In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.
Dear Dana, Bilge, and Alison,
Speaking of laughing and crying, the funniest films I saw in 2019 were The Lighthouse and Midsommar. Neither the story of two lighthouse keepers slowly going mad nor that of a deteriorating relationship made more harrowing by an unfolding pagan ritual suggest rich grounds for comedy, and yet here we are. Both were made by directors of new-horror classics, and both were billed as horror movies, but both harnessed laughter as much as fright, whether by having Willem Dafoe fart with total abandon or by poking fun at grad students and JSTOR. I think I saw “comedies” this year, but I don’t remember any scenes in any of them as well as the moment in The Lighthouse in which Dafoe throws an otherworldly tantrum when Robert Pattinson tells him he doesn’t like his cooking.
Both movies are pure fun in a way that feels refreshing. I think many moviegoers have a general idea that movies that win awards or are otherwise critically acclaimed are kind of stodgy, in the same way that “prestige TV” was, for a while, signaled by plunging characters into near-total darkness. But following a determined aesthetic didn’t mean these shows were actually good or half as smart as they were pretending to be (House of Cards, I’m looking at you), and I think a sort of reverse rule applies to movies. To adapt the “cats can have a little salami” meme for Movie Club, movies can have a little fun. Just because you aren’t watching a superhero movie doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
The Lighthouse is the product of a rigorous, near-academic research and creative process from Robert and Max Eggers, which in addition to its black-and-white aesthetic might suggest a buttoned-up-ness that might turn some viewers off. The same goes for Midsommar and Ari Aster—Harga’s mythology and community seem so real (in part because the commune was fully built out specifically for the film) that it’s almost startling to discover that they’re not. (Except, of course, that we’d probably have heard already if there was a cult that killed off a bunch of tourists.) But it’s exactly that seeming pedantry that gives the Eggers brothers and Aster room to tell such wild stories without sacrificing an element of fun—you have to know where your target is in order to actually land a hit. It’s also, to briefly veer off on a tangent, the kind of spirit that’s visible in my favorite photograph out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (except for every photo of Bong Joon-ho holding the Palme), of Robert Eggers, Dafoe, and Pattinson all flipping the bird after The Lighthouse’s premiere.
Now, veering back, I would argue that The Irishman, the flashpoint of the corporate grind vs. prestige cinema debate, does something similar to those two “horror” movies. Yes, it’s a 3 hour, 30 minute movie about a man’s life, regrets, and loves (is The Irishman the year’s greatest love story? Maybe), a “prestige” picture by a lauded director, but, like any life, it contains some absurdly funny moments. The reveal that Frank has neatly ironed and hung up his pajamas before he sleeps over with Jimmy. Jimmy’s penchant for—nay, obsession with—ice cream. Tony Pro wearing shorts. The fact that the movie is ultimately a tragedy doesn’t cancel out the fact that it’s also pretty damn funny.
I think it’s a year spent in search of that spirit of fun that compelled me to put The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience in my top 10 films of the year. The members of the Lonely Island are experts at turning pedantry into fun—they wouldn’t be able to make Bash Brothers without their encyclopedic knowledge of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and the recent trend of “visual poems” from pop musicians. I may barely be skirting the “is it TV or is it a movie” discourse by giving it a shoutout (Wikipedia classifies it as a “comedy special”), but it’s impeccably directed, produced, acted, and written. And more than that, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
But let’s be clear, if any TV show from 2019 deserves to be lifted up into the pantheon of cinéma, it’s I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson.
For reference, my top 10 of the year (well, top 15), and my top 10 of the decade for good measure:
2. Apollo 11
3. The Farewell
4. The Irishman
6. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
7. Ad Astra
9. The Lighthouse
10. The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
Love (and I promise to talk less about TV next time),
Read the next dispatch here.