5. Under the Skin (2013) – Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer’s enigma of a film is one sure to get under your skin – but only after it blows away all your expectations. With a story as seductive as its mysterious protagonist, Under the Skin explores brave new cinematic territory and makes no apologies for its ambitious vision.
If the idea of an otherworldly creature (disguised as Scarlett Johansson) driving around the Scottish countryside in a van and luring men into her vehicle sounds intriguing, then this is the movie for you.
But it’s not only the boldness of its plot that makes Under the Skin a modern classic; it’s also the deftness of its direction and the skill of its execution. This is understated directing at its finest, with director Jonathan Glazer content to withdraw from the forefront and let the strength of the story carry the day. And Scarlett Johansson delivers a career defining performance as the unfathomable stalker of human prey.
Best of all, Under the Skin knows that it’s a smart film, and refrains from exposition and amateur efforts to explain either itself or its meditation on human nature. An intensely horrific film that’s also the definition of smart art, this is a movie to be intellectually and emotionally experienced.
4. Let the Right One In (2008) – Tomas Alfredson
A vampire film that barely references its topic, Let Me In takes vampirism back to its roots – without the sexiness, the clichés, and the glamour of what is essentially the life of a leech.
At the center of the story is a lonely, bullied 12-year-old boy who strikes up a close friendship with and finds an emotional refuge in his new neighbor – a girl who only makes her appearances at night. As the two kids grow closer, it becomes apparent that the girl has something to hide; her oddly specific rules about when and where she can go begin to annoy her new friend who thought he had found a kindred spirit.
Let Me In is a highly intelligent Swedish film that addresses a typically sensational subject without sensationalism. It’s a movie made for adults that takes an honest look at the concept of vampirism, and follows its implications through to their logical conclusions. It’s also a touching story about human loneliness and connection, viewed through the eyes of two characters at sensitive stages in their lives.
3. Midsommar (2019) – Ari Aster
Carrying the torch of folk horror in fine style, Midsommar burst onto the scene in 2019. Following in the footsteps of the sub-genre’s classics like The Wicker Man and Night of the Demon, Midsommar can hold its head high in such elite company. Proving that the appeal of folk horror remains alive in the 21st century, it’s a film with the potential to inspire future followers of its own.
The pastoral setting in Midsommar is Sweden, where a yearly festival has drawn a young American couple for a visit. But (in case you didn’t see it coming), things quickly take a darker turn for the couple. Finding themselves in hostile territory, they embark upon a struggle for their very lives. Midsommar is a gorgeous film, and it’s another intriguing chapter in the career of director Ari Aster.
2. Suspiria (2018) – Luca Guadagnino
Fans of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic, Suspiria, weren’t exactly pining for a remake, but in 2018 they got one anyway. Argento’s fellow Italian director, Luca Guadagnino, defied expectations by reworking the beloved horror shocker for a new generation of moviegoers. Though the effort was bound to be enormously divisive, the ambitious Suspiria “2.0” manages to position itself as both respectful and rebellious… at once vintage and visionary.
This remake isn’t afraid to add considerable psychological depth to its main characters. The Suzy Bannion who shows up on the steps of the Tanz Dance Academy in this version has a detailed backstory and an unhappy home which she hopes the academy and its inhabitants can replace.
Likewise, Madame Blanc is a more fleshed out character who plays a crucial role in the psychological development of Suzy. As for the suspected witches – well, we see a lot more of their previously hidden nocturnal activities. It’s a smart movie on its own, and as a remake of a beloved classic Suspiria succeeds as well as we could have hoped.
1. Mother! (2017) – Darren Aronofsky
Darren Aronofsky’s heavily allegorical film is one that divided audiences across the world, and it’s easy to see why. However, few accused it of not being a smart movie… though many may assert that it was a bit too smart for its own good. But even if Mother! comes off a bit heavy-handed in places, it’s undeniably an intelligent film ripe for analysis. The fact that a wide variety of interpretations have been applied to the story is itself a testament to the depth of its content – quality art will always appear a little differently to each observer.
The basic setup is a deceptively simple one, far removed from its obvious allegorical implications. A married couple lives peacefully in a remote house, without a neighbor in sight. But one day some surprise guests show up at their door, bringing turmoil with them. Life in the house escalates into a hellish whirlpool of chaos that has to be seen to be believed. Mother! is a film with enormous social, philosophical, and religious implications, and you’ll need to watch it twice.