Saturday, December 31, 2022

Jonathan Lack's Top 10 Films of 2022

Let’s try something different this year. 

This is, as it says on the tin, a Top 10 list. It includes 10 numbered items counting down from 10 to 1, and it is indeed about my favorite films of 2022. It’s not quite a Top 10 films list, since it includes 21 movies, some listed on their own, others grouped together thematically. As I surveyed everything I saw this year, I realized that while this was in many ways a great year for movies, it was also a deeply (and enjoyably!) weird one, and my experiences with cinema these past 12 months didn’t feel like they would fit neatly into the traditional Top 10 format. 


So I’ve blown things up a little this time out, as you shall see, arranging 21 films into 10.5 slots that combine to tell a story about which movies – and, perhaps even more importantly, which kinds of movies – meant most to me this year. I wrote my first year-end Top 10 list in 2006, a full 16 years ago now, and I’ve never really messed with the format much. After letting myself play with it here, I don’t know if I can go back the old, rigid format – this is some of the most fun I’ve ever had putting a list like this together. 


One way this year was odd is that many of the best movies to hit American shores in 2022 were international or festival holdovers from 2021, the date you’ll see attached to many of the films here if you look them up on IMDB or Letterboxd. My rules for Top 10 lists have always been simple: if it was commercially released for the first time in the United States in 2022, it’s eligible. Thus, if a film premiered in its home country in 2021, but didn't become commercially available in the US until 2022, then for my purposes, it's a 2022 film. Same for films that had festival debuts in 2021 (or earlier!) but didn't become commercially available in the US until 2022. So even if, in the history books, quite a few of these films will be listed as 2021, these are films that opened in theaters or debuted on streaming in the US this year. 


Without further ado, let’s get right down to it – we have a lot to get through, and I’m very excited about all of it. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Review: Holy cow, "Avatar: The Way of Water" is actually really good

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, I was feeling walking into Avatar: The Way of Water. When we revisited the original film on The Weekly Stuff Podcast in September, I described my main takeaway as ‘a bad script brilliantly directed,’ putting a bit more emphasis on the ‘brilliantly directed’ part given how aesthetically bankrupt Hollywood blockbusters have for the most part become in the years since its release. The ‘bad script’ part absolutely shouldn’t be overlooked, of course; it’s a film with ludicrously thin characterizations, often laughably terrible dialogue, and a ‘white savior’ narrative so extreme and overbearing it makes past Hollywood ventures into this territory, like Dances With Wolves, look positively sober and progressive. But it’s a film that imagines and executes on a greater creative scale than virtually anything else the industry is capable of these days, and even though I’m sometimes on the less enthusiastic side when it comes to James Cameron – I think the original Terminator and Titanic are genuine masterpieces, but I’m less high on Aliens and Terminator 2 than most – I’m never going to deny that he’s one of the most formidably capable cinematic craftsman in the media’s history. There’s plenty of good raw material in that first Avatar to mine for a sequel, and especially with this second film heading to Pandora’s oceans – underwater-aficionado Cameron’s home turf – I was cautiously optimistic The Way of Water might be something special. 

In short: It absolutely is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Review: "The Fabelmans" finds Spielberg the master and Spielberg the sentimentalist in a war for autobiographical supremacy

If they live long enough, many if not most great filmmakers wind up making a reflexive piece about their life and/or art: Fellini’s 8 ½ , Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Kurosawa’s Dreams, Malick’s The Tree of Life, CuarĂ³n’s Roma, or (in a slightly more oblique way), Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. That Steven Spielberg would eventually join these ranks was probably inevitable, but some directors are better equipped to do this than others. How the ‘creative autobio’ piece would work for this particular filmmaker was a genuinely open question for me going into The Fabelmans. 

Spielberg is unquestionably one of the greatest to ever sit in the director’s chair, and clearly one of the most preternaturally talented. The man speaks in film more fluently than most of us speak our native tongue. His skill for visual storytelling, across a wide array of genres, is second to none, and has not waned one iota with time. To see him reflect on a life in the pictures and where those talents and impulses come from, how he learned his craft and what role it played in his foundational memories of adolescence, would of course be welcome.  


But Spielberg is also a director who, over time, has developed a parallel streak as a cloying sentimentalist. I say this with love, as many who have made the same observation do. While his talents behind the camera have never wavered, they have sometimes been unfortunately tempered by an inability to land the punch, to go for the gut and push towards the deepest possible truth, instead of pulling at the heartstrings for a more surface-level catharsis. Where he could once end a movie with savage honesty – most obviously in Close Encounters of the First Kind – he gradually turned into the guy who’d ease up before making the follow-through, like in War of the Worlds when the son inexplicably survives, or let an otherwise note-perfect film like Lincoln continue five minutes past a hauntingly perfect, suggestive conclusion to rub our nose in the tragedy. For all the films he’s made that can comfortably be considered masterpieces, up to and including last year’s West Side Story, there’s also dreck like Hook or War Horse that are drowning in unearned sentimentality, cloying at the heart without a center of substance, Thomas Kincade paintings springing into motion and leaving a unpleasant aftertaste of false sweetener in the mouth. Would a lightly-veiled memoir film about his childhood bring out the best in Spielberg, or invite his worst impulses to run rampant?