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“The Art Of Self-Defense” Is One Of The Year’s Best Films

I love when a film comes along that is like nothing else that I’ve ever seen. When you can describe a movie as combination of two other things that never would go together? Love it. Those of you who pay attention on social media will know that The Art of Self-Defense is a flick I’ve been raving about for months now. Described as what it would be like if Charlie Kaufman wrote Fight Club or if Yorgos Lanthimos directed The Karate Kid. Those are apt comparisons, while also limiting the black comedy magic on hand. It opened in limited release this past weekend, playing to a decent box office. In fact, I even moderated a Q&A in Brooklyn at the Alamo Drafthouse with star Jesse Eisenberg. Now, with it opening wide, I wanted to pay it some further tribute. This is one of the five best things I’ve seen all year.

The film is a black comedy, satirizing toxic masculinity with surgical precision. Here is the official synopsis from Bleecker Street: “After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.” Riley Stearns writes and directs, with cinematography by Michael Ragen and a score from Heather McIntosh. On hand are a supporting cast that includes Phillip Andre Botello, Steve Terada, and David Zellner, joining the above trio of Eisenberg, Nivola, and Poots.

From top to bottom, the movie is phenomenal. Full of oddness and surprises, it’s also one of the funniest releases of 2019 so far. Again, it’s pitch black in tone, so the laughter is generated from some very dark places, but in skewering toxic masculinity and sending up the sort of sports drama that could generate that kind of individual, Stearns has hit on a premise that’s just consistently entertaining, surprising, and wonderful to watch unfold. Faults was a strong directorial debut for the filmmaker, but he has upped his game considerably here. Bookended by amazing sequences, the whole product is just a riot, able to accomplish goals you’d never think were within its reach.

Jesse Eisenberg has rarely been better than he is here in The Art of Self-Defense. It’s very different from his work in The Social Network, but equally as strong. In a just world, he’d again be under consideration for a Best Actor nomination by the Academy. Furthermore, Alessandro Nivola is more than deserving of a nod for Best Supporting Actor, while Riley Stearns would be a perfect addition to the Best Original Screenplay lineup. The film is probably a long shot for Oscar noms, but that takes nothing away from the quality on display. It’s a phenomenal effort, easily standing tall with the top releases of 2019. Some might be bigger, but few are better.

Here is how I would rank Eisenberg’s ten best performances to date:

10. Solitary Man
9. The Double
8. Zombieland
7. Cafe Society
6. Roger Dodger
5. The Squid and the Whale
4. Adventureland
3. The End of the Tour
2. The Art of Self-Defense
1. The Social Network

On Friday, audiences who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles (or weren’t able to make it to the single digit list of theaters the film opened in) can have a chance to see the bizarre magnificence that is The Art of Self-Defense. Eisenberg, Nivola, Poots, and Stearns have come together to craft something truly special and unique. Nothing else in the marketplace is like it. Again, this is one of the year’s very best titles. 2019 is a better cinematic year for having it within it. I’ll keep raving and banging the drum about this one. Now, you all do your part and get out there and see the flick! You can thank me later…

Be sure to check out The Art Of Self-Defense, opening wide tomorrow!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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