Rising from an already great comic career, from MADTV (1995–2016) to KEY & PEELE (2012–2015), Jordan Peele has, in the five short years since 2017 and across just three films, made a name for himself as one of the most exciting working American directors. Focused so far on the horror genre, what might seem a polar opposite from his comedy origins, Peele nevertheless brings a sense of humor to his imaginative, thought-provoking scary movies. I’ve been a fan of Peele for years and I’m happy to see him continue his artistic development with his latest film, NOPE, the impetus for this piece. I thought I would take that opportunity to rank his small but powerful directorial filmography so far.
#3 — US (2019)
It’s undeniable that US was a bit of a disappointment after the electrifying debut of GET OUT. So in a sense, Peele’s follow up was a kind of sophomore slump. The crux of its horror premise was a bit confusing, and therefore, so too was the film’s commentary, which had been so pointed in its predecessor. Still, US immediately stood out to me as better than most anything else released in 2019, whether in the horror genre or not. The dual performances from the cast, especially Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, were phenomenal, and Peele is such an incredible image maker. There are so many beautifully chilling shots in what I’ve already and perhaps misleadingly termed a disappointment. But that skill on display is something that all of the director’s films have in common, and while US provided the least ultimate impact from the clever and tantalizing moments and visuals that Peele provided in the build up, it is still a great movie.
#2 — NOPE (2022)
It’s rare that a movie makes me immediately want to watch it again. NOPE is one of those movies. While NOPE isn’t as accessible and satisfying as GET OUT, it takes the disparate parts of its plot and themes and enticingly weaves them together with minimal to no explanation. Unlike with US, for whatever reason, those threads are elusively powerful rather than frustratingly vague or confusing. And beyond its structure and commentary (I especially like its connections to show biz), NOPE is also just a really satisfying bit of thrills and chills. Once again, Peele pulls out some incredible images, both in isolation and context. The performances are phenomenal, especially the core brother-sister duo of Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. Their relationship is given just enough history, but all of their sentiment is actually delivered in a pretty subtle way. Steven Yeun’s performance and his subplot is so out of left field and explored just enough so as to leaving me wanting more. And a decent chunk of the movie is certainly funny, with the audience in the theater erupting into shared laughs a number of times. NOPE is also able to simply scare and build a tense atmosphere with its uncanny designs and out of this world sound design, making its isolation in what I hope will become an iconic valley location a truly unsettling feeling.
#1 — GET OUT (2017)
So far, Peele has not been able to top the greatness of his debut. As I hope has been demonstrated by my previous write ups, however, it’s not a matter of failing to live up to GET OUT. Rather, it’s difficult to ignore the hold GET OUT has on my perception of horror and modern film. Peele came right out the gate, from a career defined by sketch comedy, with a powerful excoriation of white liberal racism, a supremely scary leveraging of genre conventions, and yes, even a darkly funny bit of satire. I’ve read Peele’s own reaction to the commentary about GET OUT’s “humor,” and I understand that white audiences reacted to a number of scenes quite differently than Black ones. But I sense that Peele couldn’t resist exercising some of his incredible joke-writing chops, insofar that the movie isn’t just one thing. That’s the power of the movie, and that approach to horror or “thrillers” or bits of comic relief, centering it all on the Black experience, has stayed constant through all of the director’s films. GET OUT just fused all of Peele’s instincts in a way that makes it the best of his movies so far, providing a satisfying genre experience made up of exquisitely unsettling images and a universally clear message.