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Talking through the 2022 Sight & Sound 'Greatest Films of All Time' poll: 'Get Out' (#95, tie)
In the first entry of an ongoing conversation project about the films hundreds of polled critics believe to be the best ever made, we look at Jordan Peele's first-ballot Hall of Famer from 2017.
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
Get Out (2017)
Dir. Jordan Peele
Ranking: #95 (tie)
Previous ranking: N/A.
Premise: In writer-director Peele’s debut feature, Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a young African-American photographer who joins his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a weekend trip to meet her parents in a wealthy enclave upstate. Chris isn’t initially thrown off by the family’s strained hospitality, but a series of strange occurrences leads him to believe that something more sinister is happening on their estate.
Scott: Since Get Out is the first of the Sight & Sound movies we’ll be discussing, perhaps we should start by noting the changing composition of the voting body, which led to a particularly dramatic unveiling of the list in December. The first S&S poll only had 63 voters. That number would increase slowly over the years, but the growth has been exponential in the last two rounds, spurred in part by the internet, which makes voting much easier, and in part by a conscious desire to broaden and diversify the participants. In 2002, there were 145 voters. In 2012, 846. In 2022, a staggering 1,639.
One other statistic worth considering in relation to Get Out: In 2012, only two films from the 21st century, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love at #33 and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. at #35. In the 2022 edition, those films now rank in the Top 10, at #5 and #8, respectively. On top of that, seven more films from the 2000s have entered the Top 100, five in their first year of eligibility, which speaks to a less conservative approach by some voters. Where in the past, many might be inclined to wait a much longer time to see how films settle—I confess to being a bit conservative myself, though In the Mood for Love did make my ballot—some have found their way from the theater to the canon with breathtaking speed.
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Get Out is one of them. We can talk about this film in relation to Peele’s subsequent efforts, Us and Nope, which are even more expansive and ambitious pieces of filmmaking. But his debut is such a watershed moment in horror cinema—and in American culture at large, particularly as a barometer for race relations—that its “instant classic” status makes sense. The line I keep coming back to is one that’s repeated twice, first as a warning from Rose to Chris about what her neurosurgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford) is going to say and then Dean actually saying it: “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.”
That’s a provocative starting place for a film that will eventually reveal that Rose’s family, the Armitages, have been abducting Black people and using their bodies as vessels for a second life. (It’s basically a twist on the brilliant John Frankenheimer sci-fi thriller Seconds, in which a bored suburbanite undergoes surgery to enjoy a younger, more bohemian existence.) It would have been easy enough to present the Armitages as vicious neo-Confederates, but Peele’s target are those two-term Obama voters who are proud to have contributed to an imagined “post-racial” era, but have plenty of their own blind spots.
So what do you make of Get Out as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Keith? Is there anything holding you back from putting a recent film on a Top 10 of all time list? And what space does Get Out occupy in the history of horror?
Keith: Well, first, I’ll complain about this once and only once: I didn’t get to vote in this poll. But you did, so I kind of felt like Jimmy and Henry in Goodfellas when Tommy was on his way to get made: it was like all of us in the Scott Tobias crew got made with your inclusion. (That worked out OK for Tommy, right?) But if I had voted, I don’t know that I would have trusted myself to include a film made within the last decade because I doubt I would have felt like I had lived with it long enough to include it. When it comes to such lists I think I have the opposite of recency bias. I’m more inclined to push the movies that have been under my skin for years. (Ooh. Under the Skin would be a good recent film to have voted for, now that I think about it.)
Still, I was glad to see recent films show up on the poll because such lists can sometimes make it seem like all the great movies are in the past. If you’d asked me ahead of the poll’s publication to name the four movies from the 2010s likely to make it, I don’t think I would have guessed Get Out. But when I saw it had made the list, it made perfect sense to me. And it made me happy. I’ve come to think of Us as Peele’s best film and I find more to like about Nope each time I watch it, but Get Out’s the right choice for this sort of canon for all the reasons you cite above. It arrived in 2017 as a kind lightning-strike movie, delivering a jolt of surprise, commanding attention, and changing the landscape.
Not quite six years after its release, it’s undeniably one of the landmark horror films. You can see its influence everywhere both stylistically and thematically, but there aren’t many movies that bring all the elements together as well as Peele. (I’m thinking of something like last year’s Fresh, a Get Out-influenced film that can’t quite make its thematic and cinematic ambitions gel into a movie that works or even the Peele-produced Candyman remake.) But going in, who even knew what we were in for? Peele was best known as one half of a comedy duo with Keegan Michael-Key. Was this going to be a comedy? Would he play it straight? The movie brilliantly side steps those sorts of questions by being quite funny but always just a little bit scarier than funny. I loved seeing it with a packed preview screening audience that didn’t know what was coming.
I think the film might still have worked if the Armitages had been more traditional sorts of racists, but so much of its bite comes from directing its teeth toward less-obvious targets. And I doubt it would have had the same cultural impact if its targeting of the complicity of “good liberals” in a racist system didn’t feel so dead on. (That reminds me: I think I’m due to renew my NPR pledge.) Whitford and Catherine Keener play the Armitage parents (initially at least) as white people who think they have a pass because they have all the right politics. Complementing this, Allison Williams plays Rose as a character who forgets her own white privilege. Peele establishes the nuances of Rose and Chris’s relationship in that brilliant early scene with the cop who wants to see Chris’s ID for no good reason. Obviously, there’s more going on beneath the surface of the Armitages. (The cop has a racist motivation for seeing Chris’s license, but Rose has her own reasons to keep his visit off the books, for instance.) But it’s a complex and incisive satire even before it veers fully into horror.
Peele wrote the film in the Obama era and its villains resemble those who welcomed the coming of a “post-racial” America and didn’t want to hear any evidence to the contrary. The film plays as an indignant rejoinder to that attitude and it struck home despite being released in the Trump era, when the atmosphere had changed considerably. It also arrived with a changed ending (which can be seen on the film’s Blu-ray and DVD). The film once concluded with Chris in prison, having been convicted of murdering the Armitages. As Peele explains it, the changing times necessitated the alteration. “By the time I was shooting it,” he says on the scene’s commentary track, “it was quite clear that the world had shifted, racism was being dealt with, people were woke, and people needed a release and a hero.”
We’re not done talking about the film, but it might be helpful to work back from that ending. Chris ending up in prison seems like the more honest ending, in some ways, but is it the right one? Maybe a film this dark and committed to showing example after example of how racism remains pervasive in even the most liberal spaces needed a bit of hope at the end, particularly at that moment? What are your thoughts?
Scott: Chris should have been shot in the end by white cops. That’s the obvious ending and perhaps the least commercially viable ending, but the truest one. A Black man at night caught kneeling over the bloodied body of a young white woman in that neighborhood? I always took Rose’s smile in her last moments of life as acknowledgement that the police would do what she couldn’t and take him down. Get Out was released three years after Ferguson, so everyone in the audience is keenly aware of the epidemic of unarmed Black men getting shot by the police, usually in much less incriminating tableaux than the one in which Chris finds himself.
The original ending is truer than the one we got but the one we got is more satisfying than the original ending. The ending I suggest above isn’t viable, and maybe it shouldn’t be viable for more than commercial reasons: Do we need Get Out to end on a note of utter despair? Even the darker original ending has Chris feeling satisfied that he put the Armitages’ operation down, which is a silver lining. Besides, I don’t think police violence fits into Peele’s loaded conceptual agenda. His target, as we’ve been said above, has more to do with white people believing themselves to be in a post-racial world—and, more than that, having built that world through the ballot box by voting for Obama—and the types of microaggressions that chip away at Chris when he first meets the Armitages or when he wanders around the soiree they throw on their estate.
To circle back to Get Out’s placement on this list, I think I’m like you in finding Us and Nope the more intriguing and visually exciting of Peele’s movies, but they’re a little murkier in their motifs. (The business with the deer that Chris and Rose hit on the way to the estate now feels like a hint of the Peele to come.) And, in the horror realm, part of me burns a little that modern-ish standards like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween are still on the outside looking in at this list, not to mention Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, which would have been on my ballot if I had 11 slots. But there’s no question that this specific Peele film has enormous cultural value and moments that etch themselves into your brain.
What are those moments for you? The scene where Betty Gabriel confesses to have “accidentally” disconnected Chris’ phone while cleaning springs to mind, not only for Gabriel’s smile-through-tears performance, but the camera’s steady movement toward an unnerving close-up. The scraping of the teacup as Keener’s psychiatrist leads Chris to the Sunken Place has a similarly hypnotic effect on the viewer, too, feeling all the guilt and oppression land on him like a heavy stone. Any other standouts?
Keith: First, I want to know if “this would have been on my list if I had 11 slots” is going to be your “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could’ve” as this project goes on. Maybe we can program a “Scott’s 11s” film festival at the end of it all?
Get Out hooked me right away with that striking opening scene, but I think it was the sequence when Chris goes out for a smoke, has that weird encounter with Walter (Marcus Henderson) the groundskeeper, and ends up in the mental clutches of Rose’s mother that made me realize I didn’t know where any of this was going. Why were Armitages’ Black employees, who would seem like the characters Chris should fear the least, the most menacing? The moment when the film first cuts to the Sunken Place has the effect of bringing viewers into Chris’s confusion. What is going on now? (Just a side note: Walter and Georgina don’t work as servants when outsiders aren’t around, right? That’s just a cover, isn’t it?)
Circling back to the exclusions you lament, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Cure all now look like landmark moments. If they weren’t always the first of their types, they’re the breakthrough moments for their styles of horror. I think Get Out fits that description, too, but maybe we should talk about where it fits within the horror genre. The notable American horror films of 2016 include M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil and Hush, Fede Álavarez’s Don’t Breathe, Peele pal Osgood Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, James DeMonaco’s The Purge: Election Year and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch.
I think you can make some stylistic connections between what Peele’s doing with Get Out and some of those films, several of which are significant efforts from very good filmmakers that share Peele’s patience in building suspense. But while it’s not like the others don’t lend themselves to political readings, none of them are as front-and-center with their political concerns as Get Out. Put another way, it didn’t surprise me that much when Peele became involved with the (mostly pretty good) Twilight Zone revival a couple of years later.
Get Out also serves as a stand-in for — long sigh — what’s become known as “elevated horror,” which is a bogus term for all kinds of reasons but also a convenient umbrella under which Peele and other horror directors with name recognition and a reputation for thematic and stylistic complexity that emerged in the latter half of the ’00s can be grouped. Peele hates the term, and I get that. It suggests horror can be divided into lesser and greater rungs of art and leads to “it’s about trauma” publicity campaigns for movies that can’t really shoulder the weight. But if most films on the Sight & Sound list can be said to represent larger movements, Get Out works as a reminder of a still-ongoing moment of horror movie vitality, one that Peele helped make possible.
Scott, what do you see as Get Out’s legacy, or is it too soon to say? Any final thoughts before we leap back almost a century for our next movie?
Scott: Before we leave the horror films of 2016, I will make the bold statement that the first Don’t Breathe is one of the most thrillingly crafted studio horror films of the current century, and perhaps we should be looking forward to what Álvarez does with the Alien series next year. (Shout out also to Ruth Wilson in the quite-good literary haunted-house movie throwback I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. That curled smile of hers first caught my attention when she played a psychopath on the BBC series Luther, but she’s got all kinds of range and talent.)
I guess it’s not too early to talk about Get Out’s legacy, is it, since it made the Top 100 ballot at the first opportunity? As we’ve already discussed, I think it’s reasonably safe to talk about it as a key statement on the Obama era, given how deftly it undercuts the fantasy of a “post-racial” America. And that doesn’t even cover some of the particular observations, like the way the Armitages’ guests assess Chris’ physique and “eye” as if he were on the auction block, or how the Black characters who have been successfully hijacked are conspicuously docile and compliant. (The shock of these characters reacting in authentic terror when they’re snapped out of their hypnosis by Chris’ camera flash is so chilling, even though I suspect Peele plucked that bit from the “Itchy & Scratchy Land” episode of The Simpsons.)
It should be mentioned, too, that one argument for Get Out’s legacy connects to a longer history of Black horror. The year Peele’s Us came out, The New York Times magazine ran a big piece by Gabrielle Bellot entitled “How Black Horror Became America’s Most Powerful Cinematic Genre,” in which Bellot opens with James Baldwin’s critique of The Exorcist, which he said was designed to entertain and titillate white Americans who have no idea what it’s like to be treated as an inhuman monster. (Wrote Baldwin, “he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”)
Following Baldwin’s logic, Bellot took note of the wave of Black horror films of then-recent vintage, including the two Peele films and Nia DeCosta’s recent Candyman remake (the original itself being a touchstone for Black audience), and offers this thesis: “[The films] have attempted to redress this Baldwinian critique by capturing, in various ways, what it feels like to experience horror as a Black American, when your mere presence can itself be a source of terror to others.” That’s the clever/disturbing hook of Get Out’s opening scene, which subverts the terror-in-suburbia vibe by showing a Black man getting attacked simply for walking through a white neighborhood.
I’ll admit to being somewhat unschooled on the history of Black horror, though. I haven’t seen Ganja & Hess or the Blaxploitation horror, either. (I should do my penance by sliding over the Shudder and finally checking out the Horror Noire doc.) How do you see Get Out fitting into that tradition? And as a comment on the horror genre overall? Peele plays on our awareness of horror tropes from the film’s first moments. That seems significant.
Keith: I also need to finally check out that doc. Thanks for the reminder. And, yes, Peele is really smart about horror tropes and the ways he subverts them. One thing I’ve observed in mainstream horror is the way movies keep finding variations on the classic jump scare. Now that the old character-opens-mirrored-bathroom-medicine-cabinet-then-closes-it-to-see-someone-behind-them gag doesn’t work anymore, we see films playing with that convention and working against. There’s a moment in Nope — the one set after hours at the electronics store — that doesn’t exactly reference that trope but it does set up a scare then relieve the tension only to have the character be scared by someone sneaking up behind him we already know isn’t a threat. That’s next-level trope subversion.
But I think you’re referring to themes as much as stylistic tricks. Peele has said the suburban streets in the opening moments of Get Out are supposed to recall Halloween. But the threat that emerges is one that’s familiar to Black people traveling through spaces where they feel unwelcome: it’s a white racist in a car intent on harassment. I think that collapsing those two different types of threats — the not-too-likely chance of encountering a Michael Myers while walking around versus the very real threat faced by some but not all audience members watching the movie — is part of what makes the film so powerful. It’s real-world horror and the stuff of horror movies blended together until they start to look the same. Revisiting the film, that opening scene almost plays like a mission statement.
I’m glad Get Out made it into the top 100 for this decade’s poll and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there 10 years from now. It might be too soon to assess its legacy fully now, but it’s already obvious that it’s significant and still developing.
It’s certainly not too early to talk about the legacy of our next film, Buster Keaton’s steam-fueled, Civil War-set 1926 feature The General, one of six films tied with Get Out in the 95th spot. So join us in a few weeks for more locomotive mayhem than the Belmont El stop at rush hour. (That’s some local Chicago humor for you.) And if you want to watch even further ahead, here’s another link to the full Sight & Sound list.