Decades from now, film scholars will likely mention Ari Aster as one of the defining and most influential directors of our age, whose work not only swirls around genre conventions but re-defined arthouse cinema altogether.
Despite his age, the 36-year-old has already established himself as a brand-name filmmaker with a strong authorial stamp. That lofty reputation is owed in no small part to his devastating one-two punch of horror staples produced by A24. Most readers will likely be familiar with the 2018 family nail-biter “Hereditary”—a harrowing portrait of family strife starring a career-best Toni Colette as a grief-stricken matriarch—as well as the 2019 Swedish fever-dream “Midsommar”, which essentially did to the Scandinavian folk festivity what “Jaws” did to sharks in ’75.
The 3-hour-long existential tragicomedy “Beau is Afraid”, which journeyed into theaters last April, marks Aster’s latest, and perhaps most polarizing effort to date. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a chronically paranoid Jewish man struggling to get his life together, the entire movie rides on the razor’s edge between the director’s trademark cosmic dread and deadpan humor, delivering a whole six-course meal for the senses that sparked rarefied passions this spring. With the A24 film slated to arrive on VOD soon and all the controversy still brewing online, we take a trip through Aster’s catalog to see how Beau stacks up against the rest of his heavy hitters.
11. TDF Really Works (2011)
Before carving a nice niche for himself in the horror genre, Ari Aster cut his teeth as a filmmaker doing short movies at the AFI Conservatory, where he met many friends and future collaborators that would go on to work with him in bigger projects. As you will soon find out in the present list, the filmmaker behind “Midsommar” and “Hereditary” gravitated towards comedy more than any other genre during his early days, with a penchant for the profane and taboo.
Standing as concrete proof that any aspiring director, no matter how talented, is capable of overcoming false starts, this 2011 short film which Aster wrote, directed, shot and co-starred in, gave us a tissue sample of his crude and absurdist sense of humor. The YouTube video is essentially a three-minute-long infomercial parody about a product called, ahem, ‘Tino’s dick fart device’, which if nothing else, proves Aster was not afraid of swinging for the fences and ruffling a few feathers. All things considered, though, you should steer clear of this misfire unless you consider yourself a hardcore completist.
10. Basically (2014)
Polish cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski has been one of Aster’s key collaborators throughout his career, working alongside the director in eight different projects so far including all three of his feature-length films.
What makes this 15-minute-long short worth a watch is not so much its barebones story—in a nutshell, a “Fleabag”-style 4th-wall-breaking monologue about a spoiled, self-indulgent white Hollywood actress ranting about her problems and grappling with her dysfunctional life—but Pogorzelski’s steady hand behind the camera. Emmy-winning actress Rachel Brosnahan does a convincing job portraying an entitled rich woman completely in over her head (think something along the lines of Alicia Silverstone’s in the 1995 “Clueless”), but overall, as a corrosive satire of the American upper-class society, this is no “American Psycho”.
9. The Turtle’s Head (2014)
Not only is Ari Aster known as a household name in his own right, but a self-proclaimed film buff with an encyclopedic knowledge about the history of cinema. You can tell that he’s an avid cinephile with a soft spot for arthouse directors like Michael Haneke, Ingmar Bergman or Paul Schrader, but sprang from his love for old-school detective serials came this 12-minute oddity.
At once wildly unpredictable and oddly hilarious, “The Turtle’s Head” centers around one Detective Bing Shooter, a grizzled, womanizing private eye who seems to have come straight out of a ’40s Warner Bros. Pictures’ noir picture to solve a labyrinthine mystery. Full of dopey voiceovers, hard-boiled dialogues and a fine-tuned Bogart impersonation, Aster’s pastiche should strike a chord with “A Maltese Falcon” aficionados, but viewer discretion is advised, though, as the film soon pivots from one mystery to a new, unexpected one concerning the detective’s medical condition. “The Turtle’s Head” should serve as a strong reminder never to underestimate Ari Aster’s ability to put the audience at unease in the space of a few frames.
8. Beau (2011)
If you liked the Joaquin Phoenix-led surreal comedy “Beau is Afraid”, one title worth seeking out next is the 2011 short film that inspired it. Much like its feature-length counterpart, “Beau” tells the story of a middle-aged man who plans to visit her mother but goes into a frenzy after having his apartment keys stolen right in front of him.
Though not quite his coming-out-party as a capital D-Director, “Beau” marked a paradigm shift in Aster’s career that exemplified his many strengths as a horror filmmaker and synthesized a number of recurring themes that would eventually become his stock-in-trade: repressed trauma manifesting in strange ways, dysfunctional mother-son relationships… Still, you can sense that the young director wasn’t entirely confident yet and had a long way to go until he’d fully honed in his style. Be that as it may, any Aster devotee worth their salt should give it a try if only to see how his trademark themes and morbid sensibilities have evolved throughout the years.
7. C’est la Vie (2016)
“Your bloated sense of self-worth is equal to the hole that has been ripped out of my dignity”, a homeless man angrily confesses straight to the camera while explaining his many daily encounters in Aster’s underrated 2016 short.
Much in line with the narration-heavy comedy of “Basically”, Aster’s last directorial effort before graduating into the big leagues and shooting “Hereditary” folds an angry, clear-eyed commentary on American society and capitalism delivered through a corrosive monologue by a despondent drug addict living on the fringes in the streets of Los Angeles. Your mileage may vary, but “C’est la Vie” cynical condemnation of humanity cuts deeper now than ever, walking a tight-rope line of being deliberately funny and low-key depressing in how it slips hard-hitting truths under the guise of comedic banter. If you got eight minutes to spare, this is a compelling short, though a little rough around the edges, that would make a helluva double feature with Aster’s latest film—and might as well leave you with something to chew on after the credits roll.