We’re so used to hearing that they don’t make them like they used to, the theater going experience is dead, Hollywood is nothing but sequels and remakes, etc., etc. And yet the Academy awarded its Best Picture honors to an entirely original, populist masterpiece that thrived as a genuine word of mouth hit. Independent cinema and smaller studios continued produce high quality, profitable features that accounted for some of the year’s best. Non-franchise fare such as Elvis, Smile, and The Lost City all crossed the $100 million domestic threshold. Sure, sequels to Top Gun, Avatar, and Jurassic Park all crossed the billion dollar mark worldwide and accounted for the three highest grossing films of the year. But if you searched past the multiplex marquees and expanded your filmic notions beyond the arbitrary limitations of the American border and big budget studios, you found rich and rewarding cinematic experiences aplenty. Below are 10 such encounters I had last year.
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once
Believe the hype. From the moment Ke Huy Quan appeared looking like Tony Leung from In the Mood for Love and delivered one of the most devastating monologues I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing, I knew I would struggle to find adequate words to describe what this movie meant to me. The Daniels are mad scientists and their brilliant creation is a story overstuffed with wacky antics, exceptional martial arts choreography, butt plugs (yes, really), and themes that feel extremely specific and personal to the cast and crew yet somehow universal enough to audiences that the film became A24’s most financially successful film to date, making north of $100 million worldwide at the box office. It was also the big winner of the night at the 2023 Oscars – a feat I still can’t quite believe considering the Academy’s predilection for ignoring these kinds of ambitious genre exercises – securing statuettes for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Supporting Actor, and Actresses Lead and Supporting. It’s even believed to be the most awarded movie in history. Seriously, that’s crazy. See it on the biggest screen possible; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll float out of the theater feeling like you’ve somehow changed for the better. That’s the power of cinema, baby.
2. Petite Maman
I’m cheating a little bit with this pick since this was on the festival circuit for most of 2021, but it wasn’t widely available in the States until Hulu secured the rights last March so we’re calling this one a 2022 release, damn it.
There’s a kind of familiarity and comforting quality inherent in Petite Maman’s gentle brand of storytelling (and the banging sweaters and jackets her characters wear!) that allows you to relax and embrace all 72 minutes of its breezy runtime, like a warm blanket on a chilly evening. Céline Sciamma’s tender ode to the challenges and quiet victories of motherhood is made all the more accessible by choosing a child as the audience surrogate, which allows us to take a journey of magical realism equal measures heartbreaking and reassuring. The film reaches its crescendo in one brilliant line of familial reconciliation; some viewers might find this gut-wrenching, others a nurturing and comforting experience ripe for frequent revisits. It functioned perfectly as both for me.
Debut features rarely dazzle, yet this meditative, semi-autobiographical work depicting a long ago childhood vacation writer/director Charlotte Wells took with her loving and deeply depressed young father (Paul Mescal, in the role he was born to play) is among the year’s best offerings. While it’s quite melancholy in stretches, the deeply empathetic story never teeters into schmaltz or feels too heavy, which narratives like this so often seem to. That being said, the movie is actually a ton of fun. Sophie (Frankie Corio, who we will be seeing a lot more of on the big screen, I hope!) anchors the audience with a perceptive, playful affect in perfect opposition to the quiet inner turmoil we learn her dad is experiencing. Aftersun also employs Queen’s “Under Pressure” expertly at a key moment with zero trace of irony, maximizing the heartstring-tugging, emotional payoff of the film’s climactic scene – an impressive feat for a song so overused. If you’re feeling ambitious and really want to wreck yourself, pair this movie with Petite Maman for a potent mommy/daddy issues double feature.
Pointed political movies tend to be bad. The oversimplification of arguments for and against a topic as complex and misunderstood by the general public as “cancel culture” renders most entertainment engaging with such subjects overwrought, preachy, tedious or, worst of all, outright misguided. So it came as quite a relief when Tár arrived this awards season to help spur thoughtful dialogue about something so rife with bad faith arguments.
Lydia Tár (the excellent Cate Blanchett) is complex. She’s more human than most people we spent time with on-screen at the movies this year. She’s the sum of the good and the bad things about her and she’s undoubtedly deserving of criticism and even contempt for the lengths she goes to manipulate everyone around her, no matter the damage or pain it causes. And it’s refreshing to see someone like that portrayed honestly, free from heavy-handed and obvious textual judgment or commentary from Todd Field and the rest of the creative team. This leaves the audience with titular character’s words and actions, as well as those of her friends, family, coworkers and possible victims, to determine how we feel about her. The result is a blurry, incomplete portrait of a strident, unrepentant, and ambitious professional whose lack of empathy and awareness completely destroys both her public and private lives. It is ultimately up to the viewer to determine whether the punishment fits Tár’s crimes (I do, for what it’s worth), a choice that strengthens an already robust cinematic experience.
Speaking of, brace yourself for that ending. It’s a stunner that surprised me more than anything I saw up on screen this year, and it’s one of the simpler finales to boot. I giggled in my seat like a stoned college kid when I realized what was happening. Bravo to Field and company for gifting us such a dynamite finish to a singular film.
5. After Yang
Kogonada is one of the most spiritual filmmakers working today. Not in a religious sense, but in the way his movies contain sequences that exude compassion and introspection. A sincere emotional investment in his characters is apparent from the very start, which is like catnip to the engaged viewer. His debut film, Columbus, is elegant in the simplicity of its story about two strangers who find in each other the strength to follow their dreams and open up to a world they’ve hidden from. After Yang takes a similarly intimate narrative about remembering to love the people in your life unflinchingly and greatly expands the scope to ask heady sci-fi questions such as “can androids love?” and “is Colin Farrell’s moustache real?” because it’s an all-timer. The latter effort requires a little more buy in from its audience than the former (I’m talking about Kogonada’s two movies, not Farrell’s moustache and robotic romances), but it’s no less rewarding of an experience. You come away from his films feeling like you’re more connected to the world around you, and to me that’s a powerful thing worth celebrating.
6. The Banshees of Inisherin
If you liked Colin Farrell in After Yang, you’re going to LOVE him in The Banshees of Inisherin. He’s at his Colin Farrell-iest as a sad sack Irishman with outrageous eyebrows and a penchant for talking about a whole lot of nothing important, whose best friend (the never-better Brendon Gleeson) decides one day to cut off all contact with him, as well as his own fingers if Farrell refuses to keep his distance. As you can probably guess, this predicament doesn’t play out terribly well for either party.
Existential dread, depression, and the dueling desires to be remembered and simply to be liked… Martin McDonagh regularly traffics in the more uncomfortable aspects of the human experience, but few writers and directors are able make movies about these things with such wit and, dare I say, fun as he. The metaphor of two lifelong pals’ rapidly deteriorating friendship – and one of them maiming himself in an effort to find “peace” – works a lot better if you’re familiar with the conflict raging on in the background, but even without prior knowledge of that 100-year old civil war there’s a lot to enjoy here. What an exceptionally well written and lensed film, and easily McDonagh’s best since In Bruges. I look forward to his inevitable pairing of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in a third black comedy as mismatched Irish pals at each other’s throats.
7. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
I was born in 1990, which places me squarely in the back half of the Millennial age group. My specific cohort within Gen Y was the last to experience a childhood that wasn’t completely dominated by internet culture and online spaces, and movies like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair are startling reminders that perhaps we were the lucky ones.
As a child I was easily scared. I still am, if I’m being honest. Creepypasta was never my thing. I avoided like the plague internet horror produced and consumed on 4chan and Reddit, and chain emails before that (for you Gen Z’ers reading this, those were spam messages you would occasionally receive threatening violent deaths at the hands of supernatural forces unless you passed the email on to the required amount of friends and family – and some internet illiterate people would actually participate). The only foray I took into this particular brand of nightmare fuel was the YouTube series Marble Hornets, one of the first significant entries into the Slenderman mythos that came out as I was entering college. And let me tell you, those videos FUCKED ME UP. So that was it for me. I didn’t burrow down any online rabbit holes, searching for similarly thrilling and spooky content to watch late at night, or potentially dangerous strangers to reach out to. I was lucky I had other interests to focus on: a loving family and plenty of friends, a robust social life, sports and girls and an education to pursue. For young people like the film’s protagonist, Casey, that’s not always the reality of the situation.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair succeeds not because it’s trying to be scary, but because it seems to capture the isolation and uncertainty and unimaginable weirdness that comes with being extremely online. The need to feel seen and connect with others is among the strongest human urges, and that can take us to some really odd places. We’ll accept bizarre internet challenges and spend all of our free time uploading videos for no one in particular. We’ll put ourselves at risk physically, mentally, or emotionally if it means possibly connecting with even just one other person. That, to me, is actually scary.
All I know is that I’m glad I was able to play outside with friends as a child. The internet can be a terrifying and lonely place, especially when you’re young. And I’m glad someone has captured that experience so vividly.
8. Women Talking
Sarah Polley finally won her Oscar! Women Talking marks her fourth feature behind the camera as writer/director and is arguably her finest effort thus far. A film about the female members of a likely Mennonite community who stand up for themselves after they are subject to a string of vicious sexual assaults from their fathers, brothers, sons and friends isn’t the most enjoyable watch, but it was certainly among the most moving of awards season. Polley’s script is so dynamic and engaging that the subject matter never gets too heavy or feels even remotely exploitative, nor does it devolve into a pity party or referendum on masculinity in the broadest imaginable strokes. Instead the viewer joins the titular women in two hours of intense, passionate debate that takes place in a single location, like a gender swapped 12 Angry Men. The pros and cons of all possible actions and inactions are weighed and the traumatized group of all different ages, hopes, and ideas on how to move forward makes these decisions together. A moving soliloquy from Ben Whishaw’s painfully shy but insightful character, August, on the highs, lows, dangers and unexpected beauty inherent in the male coming-of-age experience is simply the icing on the cake.
9. Return to Seoul
Park Ji-min is the breakout film performer of 2022 and this slow burn French drama built around the spontaneous decisions her playful, chaotic character, Freddie, makes surrounding her Korean heritage perfectly accentuates the natural talent she possesses as a non-professional actor. But writer/director Davy Chou cleverly disguises a weighty family reunion story and its painful arc of personal growth and discovery with trappings of genre filmmaking. This thing is cut like a straight-up horror/thriller. I hadn’t the slightest idea where each narrative twist and turn was headed and the dread Return to Seoul built with each subsequent new direction was palpable. The closest thing I can compare it to is The Worst Person in the World, but Chou’s feature is decidedly more political and pointed in the way he explores themes such as self-discovery, identity, and reconciliation across not only time, but disparate cultures and spaces – Millennium Mambo also comes to mind as a possible source of inspiration. And yet it’s far more unnerving than either of those examples. Return to Seoul embraces a pathos in its storytelling and presentation reminiscent of the New Hollywood cinema Chou has fawned over at length in many interviews. The result is a guessing game of a movie that draws from a deep well of respect its creators have for film titans of the past while still managing to forge its own path forward.
Jordan Peele is now three-for-three from behind the camera! Nope represents the most polished and ambitious of the works bearing his name, an ode to the forgotten Black pioneers of cinema as far back as the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion and a meditation on the spectacle-driven nature of the industry. It’s also a rip-snorting good time that was practically made to play at drive-in theaters.
Every time I read something about Nope I gain a new appreciation for it, whether it’s how the crew achieved the night sequences with insane lighting rigs or the subconscious birth of the entire endeavor beginning with an upsetting dream involving a chimpanzee attack. Peele is not only a talented comedian but an astute and inventive filmmaker who is arguably the premier PoC voice working at the studio level. And it’s fascinating watching how he spends his filmmaking capital to pursue auteurist goals and tell personal stories at a blockbuster scale with practical effects wherever possible. In that regard he’s practically the Black Christopher Nolan, and I for one am looking forward to his Tenet equivalent.
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