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. 


10. The Last Desperate Gasps of 

Big-Budget Hollywood Greatness

Top Gun: Maverick (United States, Dir. Joseph Kosinski)

The Batman (United States, Dir. Matt Reeves) 

Avatar: The Way of Water (United States, Dir. James Cameron)


2022 was the year where Marvel finally broke my spirit and drove me to the depths of pessimism about Hollywood in general, as their model of cheap-looking (but somehow obscenely expensive), aesthetically bankrupt garbage utterly devoid of any real ideas or enthusiasm has so flooded the zone that it was hard to find much to be excited about at the multiplex, at least in the mainstream blockbuster space – except, of course, for these three notable exceptions, each of which is so good it felt like finding not just an oasis in a desert, but a miniature tropical paradise amidst abject devastation. They are all feats of imagination and execution that put every dollar spent on their production on screen and then some, and find something worth saying beyond the expertly directed style and spectacle.  


The Batman is an absolute feast for fans of the Caped Crusader – and for those who like smart, handsome productions that engage a viewer’s patience and intelligence in equal measure – finally doing the character justice in live-action after a long string of misses (which, yes, I count the much-praised Christopher Nolan films amongst). It’s the first Batman film to finally tell an honest-to-God detective story, and maybe the first to ever give Batman a real character arc, where he’s a different person at the end of the film than he was at the beginning, with a different understanding of what he can be and what he can represent. Robert Pattinson is astonishingly good in the part, as is the entire ensemble – Jeffrey Wright in particular is a goddamn delight – and as a production, they don’t come much more richly realized than this. Greg Fraser shoots the hell out of all three hours, everything in dark shadows and deep reds, with he and director Matt Reeves delivering a greater command of visual iconography than any other live-action take on the character. Michael Giacchino, meanwhile, brings the house down with the best superhero score since Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man twenty years ago; this is actual melodic, propulsive, old-school movie music that hits you in your bones, and speaks volumes about the character. The highest praise I can give the film is this: If comic-book films were a regular thing in the 1970s and one of the ‘movie brat’ generation types did a Batman film then, it would look and feel a lot like what Reeves and company achieved here.


James Cameron, meanwhile, spent over a decade working on a boatload of sequels to a movie that made a lot of money but was never particularly loved – listen to Sean and I break down the original Avatar on the podcast if you want to hear about that film’s issues! – and with The Way of Water, he reminds us not only why he’s one of the great technical craftsman in the history of the cinema, but proves that there’s real imagination and substance at work in this franchise that’s worth the return trip to Pandora. The new, younger generation of characters Cameron introduces here are much more engaging and richly drawn than those we met in 2009, and I absolutely count Payakan the heroic whale among them. On a visual level, Cameron throws every challenge at his crew that he can conceive of, and there are apparently no limits to what this team can do. The last 2 hours of this film take place almost entirely in, around, or under water, and every inch of it looks stunning. Moreover, the set pieces Cameron imagines here are insane, practically delirious symphonies of finely interwoven motion and mayhem – again, all in or around water – and I think it’s the best action he’s ever directed, all of it surprising and thrilling and increasingly tense, but also playful and creative in a way that recalls George Miller and Mad Max as much as it does prior Cameron productions. That the VFX are capable of some of the images or action beats Cameron dreams up here is positively jaw-dropping. Most importantly, though, the film makes visceral an ideal that was very much central to the first film, but never felt fully realized due to the overbearing white savior tropes and shoddy writing and characterization: That violence against nature is violence, full stop, and that because we are a part of nature, it is, inevitably, violence against our own bodies and spirits. When you put it all together – the winning young ensemble, the amazing environments, the out-of-body action sequences, and the goddamn whales – I’m tempted to say the last two hours of The Way of Water are my favorite thing James Cameron has ever created, or at least up there in the same league as The Terminator and Titanic. There’s magic at work in this film, and if there’s more of it on the way, then I think I can finally say I’m properly excited at the prospect of more Avatar. 


Last but by no means least, Top Gun Maverick is straight-up the best big budget live-action film Hollywood has released since Mad Max: Fury Road, and is without a doubt one of the most stunning big-screen experiences of my lifetime. You probably don’t need me to tell you this – it’s the highest-grossing film of the year, the rare word-of-mouth blockbuster – but I continue to be blown away by what Joseph Kosinski and company pulled off here. I’m very much a sucker for naval and/or aviation fiction, which Maverick is a sterling example of, but even if you didn’t care much for this sort of thing before, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would be unmoved by the aerial photography here. Virtually none of it is faked, and both times I saw it on the big screen provided something like an out-of-body experience. And if it was just that – great aerial action executed at the highest-level ever – it would still be worth inclusion on this list. What pushes it so far ahead of the pack is that this is a truly smart movie about both aging and, as the friend I saw the film with put it, inter-generational healing. It’s about confronting the abyss of mortality and choosing to push hard enough to make it all count. This is the first time Tom Cruise has really played his age, and even if that age is better preserved and more fit than any of us could ever hope to be at 60, it’s still a conscious choice to engage with the transience of his own body and movement through time. What they do with Val Kilmer – and what Kilmer gives the movie in playing his real condition on screen – is just remarkable. His scene with Cruise is an incredible moment of interrogating the bodily reality of being a flesh-and-blood movie star when there’s more behind you than ahead. This is, simply put, one of the best sequels ever made, and *easily* one of the 2 or 3 best “legacy sequels” of the 2000s (up there with Creed and Blade Runner 2049 and maybe better than either), and it’s a once in a lifetime theatrical experience in a time when the survival of that experience seems ever more contingent. 


The Batman is now streaming on HBO Max and also available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD, and digital. Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters everywhere. Top Gun Maverick is now streaming on Paramount+ and also available on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD, and digital. 


9. Jackass Forever 

(United States, Dir. Jeff Tremaine) 


One of the very first films I saw in a theater this year, and one I haven’t stopped thinking about, laughing at, and giddily describing to the uninitiated in the 12 months since. Jackass has become to prank/stunt comedy what the Mission: Impossible franchise is to action cinema; which is to say, it just gets better, more dangerous, and more awe-inspiring with time. Here, Johnny Knoxville and his team of up-for-literally-anything knuckleheads stare into the void of middle age and respond with a boisterous howl of depravity, delivering a non-stop escalation of simultaneously horrifying and hilarious life-threatening idiocy so enthusiastically, lovingly executed that it feels somehow life affirming. And though I risk waxing too poetic about a film where Steve-O ties a beehive to his penis or Johnny Knoxville gets infectiously giddy about dumping gallons of pig semen on his friends, it must needs be stressed that Jackass is an absolutely wonderful communal experience – both to watch these on-screen friends so clearly enjoy the painful extremes of each other’s company, and to sit in a crowded theater and laugh uproariously (or wince and grit our teeth in horror) with friends and strangers alike. There’s really nothing else like it, and for all the work various filmmakers and studios did this year encouraging us to come back to the movie theaters, there’s no budget big enough or special effect extraordinary enough to truly eclipse the simple but profound pleasure of taking in Jackass Forever in a big auditorium with a real audience. In its own absurd, singular way, this is what cinema, as an experience, was made for. 


Oh, and the scene where Knoxville gets charged by a bull and breaks his ribs, his wrist, and suffers a brain hemorrhage? It’s worth its weight in gold, resulting in one of the most extraordinary images the cinema has ever produced. It might get a spot on this list for that certifiably insane ‘stunt’ alone. 


Jackass Forever is now streaming on Paramount+, and is also available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital platforms.  


8. Glass Onion 

(United States, Dir. Rian Johnson) 


I love everything Rian Johnson has made so far – from his original films like The Brothers Bloom and Looper to the landmark episodes of Breaking Bad he directed including series-peak “Ozymandias,” to The Last Jedi, the only part of the Star Wars sequel trilogy worth a damn – but I bet even he would happily admit he’s found his deepest groove yet with Benoit Blanc, the wonderfully silly sounds of Daniel Craig’s ridiculous southern accent serving as his truest muse. Between 2019’s outstanding Knives Out and this year’s somehow-even-better Glass Onion, Johnson has successfully taken the shape of classic murder mysteries like those by Agatha Christie and brought them into the 21st century without endlessly adapting and retreading what came before, inventing a new iconic character – Blanc is a more knowingly camp version of the Hercule Poirot type, and here, he even gets to be openly gay – and placing him in stories that, while light on their feet, are positively screaming with precisely-directed anger at the vain, evil stupidity of 21st-century America. 


Knives Out was a class and migrant narrative that felt plenty finger-on-the-pulse for its moment landing right in the middle of the Trump presidency, but Glass Onion miraculously takes things a step further, its central mystery and conceit turning out to be shockingly timely in ways even Johnson couldn’t possibly have anticipated while writing. There’s a fire of pure righteous fury burning here that’s wildly cathartic, a story about how we reward stupidity and shamelessness at our society’s highest echelons and willingly blind ourselves to pretend terrible people must be deserving of ill-gotten success. It’s a big ol’ bundle of fun too, of course, filled to the brim with colorful idiots to laugh at and a never-better Daniel Craig to laugh with, and a 2-act narrative structure that doubles back on itself in delightfully playful and clever ways. It’s also a ridiculously handsome film, with production values that far bely the relatively modest $40 million budget; Rick Heinrichs’ tropical excess-futurist production design would be right at home in a classic 007 film designed by Ken Adams, and Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is the most convincing feat of digital-pretending-to-be-celluloid I’ve ever seen. This is the kind of smart, fun, original entertainment any studio should be proud to give a big theatrical push, and the only thing holding it back is Netflix’s insatiable kink for losing money. Ah, well. Whether you caught it during its all-too-brief theatrical run or not, I’m just glad it’s out there – Glass Onion is a rare treat indeed. 


Glass Onion is now streaming on Netflix. 


7. Auteurist Stop-Motion Landmarks 

Mad God (United States, Dir. Phil Tippett)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio 

(United States, Dir. Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson)


On the level of craft, these films are almost certainly the two most fluid and virtuosic pieces of stop-motion feature animation ever produced, both life-long dream projects by their creators imbued with unfathomable depths of passion. Tippett, the brilliant animator behind creature effects in classics from Star Wars to RoboCop and Jurassic Park, spent literal decades putting Mad God together, and it does indeed play like the accumulated lifetime experience of a true master being brought to bear on a laser-sharp vision. Guillermo del Toro hasn’t helmed an animated film before, but the singular expressionist stylism of his live-action features certainly proves he has an animator’s eye, and he spent a good chunk of his career circling this project, first trying to get it funded in 2008. The director held out for a budget large enough to realize his ambition, and every penny (and then some) of the $35 million collected for his Pinocchio is up there on screen. These are both masterpieces of craft, humbling to look upon for the seeming impossibility of what visuals have been conjured. 


They are, of course, very different movies – Mad God is among the most breathtakingly violent films I’ve ever sat through, brutal and graphic and macabre in ways that dance between deeply disturbing and very funny, an entirely non-verbal journey through an abject world of suffering and torment that climaxes in what I can only describe as a dark vision of creation, the birth of the cosmos if Satan, not God, willed it into existence. Del Toro’s Pinocchio is plenty dark in its own way, but an infinitely gentler film overall – a children’s fairy tale, always playful in tone even as it moves through heavy themes of mortality and loss, the Christian vision of suffering, and the rise of fascism. 


Both are big movies with big ambitions, and I will admit that neither fully connected with me on first viewing; each, however, lived and lingered in my head for a long time afterwards. Pinocchio, in particular, concludes with a real masterstroke curveball of an ending, culminating in a final line of dialogue that so took me aback in its wise, soulful simplicity that I still feel it rattling around inside me. These films are gifts, truly singular visions by truly singular artists executed on a nearly incomprehensible scale, the likes of which you only see once in a great while, and rarer still in the heavily homogenized world of American animation. 


Mad God is now streaming on Shudder and available on Blu-ray. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now streaming on Netflix. 


6. Three Thousand Years of Longing 

(United States/Australia, Dir. George Miller)


In his first film since the landmark Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller delivers a passionately imagined and deeply felt fairy tale for grown-ups, powered by a steady stream of beautiful images and ideas, generous throughout with wisdom, insight, and pathos. It is an old man’s movie, a reflection on life and art and the purpose of stories and storytelling, told through an encounter between a lonely academic (Tilda Swinton) and the Djinn she finds on a trip to Istanbul (Idris Elba). Confined to her hotel room, the Djinn starts telling stories of his misadventures over the eons, and the two slowly forge a connection. Swinton and Elba are two actors I would happily watch do just about anything for two hours, but to see them recite this lovely script, circling each other in increasingly intimate and unexpected ways, is transcendent and humbling. The film bombed at the box office – probably inevitably, given that Miller leveraged the success of Fury Road to get the studio to pony up $60 million for what is to its bones an art film – but I can virtually guarantee it will become, if nothing else, a perennial film school favorite, and for all the right reasons. I will surely be one of the ones teaching it, as this is a film built to spark conversations about craft and narrative and performance in all sorts of rich, exciting ways. 


Three Thousand Years of Longing is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms, and is also available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD. 

5.5 Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

(United States, Dir. Joel Crawford)


What a wonderfully unexpected treat this film is. Coming a whopping 11 years after the first Puss in Boots, and 12 years after the last Shrek, The Last Wish is absolutely one of the best Hollywood animated films in years – and maybe my favorite DreamWorks animated film after the How to Train Your Dragon series. 


Among the many surprises the film has in store, this one finds Puss in Boots facing an existential crisis, down to the last of his nine lives and literally pursued by death itself, personified by a terrifying scythe-wielding wolf named Lobo. That’s not to suggest this is an unduly dark movie; it’s still family fare, and well-executed at that, with lots of extremely clever gags. I counted at least three jokes built around Antonio Banderas making a meal out of the word ‘gazpacho,’ and they all made me belly laugh, and there are a bunch of bleeped-out swear words that took me aback while also making me laugh like an idiot. But that slightly more serious spine gives the story a much richer vein of pathos than I expected, and Puss’ existential journey takes the film to some truly smart and soulful places. It’s a great piece of storytelling, well-paced and thoughtful from start to finish, with at least one great new character creation in Perrito, a small, lonely, perpetually chipper aspiring therapy dog who befriends Puss, and is brought to life with a very winning performance by Harvey Guillén. 


But what truly pushes the film to the next level is the animation, and here we have the first Hollywood production to show the influence of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with the film eschewing traditional 3D designs and backgrounds in favor of a much more stylized, hand-crafted feel. The backgrounds are done with soft, borderline impressionist pastels to give a hand painted look, and the character designs are simplified and streamlined to look a bit more 2D. It’s absolutely gorgeous, start to finish, and like Spider-Versefinally shows Hollywood willing to experiment with the boundaries of 3D animation. The film has a tremendous sense of kineticism and rhythm to its highly-musical action, and borrowing the lower-frame-rate motion effects from Spider-Verse, every single beat of every imaginative action set piece has real force and impact. It’s a wonder to behold. 


Throw in some tremendous vocal performances - it goes without saying that Antonio Banderas is wonderful, but he really gets a lot of room to act here, not just as a comic swashbuckler, but as a scared mortal cat - and a great score with some catchy original songs, and this one’s a winner. 


5. Incredible Anime Franchise Films 

Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island (Japan, Dir. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko) 

Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero (Japan, Dir. Tetsuro Kodama)

Jujutsu Kaisen 0 (Japan, Dir. Sunghoo Park)


Theatrical anime is having a hell of a moment lately. It’s not just that more and more anime films are getting big releases in American theaters – though that is indeed an awesome development, as evidenced by the sheer number of anime films on this year’s list that played on screens nationwide – but that the industry within Japan is clearly experiencing a big theatrical renaissance, with a healthy slate of younger auteurs like Makoto Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda, and Masaaki Yuasa (more on the latter two in a bit!) commanding attention at the movies, and ongoing franchises getting an increasing royal treatment at multiplexes. Last year, my Top 10 list featured both the Kimetsu no Yaiba movie, Mugen Train, and the final Neon Genesis Evangelion film, Thrice Upon a Time. Where film extensions of ongoing TV anime or media mix franchises were once a qualitative afterthought – the 13 Dragon Ball Z films released during that show’s original run, for instance, are curios for the hardcore fans more than essential parts of the canon – we’re now living through a rather remarkable period of truly great movies based on big properties both new and venerable, and these three films are all terrific examples of just how healthy and vibrant that part of the market is. Each is such a great, skillfully made, and stylistically adventurous pop culture text that they put the vast majority of Hollywood franchise fare to absolute shame. 


Unlike the other two, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is based on a much more recent property, adapting the 4-chapter prequel manga to Gege Akutami’s smash hit Shōnen action series. With the deft, inventive direction of Sunghoo Park and the talented team at MAPPA, the film takes the raw potential of that good-but-not-quite-great manga volume and fleshes it out into a deeply entertaining and surprisingly emotional movie experience, one that I’ve found compulsively rewatchable over the past year. It’s a great starting point to the world of Jujutsu Kaisen, too, providing a better introduction to much of the supporting cast than the TV series does, and showcasing the dynamic, creative action on a big theatrical canvas. This is one of several recent anime films to embrace the widescreen ‘cinemascope’ aspect ratio, which, apart from its use in the 1960s by Toei, has mostly gone unused in theatrical anime over the medium’s history. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is a gorgeous production, with striking compositions, razer-sharp visual storytelling, and consistently eye-popping color work. Megumi Ogata, best known as the voice of Shinji in Evangelion, is extremely on-the-nose casting as protagonist Yuta, and if she weren’t one of the best to ever do this, it might bother me more that the character is fairly derivative; but she is that good, of course, adding several layers to the character beyond what was on the page. Given the success of both the TV anime and this film – it was Japan’s highest grosser of 2021 – it’s inevitable there will be more Jujutsu Kaisen films to come, and as a first effort, sets a high bar to clear. 


The delightfully titled Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, meanwhile, is the whopping 21st film in the venerable Shōnen franchise, and it may just be my favorite to date, zeroing in on my two favorite characters – Piccolo and Son Gohan – and showcasing not only Akira Toriyama’s singular humor, but also his penchant for sweet and subtly smart character writing. It’s a great story with a wonderful cast of both returning and original characters, voiced by a stellar group of actors – Masako Nozawa and Toshiro Furukawa are as great as ever, with the latter leaning into the actual age of his voice to add pathos to middle-aged surrogate dad Piccolo, and they’re joined by an amazing set of franchise newcomers including Hiroshi Kamiya, Mamoru Miyano, and Miyu Irino – and brought to life with 3D CGI animation that is far more accomplished than anyone could have expected. Director Tetsuro Kodama and company have pulled off the surprising feat of moving Dragon Ball into the third dimension without sacrificing an ounce of its unique visual flavor; in fact, thanks to certain smart choices on color and character design, Super Hero reflects the character of Toriyama’s manga artwork better than I could have anticipated, and is one of my favorite looks the series has ever had. Toss in some outstanding fight sequences and a great score from Naoki Satō that offers more rousing superhero themes than Marvel has ever achieved, and you’ve got the complete package. I love this film dearly. 


And yet, my favorite of the bunch is Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island, a completely unexpected treat that packs a gentle but powerful punch. Original Gundam art director and character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko goes back to the franchise’s origins with this one, taking on a black sheep episode of the original 1979 anime – one whose rushed production and rough animation led creator Yoshiyuki Tomino to leave it out of licensing deals worldwide, making the 43-episode series a 42-episode affair outside Japan – and turning it into a feature-length passion project. Where the original Gundam 43 years ago was made by young men breaking down the barriers of the industry, Cucuruz Doan’s Island is an old man’s movie through and through, teeming with the kinds of reflections and wisdom you only get from an artist who’s lived a full life. As Hideaki Anno did in last year’s Evangelion 3.0+1.0, Yasuhiko revisits his career’s foundational work as an opportunity to explore the value of community in a world that is holistically coming apart, his vision of runaway soldier Cucuruz Doan’s island of war orphans one of oasis amidst apocalypse. It is potent, beautiful stuff, brought to life with some of the best animation in Gundam franchise history – the backgrounds, in particular, are just breathtakingly gorgeous, capturing the essence of Yasuhiko’s hand-crafted watercolor images from the Gundam: The Origin manga – dynamite voice work, and a score by Takayuki Hattori that arranges and deploys First Gundam themes in ways that will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. This one is definitely not for the uninitiated – if you’ve never seen anything Gundam-related, don’t start here – but if you have any affection at all for the original Mobile Suit Gundam, you’re going to love this. And if Mobile Suit Gundam happens to be your favorite TV show ever? Well, watching this feels like you’ve died and gone to Gundamheaven. It's one of the year’s best films, full stop.  


Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island is not currently available in the United States on streaming or home video. Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on March 14th from Crunchyroll. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, and will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on March 21st.

4. These Movies Played a Week Apart and it Blows My Mind That Either Exists 

Everything Everywhere All at Once 

(United States, Dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) 

The Northman (United States, Dir. Robert Eggers)


There’s really no good reason to group these two films together, except that I saw both at Iowa City’s Film Scene a few weeks apart with the same group of friends, and they’re both incredibly imaginative, soulful, and singular epics – one mythical, one multidimensional, one practically operatic in scale and tone, the other intensely personal and intimate even amidst its intoxicating absurdity. I think both will be major touchstones for future generations of filmmakers, movies that future up-and-coming talents will mention as inspirations that absolutely lit their brains on fire, opening their eyes to the possibility of what films can dream to do. 


The Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once is the more significant achievement of the two, in this and other regards, as it was made for around $20 million and successfully realizes an entire multiverse with a dizzying array of settings, costumes, tones, and action styles, all in service of a down-to-earth, heartfelt story about family, immigrant identity, and the Asian-American experience. The only vaguely appropriate comparison I can think to make is to The Matrix, in that it draws on a massive number of very disparate influences to create something breathtakingly new, with a smart and incisive core set of themes that will keep viewers coming back for generations. Michelle Yeoh, one of the finest performers alive today, has arguably never been given this much space to really act – certainly not in an American production – and if she doesn’t finally get a moment in the sun at this year’s Academy Awards, something has gone seriously wrong. Ke Huy Quan is the one who will really steal your heart here, though, because you can still see the child actor we loved in the 80s inside him, underneath decades of the life he’s lived since, all animating a performance that is simply and breathtakinglyhuman. I could go on for pages about this film, but chances are I don’t need to – this was the word-of-mouth hit of 2022, proof that theatrical distribution is still a way for audiences to find and embrace a movie that’s proudly off the beaten path, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you are in for one hell of a treat. 


The Northman, meanwhile, is like the absolute coolest 80s heavy metal Norse-themed album cover got perfectly transformed into a movie. It is big and brutal and almost uncomfortably ambitious, properly mythical in both scale and tone, and actually invested in the idiosyncrasies and wild leaps of myth, instead of shying away from them or sanding them down. It is completely straight-faced, histrionic and operatic, and because of that it is also deeply funny. This is a film where the main character wields a sword called The Night Blade that compels him to slaughter scores of enemies when the sun goes down; where Bjork cameos as a Seeress encouraging Odin-divined vengeance; where Alexander Skarsgård has a long conversation with the skull of Willem Dafoe; and where the climax involves two men, buck naked, fighting to the death on top of an active volcano. It is rad. It is metal. It is hilarious. It is awe-inspiring. It is moving. It is almost certainly going to prevent Robert Eggers from being trusted with a big budget for a long time to come. And it was absolutely worth the effort. I love that this crazy thing exists so goddamn much. 

Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Northman are both available for rental or purchase on digital platforms, and on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD. 

3. Pearl 

(United States, Dir. Ti West) 


Here’s a film I could easily create a pairing with, since Pearl was shot alongside, and released a few months after, Ti West’s other film of 2022, X, to which it serves as prequel. But where fell a bit short for me, falling into some of the bad slasher conventions it also attempted to deconstruct, Pearl is an absolute triumph (and one that in no way requires the viewer to have seen beforehand – it works just fine on its own). And even if I were a bigger fan of X, I’m still not sure I’d have the heart to pair Pearl with anything else, because this is such a wildly, deliriously singular film that the only way to do it justice is to let it stand tall on its own. It's hard to name too many other films that are this free and fluid in combining creative influences to come up with something wholly original, but when Pearl can cut between a shot homaging Psycho to one homaging The Wizard of Oz and make it all feel of a piece, you know there’s something very special going on here. 


Mia Goth starred in as both that film’s villain and protagonist, the young aspiring porn star Maxine and the elderly slasher villain Pearl, and while Pearl the film flashes back 60 years to Pearl’s young adulthood on the farm that would become a decrepit mass murder site in X, one could argue Goth is still playing both protagonist and antagonist here, with both roles collapsed onto one body. Pearl is a horror movie where the hero/victim is also the slasher/perpetrator, and while it contains a few gnarly and creative moments of graphic violence, its real terrors are psychological and internal, with a climax that is entirely verbal as Goth delivers a searing 10-minute monologue about her feelings of abandonment and alienation in a single unbroken take. In a better world, Goth would be an obvious and formidable competitor for the Best Actress statue at this year’s Oscars, and the performance she gives here is one for the ages, she and Ti West displaying a level of trust in each other as actor and performer that feels reminiscent of the electricity coursing underneath De Niro in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. 


The whole production is such a weird – and weirdly compelling – mess of contradictions, set in 1918 but shot to evoke Technicolor of the 30s and 40s, yet framed in the anamorphic widescreen ratio pioneered in the 50s and 60s, a set of aesthetic incongruities that reflect how the entire film is playing with a wide swath of referents from across the sweep of film history. And that cinematography, courtesy DP Eliot Rockett, is some of the year’s best, with extraordinarily adept use of the entire vast canvas of the big widescreen frame and even more eye-popping deployment of color, evoking the boldness and brightness of 3-strip technicolor without ever limiting itself to the boundaries of visual pastiche.  


Oh, and the final shot? Brilliant. One of the year’s best images and almost certainly the year’s best ending, a lighting-in-a-bottle combination of composition and performance and cheeky confrontation that tells the whole story of the film in a single take that dares the audience to look away – and if you somehow can, you might want to check if you still have a pulse. 


Pearl is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms, and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. 


2. Vibrant Anime Musicals 

Inu-Oh (Japan, Dir. Masaaki Yuasa)

One Piece Film: Red (Japan, Dir. Gorō Taniguchi)

Belle (Japan, Dir. Mamoru Hosoda) 


What a joy it is to group these films together. How could I not? The concept of an ‘anime musical’ is rare enough to begin with, but to have three big theatrical anime productions come out in the same year? And to see each not only feature music as a part of their narrative diegesis, but truly pulsing with music and musicality as the heartbeat of such powerful, arresting, almost overwhelmingly synesthetic experiences, music and animation working together in surreal, larger-than-life explosions of color and motion that are in all cases breathtaking to behold? That’s another matter entirely, a degree of virtuosity live-action musicals have trouble achieving more often than they succeed. If the phrase ‘animated musical’ evokes for you the relatively sober, staid Broadway-stylings of the Disney renaissance musicals of the 1990s, buckle up – this trio of movies is operating in an entirely different space. 


In particular, Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh (“King Dog”) is the most formally daring piece of commercial animation that’s reached American screens since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Were I ranking films out individually on this list, it would likely be my #2 overall film of the year. Best (but not necessarily accurately) described as a historical rock opera set in Japan’s Muromachi period (the 14th century), the film follows Tomoichi, a blind biwa player, and the eponymous Inu-Oh, a cursed son of a Noh troupe leader, as they befriend each other and begin performing lavish hair-metal-esque music-and-dance numbers recounting suppressed chapters of Japanese history. It’s a high concept executed with wild abandon, and while the film takes some time to get its characters into place and establish its thematic interests in the relationship between stories, performance, and power structures, once Tomoichi and Inu-Oh begin performing together, the film transforms into one of the most powerfully affective pieces of cinematic synesthesia I’ve ever seen. I saw the film twice in the week it played at my local theater, and both times, I couldn’t stop moving my body in time with the impossibly infectious music, my jaw slack in wide-eyed wonderment at the sheer majesty of the images Yuasa and his animators conjure. It’s an all-consuming aesthetic journey, and far from an exercise in style over substance, the film’s incredible stylistic excess becomes a moving paean to the essential freedom of artistic expression in all its forms. Films don’t get much bolder than this. 


Still, I’m happy to group Inu-Oh with these other films, because the kinds of synesthetic wonder they inspire is very much in the same ballpark. One Piece, of course, is as venerable a franchise as they come – 2022 is the series’ 25th anniversary, and it’s chugging along as successfully as ever both creatively and commercially – and among its Shōnen action peers, it’s the one that has long had the best films, due in part to creator Eiichiro Oda’s close involvement in story and character designs since 2009’s Strong WorldFilm Red is a cut above, though, and one that’s hard to describe because it so thoroughly breaks the mold even in this moment of great anime franchise films. Take the insane production values and bravura visual choreography of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, triple it, and then make it a musical, and you’re starting to get close – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The film is built around a new character, Uta, and sets itself the extremely tricky goal of claiming she is such an amazing singer and performer that she’d entrance the entire world – a lofty goal the film not only meets but surpasses, getting a true generational talent in Ado to provide the character’s singing voice, and employing a bunch of the best songwriters and music producers in Japan to build for her a voice and body of work that completely sells the idea. Director Gorō Taniguchi (the first person to ever direct a One Piece production, before Toei’s eventual long-running anime even started) returns to the series to infuse every musical number and set piece with a truly visionary sense of scale, and the voice work is amazing across the board (Shuichi Ikeda has a couple of line reads as Shanks that genuinely sent chills down my spine, and Mayumi Tanaka, never content to phone it in as Luffy, cleans house throughout). And maybe it’s just because I went back for an encore screening on the night of the US midterm elections, but there’s also something quietly resonant in Film Red to our current political moment; it’s a film about a character (Uta) who looks at the fraught, broken world around her and decides the best way to cope is to disconnect from it entirely, only to learn that’s the one true way to oblivion. You have to live. 


Belle is less ‘surprising’ than these other two films, if only because it’s treading territory that’s very familiar for Mamoru Hosoda, its story, themes, and even visual design revisiting several major threads of his work and in particular refiguring his greatest film, 2009’s Summer Wars. Where that film starts in the ‘real’ world and gradually brings in more and more elements from the artificial digital world its characters escape to, Bellebegins in the simulation – a colorful metaverse called ‘U,’ where everyone inhabits a variably flamboyant avatar – and makes relatively infrequent trips to reality, most notably near the end. The main character, Suzu, becomes a pop star in the virtual world, singing for online strangers in ways her timid real-life persona can’t. Hosoda is sparing with character detail here, giving us more time with her avatar than with the ‘real’ Suzu, as she becomes embroiled in a virtual adventure with a monstrous avatar called ‘The Dragon’, a riff on Beauty and the Beast that ultimately becomes a story about how real-world trauma is sublimated within our constructed digital selves. The film is really less interested in the story of Beauty and the Beast than in its popular iconography vis-à-vis the Disney movie, quoting and playing with and extending those images, which included some of the first ever pieces of digital animation, here a full 30 years later, in a film that is primarily 3D CGI. But it’s also citing Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first animated feature, and calling back to Toei’s feature animation of the 1960s with its deployment of CinemaScope widescreen, and playing with iconography from across Hosoda’s whole career. And, like the other two films in this slot, it’s doing a whole lot of it in and through song, with big sequences of virtual world performance that build to almost impossibly grand visual displays. 


Other than the aforementioned Into the Spider-Verse and its upcoming sequelsthere’s just nothing in American commercial animation today that’s even attempting to dream on as big a canvas as these three films, let alone succeeding. And even in a year where we had a few truly great live-action blockbuster spectacles, for the most part I don’t think Hollywood could make films as big and weird and ambitious as these even if they wanted to. The muscles are atrophied, while anime remains a very special space that’s seemingly becoming more incredible with every passing year – a fact to which each of these films is a soaring testament. 


Inu-Oh is now available for purchase on digital platforms, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on January 24th from GKids. One Piece Film: Red will likely come to DVD and Blu-ray from Crunchyroll in 2023. Belle is now available on digital platforms, DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD from GKids. 


1. The Hong Sang-soo 2022 Triptych

In Front of Your Face
 (South Korea, Dir. Hong Sang-soo)

The Novelist’s Film (South Korea, Dir. Hong Sang-soo)

Introduction (South Korea, Dir. Hong Sang-soo)


The impossibly prolific Hong Sang-soo directed three films that came to American theaters in 2022 –Introduction in January, In Front of Your Face in May, and The Novelist's Film in December – and they've collectively made me into a rabid fan of his work, excited to seek out the rest of his ever-expanding filmography (these are his 25th, 26th, and 27th films). Introduction is the shortest of the three, at just over an hour in length, while also being the most structurally complex, slowly bouncing between times and characters in illustrating a fractal web of relationships. In Front of Your Face and The Novelist’s Film are more linear and straightforward, the former taking place over the course of a single day, the latter a single day and another day a few months later. All exhibit Hong’s signature style, everything shot on mid-grade digital (In Front of Your Face in color, the others in black-and-white) in long takes as characters engage in conversation, and edits employed only in the strictest utilitarian fashion. Scenes play out entirely without interruption; if Hong needs to adjust to see a particular character or reframe a moment, he restricts himself to zooms or pans, and as a result, moments are truly unbroken; because they usually involve two or more people talking or interacting, these moments also become communal between those figures and the viewer, shared together, almost meditatively. When cuts do come, they feel quite gentle; moments rise, live a life, and then gradually wind down, in their own time, before moving on, when we're all good and ready to go. Cuts come to feel unnecessary, less a part of the art of the film than a technical necessity in places of transition, a very specific tool for a very specific situation, and otherwise an imposition on the actual magic cinema has to offer in watching time and space unfold. 


And what magic Hong’s films reveal. Each of these stories is disarmingly simple; two halves of a young couple meet artistic friends of their parents in Introduction; a long-retired actress returns home to Korea and spends time with her sister before taking a meeting with a film director in In Front of Your Face; and a famed novelist suffering from writer’s block is inspired to make a short film after a chance encounter with an actor in The Novelist’s Film. The depths that are plumbed in each, mainly through slow, careful observation of words and interactions, are extraordinary. Introduction is a lovely and piercing coming-of-age piece, while The Novelist’s Film serves as a meta-statement on why Hong makes his films the way he does, as the eponymous novelist decides to make her film with no grand narrative goal or guiding stylistic objective beyond observing the moments, placing an actor in a space and seeing what happens. It is one of the best articulations-in-praxis of the kind of cinema Andre Bazin waxed poetic about in “The Evolution of Film Language” half a century ago, reflecting on the advancement of cinematic form after the advent of synchronized sound; what he wrote about Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons – that its long takes “are in no way a passive recording of the action within a single composition but rather a refusal to break up the event or to analyze dramatic space in time” – is equally true of Hong, but applied to the most mundane subjects, within which astonishing amounts of everyday beauty are found. After credits rolled on The Novelist’s Film, I stepped out of the theater and began rearranging my Intro to Film Theory syllabus for next semester so I could include it, such a deceptively rich text it is about these particular possibilities of cinema. 


In Front of Your Face, though, is my favorite of the three, and easily my pick for the best film of 2022. It is a transcendent piece of cinema, a gently yet immaculately constructed existential drama about the importance of those very ‘moments’ that are indeed the main character and driving force of all Hong's work. This film follows a woman, Sangok, played by Lee Hye-young, a celebrated theater actress who spent over a decade away from cinema before returning for this film, where she gives the year’s most towering performance. Her character used to be an actress, decades ago, and a beloved one at that; when the director she takes a meeting with (Hong regular Kwon Hae-hyo) describes seeing her on screen for the first time in the 90s, as a college freshman, he relates it with such religious reverence you can almost feel the screen start to shine and pulse with energy. She left acting behind for an anonymous life in America, but is now back in Korea, visiting her sister, for reasons she won't divulge. Here, she is recognized and recognizable, but the world around her has changed. In small interstitial moments, brief interludes where Lee is on her own with no one to share the scene, she prays – to God, maybe, or just to herself – an anchoring mechanism in a world we increasingly feel she’s barely hanging onto. In Hong fashion, this is a supremely gentle film, quiet and slow and soft, but something about the world feels contingent, uncomfortable, perhaps because Lee's performance is just so beautifully lived in, and because Hong’s style lets us live with it so fulsomely that the character starts to feel like a part of us before we even get to the actual meat of the story - why she's back, and why she's out of sorts. 


That information is divulged in the film's longest and most masterful take, a scene that begins with Sangok playing the guitar for the director she's having a lunch meeting with, continues through her explaining she cannot take the part he offers because she is terminally ill and has only months to live, on through the raw weight of this unburdening momentarily breaking the director, and Sangok returning to plucking away at the instrument. It is the best example across Hong's 2022 triptych of the wisdom of his zoom-and-pan shooting style. How allowing this moment, these performances, these emotions, to unfold in the natural course of time, without any interruption by a cut, quietly takes us out of our bodies and places us in the scene, entirely enraptured by it. Take the part where she begins playing the guitar - her skill isn't particularly advanced, and she's rather halting as she plucks away a tune, but when Hong moves the camera over and into the director's face, and we see him so completely in the moment as the listener, and then do the same moving over to Lee, it all feels transcendent, because we, like they, are so in tune with the moment. 


The Novelist’s Film does indeed provide a stirring and thoughtful meta-articulation of why Hong makes films the way he does, but In Front of Your Face is an even more powerful demonstration of why that process matters. Sangok’s personal philosophy, which she shares with the director during their long dark lunch of the soul that takes up the film's second half, is that heaven exists in front of one’s face, in the moment we inhabit. It doubles as the best possible description of why this kind of cinema matters: Because the best, richest, most interesting subjects aren’t the ones that require special effects or even particularly large sums of money to capture, but the ones that are simplest and closest to the ground. This is a film so wise and rich, its style so fulsomely embodying the substance of its themes, that it has the potential to change one's outlook on life and on cinema, or at least reframe and focus it. 


What a gift. 


Introduction and In Front of Your Face are now available to rent or buy on Apple TV and on Blu-ray via distributor Cinema Guild. The Novelist’s Film is now playing in select theaters and should be available on the same platforms in the future. 


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