let out a scream of agony as the ritualistic fire which was cleansing the ceremonial temple at the movie’s climax began to overtake him and a piercing shot of pure panic ripped right through me.  I hyperventilated, I was laced with tremors, I cried and cried and cried, I wanted so badly to look away but felt pinned in place and unable to move (rather like Christian’s simultaneously befitting and cruel fate).  This was not a new sensation in my day-to-day life (minus the crying), but it was new when it came to media… and I still can’t quite explain why it happened.  I know that it was due to my fears about death, the ignominy and pain and pure terror of it all even for those who claim to be at peace with the idea, and the way Aster was playing on those.  I knew that it was about the all-consuming maelstrom of grief, the collective shrieks and writhing of the Hårga & Dani outpouring a rawness of emotion I myself struggled to do with my own experiences.

I knew that it had to do with the strange indescribable beauty in the symbolism of Dani breaking free of her depression for a precious few seconds to achieve a transcendent moment of clarity which just also happened to double as a willing embrace of madness, a beat both astonishingly cruel and astonishingly kind that I both wish and fear experiencing for myself.  I knew that it had to do with the blunt frankness of how difficult it is to let go of the parts of oneself that you hate and the non-working connections you need to sever and grow past in order to find true happiness, an act which can often be inherently selfish even when it is absolutely necessary, those very things going up in flames before Dani’s eyes.  But even whilst knowing the triggers in this sequence, and by extension the entire movie since it is a cumulative effect of everything leading up to it, I couldn’t fully explain why I reacted with such intensity.  Frankly, I still can’t.  I managed to rewatch the film at home the other week to see if it was a freak anomaly and the same exact reaction happened, just this time I was alone so my panic attack couldn’t concern anybody.  Aster’s movie just somehow has that effect on me.

You may be wondering why I willingly resaw a movie which induces such a response and, consequently, why I would make it my film of the year.  The answers to your queries are one and the same.  Because Midsommar is that fucking good, that fucking frightening, and that fucking bizarrely beautiful.  I have never seen another film like it, I never want to see another film like it, and I want nothing more right now as I type these words than to watch it all over again.  In 2019, frankly in any goddamn year, that’s a sensation you can’t fake and a feeling you can never forget.


Tomorrow: the annual deeply-personal and highly-indulgent self-reflection piece.

Callum Petch goes, la la lala la, “she’s got the look!”

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