2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2022

By Roderick Heath

Jump to review index

Jump to Favorite Films of 2022 list



2022 was always going to be a rough year for cinema. Ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on production and how movies are consumed were felt all year, setting everything into an uneasy churn. A vast array of strong movies were rudely shuffled off to streaming whilst movie theatres were often left with a drought of big, attention-getting new films to lure people out, and a lot of the big movies that did come out were lacklustre and betrayed the waning grip of recent blockbuster trends. The smaller, quality works that did get release sank without anything to counterprogram against. The only real winner out of it all was Top Gun: Maverick, a vehicle Tom Cruise smartly delayed until it could play to packed and appreciative theatres, and it succeeded in uniting young and old audience members in a single, shared moment. Even if it certainly wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, Top Gun: Maverick proved old-school Hollywood values were the best curative for the doldrums of the moment, especially when the superhero movie is devolving into cluttered and confused pile-ups like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Thor: Love and Thunder. And then right at year’s end we got James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water, and just what that will do for mass audience cinema is still playing out.

Things often weren’t that much better in the more officially artistic and serious zones of cinema, with many a movie of strong pedigree and real worth failing to find an audience. It was hard to deny the feeling the brutal financial failure of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans in particular signalled on some level the fatal decline of Hollywood cinema in its purest form as everything falls into the sinkholes of streaming and a pervasive anti-art mood. Threads of common concern nonetheless wove throughout so many films this year. Spielberg and James Gray, two very different filmmakers, nonetheless both meditated on their most intense childhood experiences through alter egos with many points of similarity. The love of cinema as a shared experience and of media capturing as a mode of tantalising, frustrating meaning bobbed up in works as diverse as Ti West’s X and Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. The antiheroic artists of Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions and Todd Field’s Tár surrendered their creativity for the allure of power and self-indulgence, only to eventually be destroyed by the verdict of a society they’ve offended. Terence Davies’ Benediction and West’s Pearl both concluded with powerful but diametrically opposed images of faces, one of cathartic emotional release and the other desperately asserted pleasantness covering bottomless madness and horror. In Pearl and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, a woman crushing an egg invoked shattering of a thin membrane of reality and the mental stability of the heroine.

Stark moralistic comeuppances were visited upon the absurd denizens of a landscape of celebrity, influence, technology, and plutocratic riches, played out in isolated locales, in Spiderhead, Glass Onion, The Menu, Death on the Nile, and Poker Face. Spiderhead and Don’t Worry Darling depicted a sinisterly sequestered community ruled by a charismatic creep played by one of Hollywood’s many current Chrises. Films like You Won’t Be Alone, Avatar: The Way of Water, Ted K, Pearl, and Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon grappled with characters dwelling on the fringe of society, wrenched in diverging directions by urges to both completely escape the world and angrily take it on, feeling the temptations of monstrousness whilst also gripped by strange pathos. Rebels around the same outskirts manifested in the likes of Neptune Frost and Prey and Bones and All. Reclaiming youngsters stolen by representatives of invasive and coercive authority preoccupied Rise Roar Revolt and Avatar: The Way of Water. Lovers trapped with each-other in dangerous zones in Stars At Noon, Emily The Criminal, and Bones And All faced the toughest of possible choices, one partner eventually forced to, figuratively and in one case literally, consume the other in the name of survival. Black heroes used to fending off the surreal reflexes of the real world had little fear taking on more fantastical threats in Saloum, Nope, and Day Shift.

Macedonian-Australian director Goran Stolevski emerged with his debut, You Won’t Be Alone, filmed in his ancestral homeland and its language. Stolevski portrayed, in a hazily folk-historical setting, the odyssey of a young woman, raised in isolation and fated to be claimed by a gnarled witch and transformed into her skin-changing, blood-drinking kind, who nonetheless uses her gruesome talents to insinuate her way back into a village community and make human connections. Over the years she tries on different guises, male and female, young and mature, all the while taunted by her justifiably bitter and misanthropic “mother,” who was once burned at the stake. Stolevski’s ambition was notable, his film operating as a work of magic realism mixed with folk horror elements, using fantastical motifs to explore human perversity and gender fluidity. The overall design was similar in concept if not specifics to fellow Aussie director Rolf de Heer’s classic Bad Boy Bubby. You Won’t Be Alone was naggingly intriguing, but also badly hampered by bluntly mannered filmmaking far too imitative of other models, particularly Terrence Malick, and needed a lighter touch. Stolevski shot it in a constant handheld register replete with aggravating close-ups, so what ought to have been dreamy and mysterious was rendered far too literal throughout, working against some of his finer epiphanies of behaviour. Ana Lily Amirpour’s Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a similar basic proposition, likewise depicting a supernaturally gifted young woman roaming at large in the world for the first time with a blend of angry bewilderment and yearning, but did so with an entirely different, and ultimately more successful creative palette.

In what could be considered a matched pair with You Won’t Be Alone of mythopoeic meditations on humanity made by Aussies this year, George Miller returned to the big screen with the fantasy romance Three Thousand Years of Longing, an adaptation of a story by A.S. Byatt. Tilda Swinton, wielding an aggravating accent, played a middle-aged expert in storytelling traditions and interpretations who chances upon a glass jug in an Istanbul shop and releases a long-trapped Djinn. The Djinn, after settling down into the sturdy form of Idris Elba, begins narrating how he came to suffer such a fate. Like much of Byatt’s writing, the narrative was pitched as argument, between academic knowing and artistic ardour, intellect and passion, man and woman, with the Djinn’s narratives invoking a sweep of myth-history, great and doomed loves, and metaphorical import, but all faced down by the academic’s forewarned knowledge of how stories like theirs always play out. Miller applied some clever visual touches here and there, and indulged his penchant for bulbous odalisques, and yet the film as a whole felt strangely uninspired. The story never came close to effectively transferring from page to screen, finishing up a loose assemblage of not-terribly-interesting episodes that often looked like outtakes from Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, taped together by the overarching narrative, which aimed for a note of autumnal companionship that was modestly affecting as the miraculous crumbled in the face of the prosaically modern, mostly thanks to Elba’s elegance as a performer: he alone had the power to make you believe in his wise and ageless Djinn.

With Emergency, Carey Williams followed in Jordan Peele’s footsteps in utilising a classic variety of genre film to explore fine gradations of Black American experience. Williams however bypassed Horror to instead tackle frantic ‘80s comedies like Adventures In Babysitting and Weekend At Bernie’s and blended them with a more urgent and serious imperative. Williams offered the adventure of two young Black pals, one nerdy and circumspect and bound for great things, the other a fun-seeking slacker with a streak of socially aware attitude, who find themselves, along with their Latino roomie, stuck with trying to find help for the young, doped-up, possibly dying white girl who turns up inexplicably in their dorm room, without chancing an uncomfortable, even deadly encounter with authority. Williams, with the help of great performances, managed for the most part to walk the line between jaunty shenanigans and something more pensive and biting. The official point about the way being Black intensifies the danger in certain circumstances was sustained, but also dared to venture into contradictory waters, with the heroes wreaking through their choices mounting dramatic hyperbole where the girl’s pursuing friends and the police were entirely justified in their fierce reactions. All ended fairly well but with lingering notes of trauma and regret, which might have been asking just a little too much of what preceded it.

Directing team Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who scored a popular success with 2019’s class warfare horror movie Ready Or Not, applied their new-kids-on-the-block touch to a well-worn franchise with Scream, a next generation entry that brought back the classic trio of heroes and other familiar faces but then applied a notably ruthless touch to killing a lot of them off, and positing a new core series protagonist, played by Jenna Ortega, who answers murderous insanity with, well, murderous insanity. The directors turned in a slick and twisty episode spiked with jolts of newly nasty violence and some knowing jabs at precisely the soft reboot approach being applied to the film. The lack of Kevin Williamson’s wry sidelong social and genre commentary and Wes Craven’s dynamic staging, despite the newcomers’ competent mimicry, was cumulatively telling, however, as much of the series’ good-humour and humanity were bled out, along with at least one beloved hero. Whilst it seems to have done the trick of revitalising the franchise box office-wise, I’ll likely sit it out from now on.

Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone also blended nostalgia and suspense. Set in the 1970s and deploying an anthropological eye not just for the pleasures of being a teen in the era but also its particular, folkloric dangers, The Black Phone depicted a town being terrorised by a serial killer snatching up young teens in his van and murdering them after holding them captive for a short time. The focus fell on a brother and sister, children of a flailing, abusive, grieving father, both of whom prove to share a talent for clairvoyance in different forms. When the boy is taken by the killer and held in a barren basement, his sister tries to use her gifts to track him down, whilst the boy communes with the ghosts of previous victims who push him to try various means of escape. The film generally stole from the best models (including Stephen King and The Silence of the Lambs) and sustained tension to the end. Extraneous elements however, like the kids’ father and the killer’s dork brother obsessed with the kidnappings, proved a real drag, and the period detail tended towards surface fetishism. Whilst the focus on methodical process as the key to survival was engaging, as the young hero assembled tools both physical and mental to defeat his foe, the denouement still felt like a bit of a cheat: we were meant to go “Ah!” when we saw how it all fitted together, and not think about what it really meant for hero’s supposed growth and rebirth as a badass. Ethan Hawke’s flamboyant performance as the creepily masked killer hovered just on the near side of shtick.

Jessica M. Thompson’s The Invitation cast Nathalie Emmanuel in her first major lead role as a young, broke, lonely New Yorker who, after losing her mother and desperate for family connection, tests her DNA and finds she’s connected with a blue-blooded English clan. Flown over the pond to meet them, she falls into flirtation with a criminally handsome and smooth lord of the manor who seems to hold peculiar status over her family and others. Signs begin amassing that something evil is lurking and that her new bae’s true identity is…well, if you don’t guess ten minutes in you’ll have to hand in your horror fan membership. Thompson offered a story with real potential, riffing on the Dracula mystique by combining it with a sceptical variation on Austenesque romance and contemporary cautionary tale that suggested a worse-case-scenario take on Meghan Markle’s journey, blended with shades of Get Out, Thirst, and The Wicker Man. The result, however, was painfully flat: the himbo Dracula was boring, the attempts to invoke feminist and racial angst too paint-by-numbers, the script cowardly in avoiding any truly dark temptation for the heroine, and the con-job romance overextended. The film threatened to become interesting once major reveals arrived at long last, as our heroine was confronted by the cruelty and weirdness of her potential new mate(s), but then pivoted to become a woke superhero origin story, essentially arguing that if you’re well-grounded in online rhetoric evil shalt never tempt thee.

Stunt performer turned director J.J. Perry helmed the Jamie Foxx vehicle Day Shift, a film with a simple but very likeable genre twist for a premise. Foxx played a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck professional separated from his wife and child and trying hard to walk the straight and narrow. With the corollary that his job, under the cover of being a pool cleaner, is actually that of vampire hunter, extremely skilled at overcoming his prey but with a habit of cutting corners that’s made him persona non grata in the small, covert circle of his trade. The film unfolded in a manner reminiscent of ‘80s B-movies, lampooning buddy cop flicks as Foxx was forced to work with Dave Franco’s wimpy bureaucrat. The story wasn’t always tight – Natasha Liu Bordizzo as an enticing neighbour with a secret suddenly became an important character in the film’s last third with minimal set-up, and as with The Invitation the film had confusingly cavalier attitude to dealing with the ramifications of becoming a vampire. Still it was a good lark all told, thanks to Perry’s excellent action directing and fun performances: any film that features Snoop Dog wielding a cowboy hat and a minigun can’t be all bad.

Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius offered yet another vampire variant, this one intended to perform the thankless task of wedging Jared Leto into a superhero paycheque gig, playing a character known as a canonical Spider-Man villain but pitched here as a tragic antihero. Leto played a sickly savant who seeks out the key to perpetual health only to infect himself with blood-drinking tendencies. Matt Smith was his plutocratic benefactor and fellow invalid who proves rather more eager to accept the taint of vampirism. Morbius again had potential. The storyline had echoes of the classical brand of Universal monster movies with their cursed protagonists, with Morbius forced bit by bit to give up his humanity to defend the few things he loves. Whilst Smith’s performance as the former cripple turned robust and eager monster provided flickers of life, the film as a whole was the most tepid variety of current big-budget sludge: released by Sony not long after the colossal success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Morbius proved an instantly notorious example of lazy, witless franchise extension, executed in the blandest possible style of CGI-heavy and personality-free filmmaking. Leto’s listlessness in the lead didn’t help.

Anthropoid director Sean Ellis returned with The Cursed, a period-piece horror movie that bypassed vampires and went for a werewolf as its monster of choice, or at least an odd, skinny, hairless variation on the concept. Ellis intrigued initially with his glimpse of a surgeon digging a silver bullet out of a soldier killed in World War I, before flashing back a couple of decades to describe the roots of a bloody curse, when a cabal of landed gentry had a tribe of gypsies slaughtered over a land dispute, only for one of their sons to be transformed into a marauding monster to visit punishment on the locale. The Cursed certainly dangled some interesting ideas, operating as a more class and race-conscious variant on classic wolf man motifs and trying to bring an almost novelistic texture to the complex, intergenerational story. But Ellis’s mannered handling conspired to throttle tension and impact with heavy-handedness at every turn, the overtones of dark foreboding and pinched emotion and grating camerawork becoming annoyingly pretentious for what was in the end a pretty straight-laced genre story.

After a few years in the wilderness, once and future indie horror princeling Ti West suddenly roared back to life and attention with two movies in 2022 and with another to round off a trilogy in the offing. His first release was X, a tribute to the aesthetics of low-budget 1970s horror, particularly Tobe Hooper on a visual level, but with a story closer in spirit to oddities like Curtis Harrington’s retro camp studies and Charles B. Pierce’s backwoods bloodletters. West sent a small unit of would-be filmmakers and stars out to a remote farm, sometime in the mid-‘70s, to shoot a porn film, only to find they’ve become targets for the crazed and sleazy attentions of their elderly hosts, a crusty, devoted husband and his murderous, sexually deviant wife. West’s anthropological and cinephiliac obsessions dovetailed as he explored the confluence of transgressive impulses and art in the context of a mythologised era, and hinted at digging out the roots of the current reactionary spirit in the period’s jagged confrontation of liberated youth and jealous age. But for me the film failed to convince on several levels. The uncertain tone wavered between tongue-in-cheek and pathos. West was big on self-consciously gross vignettes but short on real tension and scares. He had Mia Goth play both the young and heedless and old and covetous versions of the star wannabe, playing the latter caked in make-up, a superficially clever touch that nonetheless robbed the film of its necessary evocation of maniacal fire guttering within an aged frame.

A few months later West released Pearl, a prequel to X again featuring Goth, this time playing the previous film’s killer as a young woman in 1918, the daughter of German immigrant farmers subsisting on the family farm in the midst of war and pandemic. Feeling trapped by a domineering and dour mother worried about anti-German sentiment and obliged to care for her paralysed father, and with her newlywed husband off fighting in France, Pearl becomes increasingly obsessed with becoming a dancer and escaping her lot. Only trouble is she’s also a budding psychopath who likes killing animals to take out her feelings, and as tensions build to a head blood starts to flow. Pearl arguably had a narrative that was a little too obvious, perhaps inevitably given that one already knows if you’ve seen X where things are heading: West reportedly threw the project together on a fit of inspiration and filmed it back-to-back with the other film. And yet Pearl proved not just far superior to X but perhaps the highpoint of 2022’s bountiful horror cinema, a weirder, uglier, more impressively and intimately cruel portrait that managed to subvert a certain style of making-of-a-monster story. West forced the audience to empathise with Pearl’s viewpoint even after making clear right off the bat she’s a fruitloop and that her embittered mother is trying to keep a lid on Pearl’s rising madness, and whilst Pearl’s aspirations and emotions are entirely ordinary, her ways of dealing with them are dreadful. West’s newly vivid sense of style found cunning ways to both invoke classic Hollywood products as extrapolations of Pearl’s role in the great American dream of self-invention, whilst forcibly mating them with a bleak genre story that turned the Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre influence back towards their Geinian roots, whilst also sideswiping The Wizard of Oz with grim sarcasm.

Jordan Peele, now thoroughly ensconced as a pop culture brand, made his third film with the enigmatically marketed Nope, which proved a combined homage to Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and mixed with plentiful, if nebulous, hints of a parable about racial erasure and media voraciousness at play. The heroes were OJ and Emerald, children of a horse rancher killed in a freakish incident, who try to obtain filmed proof that a huge, UFO-like thing is living near the ranch and consuming horses, whilst their neighbour, a more successful showman with a tragic background as a child actor, seems to be trying to bait the thing into becoming one of his attractions. Daniel Kaluuya was wasted as the rather dull hero, Keke Palmer more engaging as his would-be star sister, and Michael Wincott was the grizzled, famous cinematographer they hire to get a shot of the impossible. Peele proved again that’s he’s a real talent when it comes to setting up mystery and tension, building compelling early sequences with a sense of isolation and paranoia punctuated by the thing’s appearances, as well as a barely connected but suggestive flashback to a bloody, haunting event from the neighbour’s past. But Nope also confirmed some of Peele’s lacks: his hints of deeper meaning were eager to be noticed but weakly tethered to his monster movie plot, and his story and character threads felt underdeveloped. The film as a whole had the tenor of an each-way bet, trying at once to solidify Peel’s status as popular artist telling mass audience stories, and as a biting satirist with an outsider’s voice, but finding the two difficult if not impossible to reconcile.

Similarly preoccupied with characters desperately trying to capture filmed proof of the extraordinary, if in quite a different aesthetic mode, Something In The Dirt saw filmmaking duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson wearing many hats, including playing their main characters. These were a pair of alienated Los Angeles men, one gay, divorced, and a member of an apocalyptic church, the other an asexual bohemian and with a string of legal and mental problems in his past. This mismatched duo start working in partnership when they behold a mysterious phenomenon inhabiting their shabby apartment building and determine to document it, whilst chasing an array of clues about its nature down metastasising rabbit holes of esoterica. The mix of elements here was basically the same as Moorhead and Benson’s earlier, defining indie films like Resolution and The Endless, blending realistic character studies of shambolic individuals with mind-bending high conceptualism and a veneer of post-modern knowing that’s also ultimately a shaggy dog yarn. But it did manage to expand the filmmakers’ creative palette: the real subject of Something In The Dirt was the nature of creative collaboration, the untrustworthiness of mediated reality, and the way paranoid obsession tends to be refuge and torment simultaneously for many people, the relentless pull to investigate and research in an attempt to contain the world’s craziness. The film’s heroes were pulled together by a shared sense of wonder and ambition but finally, fatally divided by their divergent characters and worldviews. In this regard, Moorhead and Benson delivered a compelling human story that ended on a haunting note of lingering enigma.

Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling proved an unwitting topic of classically bitchy gossip regarding behind-the-scenes squabbles between director and cast, an ironic fate for a would-be feminist movie that cast a beady eye on hazy nostalgia for the alleged certainties of the 1950s via sci-fi allegory. Florence Pugh and Harry Styles played a couple living an apparently idyllic lifestyle as members of a community employed on a Manhattan Project-like secret enterprise sometime in the ‘50s and run along old-fashioned gender rules, only for Pugh to start suffering increasing certainty something’s wrong, and eventually learns she’s living in a simulated world created by a retrograde cult headed by Chris Pine’s bromide-spouting Svengali. The story had plenty of familiar elements, with nods to the likes of The Prisoner and The Matrix, as well as ironically owing as much to online erotic fiction derived from The Stepford Wives as the original film as Wilde engaged with the forbidden thrills of submission and delayed gratification, whilst playing it all as a heightened diary-of-a-mad-housewife story. Wilde confirmed she has a strong eye, backed up by Matthew Labatique’s gorgeous photography, and a good way with actors, particularly apparent in Styles’ surprisingly adroit and calculated turn. But Wilde’s attempt at drip-feeding a feeling of emergent unease exacerbated the way Katie Silberman’s script stretched out the game way too long and didn’t give wield that much surprise or satirical bite when it did finally give things away. By the time it did, and offered some intriguing complications to the seemingly prosaic metaphor at the story’s heart, the film had already outworn its welcome, and the plot resolutions proved clumsy.

Zach Cregger, a member of the comedy team The Whitest Kids U’ Know, made his directorial debut in a patent attempt to follow Jordan Peele down the rabbit hole as satirist turned horror maestro. The result, Barbarian, was a surprise hit that tried to mix sidelong social commentary with plain, old-fashioned suspense-mongering and freaky, gross-out thrills. Georgina Campbell was the young woman visiting Detroit for a job interview who finds her far-flung AirBnB double booked, and so must share it with Bill Skarsgard’s intense nice guy, with the pair soon confronted with signs they’re far from the only ones sharing the house. Justin Long was tossed into the mix mid-movie as the mystery house’s owner, a sitcom actor accused of rape who decides to sell the property to pay his legal bills, only to also be drawn into the grim tale. Barbarian started well, with its believably tense and provocative situation and introduction of dank, alarming yet also enticing enigma that bends the characters out of their rational minds, even if Skarsgard tried a little too hard to work his character’s ambivalence. Cregger evinced a strong sense of style. As it played out though, the story turned out to be extremely familiar stuff, with its lumbering monster crone offered as the by-product of generations of diseased abuse, with a weak last-minute stab at investing it with pathos but otherwise simply serving as a standard movie monster, with added attempts to encompass fashionable talking points barely connected to what’s actually going on. Cregger’s desire to keep his ultimate game vague resulted in some ostentatious storytelling shifts in focus and style that had superficial impact but felt forced, and would probably have worked better if deployed in a more classical fashion. By the end the film collapsed in a heap.

Neil Marshall’s The Lair had many of the same touchstones as other genre films of the year, with loud nods to John Carpenter and James Cameron, as well as the glorious old school of creature feature, the kind that sported monster costumes that don’t quite fit properly around the crotch. It also announced Marshall’s determination to get back to his roots circa Dog Soldiers and The Descent. His wife and screenwriting collaborator Charlotte Kirk starred as a badass pilot shot down over Afghanistan in 2017, who discovers an old Soviet bunker inhabited by grotesque chimeric beings. After barely escaping whilst the critters rip apart some hapless Taliban, she takes refuge at a US Rangers outpost, only to suffer siege by these tough and toothy blighters. The Lair lacked the cleverness and deftness of characterisation Marshall once imbued on Dog Soldiers, the acting from an unseasoned cast often broad and awkward, and the last act got a little too frenetic and indebted to Aliens for its own good. And yet, whilst less polished than the likes of Nope or Barbarian, ultimately I found it a more successful film, an enjoyable, pure-hearted tribute to, and example of, the B-movie ethos. That’s largely because Marshall’s craftsmanship and capacity for tackling monster movie thrills with authentic relish proved undimmed. The film also provided a curiously salutary revisit to the director’s penchant for political parable as explored in Centurion, as The Lair made overt nods to Zulu and the theme of empires fleeing inhospitable lands.

Colin Trevorrow’s return to helming the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World: Dominion was a more straightforward special effects-driven monster movie than Nope, albeit one that also tried a little to shake up the material a little, with the dinosaurs now roaming the world at large, fuelling the rise of exploitative black markets. Heroes new and old were pitched in together to battle yet another nefarious plutocrat, this time played by Campbell Scott and supposed to be the same one who caused all the ruckus in the original film, when his attempts at genetically engineering market advantage result in swarms of mutant locusts wreaking havoc. Dominion had real problems, including some jagged editing that hinted at last-minute interference, and some extremely tired plotting, particularly in the downright perverse subplot involving young Maisie Lockwood and her girlboss genius mother-twin, a particularly egregious example of trying to reorientate narratives to be more female-centric in the silliest manner possible. The film was still better than generally painted: the united cast of old favourites and new fixtures interacted well, Trevorrow had fun giving them all a moment to shine, and the action sequences were strong, particularly the wild mid-film chase sequence in Malta.

Parker Finn’s Smile, the year’s biggest Horror hit, like Barbarian prioritised raw creepiness and menacing thrills staged with cinematic largesse over pretentions to deep commentary and parable, although it still built itself around a blatant metaphor for the insidious power of trauma. Sosie Bacon was the dedicated but vulnerable psychiatrist who, after seeing a panicky patient kill herself whilst wearing a hideous fixed grin, finds herself dogged by a malevolent trickster demon that makes clear it intends her destruction in the same way, and her attempts to escape the curse mean confronting the life-defining imprint of her mother’s suicide. Finn’s film was initially intriguing and gained much from Bacon’s impressive, likely star-making performance, even if she was pushed to inhabit extremes of neurosis with near-comical speed. As a whole though I found Smile didn’t add up to much, in part because Finn’s direction was so showy and spectacle-driven that it kept giving the game away, where the story needed a more brittle and deceptively calm setting. Interludes of showy gore and demonic manifestations were overdone, and by the time of the nasty bummer climax, the heroine’s pathos had been outmatched by genre shtick and bumper sticker psychology.

Scott Mann’s Fall exemplified several recent trends in attention-grabbing action-thrillers – just thrust one or two comely young women into a high-pressure survival situation, throw in some grief, trauma, or other just-add-water feels as an identification pretext, and away you go. In this instance, the heroines were two young devotees to the religion of extreme sports, but with one, Becky, turned apostate since her husband died in a rock climbing accident. The other girl, Shiloh, now a rising social media star, is determined to shake her pal out of her grieving torpor, and convinces Becky to join her in climbing a colossally tall, soon-to-be-demolished TV antenna tower in a desolate stretch of the American west, only to find themselves trapped atop it. In order to happen the film depended on the two women being astonishingly reckless and foolish, and the script took refuge in some now-cornball clichés, including a particularly silly narrative fake-out and shock reveal, and liberal pinching from Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Still, Fall remained engaging almost until the end, thanks to glimmerings of a nicely vicious lampoon on influencers spouting pop no-fear bromides, and it provided thrills aplenty, as a calling card for Mann as a director capable of sustaining what was essentially a chamber piece with a sweat-inducing sense of danger.

Baltasar Kormakur’s Beast was almost the same movie, albeit with a different subgenre frame. This time the protagonist was Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a recently widowed doctor on a visit to his late wife’s home village out in the South African veldt whilst trying to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughters. Attacked by a lion that’s been driven to homicidal and indiscriminating fury by poachers, and left stranded in a rugged stretch of a remote national parkland, Nate was obliged to protect his daughters and try to save his wife’s childhood friend and game warden Martin (Sharlto Copley) from both the murderous animal and the well-armed poachers. The script was, again, just a little too basic and eager to deploy its pretexts before getting down to business, and the lion itself – animated with surprisingly convincing CGI – was presented at some points as an improbably cunning and irresistible force and at others as something a bit more realistic. The strength of the lead actors and Kormakur’s staging, complete with constantly prowling, paranoid camerawork, made it a decent, entertaining survival thriller. Also nice to see Elba playing an everyman type of hero, albeit one who when push comes to shove can still wrestle a lion.

Sam Walker’s The Seed provided an intersection for at least three of this year’s movie strands, blending satire on pushy queen-bee influencer culture, portraits of young women suffering millennial ennui, and chamber-piece sci-fi-horror. Walker depicted three friends who retreat to a house in the California desert for one girl’s self-promoting fashion shoot, with tensions manifesting in their diverging outlooks even before a meteor shower deposits a disgusting, turtle-like alien life-form in the yard. The creature soon begins asserting an insidious sway over two of the women, infesting their bodies with alien spawn, leaving the third to face some terrible choices. The Seed’s low budget was telling in places, the acting a bit forced, the script dotted with unanswered questions, and the regulation final girl a bit pallid. Still, Walker managed to do quite a bit with not much, applying flecks of very dark humour to visions of icky assimilation and body horror touched with aspects of kinky sexuality, as the alien played at becoming a mind-and-body-melting extra-terrestrial Hugh Hefner.

Speaking of body horror, the style’s progenitor David Cronenberg re-emerged with Crimes of the Future, a film that recycled the title of his 1970 short film attached to quite a different story. This variant was set in an epoch where both physical pain and infection have vanished from the human experience, whilst some people suffer bewildering growth of seemingly extraneous organs, and so self-mutilation is the new art. Cronenberg offered a sardonic self-portrait via Viggo Mortensen playing Saul Tenser, who wows the art scene by making spectacles of getting his aberrant organs removed. The film didn’t so much have a story as recount Saul’s interactions with various scenesters, bureaucrats, militants, and cultists, eventually confronting the possibility that the human race is evolving to live off its own plastic waste. Cronenberg certainly hasn’t mellowed when it comes to drumming up intriguing ideas or ugly-beautiful images, but like quite a few of his late career works it really just kind of sat there on a dramatic level, filled with elements that went nowhere and dotted with clumsily blunt violence, both a portrait and example of an intellectual-artist’s tendency to hide from emotional intensity by taking refuge in conceptualism.

Mark Mylod’s The Menu also took on the uneasy relationship of artist and audience and laced it with flashes of outright horror and blackly comic meditation on one of the year’s most popular themes, in brutally accosting the rich and influential. Ralph Fiennes was Chef Slowik, a titanic figure of the culinary world who invites a select coterie of smug-uglies to his cutting-edge restaurant on an island and treats them to the products of his cult-like operation, only to slowly unveil an intention to kill everyone by the night’s end in a banquet of truth and death. Anya Taylor-Joy was the humble escort accompanying one guest, who finds herself doomed along with everyone else unless she can find the chef’s one weak spot. The Menu was engaging on a baseline thriller level although it spurned believability in favour of a kind of nightmare logic that might have been aiming for the Buñuelian but came closer to Grand Guignol camp like Theatre of Blood (1972). The Menu was packed with concerns of potential, particularly in exploiting the curious grip celebrity chefs have on the contemporary bourgeois mind, testing the eternal tension between creative figure, critic, and consumer, indicting the naked classism often lurking behind foodie culture, and considering the mix of sadism and masochism often required by success on the highest level. Like too many films to tread such territory this year, however, the satire (in a script by to two former The Onion scribes) was tinny and shallow, sacrificing any nuance or clash of voices to better have its basic, populist thesis, and indulging its elegantly deranged tormentor-avenger to a disturbing degree. The programmatic nature of the story meant no real surprises were in store, which meant that once the punchline arrived, The Menu added up to nothing more than a sick joke.

Graham Moore’s The Outfit was another thriller that sought to make minimalist virtues out of production lacks, if in a more intimate and restrained manner. Filmed on a single set, The Outfit’s title was a pun hinting at two aspects of the story, which unfolds entirely within a Chicago bespoke tailoring shop in the 1950s, run by an aging, prudent-seeming English immigrant, Burling (Mark Rylance) with the help of a young protégé (Zoey Deutch). Burling is connected with a big-time gangster who uses his shop as a message drop as well as a source of good clothes. Deutch is playing dangerous games, a gang war seems about to break out, the modest tailor – sorry; cutter – is hiding his own motives, and things come to a head when the gang lord’s son brings a wounded pal there to hide out, forcing secret loyalties to emerge. The Outfit certainly reiterated how a filmmaker can tell a good, gripping story with a couple of rooms and some good actors. As a whole though I found the film a bit facetious, with twists and confrontations piling up to a rather absurd degree, which combined with the cramped setting left it all seeming just that little bit too theatrical and artificial, if still diverting.

Michael Bay’s Ambulance also revolved around the basic concept of dangerous criminals crammed into a tight locale, if articulated in the exact opposite manner. Bay applied all his formidable technical skill to his remake of a Danish film, which saw two brothers, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen and Jake Gyllenhaal, both raised by a criminal father, staging a bank robbery in downtown LA with very different motives in mind. Their getaway proves disastrous and the duo finish up holding two ambulance medics hostage in their vehicle and careening around LA at speed, looking for any chance to slip the net. The film wedded fraternal melodrama as old as the movies themselves with frantic, absurdist humour and dashing action staging, with Bay making plentiful use of swooping drone shots in the midst of staged chaos. Ambulance saw Bay trying to stay on the cutting edge of Hollywood tech and style whilst also growing just a little out of his perma-‘90s dudebro bliss zone, and Gyllenhaal and Eíza Gonzalez as one of the paramedics gave smart performances. Trouble was, Bay kept spoiling the impact of the dynamic camerawork with his usual incessant and careless cutting, and the overheated dramatics became more exhausting than compelling by the climax.

Special effects maestro Phil Tippet emerged from his back shed with a movie project over thirty years in the making – the stop-motion epic Mad God. This labour of love was a frequently grotesque and surreal vision of a post-apocalyptic future landscape, inhabited by labouring homunculi, misshapen monsters, mad doctors, and warring magicians. As a technical achievement it was practically without equal, and as an aesthetic one undeniably powerful, its rank, ugly, often despairing mood quite palpable but leavened ever so slightly by humour so dark it might count as a black hole. How much it worked however depended on tolerance for the constant stream of hyperbolic violence and sadism, and the opaqueness of its suggested parable, which seemed to want to say something about the cycles of war and environmental degradation but was ultimately more enthralled by its own whacko stream of invention. At its best it was genuinely, peculiarly transfixing as a portrait of a total state of lunacy; at its least it resembled the drawings a particularly talented, morbidly creative teenager might sketch inside their math book cover, taped together in a string. Cult status certainly awaits.

10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg made a bold grasp at one of the seemingly poisoned chalices of current franchise cinema, expanding the Predator mythos with Prey. Trachetenberg offered a wisely bold twist in trying to revive the series by shifting to a period setting and deploying a what-if scenario. Prey depicted a young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) in the early 1700s who, determined to become one of her tribe’s hunters, ventures out alone into the forest where she encounters both boorish French trappers and something far more dangerous and mysterious. This set-up allowed Trachtenberg to get back to basics in again telling the story of one wily hero who eventually has to take down the alien with smarts and guts, with a new, added gloss of trendy politics with girl power and indigenous perspective exalted. The film was superficially well-executed, with Trachtenberg’s dynamic staging and minimalist special effects matched to determination to tell a familiar story well and patiently, even if failed to offer a convincing-feeling depiction of the Comanche lifestyle, with Midthunder’s performance too calculated as an easily assimilated emblem for millennials.

Chloe Okuno’s Watcher cast Maika Monroe as the flailing former actress wife of a young businessman assigned to work in his company’s Bucharest office. Left alone in their sleek, barren apartment during the day and often into the night, and with dread stories of a serial killer at large and few people she can communicate with, she becomes convinced a man in the opposite building is watching her with evil intent, but can’t convince anyone her concerns are urgent. The basic story here was well-worn, very similar for instance to John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me!, but sought to highlight an implicit feminist theme about being listened to and believed. In those terms Watcher was a little thin, as the script never quite engaged with its characters beyond the obvious – the husband for instance was a rhetorical stick figure – and Burn Gorman was a little too obviously if effectively cast as the inscrutable onlooker. Okuno compensated with a slowly, steadily woven sense of dread and alienation, with a strong feel for the location. Monroe portrayed the heroine struggling to climb out a mire of weak-willed isolation with real class, and built to a properly agonising climax.

Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi was a film with similar precepts to Watcher, likewise depicting a young woman – Zoë Kravitz this time – living an isolated life in a to-die-for apartment and with at least one man spying on her. This time, however, the heroine’s solitude was by choice: stricken with agoraphobia after being molested in her last job, she now works remotely for a rising tech firm, analysing recordings of users of their Alexa-like AI system. When she hears what sounds awfully like a murder being committed, she begins digging to find the truth of it, only to find the trail leading to her employer. Soon she faces not just corporate obfuscation but Orwellian surveillance and hired killers on her tail. But they don’t reckon with either her grit orher intimate knowledge of the tech they propose to corner her with. Following No Sudden Move, one of his most annoying movies, with Kimi, one of his best, reiterated that Soderbergh is by far and away at his best in pulp entertainer mode, trying to invisibly blend thrills with strong elements of social critique. The result was glib in places and cried out for more interest in its perverse marginalia, like the lonely peeping tom who proves to be a nice guy but is only used as a kind of deus ex machina, which some of the film’s influences like Hitchcock and De Palma would have wrung for ripe humanity, as indeed the Soderbergh who once made Sex, Lies and Videotape might have done. That said, Soderbergh worked his most chicly efficient filmmaking to date. Kravitz, as the blowsy, damaged, but wily and quietly badass heroine, gave a strong performance which when viewed as a companion piece to her Catwoman in The Batman felt close to defining a contemporary archetype.

Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me applied a mordant, unpredictable tenor to a study in social and psychological tension by playing it out as a blend of black comedy and folk horror creepiness. Gaynor depicted a former party animal reunited with his posher pals from university over the course of a weekend bash to celebrate his birthday and recent engagement, only to find himself feeling increasingly unmoored and paranoid when he just can’t recapture the old wild spirit. To the extent that the movie eventually proved an elaborate miscue of style it couldn’t escape a cumulative feeling of being excessively arch, and it ultimately shied away from the intriguing depths of character and consequence it wanted to evoke, leaving it to some extent as merely a feature-length variation on a particular brand of very British comedy-of-humiliation more often seen on TV. It was nonetheless clever in keeping the exact truth of what’s going on hazy and charged with an off-kilter blend of dread and bitter humour, until the climactic revelations that proved in essence to be another shaggy dog story, but also dared ask a genuinely needling question: what if you’re the worst person you know?

Swiss Army Man auteurs Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert returned with their own particular, more frenetic brand of metaphor-heavy, reality-twisting, post-genre mischief applied to what was actually a minor-key character portrait, exhibited in their art-house hit Everything Everywhere All At Once. Kwan and Scheinert’s film was the tale of a middle-aged Chinese-American Laundromat owner who, faced with multiple personal and business crises being brought to a head by an ornery IRS agent, finds herself plunged into a multiverse-spanning quest connecting her with myriad versions of herself spanning many dimensions in trying to head off apocalypse caused by her disaffected daughter’s embrace of nihilism. As with their precursor film, Kwan and Scheinert tried to present a metaphor for life through the prism of fantasy gimmicks, wu xia tropes, and magic-realist glee, and for a while, at least, the film was a giddy romp. The excellence of the cast, including Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, and a surprisingly, wonderfully renascent Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, also helped. But the film dragged out every conceit and set-piece to a ridiculous extent, and fell victim ultimately to an increasingly tedious blend of hipster smart-assery and shallow feel-good messaging, trying ultimately to use its po-mo, multi-culti posturing to give a new gloss to well-worn indie film tropes.

Lei Qiao’s The Hidden Fox was an actual, proper wu xia flick that took plain inspiration from both Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, in imitating its smoky-textured and desaturated visuals applied to dazzling, acrobatic fight scenes, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, with its cast of colourful villains known as the Eight Evils. This gang are introduced in the employ of a corrupt government official seeking a legendary treasure, engineering a deadly duel between two heroes and massacring a village all to clear their way. Ten years later, they’re put on the path to the treasure again and dispatched to a remote, snowbound locale, only to find someone in their midst isn’t who they say they are. The Hidden Fox had some problems that have beset recent wu xia, particularly overripe performances and a script that only engaged its characters in the sketchiest terms at first and piled on narrative gimmicks in spite of not really being that complicated. Qiao’s fearsome action scenes and great photography made up a lot of ground: this might well have been the year’s best-looking film alongside Avatar: The Way of Water at much less cost, and as it barrelled towards a climax Qiao worked up some of the operatic emotional force the genre commands so easily at its best.

Latter-day Master of Disaster Roland Emmerich tried damn hard to pretend it’s still 1998 with Moonfall, a throwback to his classical brand of big, dumb special effects extravaganzas, albeit this time with a big, dumb sci-fi idea to justify it, proposing that the moon is a gigantic, encrusted alien mechanism that one provoked to action begins causing havoc on Earth and requires some affordable, available movie stars to save the day. Said movie stars included Patrick Wilson as the disgraced astronaut getting his shot at redemption and payback and Halle Berry as his once-and-future co-pilot, backed up by John Bradley, bringing his patented porky-plucky nerd hero into a contemporary setting. The film didn’t just demand turning your brain off but pulling it out of your skull and placing it in a pickling jar, and Emmerich’s touch just hasn’t been the same since he stopped working with Dean Devlin, his movies afflicted by a sterile aesthetic designed to be redubbed with ease for foreign markets. Fair’s fair though – it had just enough headlong, pulp magazine energy and absurd spectacle, delivered with Emmerich’s trademark graphic fluidity, to make me want to play along, particularly as this kind of movie’s been sidelined so long by superhero stories.

It’s long felt possible that the classic high-powered, jingoistic Hollywood action-adventure movie from the ‘80s and ‘90s, still beloved by boys of all ages and from all places but now stuffed away in Tinseltown’s locker in vague embarrassment in favour of superheroes and high-concept IP farming, might find new life outside of the US, much as the Western once did. Indeed, some movies out of Scandinavia in the past few years have already tried it. Australian pulp author Matthew Reilly offered his take, with his directorial debut Interceptor. Reilly cast Elsa Pataky, aka Mrs Chris Hemsworth, as a dauntless but ostracised soldier assigned to a floating command centre for the US’s missile defence system, who finds herself fighting to hold off a glib megalomaniac’s efforts to break in and disable the system, leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear annihilation. Kickboxing, gunplay, and corny CGI aplenty ensue. Reilly delivered a cheerfully cheesy, low-budget attempt to approximate that old school blockbuster vibe, complete with lots of Aussies doing dodgy American accents and a heroine whose Spanish lilt despite being the daughter of a respected US soldier is explained in a passage of ADR. The concoction was flimsy but delivered where it counted, and Pataky’s authentic physicality was utilised brilliantly. Reilly also wove in stabs at hot-button social commentary, including the heroine’s history with sexual harassment and the villain’s desire to cleanse his nation of its fractiousness, that were at once goofy and oddly substantial. Hemsworth made a funny cameo as a dopey salesman cheering on the heroine.

Hemsworth meanwhile returned to playing his most beloved character for Thor: Love and Thunder, a second helping of Taika Waititi’s distinctive take on the Norse god turned Marvel superhero. This time Thor, totally ripped once more and playing the zany wildcard in space adventures with the Guardians of the Galaxy, was suddenly drawn back to Earth and forced to confront his ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who’s terminally ill with cancer but has also been reborn as a new, female Thor. Together they battle Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), whose sobriquet says it all. Where Waititi’s previous Thor: Ragnarok succeeded in applying self-satirising humour and an ‘80s cartoon aesthetic to fantasy and space opera tropes, Love and Thunder offered a darker, potentially very rich story contending with tragedy and revenge, but also threw comedy at it incessantly, as if scared of getting too heavy for the eight-year-olds with plastic Mjolnirs in the theatres. Waititi waded through his own sticky melange of childish fervour and hipster cynicism, offering up such try-hard delights as Russell Crowe as a hard-partying, plummy-accented Zeus and some screaming, cosmos-traversing magic goats. Waititi’s occasionally striking visuals were foiled and the excellent cast wasted.

Sam Raimi, who helped birth the superhero craze with his first Spider-Man twenty years ago, returned to the genre to helm the MCU entry Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. This one saw Benedict Cumberbatch’s mystic master drawn into a dimension-hopping adventure when he encounters America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl gifted with the capacity to leap between realities. America is being pursued through time and space by a mysterious enemy seeking to control her powers, a foe Strange learns soon enough is all too familiar and might well be unstoppable: Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, turned maniacal and broody after losing her beloved Vision. Raimi got away with surprisingly strong doses of his mischievous humour and invention as well as oddball, morbid imagery, which lacked only, in wielding the full force of Disney-Marvel’s special effects teams, the handmade charm of his early films. Raimi was also willing to countenance a once-heroic character’s downfall with a modicum of seriousness, and sequences like a mystic battle fought with musical notes had just the right crazy energy. That said, a mid-film pause to exploit the dimensional shift for some franchise blurring and nostalgia-baiting just got in the way, and the storyline was in such a rush it failed to make all its hero-journey beats land properly.

Meanwhile, another venerable fantasy franchise curled up like a dead spider, with David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The third entry in this prequel series saw magizoologist Newt Scamander, his brother Theseus, and sundry pals trying to prevent archvillain Grindelwald from getting himself elected leader of the wizarding world through machinations involving a magical version of a groundhog. Given the lumpiness and lack of focus of the previous two entries, The Secrets of Dumbledore tried to turn things around by pairing screenwriter J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter adaptor Steve Kloves. But this one proved just as awkward, in trying at once to provide a potential capper for a series that was supposed to go much longer whilst leaving the door open for continuation. This meant major storylines were rushed and then given cursory climaxes, and largely displaced by a core plot that tried to articulate a strained commentary on current politics, which might have hit differently if Rowling’s big mouth hadn’t dug her so deep a hole of late. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt had become a bore and Katherine Waterstone’s Tina was largely missing in action, which is a problem when they’re the core heroes of the enterprise, whilst Callum Turner’s nominally more stolid and traditional Theseus iroically emerged as more engaging.

After the calamity that was their previous collaboration, the only place for Jaume Collet-Serra and Dwayne Johnson to go was up, and the returned this year with Black Adam, revolving around one of the more antiheroic figures in the DC comics pantheon. Johnson was the title figure, a magically endowed ancient superwarrior with a grimly wrathful streak revived in the present day to protect his homeland of Kahndaq from an army of slimy mercenaries that’s taken it over for plundering. He’s soon pulled into conflict with a team of more traditionally righteous superheroes called the Justice Society, and all eventually are obliged to battle a descendant of Adam’s ancient foe. Black Adam actually started pretty well with and wielded a decent streak of dark humour, whilst Collet-Serra’s eye really let rip on some spectacular action sequences, particularly with Adam’s initial emergence, set to “Paint It Black.” I also liked the casual approach to introducing the Justice Society, a gang comprised of relatively obscure DC heroes, and setting them and Adam at odds in a story that did actually manage to approximate some of the random craziness of classic comic books. The problem was the film smacked of Warner Bros.’ uncertainty in going for wall-to-wall action in a movie that finally went on way too long.

I could make many of the same comments about Ryan Coogler’s over-everything Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the inevitable sequel to his zeitgeist-defining 2018 hit. Wakanda Forever sported in Namor a very similar figure to Black Adam, as another formidable antihero defending his nation. In Namor’s case the realm he sought to protect was the aquatic city of Talokan, determined to remain unmolested by a world hungry for Vibranium resources which until now Wakanda seemed to have the monopoly on. With King T’Challa dead from sudden illness and his young sister Shuri forced to step into his shoes, the two nations finished up warring for contrived reasons. Wakanda Forever was certainly a profound mess, jerkily paced and far too long, telling a story that scarcely made sense and with an array of MCU make-work shoehorned in, including introducing the absurd teenage genius Riri Williams, as well as dealing with the obvious and critical damage done to its prospects and narrative clarity by Chadwick Boseman’s death. Attempts at extending the first film’s political edge were even more clumsy and self-contradicting. Somehow though, I found it an intermittently likeable film, particularly in giving Leticia Wright’s Shuri space to evolve as a grief-stricken and angry new hero, backed up with strong performances by a battery of major actresses. Coogler and his megabudget production wielded some amusingly lush visuals depicting the two quasi-tribalistic superpowers going to war: Coogler confirmed at last that he does have an interesting eye, even when it’s at the mercy of CGI slathering and dark digifilm textures.

Simon Kinberg, back to deliver more mediocrity after his X-Men movie, directed The 355, a thrill-free thriller about an array of badass female security agents chasing down a MacGuffin and forced to work together despite their rivalries when caught up in a melange of double-crosses and conspiracies. The film brought together a marvellous array of actresses, headlined by Jessica Chastain again trying to get her action mojo working, and backed up by Diane Kruger, Penelope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and more. Despite such an array of talent wielding years of accumulated affection, The 355 finished up such a derivative affair, replete with make-work plotting and lumbering action, that I didn’t finish watching it. Anthony and Joe Russo’s hugely expensive streaming epic The Gray Man was slightly better but basically the same cookie-cutter product, this time based on a popular series of airport novels, casting Ryan Gosling to do variation #3.12 on his stoneface-with-slightly-wry-tweaks act whilst playing a criminal refashioned into an omnicompetent assassin, who goes to war with a CIA cabal to save the daughter of his mentor. The film had muscular production values thanks to its absurd budget and sported an entertaining turn from Chris Evans as the smarmy villain, but it was little more than an accumulation of genre clichés and algorithm-based keywords, with a dingy, flavourless look that managed to make every globetrotting location look the same, and no idea how to fit its story and character elements together. If this is what the future of cinema is, I feel deeply depressed.

Just as depressing was Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted, adapted from the much-loved video game about roguish adventurer Nathan Drake, with Tom Holland playing Drake in a nominal origin story, as the barista orphan falls in with a roguish mentor played by Mark Wahlberg in premium smarm mode and sets out to find a long-lost treasure, competing with various roguish competitors and roguish quasi-love interests. Uncharted pilfered freely from a vast array of classic adventure stories and movies and completely drained them of all hints of life, sex, blood, danger, and excitement, substituting soulless digital photography gloss, boring and annoying heroes, and a ridiculous villain. Holland, Wahlberg, and Antonio Banderas delivered shameless in-it-for-the-money performances. The finale had a potentially entertaining if ridiculous conceit as heroes and villains battled it out on Spanish galleons dangling from helicopters, but even that finished up a whole lot of nothing.

Aaron and Adam Nee’s The Lost City looked almost exactly the same as Uncharted, with its phony-looking digi-jungles, although it aimed for quite a different spin for its pilfered tropes. The Nees stole the basic proposal of Romancing The Stone – romantic novelist gets thrust into a real adventure – whilst giving it a slight makeover. This time the novelist was Sandra Bullock’s successful but self-deprecating scholar turned hugely popular trash writer. The love interest was a likeably dopey male model who provides the looks for the hero on her book covers and has a secret crush on the author, played with winning fortitude by Channing Tatum. The latter chases the former when she’s kidnapped by a playboy villain (Daniel Radcliffe, amusingly cast but uninspired), to tap her authentic knowledge about an ancient treasure. At least The Lost City proved a mildly spry and painless take on recycled ideas: too much of its humour was that brand of semi-improv yammering that’s everywhere these days, but Brad Pitt was great in a cameo as a he-man adventurer hired by Tatum to save the day only to casually die, and Bullock and Tatum had just enough chemistry to make the rest of it an okay time-waster.

Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent tried a brand of meta storytelling that’s become increasingly popular of late. Nicolas Cage played Nicolas Cage, or rather a version of the popular impression of his career as an earnest but livewire talent cursed with poor judgement, who likes arguing with another, even more caricatured version of that persona that sometimes appears to him, one who likes howling out weird line readings. ‘Cage’, facing career downturn and problems relating with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, wearily accepts an offer to collaborate on a project with an amateur but very wealthy screenwriter, played by Pedro Pascal, who’s a huge fan. To both men’s surprise they become great friends, but Cage is soon warned by some CIA agents that his new pal is an arms dealer involved in a recent, high-profile kidnapping, and is asked to spy on him. The script’s pitch wasn’t entirely original in its ironic juxtaposition of humdrum lifestyle jokes and mutually-boosting buddy shtick against outsized melodrama and genre film canards. Cage however had a high old time simultaneously exalting and mocking his screen persona, and the plot, as well as delivering a suitably over-the-top approximation of buddy comedy shading into absurd action flick, had some fun with the idea of an actor using those skill as another weapon in the arsenal.

Tom George’s See How They Run also applied a comic and aggressively metafictional approach to a thriller blueprint, splitting the difference between honouring and burlesquing one of the most famous whodunits ever penned, Agatha Christie’s never-ending play The Mousetrap. George’s film had a potentially fun and clever gambit, setting a murder mystery backstage of the play when it was still a relatively fresh hit, and roping in some of its real-life stars including Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, and Christie herself, whilst also presenting a smart-aleck spin on the play’s plot. Adrien Brody was the jerk Hollywood director murdered by persons unknown, Sam Rockwell the sleepy, depressed, suggestively named investigating cop Inspector Stoppard, and Saoirse Ronan his bright and eager young assistant. George applied a lot of colourfully stylised jokiness derived rather too blatantly from the likes of Wes Anderson, and one late touch had real potential, as Shirley Henderson was cast a frayed and batty Christie who tries to intervene in a stand-off by clumsily applying her literary art to life. The script otherwise had an awful paucity of good jokes or substantive characters it took seriously enough to lend the larkishness a fulcrum, and failed to gain much momentum from the disparity of fact and fiction because it had no feel at all for reality, so the whole thing only added up to a superficially energetic pastiche.

Munich: The Edge of War was based on a novel by Robert Harris exactly the same as every other Robert Harris novel, with the same basic plot applied to varying historical backdrops. This one unfolded against the 1938 Munich Conference, casting Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain and George Mackay as a young aide who tries to act as mediator between the Prime Minister and a German friend who aims to blow the whistle on Hitler’s conquering intentions. The film was helmed by German director Christian Schwochow, which raised the possibility of a new perspective on this kind of gathering storm tale. It didn’t stop the results from being insipid as a thriller and distracted as a portrait of a much-mythologised historical pivot, punctuated by such obvious touches as casting August Diehl yet again as a nasty Nazi. The movie was only made vaguely memorable by Irons’ crafty, convincing performance as Chamberlain, trying to apply all his diplomatic wiliness to preventing war with earnest motives but also far out of his depth in dealing with authentic evil.

Greg Mottola’s Confess, Fletch revived the wily journalist, alias-happy investigator, and all-round wiseass created by Gregory McDonald and played in two movies in the ‘80s by Chevy Chase. Jon Hamm was an inspired choice for the role, playing a Fletch who’s quit journalism and, whilst living in Rome, gets involved with a Count’s daughter. He returns to the US to help unravel the theft of some of her family’s art collection, only to find himself accused of a murder. Attempts to revisit the appeal of cultish literary antiheroes can sometimes go wrong – remember Mortdecai? – but Mottola was judicious in updating the material and applied a smart, snappy sense of style. Almost to a fault: the comedy didn’t have much time to breathe as it was so determined to speed from one wisecrack and quirky vignette to the next, which meant the film almost outwore its welcome at just over an hour and a half. Still, it was for most of that length an elegant, playful, old-fashioned entertainment, with a script peppered with genuinely funny lines, and a pretty good mystery in an extended lampoon of Chandleresque thrillers.

Kenneth Branagh’s Death On The Nile finally came out early in the year, just a few weeks in fact after his Oscar-nominated Belfast, after being incessantly delayed by COVID and controversies involving several of its stars. Playing Hercule Poirot again, Branagh was bolder this time around in suborning the ritual form of the whodunit to his own fascination with formative psychology and cine-theatrical staging, as he tackled one of Agatha Christie’s most famous stories, with murder and skulduggery unfolding mostly on a paddle steamer working its way up the Nile. Branagh painted Poirot more overtly this time as a damaged misfit posing as suave force of justice, and surrounded him with versions of Agatha Christie’s characters tweaked to emphasise hidden passions and expose new forces, cultural and carnal, blending to push aside the posh Englishness Christie’s writings mythologised. Gal Gadot was ineffectual as the key victim, but Emma Mackey sizzled as her randy, vengeful sister, and Branagh’s freewheeling direction ticked off influences as diverse as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Bollywood epics. The last scene in particular struck a truly odd and affecting note, and the film, for all its wayward impulses, emerged deeply stamped with Branagh’s personality.

Rian Johnson’s more impudent take on the set-in-stone whodunit template Knives Out proved so popular in 2019 that this year he returned with a follow-up, Glass Onion, this time sending Daniel Craig’s sartorial detective genius Benoit Blanc to a Greek island owned by Edward Norton’s obscenely rich and tasteless tech mogul and his coterie of obeisant frenemies, gathered nominally for fun and frivolity, only to find murder and mayhem ensuing. This time around Johnson reiterated most of the core concepts from the first film in a more inflated and self-conscious manner, including offering a new raft of satirical caricatures seeking to skewer obnoxious species in the contemporary landscape of fame and wealth. Whilst Craig’s Blanc remained an inspired characterisation and held the film together when on screen, and Johnson’s filmmaking has become slick in the extreme, the second helping was far, far less satisfying, and indeed indicative of Johnson’s worst instincts. Johnson’s new mystery, which tried to build a key joke around things being less complicated than anyone wants them to be, still crammed proceedings with busy-work to provide an illusion of complexity, whilst the satire was one-note, and overall the incessant “fun” choked off any actual fun, any chance to enjoy the actors and let the characters and ideas flourish.

It’s easy to forget given his perpetually looming pop culture status that Batman is another beloved detective hero born just a few years after Poirot. The character made yet another retooled return in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, a film that pushed certain tendencies for the character and his cinematic portrayals to a limit, making him the hero of a long, moody, ‘80s-style neo-noir film. Reeves avoided offering yet another origin recapitulation, and instead portrayed the Dark Knight fairly early in his crimefighting campaign, contending with both Gotham City’s gang lords and the vicious, agenda-driven vigilante calling himself The Riddler, whilst getting involved with thief and demimondaine Selina Kyle, a rival and helpmate in his assault on the underworld with a secret project of her own. I liked The Batman quite a bit: Reeves applied a careful blend of stylisation and realism to a solid, well-told story, creating a slightly cyberpunk Gotham, and his filmmaking was elegant. Robert Pattinson was surprisingly, smartly low-key as a Bruce Wayne who barely has an identity beyond the nightfaring guise he’s constructed for himself, and Kravitz had a sly intensity as a Catwoman with a very personal thirst for justice. Only the overbusy script and occasionally ponderous length got in the way of the film’s total success.

As well as contributing one of his best scores for The Batman, Michael Giacchino also emerged as a director of potential when he helmed a Marvel by-product, the odd little amuse-bouche Werewolf By Night, based on one of the imprimatur’s more cultish and grown-up properties. Werewolf By Night mimicked classic Universal-style Horror movies in form and look, particularly Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, as it depicted a gang of notorious monster hunters converging at a mansion to participate in a monster hunt to prove themselves worthy inheritors of a magical object called the Bloodstone. Laura Donnelly was the spunky black sheep daughter of the Bloodstone’s old master and namesake, Gael Garcia Bernal the guarded nice guy with a feral secret, and Harriet Sansom Harris had a high old time as Donnelly’s fearsome, fanatical mother-in-law. Giacchino proved himself competent and well-steeped in the mystique of the kind of classic fare he ape, even if the black-and-white photography wasn’t terribly well-attuned to the medium. It’s also a pity the script didn’t learn more lessons from the old B-movie models with their ability to sharply sketch characters in a few minutes, where Werewolf By Night felt like a long prologue for a longer movie that doesn’t yet exist. Still, taken within its self-prescribed limits it was fun.

Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick, which finally hit screens after a long COVID delay, was always going to be a hit, but the degree to which it proved not just the year’s biggest success but an all-time blockbuster took everyone by surprise, casually turning many assumptions of current mainstream cinema on their head. Kosinski anointed Tom Cruise, returning to his career-making role as ace pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, as a logical extension of his fantasy figure status, undimmed by age or compromise, and as the last true movie star. He was thrust into a storyline just about as old as Hollywood itself: the aging Maverick, almost out of options despite being a glory-crusted hero thanks to his penchant for bucking the system, was assigned to train and eventually lead some young pilots for a good old-fashioned impossible mission, requiring him to make peace with the past on the way as he struggles in a quasi-paternal role for Rooster (Miles Teller), son of his old pal Goose and vanguard of the next generation. Kosinski managed a genuinely unexpected alchemy, playing off the mystique of Tony Scott’s slick and silly 1986 original, but also moving far beyond it, turning the sequel into a more general paean to classic Hollywood virtues – showing a beloved star and good-looking people doing thrilling, spectacular things, and tapping it for emotional depth, particularly in the vital meeting between Cruise and an ailing Val Kilmer. As a work of dramatic art I found it a double-edged blade – movies just like it, if not so visceral, came out every other week in the 1950s, and that familiarity was both appeasing and also a little wearisome. The compensation was Kosinski’s cutting-edge style and genuine sense of big-screen spectacle.

Only a few weeks after releasing the biggest hit of the year, Kosinski saw his follow-up Spiderhead more or less dumped. Spiderhead had a reasonably familiar starting point – condemned criminals try to expiate their sentences and their mental demons by signing up to be guinea pigs for a mad scientist’s experiments, in this case being dosed with drugs that can finely control mood and behaviour. But Kosinski’s approach to this concept was to, at least initially, play it as a bright, shiny lampoon on the softly fascistic self-confidence of techie entrepreneurs, playing the beneficent geniuses whilst heedlessly ignoring actual consequences for human beings, and the bromides of online poptimism, before the troubling truth begins to infect proceedings. Chris Hemsworth delivered an inspired performance as the beaming, snazzy, palsy supervisor for the experiment who pretends to be a functionary but is actually the master of puppets, and Miles Teller was solid as one of his subjects, guilt-ridden but increasingly assured in his resistance. The key problem with the film, despite some formidable qualities, was the story was just a little too straightforward to sustain a whole feature, being the sort of thing The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits might once have knocked over in half an hour. Subplots never quite became substantial enough to sustain themselves, the climax didn’t resolve too gracefully, and Kosinski, strong a formalist as he is, doesn’t yet have quite the touch for this kind of off-beat satire.

Following Top Gun: Maverick’s release, the movie event of 2022’s second half was the arrival at long last of James Cameron’s sequel to his epochal 2009 hit Avatar, a release that bore a heavy burden in trying to restore some wonder to the special effects blockbuster and the theatrical experience in general. Avatar: The Way of Water saw Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and their brood of kids forced to uproot from their jungle home when the return of human colonists and their great personal enemy Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who has suffered a curious kind of reincarnation as his mind has been rehoused in an avatar body, sparks new conflict. Taking refuge with a sea-dwelling Na’vi populace and coming to love their lifestyle despite clashes between the Sully youngsters and snooty local brats, the Sullys are eventually forced to go to war again as Quaritch’s vendetta becomes increasingly unhinged. Cameron didn’t really try to do much new in terms of story and theme, beyond a swerve into a different brand of slightly masked environmental hectoring (swapping save the rainforest for save the whales), and shifting to a new locale for his particular brand of lysergic travelogue. Many of the fresh threads involving the conflicted and hybridised identity of the next generation introduced through characters like Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), the bemusing child of Dr Augustine from the first film, are destined to carry over into further sequels. The Way of Water came on with such maximalist passion and spectacle that all this didn’t really matter much, with Cameron’s astonishingly beautiful filmmaking woven around a sufficiently elemental story that built to a thunderous action climax that amongst other things provided a greatest hits collection of Cameron’s cinema and retold Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view, reiterating that Cameron has cojones the size of California.

After years of quiescence, Adrian Lyne resurged with the would-be erotic thriller Deep Water. Ben Affleck was a husband who, having made a fortune out of designing weapons tech and now settled into a seemingly placid-to-a-fault life with his wife and daughter. Ana de Armas the wayward, capriciously horny spouse given to having flings and provoking her husband with her shows of messy extroversion, and whose lovers Affleck might be vengefully murdering. Lyne officially adapted the film from a Patricia Highsmith novel, but it was really another derivation of Claude Chabrol’s Une Femme Infidele like his previous Unfaithful. It came wrapped in Lyne’s customary gloss, particularly his penchant for real estate porn matched to softcore sexuality, which, given how neutered recent cinema has been, felt here close to daring. Lyne won good performances from his cast and sustained intrigue in the early portions as just what was going on was left enigmatic, and displayed a good feel for the behaviour, individual and communal, in this pocket of moneyed smugness. But the narrative became increasingly predictable as what was going on became clear and the characters reamined opaque, leaving me with the feeling, as Lyne’s films usually do, that it was all much less than met the eye.

Thirteen Lives was another movie that even five years ago would have been a major cinematic event but this year was shuffled off to streaming. Ron Howard tackled subject matter reminiscent of his Apollo 13, as he depicted the famous 2018 rescue of a team of teen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell were cast as the two stoic, experienced cave rescue experts who, after finding the trapped kids by braving dark and swirling hell, had to come up with a way of getting them out, with the whole world watching and little expectation of getting everyone out alive. On a dramatic level, the film walked a tightrope between no-nonsense docudrama and something more expansive. The depiction of the Thai side of things was a bit scanty, sparing only sidelong glances at the politicking and ethnic tensions at play, and despite the title the actual kids were barely characterised, with the emphasis instead falling on the western rescuers. Nonetheless Howard plainly thrives on this kind of intense, detail-based filmmaking, applying formidable technical chops to communicating the danger and pressure of the scenario. He celebrated the same methodical tendency in his heroes, and managed again to make a story everyone knows the ending to thrilling.

Thomas M. Wright’s The Stranger offered a fictionalised story based on an infamous Australian murder investigation in the 2000s, via a Kate Kyriacou novel. Sean Harris did a superlative job transforming himself into a familiar type of rootless, damaged Aussie man, Frank Teague, the chief suspect in a young boy’s disappearance and presumed murder. Whilst fleeing attention and seeking work by travelling to Western Australia, Frank was quickly drawn in by an undercover policeman (Joel Edgerton) posing as a member of a crime gang who offers Frank everything he’s ever needed, a sense of belonging and protection from both the law and his own haplessly antisocial nature. The story certainly had intriguing precepts, portraying a glum and tacky Aussie demimonde, as Wright and the actors worked to portray the killer in his isolate pathos and the cop fraying whilst maintaining his submerged life and mimicking care for Frank that demands a kind of Stockholm syndrome. And yet the film ultimately remained at a distance from the men, failing to convey much complexity or detail to their relationship beyond the obvious, and proving particularly evasive at the end when the hammer fell, so that it didn’t really satisfy as either a stark procedural or a psychological portrait. Wright’s thick glaze of what has now become the cliché aesthetic of dark Aussie crime-themed dramas – creepy music, onerous, cryptic cinematography, and a gawking fascination for inarticulate losers – tried to convince the viewer it’s all something arty and deep.

Baz Luhrmann, never afraid of tackling big subjects and shrinking them down to the negligible, decided to assault one of the most famous and pivotal figures of twentieth century pop culture, with a biopic of Elvis Presley, albeit one that also encompassed a portrait of his crafty, controlling manager ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. The thesis of Elvis was the two men were a symbiotic creature, Elvis embodying American synthesis, rebellion, and messy passion, Parker cynicism, commercialism, and a kind of performed squareness in a desperate attempt to stay below the radar, and the two men’s success each foiled and destroyed the other to some degree in a particularly American tragedy. Not a bad starting point, but of course with Luhrmann subtlety was never going to be the point. The best moments came early on as the film surveyed the time and place Elvis rose out of, raising the possibility Luhrmann intended to make a Moulin Rouge!-esque panoramic musical about the melting pot of mid-century American music of which Elvis was the most famous exemplar. Then it settled for being a stock-standard biopic, with a painful bulk of the runtime dedicated to The King’s decline whilst still sanitising his life and delivering the shallowest possible psychological portrait. Elvis in the end felt close to a greatest hits compendium for flourishes stolen from other recent biopics, with only curlicues of Luhrmann’s flashy artificiality for decoration. Tom Hanks was broad but daring and curiously effective playing Parker as a Fritz Lang ogre creeping through neon-lit aisles, but Austin Butler’s lead performance was like a model in a themed magazine photo spread, his speaking voice dead on but his face vacant and evasive in performing, the polar opposite of Presley’s fiercely projected engagement.

After successes with the art-house hits The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers made an all-out effort to earn his spurs as a genuine movie visionary playing to the mass market, as he released The Northman, a very loose adaptation of the Danish saga that also inspired Hamlet. The young Viking Prince Amleth, played in full manhood by Alexander Skarsgaard, sets out to avenge his father’s murder and mother’s forced marriage to his wolfish uncle. Eggers endeavoured to articulate the worldview of the Vikings through a blend of grimy physicality and stylised mystical visions, the blood-black fixity of Amleth’s purpose punctuated by flashes of something new and redemptive as he falls in love with the Russian witch Olga, played with vehemence by Anya Taylor-Joy, and finds something to fight for other than mindless revenge. Eggers conjured some technically and aesthetically formidable sequences, replete with incidents of cruel bloodshed balanced with folkloric vignettes illustrating a bygone world. But there was something calculated and artificial about the film. On a dramatic level, it was quite straightforward, filching from the likes of Conan The Barbarian and Sergio Leone, and offering lots of blunt violence, whilst posturing as something more thoughtful. Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, who reveals a nasty surprise to her avenging son when they finally meet again, almost shocked the film into something genuinely interesting and off-kilter, but then it resumed its rather blankly macho business. As it was The Northman was an interesting, impressive, but not particularly rich work.

Like Eggers, Luca Guadagnino has repeatedly tried to make unstable concoctions in blending artistic pretence with gritty fare. Not dissuaded by his disastrous remake of Suspiria, he returned to Horror territory with Bones and All, an adaptation of a Camille DeAngelis’ novel about a teenage girl (Taylor Russell) who is abandoned by her father after her inherited, predatory cannibalistic traits start to become uncontrollable. Travelling across country in a bid to find her similarly afflicted mother, she encounters an aging, creepy dude (Mark Rylance) and a young man (Timothée Chalamet) who share her mysterious trait and seek her company, and faces a grinding crisis as her hungers constantly threaten to get the better of her scruples. The material might well have been made a meal of by George Romero or Wes Craven once upon a time, but Guadagnino played it for the most part as a touchy-feely heartland drama about people loaded with pathos in the mould of Drugstore Cowboy or the like, as well as extending the familiar mini-genre of European directors losing their bearings in the American expanse. Bones and All came complete with an insufferably folky gee-tar pickin’ score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for extra lo-fi romanticism, even as Guadagnino loaded the film with gory scenes of flesh-eating, and the film left me wondering just who the hell it was meant for. The collision of tones and impulses failed to cohere in any fashion, and after an initially intriguing start became quite dull. Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, and David Gordon Green turned up at intervals to inject calculatedly weird turns as other members of the “eater” community, and yet the film had nothing at all to say about this community, and it became apparent Guadagnino had only chosen to tackle the material as the theme would wield more shock value than it he’d made yet another movie about junkies or other, more prosaic footloose types.

David Leitch, a director who keeps suggesting real talent without yet finding the right material to apply it to, followed up his hard-edged action flicks John Wick and Atomic Blonde with the wild, fluorescent, comedy-action extravaganza Bullet Train, adapted from a popular manga. Brad Pitt was wittily cast as a blissed-out thief riding on a wave of new-age therapy bromides, thrust amidst a deadly contest on one of the titular transports. Assigned to steal a briefcase, he finds he’s surrounded by assassins both professional and amateur, all being played off against each-other by a shadowy, ruthless Russian crime lord and his offended daughter. Bullet Train was blatant in offering a particularly slick variation on the kind of bouncy, bloody, absurdist post-Tarantino thriller developed by the likes of Guy Ritchie and Joe Carnahan, the kind with character-announcing title cards, whirlwind explanatory flashbacks, and humorously inapt pop ditties on the soundtrack. It was however elevated to the head the pack by the cast and Leitch’s formidable formal gifts, particularly his spryness in staging action scenes and surprisingly precise feel for when to pivot from shenanigans to seriousness and back again. If the film didn’t wield the same visual class as Atomic Blonde, it was more successful in tracking the frenetic crisscrossing of interested parties and building to a madcap climax, and though ultimately way too long, it was more entertaining than it should have been. Walter Hill’s Dead For A Dollar was sort of like Bullet Train’s elderly relative, playing out a not-dissimilar story in a proper Western setting and swapping lightning zaniness for shambling, autumnal verbosity. Ditto Jean Luc Herbulot’s Saloum, which provided an African-set, horror movie-inflected variation on the concept.

One of the few things viewers seemed to agree on this year was that S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (Rise Roar Revolt) was one of the major movie events. A Telgu-made, Bollywood-style epic, RRR told the interwoven story of two fictional folk heroes, one a policeman working under the British raj in the 1930s, the other a holy warrior sent by a village to find and restore one of its children, stolen by an English governor and his wife, with both men eventually embroiled in the burgeoning independence movement. RRR was praised by lefties for its unabashedly fight-the-western-Man attitude but criticised at home for its appeal to nakedly self-righteous nationalism, making for interesting intellectual incoherence, whilst most just let the over-the-top action and dance sequences crash over them. It was hard not to get the feeling RRR hit a sweet spot of exoticism, supplying things people would’ve ripped to shreds in a Hollywood film doing the same. Although the dance sequences were good, personally I found RRR pretty irritating, with its overbearing style and lousy acting, with Rajamouli dragging out every sequence five minutes longer than it needed to be. With its absurdly pumped and performed machismo, leaping wild animals, and goofy humour, it had the quality of a beer commercial run amok.

David O. Russell’s Amsterdam, the director’s first film since his underrated Joy, chose a similar starting point to his overrated American Hustle by tackling a historical scandal and kneading some of Russell’s favoured brand of shambolic protagonists into the dough. This time Russell’s story touched on an authentic conspiracy from the early 1930s involving an attempt by reactionary plutocrats to manipulate veterans into forming a fascist revolutionary army, via suborning their trusted spokesman, whose fictionalised equivalent was played by Robert De Niro, cast with ironic pep as a salt-of-the-earth heroic patriot. But the story concentrated on three invented figures: Christian Bale’s damaged doctor, John David Washington’s stalwart pal, and Margot Robbie’s bohemian rebel, who find themselves enacting a half-remembered Hitchcock plot on the way to proving touchstones for Russell’s conviction that the whacky outsiders and rejects often prove national saviours. The initial set-up was intriguing, Russell offered a beautifully recreated historical milieu, and there were good flourishes scattered throughout, like a sing-off between Nazi goons and a ruck of Black American veterans. These got lost in the blur of Russell’s penchant for superficial energy and even more superficial showy neuroticism from his characters, and his attempt to balance his native hipster cynicism with a paean to Capraesque heart didn’t so much result in a draw as in a brutal mutual beat-down, manifesting in a terminally overdrawn and clumsy coda. The formidable cast all seemed to be acting in different movies, and only De Niro and Anya-Taylor Joy as an insufferable society wife seemed to be in the right one.

Santiago Mitre’s Argentina 1985 also contended with troubling history, as it depicted events doubtlessly extremely familiar to an Argentine audience: Mitre charted the travails of a state prosecutor and his team of earnest young aides trying to indict military bigwigs from the recently deposed junta for their abuses and tyrannies, despite knowing full well many of their friends are still in power and they have vast reserves of support from the upper classes. Mitre’s approach to the loaded, fascinating material, far from the more allusive and insinuating aesthetics of movies to tackle this milieu before like Pablo Larrain’s early movies or Andreas Fontana’s Azor, offered a very Hollywoodised approach, charting the formation of the team of valiant justice-seekers with jots of comic relief and catharsis between the heavy stuff and punctuating all with a standard inspiring music score. Fair play: it was at least good Hollywood, with smart performances, fleet-footed direction, and some deft blending of recreation and historical broadcast footage from the real trials. Importantly, Mitre achieved a palpable sense of what it’s like to emerge from a repressive state, painting an inherently paranoid mental and political landscape where everyone’s determined to press on but knows full well it could all very suddenly become a deadly trap for the supposed hunters, and noting the ambivalent aspect of the heroes’ final, curtailed success, to keep things getting too cheaply triumphal.

With The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood set out to explore African history with an edge of feminist and ethnographic import, as she portrayed the famous women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahoumey. Viola Davis was cast as a potent but world-weary commander defending the state of John Boyega’s young king in the 1830s and schooling some new recruits, one of whom has an unexpected secret, whilst their country faces conflict with a powerful neighbour and some sleazy Brazilian slavers. Leaving aside the film’s problematic historicism and blatant indulgence of pure crowd-pleasing fantasy, Prince-Bythewood did an initially intriguing and visually impressive job of venturing into a little-portrayed place and period, and pulled off some well-staged action scenes. The movie, which might have made for a thrilling study of a proud but morally complex society as well as a great war story, settled for being a merely decent thud-and-blunder epic that owed at least as much to old-school swashbuckler melodramas like The Black Shield of Falworth as to Braveheart, with its reunions between long-lost family members, and a drippy romantic liaison with a hunky human trafficker in the bargain. Lashana Lynch’s broad but entertaining performance as a tough but doomed warrior was the best feature. Actual African cinema of the year, including Saloum and Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, was in general far superior.

Terence Davies tackled the life and legacy of Siegfried Sassoon, the poet laureate of World War I’s special horror, with Benediction, a long, muted, but intelligent and strongly felt portrait that set out to mostly illuminate Sassoon’s postwar life as the survivor of another besieged community, as a gay man weathering a gilded underground of queer celebrities, including an ill-fated fling with Ivor Novello. Davies, a director I’ve had a lot of trouble warming to and who applied his specific brand of occasional quasi-abstraction and heavily glazed seriousness to a generally intimate and very human story, did very fine work that found interesting ways to weave Sassoon’s work into the film, even if he just couldn’t in the end overcome some of the usual problems of the biopic, including a whiplash-inducing shift from the wartime setting to the peace (perhaps feeling that had already been well-covered by Pat Barker’s Regeneration). Davies was plainly more interested in recreating the waspishly witty but emotionally dangerous world Sassoon moved in before taking refuge in a self-mortifying marriage. I never felt he quite reconciled the two halves of his hero and the story dragged as Sassoon moved from one calamitous romance to another; regardless, the last scene had haunting power.

Tony Stone’s Ted K was a biopic with a very different focus, presenting a study of the infamous ‘Unabomber,’ Ted Kaczynski. Sharlto Copley, who also produced, played the clever and cunning but deeply alienated and aloof oddball who retreated to the woods in his search for a peaceful, modernity-rejecting existence, but felt himself driven to acts of revenge against anyone and everything that provoked him by violating the sanctity of his refuge, contradicted his ideals, or just plain pissed him off. Copley give a superficially exacting performance, and the film was interesting enough as a portrait of Kaczynski’s extreme lifestyle and obsessive pursuits to keep things watchable, giving hints of sympathy for his anxiety regarding technology and environmental destruction whilst clearly showing how maniacal he was in expressing them. But it didn’t add up to much either, as Stone’s mannered direction matched a script that had little to say about Kaczynski beyond portraying him over and over a pathologically lonely and driven kook, whilst evading engaging with his family, who he has constant, percussive fights with over the phone, and his earlier life. Worse still, it pinched from Joker the motif of the whacko outsider courting an imaginary girlfriend, a trite device for working up sympathy in a film that was ultimately way too long.

She Said was officially the year’s most shit-out-of-luck film. German actor-director Maria Schrader’s Hollywood debut was a depiction of the investigation by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) into Harvey Weinstein’s reign of abuse, gradually drawing together the story that led to his downfall. The film’s apparent evasiveness when it came to taking on Weinstein’s in-the-know lackeys and protectors was a lapse both YouTube reactionaries and Twitter lefties agreed upon, and the general audience proved about as eager to be roasted over hot coals as they were to revisit this ground, meaning the would-be award favourite and prestige picture bombed hard. She Said certainly had a lot of problems. Schrader’s approach baldly mimicked All The President’s Men in aiming for a cool, docudrama method, but played more like Spotlight 2. Far too much of the dialogue sounded like an op-ed, sidelong glances at the reporters’ home lives were clunky, as were concluding attempts to convey catharsis, and the film as a whole was badly paced. The story was certainly worth telling, however, and Schrader at least delivered a stinging, accusatory portrait of the legal weaponry Weinstein had in his arsenal. She also placed emphasis not just on the assiduous process of nailing down the story but on the survivors of abuse, particularly the not-famous ones, and their attempts to articulate deep-riven distress and scalding anger in nominally neutral settings. The cast, including Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle, generally gave good performances, but Andre Braugher stole proceedings as one of the team’s solicitous editors, well-practiced at hanging up on bullies.

Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider was another based-on-fact tale of a flinty woman journalist trying to bring down a monster, albeit one executed with considerably more artistic licence. Zar Amir Ebrahami played Rahimi, a journalist (fictional) launching a dogged investigation into the case of the “Spider Killer” (real), a serial killer slaying prostitutes in the Iranian pilgrimage city of Mashhad circa 2000: Rahimi, suspecting the police are uninterested in catching a murderer many think is doing holy work in ridding them of “corrupt women,” eventually goes undercover to try and lure him in. Meanwhile the killer himself, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), moves from victim to victim whilst tending his religious mania and appearing the upright family man and war veteran. Whilst Abbasi’s fictional interpolations arguably romanticised the story to a degree in giving it a familiar thriller structure and providing an on-message feminist foe for the killer, he at least did so with real tabloid flare, as the film moved deftly between the investigator contending with an opaque and often openly misogynist officialdom and Saeed’s intimate brutality, which Abbasi didn’t shy away from depicting, and when the two antagonists finally intersected it made for a doozy of a suspense scene. In a year of serious protest and revolt in Iran sparked by much the same topics, Holy Spider was certainly a timely reflection on the nation’s septic psychological state, mordantly noting the connection between the killer and much of the community who share his worldview, even if finally something like justice arrives for him. Ebrahami and Bajestani were excellent.

In the year Jean-Luc Godard died, Neptune Frost, a directorial collaboration for American rapper Saul Williams and Rwandan actor and writer Anisia Uzeyman, set out to prove that the Godardian influence still persists with their singular, freaky blend of sci-fi, mythology, musical, and agitprop. Neptune Frost followed disparate characters uprooted by Burundi’s political and economic turmoil, like a miner who’s recently lost his brother thanks to thuggish bosses, and student revolutionaries driven out of the city by government repression, including an intersex being who becomes the miner’s lover. All converge on a ruined city that proves to be a once-and-future supertechnological enclave, which allows them to hack the online world and bond on digital-spiritual levels, only to invite vicious reprisals. Resembling a blend of Spartacus and The Matrix as remade by a street theatre collective, Neptune Frost boldly tried to encompass many current, obsessive points of concern for the modern youth left, and articulate a boldly radical outlook. At points the filmmakers sustained a rhapsodic flow and vibrancy in their approach, blending hip-hop and tribal musical styles, realism and surrealism, with traditional sequence structuring suborned to this open approach. But the directors weren’t able to sustain that rhapsody, with a lot of clumsy composition and staging, and a script that made half-hearted stabs at complication with subplots that went nowhere, and eventually devolved into speechifying. By the end, whilst feeling the film had tremendous elements, I was more than a bit ambivalent about the whole.

Romain Gavras’ Athena also dealt with defiance and revolt by righteously incited youth, in this case the largely African Muslim population of an outer Parisian tower estate. The block’s denizens are driven to violet and well-planned insurrection after one of their own has been filmed being murdered by what appears to be federal police, capturing police weaponry and fortifying the estate. Athena was punctuated by several spectacular, incredibly choreographed long-take shots, as Gavras aimed first and foremost to thrust the viewer amidst a thrilling, concussively convincing depiction of such chaos and violence, and he did manage to capture through this aesthetic some sense of people left blinkered by rage and grief and rushing headlong at the horns of the bull. As a clotheshorse for his dynamism, Gavras embraced a classical kind of fraternal melodrama, as he pitched the dead boy’s brothers, all emblematic of different factions – a soldier, a gangster, and the leader of the rioters – into more personal conflict. The limitations of Gavras’ approach were as notable as his achievement, all said: characterisation was thin, and the drama, which ought to have encompassed the whole community’s viewpoints, instead rode on the zephyr of a puffed-up macho rage it sought to critique. The film had both too much and not enough story, as when it laboured to contrast righteous revolt with terrorist anarchy, and delivered a confused sting-in-the-tail coda. There’s also something a little grimace-inducing about a film that tries to offers such a beautifully filmed riot. Still, it had real power.

Uptown in setting, focus, and style as far as current French cinema goes, if no less intrigued by the social and human experiments of melting pot areas in Paris than Athena, Les Olympiades, aka Paris, 13th District, saw Jacques Audiard, who counts by now as a venerable elder, confirming his determination to stay true to the current zeitgeist. Co-written with Celine Sciamma, Audiard this time spurned the melodrama he’s known for in exchange for a particular blend of romanticism and acerbic realism, as he concentrated on the travails of a few sexually and socially active young people of diverse backgrounds and contending with the random glories and cruelties supplied by the big city in an age of instant online connection and equally quick hostility and harassment. The black-and-white photography applied a gloss of nostalgic elegance to the intersecting tales of people who didn’t always act that well or smartly, and who sometimes weren’t all that particularly interesting. Audiard nonetheless accepted the challenge of finding beauty and meaning precisely in portraying such disordered people and the way they find even the most temporary safe harbours in a rough modern world. Noemie Merlant stole the film as a mature-age student who experiences and dishes out some of that roughness.

Palme d’Or-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, made a sojourn to South Korea to make Broker. Kore-eda’s story revolved around the Korean phenomenon of “baby boxes,” a modern improvement on the old habit of leaving orphans on the church steps, but with the twist that two men (Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won) have a business purloining the odd foundling and selling them to adopting couples. When the young prostitute mother (Lee Ji-eun) of one of the babies comes back to check on what’s happened to it, she rumbles the pair and insists on accompanying them to vet potential parents. Along the way they fuse into an odd family unit, soon augmented when they’re joined by an impudent orphan boy, whilst they’re chased by two cops and gangland heavies. In a fashion familiar for Kore-eda, Broker tackled serious things with a light touch close to a rather old-fashioned kind of sentimental comedy, although a pervasive sense of melancholy and humanist heartache overlay it all as all the characters knew the axe would soon drop. Kore-eda’s flashes of poetry and sheer strength of feeling, aided by Song’s established ability to seem charming and pathetic at once and by Lee’s luminous beauty, made it a fine but not transcending experience, and the clumsy pile-up of plot was mostly adornment for a movie that took a long time to reach an end that tried a bit hard to satisfy irreconcilable desires.

Swedish director Ruben Östlund meanwhile captured his second Palme d’Or at 2022’s Cannes Festival with Triangle of Sadness, a black would-be comedy mocking the silliness of fashion and influencer culture and the grossness of the very rich, and an indulgence of the eternal fantasy of role reversal in a crisis. Östlund’s focal point was a young couple, both models worrying about their careers, taking a freebie voyage on a luxury yacht packed with ponderous plutocrats, only to find themselves shipwrecked and at the mercy of the only person who knows how to catch food, being the yacht’s toilet maid. It seems plain that in anointing this film the Cannes jury were hoping for another Parasite-like zeitgeist lightning rod, and Östlund’s storyline did have Swiftian potential. Potential it remained, as Triangle of Sadness proved one of the year’s most galling pictures. After a couple of striking early scenes, Östlund refused to do much with his ideas, settling for programmatic pokes at his various targets and clichéd oppositions. His gags were laced with a depressing brand of cynicism, particularly in a mid-film set-piece that saw characters get violently ill in rough seas, a spectacle of humiliation and gross-out glee that really only pointed to Östlund’s crass notions of class consciousness. Like Glass Onion, Östlund conspired to draw his presumed audience into a satire of a world he only has the most superficial and populist-posturing grasp on, and whilst he sometimes balanced it all with hints of sympathy for his various avatars, it wasn’t nearly enough. More aggravatingly, it wasn’t even particularly good on a pure filmmaking level, full of longeurs and fumbled staging, and stretched just about every gag and idea well beyond breaking point.

Rom-com veteran Ol Parker offered the parental date movie equivalent of Top Gun: Maverick as he paired George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Ticket to Paradise, a pleasant piece of counterprogramming that cast the two stars as a formerly married couple thrust into close proximity again when their daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) intends to marry a Balinese seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier). They plot to bust up a relationship they assume won’t last, only to find their own long-banked fires starting to heat up again. The film offered a basic proposition as a variation on classical screwball stuff heavily indebted to stuff like Private Lives and The Philadelphia Story, including Lucas Bravo as a dopey French lover in the Ralph Bellamy zone and Billie Lourd in the Ruth Hussey part, with a first half dominated by bitchy mutual put-downs and a second by lots of touch-feely exchanges in beautifully photographed Balinese locations. In some ways Ticket to Paradise was the haute bourgeois companion piece and antiverse to Triangle of Sadness, with a similar theme of collapsing barriers and shifting power played out in an island locale, played out in a completely different key. The script was replete with jokes older than Moses, and made a point of not offering any surprises, settling for letting its stars indulge their chemistry, particularly in a marvellously frantic game of beer pong that becomes an islet of regained adolescence for the characters. I Know Where I’m Going it certainly wasn’t, but then no-one was expecting it to be.

Oran Zegman’s Honor Society was a nominal high school comedy that set out with the honourable purpose of giving Angourie Rice a star vehicle, following in the honourable tradition of everyone from Molly Ringwald to Emma Stone. Rice played Honor Rose, a bright young teen from a working class family who, desperate to escape her grim home town and desperate to be the one anointed by a sleazy teacher for a shot at Harvard he swears he can wrangle for his best and brightest, tries to take out all her potential rivals for the shot by distracting them, particularly the nerdy Michael (Gaten Matarazzo), only to fall for him. Honor Society resembled an array of pages torn out of other, successful teen flicks and pasted together with a fresh gloss of cringe comedy and salving PC canards. Honor Society wanted to be funny and heartwarming and meaningful, but was instead cumulatively rather depressing. At first the film presented Honor as a Tracy Flick type mated with a sort of junior Richard III as she delighted in explaining her methods and expressing her general contempt for her surrounds to the audience in perpetual fourth-wall break. Eventually however Zegman contrived to have her emerge a selfless impresario making everyone else’s lives better whilst choosing not to improve her own, whilst ultimately vilifying another character ultimately revealed to be doing the same thing as her but better, which was interesting morality, to say the least. For an infinitely more honest and affecting teenager-at-school movie, one had to look to James Gray’s Armageddon Time.

Nicholas Stoller’s Bros, written in collaboration between the director and star Billy Eichner, was released with some fanfare as a gay romantic comedy for a broad audience, only to prove that the broad audience wants virtue signalling in superhero movies, not actual gay movies. Bros depicted a pair of verging-on-forty, romantically disillusioned men, one, a loud-but-not-so-proud writer and podcaster who’s opening an LGBTQ+ history museum, the other a hunky but bored estate planner, who, after a flash of attraction in their first meeting in a nightclub, drift into an unsettled relationship. Bros was sometimes genuinely funny, mostly for its many meta sideswipes at gay representation in the recent media landscape, at the various quarrelsome but ultimately loyal tribes within the larger queer community, and the wry portrayal of the more hedonistic if impersonal pleasures in modern gay dating. The attempts to say something more meaningful amidst this, about the lingering anxiety of a generation schooled in harder lessons before things got so hunky dory, was interesting but didn’t quite coexist with the rest of the film, which aped standard rom-com arcs just a little too neatly and with exceedingly bland filmmaking, and its mildly spiky likeableness gave it an oddly dated feel despite the Grindr jokes, like it should have been a modest indie hit circa 2002.

Russell Crowe jumped into the saddle as director again as well as star in Poker Face – not, sadly, a screen adaptation of the Lady Gaga song. Crowe’s Poker Face rather was the tale of some middle-aged pals, connected by their passion for poker, reuniting for a private game at the remote, glitzy estate owned by Crowe’s character, Jake Foley, who’s become hugely rich from purveying internet poker software that proved a great surveillance tool, but has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Whilst Foley plays some mean but purgative party games with his variously troubled friends, and his despairing daughter and trophy wife race for a confrontation, all become targets for a slimy criminal from their past who intends robbing Foley’s extensive Australian art collection. Crowe charmingly employed a great array of Aussie stalwarts, and amusingly if awkwardly paid back RZA for The Man With The Iron Fists by casting him in a cameo as the group’s one American member. Crowe approached through the story at hand with some meditations on aging, the problems of legacy, and the value of art as a vehicle for creative immortality. Unfortunately it extended the problems of his debut The Water Diviner – a narrative that tried to encompass too much story and too many divergent tones and genre modes, which Crowe’s fidgety, distractible, borderline amateurish directing had no hope of keeping balanced – and doubled down on them, as Poker Face swung wildly between earnest character drama, crime flick, goofy melodrama, and hangout picture, and whilst not even making the 90 minute mark, outstayed its welcome.

Now weathered and grey-flecked, Adam Sandler nonetheless found a new way to extend his early career fascination with sports as a subject for his movies with Hustle. Sandler played a former basketball player whose career was ruined by a car crash and has been making a living as a talent scout for the 76ers: after being patronised by the team’s new boss and inheritor (Ben Foster) once too often, he quits and pursues his determination to make a star of a towering, preternaturally gifted Spanish labourer he beholds hustling on a backstreet Madrid court one night. The main source of dramatic tension was whether the young player has the mental fortitude to play at the top level, as well Sandler’s hunt for sweet justification. Sandler gave a decent lead performance and the film was modestly enjoyable given the underdog sports movie formula’s hard to entirely screw up, but as the exceedingly generic title promised, Hustle was really just a basic-bitch variant that harvested elements from the likes of Rocky, Moneyball, and The Color of Money, whilst Jeremiah Zagar’s direction was annoying and clumsy, turning great stretches of the film into long montages, and the script thin.

Todd Field returned after a long absence from cinema screens with one of the year’s most acclaimed works. Tár was an epic-length drama about a composer and conductor who falls from the pinnacle of success when a former protégé’s suicide sparks questions about her habits of applying her personal passions to people whose careers she can make or break, a habit she’s busily indulging whilst trying to stage a magnum opus performance of Mahler’s Fifth. Tár was conceived specifically as a star vehicle for Cate Blanchett in the title role, and she responded by filling the role with theatrical bravura, whilst Field dug into the world of the orchestra and the classical music world without dumbing down too much. He also picked at the open wounds of recent celebrity scandals and downfalls and our attitudes towards them. The film started well, with early scenes portraying at length its antiheroine as a great performer before audiences and a brilliant, creative, but also quietly thuggish personality in other settings, and was always interesting, up to and including its odd, sardonic coda. For me though it just didn’t work, with too much evasiveness about Tár’s actions resulting in a film that avoided digging into Tár’s innermost nature and creativity as well as her culpability, and this was in part to avoid making definitive statements about the social and personal phenomena it took on. Field took few stylistic risks, offering an endless string of crisply shot posh environs occasionally violated with calculated eruptions of defiling mess, and the film finally had the quality of one very long tease.

Aftersun, the debut film by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, was an exceedingly modest and allusive drama that proved nonetheless the year’s most critically-acclaimed film, the kind of attention that doesn’t necessarily do such a movie favours. Aftersun unfolded mostly in flashback scenes from the perspective of Sophie, a woman who’s travelled to a holiday resort in Turkey trying to relive and understand a vacation she took there in the 1990s as a child with her divorced, gay father: Sophie toggles between her possibly misleading memories and their camcorder tapes from the trip, trying to fathom the mystery of her dad, who was fighting off some nagging, possibly tragic source of melancholy even as he laboured to provide his daughter with all due life lessons. Wells’ key choice was to keep the causes and results of the father’s moodiness enigmatic, instead fixating on describing an extremely rarefied feeling – the tantalising and troubling process of unpacking treasured formative experiences and finding nested truths, discoveries that seem to have some import the grown Sophie who’s recently become a mother. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio’s performances had a chemistry and vivacity that gave the flow of scenes charming anchors, as Wells drifted with virtually plotless observing through the locale, keen to the peculiar wavelength of troubled people persisting in a festive place, even if what happens in that place wasn’t particularly vivid or exciting. I can’t say that Aftersun wowed me, in part because the vagueness meant that the obliquely approached emotion became at once blatant and well out of reach, quiet pathos turned into unavoidable spectacle, particularly in the climax as the urge to deliver catharsis became more overt but offered only to the characters, not the viewer. So it leaned on a Queen song to make the link for us. The notion of comparing reminiscence with media records of the events, a strange purgatory only available to we children of this epoch, was potentially very powerful, and yet Wells ultimately didn’t do that much with it, violating the design by privileging the viewers to things neither camera nor girl witnessed. Also, in certain aspects the film felt just a little too contrived to tug thirty-something film critics by the heartstrings. Still, it was a very interesting debut by a talent of promise.

A more traditional, if still purposefully circumspect, tale of a child confronted by the strangeness of adults, The Quiet Girl saw Irish director Colm Bairéad engaging with areas of rural Ireland where Irish Gaelic is predominantly spoken and so comprised the vast bulk of dialogue, imbuing a gloss of exoticism to a seemingly familiar world. This gesture of representation also aided the film’s thematic pursuits, depicting relations charged with disparities and wounds that are constantly walked and talked around. The setting was sometime in the 1980s, as the title girl, Caìt (Catherine Clinch), one of many children to a slovenly and resentful father and his perpetually pregnant wife, is packed off to live with the mother’s cousin and her husband for a summer whilst yet another sibling is being born. Caìt finds the aging couple ideal parental substitutes as they bring her out of her shell, particularly as they’ve been in stasis following their own child’s tragic death, and the inevitable return home provokes crisis. Clinch had luminous presence as Caìt, who evolves from a tormented appendage to a burgeoning being. Bairéad applied patiently observant pacing and occasional flecks of the poetic and symbolic to evoking the evolving emotional bonds of the characters and their pastoral world, a tad obviously at points but also with a glistening texture of curious and elegiac beauty. The script was also a little too reticent about the innermost meat of the story: hints the girl was a sexual abuse victim on top of everything else charged the story with an undercurrent of menace, and which made the unresolved finale feel just a little calculated, even as it was also undeniably moving.

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was yet another movie of 2022 preoccupied by both sad nostalgia and the theoretically redemptive power of art. Mendes’ film unfolded in dreary, rundown 1981 Brighton, centring on a movie theatre of somewhat faded glory that, in a story development that provides a partial backdrop, is chosen to host a regional premiere of Chariots of Fire. Empire of Light was mostly interesting as Mendes’ first real return to the kind of small-scale, ordinary-people study as he emerged with on American Beauty, although it also came laden with symbolism in regards to the fallout of the waned, twinned empires of Britain and cinema. Olivia Colman played a lovelorn middle-aged woman with a history of instability working in the cinema: whilst she’s been having a desultory affair with her married twat of a manager (Colin Firth), she has a fling with a handsome, frustrated young Black man (Michael Ward) who starts working alongside her. Disasters ensue, including her having another spiral into self-destructive behaviour and him being badly beaten by some skinheads, but the ultimate pitch was as an affirming a tale of healing and rebirth. No film that offers the sight of Colman giving Firth a hand-job in the first five minutes is entirely without entertainment value, but there was aggravating tension between Empire of Light’s low-key story and its status as a major-league Oscar bait entry, with Mendes’ customary minimalist-monumentalist visual textures labouring to imbue a degree of arty sweep. The basic thesis, about the kinship of different varieties of outsider, was modestly affecting, and Colman’s brilliant performance was the best reason to watch, even if her character, like everyone else in the film, was given an essentially shallow and evasive treatment. The overall tone was one of treacly pathos punctuated by tacked-on paeans to companionship and the cathartic power of a good movie. It was, in short, the sort of thing that would likely have been far better if it had been at the time it was set by Handmade Films.

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, never the most cautious and restrained of auteurist voices, resurged after a few quiet years with Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, an entry in the year’s bumper crop of director memoir and self-portrait films, closer in focus to the middle-aged fretting of The Eternal Daughter than The Fabelmans or Aftersun. The director’s alter ego was Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a former Mexican TV personality and journalist who’s become an international celebrity with his docudrama films, who, at the pinnacle of success, is nonetheless gnawed at by uneasy melancholy in the feeling he’s abandoned his country, in having moved to the US, and his principles in achieving his status, and is haunted by the death of an infant son. By compensation he flits through various fantasies, including conceiving of his son as having simply refused to emerge from his wife’s womb. Iñárritu’s filming was as dynamic as ever with his vivid lensing and roving camerawork, and he approached some weighty concerns, conflating his own uneasy sense of identity with Mexico’s troubled history and relationship with the US, with ineffectual satiric swipes including the purchase of Baja California by Amazon and a Trumpian American president. The problem was that Iñárritu was also just as obvious as ever on an artistic level, rehashing such well-worn territory in his many nods to Fellini’s and a magic-realism-for-beginners style that ripped off his own Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) but with Silverio proving a much less compelling protagonist. After a reasonably involving first half, the film dragged on without any particularly interesting place to go with its self-conscious artifice and half-hearted tilts at self-satire, and devolved to an expression of morbid anxiety. The strongest moments were, in spite of all the showmanship, scenes of intense verbal conflict, between father and son and with a critic character who attacks the script of the film he’s in.

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking had significant differences but also points in common – both were based on highly admired novels and tried to retain as much of those sources’ literary flavour as possible. Baumbach tackled Don DeLillo’s satiric novel, the story of a middle-aged professor of “Hitler Studies,” his pill-popping wife, and their gaggle of kids from many partners, who are all forced to confront their mortality, particularly when a freak accident unleashes a toxic cloud over their town. Where David Cronenberg smartly applied stringent, quasi-expressionist intensity to translating DeLillo to cinema for his Cosmopolis, Baumbach applied a mash-up of stylistic approaches, moving from arch theatricality to the Felliniesque before dipping into weird pastiches of Close Encounters-era Spielberg and the National Lampoon’s Vacation films during the set-piece depiction of panicky escape from the cloud. The actors including Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and Don Cheadle, were required to give studied, motor-mouthed performances rattling off DeLillo’s theses in a clumsily ritualistic way. Baumbach showed his technical chops have become formidable even as his worst streaks finally hatched out, forcing everything to a degree of heightened, insufferably smug stylisation whilst purveying dated satiric targets like academic wankery and the shiny but maddening aisles of consumerism without anything new or convincing to say about them. For what seems the millionth time in his career, Driver worked his ass off to little effect, whilst Cheadle held his own as his Elvis-obsessed and curious-minded colleague.

Women Talking meanwhile echoed Don’t Worry Darling in offering an explicitly feminist drama through the prism of an isolated, male-dominated and coercive commune, albeit in an antithetical style. Polley’s film was adapted from a novel by Miriam Toews, itself based on an infamous event that took place in Brazil, involving the organised drugging and raping of women in a Mennonite colony. Toews’s story focused on the aftermath, as a core set of the women debate whether they’re going to forgive the abusers as their elders have ordered, put up a fight, or leave the community altogether. Polley was unabashed in tapping the theatricality inherent in Toewes’ emphasis on the debate between the women, which echoed the likes of 12 Angry Men, with proceedings mostly confined to a barn as various infuriated and aggrieved personalities clash and weave consensus. This was definitely the stuff of high drama, but Polley’s approach was a serious drag. She filmed the whole movie in sharply desaturated and pretentious but not terribly expressive images, failing to create the right kind of atmosphere for the decidedly non-realistic dialogue, as the characters, who we’re repeatedly reminded are virtually illiterate, spoke like public radio audio essayists. The schematic, zeitgeist-courting approach of Polley’s script, with its carefully delineated perspectives included a shoehorned trans character and an unthreatening male ally, didn’t help, and found overly-neat ways out of what should have been the core dread of the choice for the women, between rigid faith and self-protection. Yet again, the powerhouse cast kept it watchable, particularly Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley as the two angriest women who nonetheless had sharply divergent responses to their lot.

Alice Diop’s Saint Omer was another chamber-piece drama laden with hot-button issues, but treated in a more stringent and subtle fashion. Diop’s subject was the trial of French-Senegalese woman (Guslagie Malanga), well-educated and exceedingly intelligent, who has confessed to the killing of her young child, but insists she doesn’t feel responsible. During the course of the trial, her background, the breakdown of her long, odd coupling with an aging French artist, and her curious conviction she was the victim of some form of sorcery that might be a ruse or just another way of conceiving clinical depression, were all relentlessly parsed. Diop’s austere approach to the courtroom scenes allowed Malanga in particular to fixate the screen with a mix of defiant ambiguity and pathos, as the slowly emerging story to grip through its own awful power and evocation of the deepest personal hells, as well as drip-fed hints of the impact of dislocation on her mind. Diop enveloped this with depictions of another woman of the same background (Kayije Kagame), more successful as a writer and academic, whose initial intention to write a book about the killer based on the theme of Medea breaks down through the trial as she’s challenged by raw experience, forcing her to confront in particular her relationship with her own troubled mother. Whilst the doppelganger theme had potential, Diop didn’t offer nearly enough meat with this portion, and frankly I just felt this device got in the way in an obvious attempt to offer the film’s own insta-critique. Also, the climactic scene of the defence attorney’s emotive, didactic closing speech, felt like a veering into a different kind of movie.

Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel and co-scripted by her, Lelio, and Alice Birch, had points of similarity with several movies of the year, as a study of women locked within insular faiths and communities and forced to justify their choices to patriarchal authority, and also made an even more superfluous stab at bracketing its drama with a meta approach. This time, the setting was a village in 1860s Ireland, where ugly feelings still linger after the potato famine: Florence Pugh, restored to her Lady Macbeth hairdo, was Elizabeth Wright, an English nurse employed along with a nun to keep watch on a 9-year-old girl who has supposedly been living for months without eating, in what many take to be a miracle. Wright, a modern mind with hard losses in her past, becomes attached to the girl, particularly as she begins wasting away for unknown reasons, and eventually elects to fight the various parties who’d prefer a dead saint to a live, ordinary girl. Tom Burke was the initially aggravating journalist who proved to have a deeper connection to the locality and its sensibility who becomes Wright’s lover and ally; Kila Lord Cassidy and her mother Elaine were the miracle girl and her on-screen mother. The wonder of The Wonder was that Lelio, equipped with some formidably good acting and cinematography (by Ari Wegner), trod with nuance through its web of oppositions, tackling some expected themes and issues but not belabouring them, whilst also remembering to tell an interesting story with a striking blend of crude beauty and dread that eventually blossoms into something else. Lelio offered most of the characters just a little more sympathy than expected, even as the fetid truth emerged.

Still in a mode of Irish historicism, Martin McDonagh, back in his homeland after his unfortunate American sojourn for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, nonetheless sustained his fascination with physical and spiritual mortification and flailing, internally riven characters with The Banshees of Inisherin. McDonagh reunited Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, stars of his debut In Bruges, as two long-time friends residing on a small, dull island in 1923, with civil war raging within earshot. Farrell’s Padraic is thrust into a state of perplexed crisis when the other, Gleeson’s Brom, suddenly tells him he doesn’t want to be his friend any longer, as he can’t stand Padraic’s blather anymore and wants to devote the rest of his life to writing music to escape a state of gnawing despair. Brom soon proves willing to go disturbing, masochistic lengths to dissuade further communication. Plainly more at home in the setting than he was in Midwest America, McDonagh wove together deadpan, very Irish humour and a darkening Celtic atmosphere of descending fate. What seemed at first to be a gently goofy character comedy instead shaded into a story with tragically symbolic overtones as the small conflict became more clearly intended to mirror the larger. As with McDonagh’s other films, I couldn’t help but find it all far too affected, with his anachronistic, showily foulmouthed dialogue and unpleasantly morbid edge, whilst the film’s overall impact depended on how much you bought into the aptness of the parable, which I didn’t. In compensation, the cinematography was atmospheric, and the performances were lovely, particularly Kerry Condon was Padraic’s more determined sister and Barry Keoghan was an abused local boy.

Probably no other director could have weathered the pandemic so unruffled and productive as Sang-Soo Hong, who proved he can defy laws of thermodynamics and produce a movie virtually out of thin air with three films released internationally this year. On the surface, Introduction barely seems to be there, depicting the interactions of a handful of characters over a space of time, filmed in flatly monochrome hues and mostly in anonymous-looking exterior shots (including a story digression to what was supposedly Vienna but likely required no flights), and major story events inferred in the gaps between scenes. And yet Hong slowly accumulated a character portrait of the flailing son of a doctor’s secretary, whose romantic failures, cultural dislocation, and general personal confusion bewilders and sometimes provokes his elders, particularly a respected actor he lunches with, who boozily espouses a life-is-for-living philosophy. Hong’s style was reminiscent of his The Day He Arrives but even more bare-boned, with time and location jumps often hard to parse, forcing the audience to share his characters’ dizzied mindsets.

Hong’s second release for the year, In Front Of Your Face, was less cryptic and rarefied in its dramatic approach, and touched on several themes running through his recent films, including imminent mortality and male auteur romantic guilt, but with a glaze of elusive poeticism. This time Hong’s focal figure was a middle-aged retired actress, Sang ok (Lee Hye-young), recently returned to Seoul after years living in the US, visiting her sister and keeping a rendezvous with a movie director who wants to build a movie around her, and also, as he admits after the compulsory Hong long, lubricious lunch, wanting to seduce her. But she has a secret that makes their yearnings at once more plaintive and pathetic. In Front Of Your Face was chiefly a vehicle for Lee’s remarkable performance, dextrous in portraying her character’s attempts to at once achieve philosophical peace and snatch onto life, in particular unpicking the director’s motives with as much patience as she can muster as well as a certain determination to get to the point. The central story crux was more blatant and melodramatic than usual for Hong and the film lacked the sly complications of his greatest work, but his digital camera minimalism now again risked colour textures to better essay the thesis contained in the title. A third Hong work, The Novelist’s Film, was released late in the year, but I didn’t see that one, for better or worse.

Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song had points of kinship with In Front Of Your Face, likewise presenting an evanescent romantic tale about confronting grief and mortality where the male lover finally retreats from prospective passion nominally to honour old loyalties but also perhaps through a failure of nerve in confronting such dizzy new extremes. Dale Dickey was the aging widow who’s camped out a lakeside spot in the Colorado Mountains to await the visit of an also-widowed childhood friend, played by West Studi, for what both plainly hope and fear will prove a tryst. Walker-Silverman set out to knit together aspects of Wong Kar-Wai-esque romantic fable and American indie film’s more familiar, modest humanism. The film remained a little aggravatingly vague about its characters in the long haul, its evocation of pathos just a little too studied, and didn’t quite nail the kind of transcendental experience its final episode chased. Elements of deadpan humour provided by a clan out to disinter their father from under the campsite were a bit too cute, but also genuinely funny. Dickey and Studi, both cast for a change as very ordinary souls confronting neediness and the weight of experience, gave remarkable performances, and despite its contrivances the film was an affecting experience that made the most of very limited scope.

Performances of Note

Ana de Armas, Deep Water
Mehdi Bajestani, Holy Spider
Cate Blanchett, Tár
Rachel Brosnahan, Dead For A Dollar
Jessie Buckley, Women Talking
Nicholas Cage, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Catherine Clinch, A Quiet Girl
Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin
Willem Dafoe, Dead For A Dollar
Dale Dickey, A Love Song
Zar Amir Ebrahami, Holy Spider
Idris Elba, Beast / Three Thousand Years of Longing
Yann Gael, Saloum
Mia Goth, Pearl
Tom Hanks, Elvis
Sean Harris, The Stranger
Chris Hemsworth, Spiderhead
Nina Hoss, Tár
Kate Hudson, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
Nicole Kidman, The Northman
Zoe Kravitz, The Batman / Kimi
Lee Hye-young, In Front Of Your Face
Emma Mackey, Death On The Nile
Guslagie Malanga, Saint Omer
Noemie Merlant, Les OlympiadesParis 13th District
Fatma Mohamed, Flux Gourmet
Annie Mumolo, Confess, Fletch
Keke Palmer, Nope
Elsa Pataky, Interceptor
Aubrey Plaza, Emily The Criminal
Florence Pugh, The Wonder
Margaret Qualley, Stars At Noon
Jonathan Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once
Sami Slimane, Athena
Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds
Scott Speedman, Crimes Of The Future
Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter
Wes Studi, A Love Song
Harry Styles, Don’t Worry Darling
Miles Teller, Spiderhead / Top Gun: Maverick
Anya Taylor-Joy, Amsterdam / The Menu / The Northman
Donald Elise Watkins, Emergency
Leticia Wright, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once
Ensemble, Armageddon Time
Ensemble, The Fabelmans
Ensemble, Hit The Road

Favourite Films of 2022

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

One irony of 2022 was that two of its best films were criminally under-seen, autobiographical tales of youth from great Jewish-American filmmakers, although that’s just about where the similarities between James Gray and Steven Spielberg end. Spielberg, even after a few stumbles, is still Spielberg, and Gray doesn’t seem to be able to get the mass audience into a movie theatre if he paid them. Stepping back from his recent ventures into more epic stories with The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra, Armageddon Time was one of the finest films about being a boy of a certain age ever made, and saw Gray applying his familiar, visually and tonally muted yet graceful and emotionally direct style to a tale laced with flashes of nostalgia but also profound disquiet in casting his mind back to 1980. Banks Repeta played Gray’s stand-in Paul Graff, who feels the weight of his heritage, of his family’s place in the scheme of things and the expectations placed upon him, and the common troubles of school life, all grating against his nascent rebellious and artistic streaks. His attempts to push the envelope sometimes earn the concussive wrath of his parents, particularly his mostly good-natured but sometimes terrifying boiler repairman father (Jeremy Strong), who locks up his fury until need for fuel when he senses his son going astray. Gray explored the mystique of family dinners where the Holocaust is a constant, wearing refrain of rebuke, whilst grandfather Harry (Anthony Hopkins) offers hard-won, open-minded wisdom and a gentle sense of humour and connection to the boy that eludes his father and mother (Anne Hathaway), who are necessarily preoccupied with bigger pictures.

Gray’s portrait of period New York was touched with rueful and knowing presaging of the modern era, noting both the lingering schisms of class and race in a supposedly egalitarian, past-all-that era, and the rising tide of a new, triumphalist reactionary spirit represented most sardonically by Fred Trump (John Diehl), Donald’s father, and Maryann (Jessica Chastain), his sister, both products and shepherds of elitist flocks who see themselves both as assailed bastions and encampments of heroic strivers – ranks Paul is eventually obliged to join. Nor does he exempt himself and his clan from playing a part in it all, his elders for their casual racism and himself for his failure to combat it. Armageddon Time was in part another of Gray’s explorations of burdensome connections between family, particularly father and son, crystallised in the astonishing, intimate climactic scene between them. But the film’s dramatic engine went beyond family, depicting Paul’s friendship with another class clown and aspirational dreamer, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black kid with an unsettled home life, and the two of them become familiar with the motives other people, sometimes with well-meaning purpose and sometimes with vicious pleasure, to crush the individual spark in the young. Johnny’s fate not only counterpoints Paul’s journey and also, as Gray ultimately diagnoses, becomes a victim of it despite Paul’s best intentions, and his eventual choice to truly dedicate himself to art is informed as much by a sense of accountability as for creative fancy.

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

Dead For A Dollar saw Walter Hill returning to the Western genre with obliviously discursive and boldly revisionist attitude, pursuing only his own satisfaction when it came to reviving the brand of tough genre film he cut his teeth on. Christoph Waltz was Borland, the hard-bitten bounty hunter commissioned to chase after a wealthy woman (Rachel Brosnahan), allegedly kidnapped by a Buffalo Soldier, Elijah (Brandon Scott), and dragged off to Mexico, but he soon finds the pair really ran off together after the woman grew tired of her cruel magnate husband (Hamish Linklater). After catching up with the runaways with the aid of Poe’s fellow soldier Poe (Warren Burke) and bringing them to heel, Borland and Poe soon finds themselves forced to make a choice when it becomes clear the husband intends to kill the lovers and anyone who gets in the way, having made a deal with an imperious local gangster (Benjamin Bratt) to get the job down. Hill’s plot referenced a number of classic Westerns in his own particular manner, with a project that tackled the tricky task of at once honouring essential Western motifs – the cross-country pursuit, the thunderous final shoot-out, the panoply of petty tyrants and local warlords and stoic, heroic gunslingers – and also pulling them apart, shifting moral and historical emphases and having fun with clichés whilst never treating the genre’s essential rituals cynically or cheaply.

Hill’s chief fascination was for flashes of nascent modernity in the historical context, rooting each of his characters in authentic period figures who nonetheless cut against the grain of the world at large, populating a landscape where nations, races, and genders are all in flux. The pacing was defiantly ambling and conversational, perhaps to the point of aggravation for some as Hill patently refused to get to the point. But it was precisely this relaxed quality that made the film so deeply pleasurable as a viewing experience to me, as Hill dropped his characters like dice into a cup, rattled them around for a while to enjoy hearing them strike against each-other, before finally tipping them on the table to see what they roll up. Dead For A Dollar was modern and yet defiantly unfashionable, as Hill also seemed to be trying to avenge some of his brutally edited and discarded ‘90s works. The patience came nonetheless laced with tension constantly ratcheting, and when the action finally arrived it hit hard and wild, with Hill emphasising shock and disbelief gripping the dying, the sheer amazement of mortality a discovery one can only make alone and too late. Brosnahan’s marvellous performance as a hyper-intelligent, self-emancipating woman who’s sick of her own compromises and enunciates her motives with professorial precision, played off Waltz’s unusual restraint and coolness as the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-gun hero who’s tired of other people’s alibis, whilst Willem Dafoe offered colourful support as a rival gunfighter once imprisoned by Borland and eager for a showdown. Hill’s visuals were essayed in pseudo-sepia tones, his starkly fashioned frontier towns and dusty plains only truly enlivened by blotches of red blood.

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

A curt, clever, sinuous melding of film noir motifs and contemporary indie realism, Emily The Criminal also wove deft character portraiture with a stinging portrait of contemporary hard times. Aubrey Plaza, so long typecast as an emblematic millennial, at once turned that unfortunate status to her advantage and subverted it with force in playing Emily, a talented artist and former college student now stuck in a menial delivery job thanks to a criminal conviction, the nature of which is left vague until close to the end. Creatively blocked and increasingly exasperated despite a friend’s efforts to get her a magazine job, Emily finds a new world opening up to her when a helpful gesture and some good luck puts her in contact with a criminal gang of brothers recruiting willing foot soldiers to commit credit card scams. Emily proves not just motivated but tough and fearless, occasionally paying for lapses into naivety and incautiousness but resurging with shows of alarming grit and cunning, like in a terrific scene where she’s held up by a pair of frayed scumbags, only to turn the tables on them with clinical and punitive zeal. After venturing out on her own in committing scams, she drifts into a romance with her mentor in the game, a Middle Eastern immigrant who has upward aspirations, but their affair inadvertently provokes a split with his brothers and a deadly contest for their accumulated fortune.

Emily The Criminal’s story sounded in abstract like the stuff of a romp, a dark comedy of self-realisation through larceny, and there is a little of that in there. But director John Patton Ford instead played things very straight. He kept Emily in focus as both a generational avatar, confronted by a ruthless society and cut off from any of the possible recourses someone of her education and background would normally seek, and as an individual. The title’s signal ultimately proves correct, as Emily finds through the course of the story that she’s made for living outside the law, and the flaws in her character that brought her to such a limbo also provide her with the armament to crawl out of it, so long as she can abandon what’s left of her moral scruples and loyalties. Emily’s various encounters with bosses in job interviews, including a cameo by Gina Gershon as a self-congratulatory magazine editor who wants an unpaid intern, stung in showing the forces Emily is up against in trying to extricate herself from the shittiness of working class life in modern urban America and the way the system is so often rigged in favour of those who already have it all. By comparison Emily’s adventures in thievery, including ripping off a sports car and emerging with a bloodied nose and demand for payment, are more physically dangerous but engaging of every inch of mind and body, and Plaza was particularly great in portraying Emily’s renascent confidence and sense of purpose. The climax laid bare both the necessary choices for Emily to finally escape and the awful price for making the correct one, whilst the coda struck a note of wry humour even in its unsentimental diagnosis.

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

Many films this year, in a movement evidently born of weeks spent brooding in pandemic lockdown, were preoccupied by the uneasy relationship of memory, identity, family, and creativity. Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter took an unusual approach to such concerns, presenting a movie that worked as both a standalone work and as an addendum to her The Souvenir diptych, in again taking up the tale of alter ego Julie and her mother Rosalind, with Julie now in fretful middle age and facing up to one of life’s greatest conceivable pivots. This time Hogg cast Tilda Swinton as both women, who have come to spend a week in a virtually empty hotel out in a gloomy, foggy region of countryside. The hotel was one a great house that belonged to Rosalind’s aunt, where she spent time hiding out from the Blitz as a child. Julie wants to make a movie about her mother, but contends with insomnia, gnawing anxiety, writer’s block, and the perhaps literal haunting of the hotel. Swinton’s brilliant improvisatory performances were the focal point of the movie, anchoring it in pernickety realism and observational character study all charged with simmering emotional disquiet, even as Hogg wove around her a glutinous atmosphere that paid homage to the great British Horror movie tradition. The opening was lifted from Night of the Demon; much of what followed sustained a mood of fog-shrouded mystery and with creepy flute scoring on the soundtrack that recalled the likes of the BBC’s Christmas Ghost Story specials and the 1989 version of The Woman In Black, and Hogg nodded repeatedly to Kubrick.

All this mostly proved an elaborate aesthetic miscue on the most obvious level, as the real subject on hand was an entirely psychological form of haunting, and led to a climactic reveal that much of what we’ve seen has been imagined for a desperate and pathetic reason. Whilst this could easily have become just another annoying attempt to cloak an arty drama in facetiously borrowed genre movie trappings for hype, Hogg made it work. In part because of the power of the feeling she sought to portray, one that distorts time and reality by pure force of need, and Hogg’s apparent conviction that mere naturalism can’t convey it, and because the aesthetic infrastructure of the ghost story and its symbolic import was an authentic part of her subject matter. Hogg explored the relationship of past to present, noted how ghost stories are how history and memory and its darkest facets conveyed with a sense of place. The haunted hotel extended the interest of Hogg’s debut Exhibition in understanding a building as necessarily a place inhabited but also indifferent to them, with presence and memory sometimes becoming slippery and inseparable things. Another concern was that of modern England’s anxious feeling of losing touch with itself, enacted through Julie’s attempts to understand the past through her mother’s gaze, but contending constantly with the vast gap of attitude and expectation between them.

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

The Fabelmans shouldn’t have been much of a surprise from Steven Spielberg, even if it was breaching new territory for the director in directly tackling his formative years as a subject after decades of splintered and refracted self-portraits. The film’s general dismissal both by the mass audience and by many critics who should know better (including me before I saw it) took it as ill-timed navel-gazing when mainstream cinema urgently needs seismic shocks. But The Fabelmans proved a film of rare and blindsiding vitality that also expressed the director’s ambivalence as well as evergreen sense of wonder for the art form he’s so often seen as virtually personifying. With a thin sheathe of fictional distance via alter ego Sammy Fabelman and a script co-written with Tony Kushner, Spielberg explored his own attraction to making movies, born of an agreeably traumatising early viewing of The Greatest Show On Earth, as a way of expiating as well as stirring emotion. The bulk of the film was dedicated to analysing the impact of his two vividly different and slowly detaching parents on his art and personality – the generous, good-natured, but insular and nerdy paterfamilias Burt (Paul Dano), a technical wiz engaged with birthing the future by building computers that also incidentally make his family well-off and mobile, and his luminous pianist wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the kind of woman who drives herself and her kids out through a tornado-ripped landscape to gain a glimpse of the awesome and destabilising. The artistic urge is rendered as a veritable curse as well as blessing, as Sammy encounters his nutty great-uncle (Judd Hirsch), a former circus performer, who recognises another member of their hapless tribe.

Spielberg dipped into territory that referenced Hitchcock and Antonioni with equivalence as he depicted himself discovering his mother’s affair with stalwart family friend Benny (Seth Rogen) in the background of his family films, editing the footage on one hand to offer private truth and reconciliation to Mitzi whilst also neatly clipping out it all out for general consumption: different cinematic realities coexisting simultaneously. The latter sections contended with teenage Sammy contending with anti-Semitism and bullying, finally baffling and seducing his peers with his unique and powerful capacity to reshape reality. This tug-of-war between life and artistic transformation, crystallising in extraordinary vignettes like the strained David Lynchian smiles detected on the parents’ faces when performing for Sammy’s camera, and a bully jock’s squall of confusion at being transformed into a mythic hero by the same means, confirmed Spielberg’s always known what he’s doing in terms of what he chooses to do and how, his engagement with the American religion of movies also a neutral zone of cultural and personal meeting where everyone has the chance to become everyone else. Nor was the nod to Lynch coincidental, as Spielberg delivered a master stroke in casting his great if antithetical fellow as his singular idol, John Ford, in a final scene depicting rude but consequential mentorship that split the difference between leave-‘em’-laughing punchline and immensely moving statement of gratitude.

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

Peter Strickland manages to go from strength to strength without abandoning the rarefied creative zone he’s created, persisting in making movies that unfold in a retro-chic netherworld with increasing confidence and myriad notes of sly perversity. With Flux Gourmet, he turned his own delight in weaving strange textures around a subject of folly and fascination, as he riffed on the pretensions of the art world but with a characteristic twist that had the quality of something out of a dream: the setting was an academy devoted to showcasing practitioners of “sonic catering.” The story, such as it was, centred on a trio recently given a month-long residency, led by the passionate creative mind and ideologue Elle (Fatma Mohamed), and the tensions that begin pulling their successful team apart. Strickland’s conceits extended to having a character who narrates the film entirely in Greek on the soundtrack – he’s a filmmaker hired to document the residency and who also suffers from chronic gut problems – and casting Gwendoline Christie as the academy’s haughty directress, who makes unwelcome creative suggestions to the trio and seduces their one, young male member. Where his In Fabric embraced overt Horror elements, Flux Gourmet saw Strickland returning to the stylised annex of The Duke of Burgundy in portraying an imagined high-end world of institutionalised weirdness, where everything is touched with a glaze of the unsettling but there’s no definite source of menace.

But this time he did so with a wittier and more complete-feeling blend of setting and story, detailing the academy’s preponderance of oddballs, including the infuriatingly self-satisfied house doctor, who eventually drives the filmmaker so crazy as he investigates his gut problems he tries to strangle him when he won’t get to the point. Meanwhile the academy suffers vandalising attacks by a culinary team who didn’t get the fellowship, and directress and artist constantly clash over seemingly minor details that nonetheless hinge entirely on power. Strickland allowed an overt homage to Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating through as well as more pervasive nods to the likes of Peter Greenaway and Mario Bava through. The most intriguing and original aspect of Flux Gourmet for Strickland’s art was the sharply-observed quality of the satire, which nested within and coexisted with the never-never atmosphere, touched with an edge of gleeful caricature, particularly through Elle, who postures as a gutsy feminist from a disadvantaged background but is actually extremely rich and oppresses her collaborators, but also resists all attempts by the institution to dictate their creativity in vehement defence of artistic prerogative. The very last scene brought the tale to an ingenious close as the healing power of both art and good food were applied to one very grateful subject.

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

A near-sublime road movie, Hit The Road saw Panah Panahi, son of Jafar and former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami, making his own debut in a film that travels literally and figuratively across the state of contemporary Iran. The situation was at once simplicity itself but touched with rare mystery and feeling: a family of four – father, mother, grown-up son and pre-adolescent younger son – are travelling across the desert in a borrowed SUV, their journey punctuated by the usual in-jokes and squabbles of a tight-knit clan, but with strange tension apparent in all but the rambunctious younger son, who gets chastised for bringing along his cell phone, which the mother takes pains to bury by the roadside. Eventually it becomes clear that the family have sold their possessions to finance the older son as he flees across the border to seek out better fortunes in Europe. This means engaging with the opaque and sometimes menacing network that helps people making such flights, as well as confronting the pains of their imminent separation which they’re trying to keep hidden from the boy. The family movie across a parched and desolate landscape where the modern world they inextricably belong to sits cheek-by-jowl with primal nature and decaying remnants of classical lifestyles, whilst the film itself shifts with ease from comedy to drama and back again, with flashes of fantasy and musical tossed in.

Whilst Panahi arguably went a little far in also sticking the family with a cute, sick dog whose eventual expiring gives the movie a last sting of low-key tragedy, Hit The Road was largely remarkable in offering one of the best portraits of family in many a year, defined by the disparity between affectations of easy-going normality for the sake of the young son, and the awareness of looming sundering and the plain fact they’re taking a risk that could bring down awful legal consequences if they’re caught. The wise and witty mother who’s fond of singalongs nonetheless finds herself plunged into grief by parting, whilst the father suggests a portrait of a generation of Iranians as he shuffles along on a plastered leg, complains about a rotting tooth, and indulges his kids with a blend of sly humour and distracted melancholy. The younger lad embodies all the heedless energy and bounty of youthful promise, and the elder has wilted under the weight of expectation. Great scenes included an encounter with a gabby bike rider who crashes against their vehicle and gets a lift, a bewildering exchange with a fleece seller and a masked motorcyclist that mark thei entrance into some kind of Kafkaesque netherworld, and what proves to be the ultimate farewell played out in a long shot that evoked Kiarostami and David Lean in its coolly removed portrait of human pathos amidst the boding grandiosity of nature. The older son’s love of 2001: A Space Odyssey rhymes with the younger boy’s dreams of Batman and Superman, all echoing in a spacefaring fantasy as father and son drift away through the stars in a moment of mental release, claiming the right and necessity of dreaming as one things that always transcends the pains of any given place and moment.

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

In a strong year for African cinema, Mali’s former tourism and culture minister Mahamat-Saleh Haroun went rogue and offered a beautifully observed and surprisingly gripping drama that must certainly have been a provocative gesture at home but also had accidentally acute relevance outside the country. Haroun’s film depicted a woman who’s spent years eking out a living and maintaining a toehold in society after being shunned by her family for having a child out of wedlock when she was only a teenager, forcing her to make a living incessantly making and selling wire stoves. Now, with her daughter almost grown up, she’s playing the meek and pious breadwinner, seeking her pompous imam’s approval and receiving a marriage proposal from a prosperous but grizzled neighbour. When she learns her daughter is now pregnant, she steadily begins to abandon her pretences and gets down to trying to fund an abortion, which is illegal in the country. This begins a sometimes comic, often excruciating odyssey as they rustle up funds and seek someone willing to perform the operation. But the identity of the father is a secret that will, when it finally comes out, provoke murderous wrath.

Lingui was reminiscent of the kind of slice-of-life social drama that Ken Loach made in his 1990s heyday, although Haroun’s direction avoided that brand of squirrelly, hand-held realism and instead wielded a lush eye for colour and a free-flowing feel for the streets of N’Djamena. This was matched to a sly sense of character, evinced in early scenes as the daughter wandered about in sullen unease, dashing against friends and family like a billiard ball in her quietly distraught and incommunicative state, and when the mother began indulging old vices and shows of her old, cheeky character as she comes to understand the hypocrisy of the world about her and the pointlessness of playing by its rules. Haroun also allowed a stream of gentle humour to flow through all, particularly in portraying women’s witty capacity for getting around arbitrary authority being imposed on their bodies, including the commissioning of a fake female circumcision. This contrasted the pervasive sense of tension and anxiety eating up the two women as they’re driven to desperate ends to get the necessary cash and constant twists of luck help and foil them alternately, like seeing their would-be saviours suddenly netted by a police raid. But the film was really made by its ending, which shifted gear towards a dark, noir-like confrontation and saw the seemingly familiar and friendly streets of the mother and daughter’s neighbourhood became a labyrinthine trap.

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

Not many filmmakers could make a story as ruthlessly cynical as Lost Illusions into a compulsively watchable and ebulliently cinematic experience, but Xavier Giannoli did just with this adaptation of one of Honore de Balzac’s most regarded novels. Lost Illusions followed the wayward path of Lucien, a talented but penniless young poet, illegitimate son to an aristocrat, who becomes the lover of a Countess who worships his talent, and she introduces the young man to Parisian society. After proving a flop in exalted circles, Lucien vengefully turns his hand to becoming a successful journalist in the rough-and-tumble world of newspaper publishing, where everyone’s on the make and everything hinges on confluences of money and power. Whilst the erstwhile hero seems to be on the rise for good as he tries to get his aristocratic parentage recognised, he doesn’t suspect dark forces are conspiring to use him and then break him. Giannoli diverted from Balzac in some crucial ways, as he retained sympathy for his main character, who very often acts like a jerk and participates in a corrupt and corrupting world with increasing enthusiasm, but also has the stuff of an authentic artist in him.

Importantly, however, Giannoli stayed very true to capturing Balzac’s exacting, analytical portraiture of the way his world worked in an era of madcap energy and pervasive expedience. With forceful, Scorsese-like editing and camera gymnastics, Giannoli deftly laid bare, say, the machinations of the gutter press in an era without regulation of what gets written or why, with everything, especially creative art, at the mercy of who can pay the most for a good review or a scathing putdown, or the laborious process of trying to gain a foothold in the aristocracy, where good manners conceal shark’s teeth. Whilst the recreation of the period fervour and flavour were exacting, the story’s relevance in portraying anarchic media and its eager purveyors and the brute power of a public downfall fizzed away. Giannoli cleverly cast actor-director Xavier Beauvois as the hero’s frenemy, a practiced dandy and wit who nonetheless feels real kinship with him in their authentic passion for creation. The last act was suitably desolating as Lucien has everything stripped from him, including his consumptive lover, but where for Balzac it was chiefly an illustrative and cautionary example, for Giannoli it became, ultimately, a crucial episode in the eternal battle for an artist’s soul, and the worth of their creation, however it’s received in the moment, is the only thing that can outlast the empty furore of such a world.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

A splendidly odd, and oddly splendid, contraption from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director Amirpour, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon had a quality that resembled what a modern Val Lewton film might look like. The actual plot came across more like a melange of The X-Files, a superhero origin story, and some 1940s noir film. A teenage Asian immigrant, the titular Mona Lisa (Jun Jong Seo), is first glimpsed lingering in a padded cell in a mental hospital, where she’s pettily tormented by a staff member. The girl, who has mysterious telekinetic powers and is seemingly locked in a catatonic state as well as a strait-jacket, suddenly unleashes her abilities, forcing the bully to wound herself and help her out of her bonds. The girl flees the hospital, finally finishing up adrift amongst the flotsam of contemporary New Orleans, in a nocturnal odyssey punctuated by islets of strange humanity amidst the nightlife. There she becomes friends with vulgar, self-centred pole dancer Bonnie (Kate Hudson) and her young son (Evan Whitten), and is pursued by a determined cop (Craig Robinson) even after he’s had one painful encounter with the girl and her abilities. The oddball relationship of mystery girl, mother, and son became the fulcrum of proceedings as Bonnie uses Mona Lisa and her powers to enrich herself with robbery, whilst the girl and boy form a bond and plan flight whilst her cop nemesis scrambles around town, and hard choices have to be made if anyone is to have a hope of escape.

By contrast with the monochrome style of her debut, Amirpour this time chased a nocturnal mood again but this time with lush colour applied to a quasi-neorealist approach to shooting, roaming the byways of the Big Easy and imbibing its unique mixture of seediness and communality, almost surrendering entirely to charting the vibe of the place . Amirpour often filmed in wide-lensed shots to give everything a looming, fluorescent immediacy befitting the viewpoint of her heroine as she explores this strange new world. As she does so, she evolves from a blankly alien symbol of all that’s strange and threatening about the outsider to a functioning human being who finds people by and large far more eager to help her than torment her, contrasted with Bonnie, a woman who exploits her new friend and often acts in a greedy and obnoxious way, but is also gifted a hard shell by trying to survive and has underneath it all a streak of decency, not entirely revealed until she pays an ugly price for her actions. The film was dotted with some marvellous character turns from names like Hudson, who along with her turn in Glass Onion had an interesting renaissance, and Ed Skrein as a seemingly sleazy but ultimately obliging and protective DJ who plays fairy godmother to the young runaways.

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

A blend of Tarantino-esque neo-Western, John Carpenter-type supernatural siege drama and a bunch of other trash movie touchstones, the Senegalese action-horror blend Saloum nonetheless forged something fresh and vigorous in blending those familiar influences with concepts and meditations more specific to its native land. Saloum’s heroes were Bangui’s Hyenas, three swashbuckling mercenaries from humble origins who have become folk heroes for their balls-to-the-wall daring and attitude in conflicts across Africa. But they face a truly disturbing reckoning after rescuing a Mexican cartel member from the midst of a civil war, when they’re forced to land their plane near the titular river. Soon they shuffle into a co-op camping ground run by an affable manager where everything seems idyllic, but signs of something truly strange seethe under the surface as well as multiple factions all with their own objectives. One of the mercenaries has revenge in mind, a path that will lead to the delicate balance of place, history, and guardian spirits all toppling into chaos.

Saloum eventually confronted the troubled history of Senegal and neighbouring lands, including the lingering legacy of war and the trauma of child soldiers, as well as more personal crimes, on the way to a surprisingly tragic and sharply moral ending, without turning into a message movie or surrendering its hard-charging genre film cred. The script was intelligent in weaving symbolic elements in with the immediate plot business, as well as being littered with intriguing details, like the Hyenas being able to converse with a deaf girl with sign language learnt when working as miners: the girl herself wants to join the mercenary ranks proves to have the ideal trait to fend off evil spirits who seduce with song. Director Jean Luc Herbulot expertly shifted between tones, both delighting in the infrastructure of an old-fashioned monster-battling shoot ‘em up and swiftly investing his heroes with a titanic aura that gets tested to utmost in confronting otherworldly enemies, whilst also casting a dubious eye on his own emblems of cool. Such as that invested in a gleaming Remington revolver, a hero’s Excalibur-like weapon that’s also a captured trophy from an evil man, and also a dark totem that rots the soul of whoever holds it by constantly whispering promises of empowerment through bloodshed, like Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer. Herbulot’s crisp widescreen visuals and steely colour palette were consistently arresting in shifting between igneous blocking and flashes of folkloric vision, and he actually managed to do something fresh when staging the climactic battle with shapeless demons with oblique and mobile camerawork. Yann Gael, as the most commanding and troubled Hyena, had major movie star presence.

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

The first of two films Claire Denis released in 2022, Stars At Noon was a sharp return to her finest form after the awkward High Life. Tackling a novel by Denis Johnson set amidst the 1980s war in El Salvador, Denis didn’t have the budget to make her film in period, and so updated it to the pandemic era, which she then able to draw on to capture a pervasive mood of fetid, paranoid, enigmatic anxiety and dislocation. The Graham Greene-esque story revolved around a shambolic former journalist and broken-down idealist (Margaret Qualley), who’s trapped in El Salvador after losing all her sources of employment for writing too many torrid exposes and pissing off too many bosses, and has been reduced to occasional prostitution and other acts of opportunism to make ends meet. She encounters a suave Englishman (Joe Alwyn), who she first zeroes in on as a mark, but the two find they have an arc of authentic chemistry, and drift into a fractious relationship that intensifies when he turns out to be engaged in shady dealings and is just as in over his head as his new lover. Eventually they’re forced to try and flee the country as he’s hounded by shadowy foes and officialdom.

Denis provoked Qualley into giving the year’s most essential performance as the initially insufferable antiheroine, an ideal Denis protagonist at once violating and enshrining every cliché about strong female characters in movies. Her skittish, self-destructive behaviour, incessantly confrontational bent, and frenetic randiness task everyone she knows and even perplex herself, but she also retains a mind that starts snapping into focus as she confronts existential desperation, able to feel her way through the labyrinth of power by pure honed instinct, the one gift she’s gained from her degrading life. Denis, as is her wont, trailed her characters with languorously observational and atmospheric camerawork, alive to fleeting details whilst remaining purposefully opaque about the backdrop of repression, politicking, and espionage her two protagonists contend with, including a cameo from Bennie Safdie as a smarmy CIA agent who talks entirely in pleasantly discursive phrasing, Mephistopheles in a suit. The proper emphasis was on the doomed romance at its core, Denis fascinated by two such characters locked into their folie-a-deux and the rarefied transactions of psychic power between the couple in their long dance to a foregone end, each moving along a continuum between burning passion, pathetic neediness, and stoic resignation, with an ending that gained not spectacular tragedy but the wearying necessity of betrayal.

Runners-Up:

Avatar: The Way of Water (James Cameron)
The Batman (Matt Reeves)
Benediction (Terence Davies)
Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)
In Front Of Your Face (Sang-Soo Hong)
Introduction (Sang-Soo Hong)
Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)
The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad)
Pearl (Ti West)
The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)

Interesting and/or Underrated

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)
All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)
Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre)
Athena (Romain Gavras)
Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh)
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi)
Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde)
Emergency (Carey Williams)
The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao)
Interceptor (Matthew Reilly)
The Lair (Neil Marshall)
Mad God (Phil Tippett)
Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams)
Les Olympiades – Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard)
Saint Omer (Alice Diop)
Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
The Northman (Robert Eggers)
The Seed (Sam Walker)
Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican)
Watcher (Chloe Okuno)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Amsterdam (David O. Russell)
The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)
Barbarian (Zach Cregger)
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson)
Crimes Of The Future (David Cronenberg)
The Cursed (Sean Ellis)
Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)
Glass Onion (Rian Johnson)
Nope (Jordan Peele)
Prey (Dan Trachtenberg)
Rise Roar Revolt (S.S. Rajamouli)
Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett)
Tár (Todd Field)
The Stranger (Thomas M. Wright)
Thor: Love & Thunder (Taika Waititi)
Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)
Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)
The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)
Women Talking (Sarah Polley)
X (Ti West)
You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

Crap

The 355 (Simon Kinberg)
Bones And All (Luca Guadagnino)
The Gray Man (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
Honor Society (Oran Zegman)
Morbius (Daniel Espinosa)
Poker Face (Russell Crowe)
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)
White Noise (Noah Baumbach)
Uncharted (Ruben Fleischer)

Unseen:

∙ 6 Festivals ∙ After Yang ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ All Quiet on the Western Front ∙ Apollo 10½  ∙ Autobiography ∙ Babylon ∙ Belle ∙ Blonde ∙ Boiling Point ∙ Both Sides Of The Blade ∙ Bowling Saturne ∙ Breaking ∙ Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer ∙ Burning Days ∙ The Cathedral ∙ Catherine Called Birdy ∙ Compartment No. 6 ∙ Corsage ∙ Devotion ∙ Decision To Leave ∙ Dinner in America ∙ Down With the King ∙ Earwig ∙ The Electrical Life of Louis Wain ∙ Emancipation ∙ EO ∙ Father Stu ∙ Everything Went Fine ∙ Funny Pages ∙ Good Luck to You, Leo Grande ∙ Great Freedom ∙ Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio ∙ Happening ∙ Il Buco ∙ Living ∙ Marcel the Shell With Shoes On ∙ Master ∙ Murina ∙ No Bears ∙ Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris ∙ My Policeman ∙ A New Old Play ∙ Nobody’s Hero ∙ The Novelist’s Film ∙ One Fine Morning ∙ Pacification ∙ Peter von Kant ∙ Playground ∙ Pleasure ∙ Return To Seoul ∙ Sick of Myself ∙ Slash/Back ∙ Smoking Causes Coughing ∙ Speak No Evil ∙ Stonewalling ∙ Turning Red ∙ Unrest ∙ Vengeance ∙ Weird: The Al Yankovic Story ∙ We’re All Going to the World’s Fair ∙ Wendell and Wild ∙ The Whale ∙ Will-O’-The-Wisp ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2022

7th Cavalry (Joseph H. Lewis)
Artists and Models / The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin)
The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Huston)
Battle of the Coral Sea (Paul Wendkos)
Beach Red (Cornel Wilde)
The Bermuda Depths (Tsugonobu Tom Katino)
Les Biches / La Femme Infidèle / Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)
Black Widow (Bob Rafelson)
Cry of the City (Robert Siodmak)
Deadly Run (Claude Miller)
Fantastic Planet (René Laloux)
Funny Face (Stanley Donen)
I Live In Fear (Akira Kurosawa)
In Harm’s Way (Otto Preminger)
Kirikou and the Sorceress (Michel Ocelot)
The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott)
L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel)
The Mangler (Tobe Hooper)
Man Made Monster (George Waggner)
The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin)
October: Ten Days That Shook The World (Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei Eisenstein)
Prescription Murder (Richard Irving)
The Prince and the Showgirl (Laurence Olivier)
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (Guy Hamilton)
The Rite (Ingmar Bergman)
Run For The Sun (Roy Boulting)
Satan’s Triangle (Sutton Roley)
The Sin of Nora Moran (Phil Goldstone)
They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (Gordon Douglas)
What’s Up, Doc? / Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich)

In Memoriam

∙ Matthew ‘Meat Loaf’ Aday ∙ Kirstie Alley ∙ Angelo Badalamenti ∙ Jules Bass ∙ Jean-Jacques Beineix ∙ James Bidgood ∙ Peter Bogdanovich ∙ Michel Bouquet ∙ Peter Bowles ∙ James Caan ∙ Irene Cara ∙ Jean-Claude Carrière ∙ Jack Charles ∙ Robbie Coltrane ∙ Kevin Conroy ∙ Bernard Cribbins ∙ Myléne Demongeot ∙ Ruggero Deodato ∙ Louise Fletcher ∙ Clarence Gilyard Jr ∙ Daniela Giordano ∙ Jean-Luc Godard ∙ Clu Gulager ∙ Philip Baker Hall ∙ Anne Heche ∙ Mike Hodges ∙ Bo Hopkins ∙ Marsha Hunt ∙ Artis ‘Coolio’ Ivey Jr ∙ Just Jaeckin ∙ L.Q. Jones ∙ Hardy Kruger ∙ Günter Lamprecht ∙ Angela Lansbury ∙ Ray Liotta ∙ Diane McBain ∙ Stuart Margolin ∙ Yvette Mimieux ∙ Roger E. Mosley ∙ Edson Arantes ‘Pelé’ do Nascimento ∙ Francesca ‘Kitten’ Natividad ∙ Olivia Newton-John ∙ Nichelle Nichols ∙ James Olson ∙ Irene Papas ∙ Evangelos ‘Vangelis’ Papathanassiou ∙ Nehemiah Persoff ∙ Wolfgang Petersen ∙ Leslie Phillips ∙ Sidney Poitier ∙ Andrew Prine ∙ Albert Pyun ∙ Bob Rafelson ∙ Ivan Reitman ∙ Henry Silva ∙ Paul Sorvino ∙ Larry Storch ∙ Venetia Stevenson ∙ Austin Stoker ∙ Jean-Marie Straub ∙ Alain Tanner ∙ Jean-Louis Trintignant ∙ Douglas Trumbull ∙ Gaspard Ulliel ∙ Monica Vitti ∙ ‘Jimmy’ Wang Yu ∙ Fred Ward ∙ David Warner ∙ Dennis Waterman ∙ Yoshishige ‘Kiju’ Yoshida ∙

Review Index

The 355 (Simon Kinberg)

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)

All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)

Ambulance (Michael Bay)

Amsterdam (David O. Russell)

Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre)

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

Athena (Romain Gavras)

Avatar: The Way Of Water (James Cameron)

The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)

Barbarian (Zach Cregger)

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

The Batman (Matt Reeves)

Beast (Baltasar Kormakur)

Benediction (Terence Davies)

Black Adam (Jaume Collet-Serra)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler)

The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson)

Bones And All (Luca Guadagnino)

Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Bros (Nicholas Stoller)

Bullet Train (David Leitch)

Confess, Fletch (Greg Mottola)

Crimes Of The Future (David Cronenberg)

The Cursed (Sean Ellis)

Day Shift (J.J. Perry)

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh)

Deep Water (Adrian Lyne)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi)

Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde)

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)

Emergency (Carey Williams)

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

Empire Of Light (Sam Mendes)

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert)

Fall (Scott Mann)

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

Glass Onion (Rian Johnson)

The Gray Man (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao)

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)

Honor Society (Oran Zegman)

Hustle (Jeremiah Zagar)

In Front Of Your Face (Sang-Soo Hong)

Interceptor (Matthew Reilly)

Introduction (Sang-Soo Hong)

The Invitation (Jessica M. Thompson)

Jurassic World: Dominion (Colin Trevorrow)

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

The Lair (Neil Marshall)

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

The Lost City (Aaron Nee, Adam Nee)

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman)

Mad God (Phil Tippett)

The Menu (Mark Mylod)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

Moonfall (Roland Emmerich)

Morbius (Daniel Espinosa)

Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow)

Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams)

Nope (Jordan Peele)

The Northman (Robert Eggers)

The Outfit (Graham Moore)

Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard)

Pearl (Ti West)

Poker Face (Russell Crowe)

Prey (Dan Trachtenberg)

The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad)

RRR (S.S. Rajamouli)

Saint Omer (Alice Diop)

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett)

See How They Run (Tom George)

The Seed (Sam Walker)

She Said (Maria Schrader)

Smile (Parker Finn)

Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)

Spiderhead (Joseph Kosinski)

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

The Stranger (Thomas M. Wright)

Tár (Todd Field)

Ted K (Tony Stone)

Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)

Thor: Love & Thunder (Taika Waititi)

Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)

Ticket To Paradise (Ol Parker)

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican)

Uncharted (Ruben Fleischer)

Watcher (Chloe Okuno)

Werewolf By Night (Michael Giacchino)

White Noise (Noah Baumbach)

The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Women Talking (Sarah Polley)

The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)

X (Ti West)

You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Scifi

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

.

Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

So, at long last, 13 years after Avatar hit movie screens and became in unadjusted terms the biggest movie of all time, James Cameron returns with a big, teetering second helping of adventure on Pandora. The interval was mostly forced by Cameron’s ceaseless push for technical advancement to outpace the ever-quickening assimilation of such achievement by the modern viewer. Meanwhile the intervening years have been made to feel even longer by all the cultural commentators repeatedly stating that Avatar supposedly left no cultural footprint, in contrast to other pop cultural colossi like Gone With The Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977), E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), or even Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), which did indeed often generate quotes and directorial visions that sank deep into the popular consciousness. Certainly no-one’s been getting around saying “I see you” since 2009, but on the other hand the images of Avatar remain instantly recognisable. I made no bones about enjoying the film enormously back then and today still feel one of its best qualities is also its most salient feature of general criticism – Cameron applied his showmanship to a familiar space opera storyline and quasi-mythic template, engaging with fanciful scientific and mystical concepts but weaving it all around a story that paid many nods to pulp adventure and scientifiction writing like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and Barsoom tales, whilst blending in overtones of revisionist Westerns like A Man Called Horse (1972) and Dances With Wolves (1990). There was, then, something wilfully classical about Avatar, coexisting with the cutting-edge showmanship and loopy blend of hi-tech dreaming and new-age mysticism, and that choice allowed Cameron to easily sell to the audience a lot of images and ideas that were actually extremely bizarre.

In that long interval much has changed: Cameron’s regular collaborator, the composer James Horner, died in a plane crash in 2015, and Twentieth Century Fox, the once-mighty film studio that backed Avatar, has now been redesignated by its new Disney overlords as merely Twentieth Century Film, as if to coldly declare anything it releases to be yesterday’s news. Some enthusiasm for an Avatar sequel probably has bled off in that time. But that’s arguably counterbalanced by a building mystique, fuelled by the prospect that whatever Cameron was cooking up, it wouldn’t just be any old buck-chasing rehash. It’s also left Cameron in an awkward position, appealing to a movie audience the greater bulk of which would have been kids when they first watched Avatar, or perhaps never saw it or barely remember it, and a pulse of anxiety has been amplified by the peculiar and worrying moment of cinema-going we’re currently in. It’s hard not to root for Cameron and Avatar: The Way of Water, in part because whilst it is a sequel, it is at least Cameron’s sequel, based in his own material and tackled with all the outsized enthusiasm the man brings to his blockbusters, in an age where audiences have been depressingly eager to surrender any hint of artistic interest in cinema product so long as franchising is served up with consistent baseline competence. A sequel to Avatar must partly serve the purpose of reiterating the basic proposition and recapturing some of its more peculiar facets, particularly the way the original film offered a type of extended fantasy travelogue in its midsection. Cameron knows his way around sequels, with his script for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and his own Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). With each of those films, Cameron essentially reused the skeleton of the original film’s plot and essential elements, whilst riffing on them in other ways, greatly amplifying their scope and swapping in clever new variations on basic ideas, like the alien queen and the liquid metal T-1000.

So it didn’t surprise me that much when The Way of Water essentially does the same thing. Cameron kicks off the film with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) bringing us up to speed on what’s transpired since he was fully assimilated into the Na’vi and kicked the wicked human capitalist exploiters off Pandora. This opening narration immediately inspires a little narrative whiplash, particularly as Jake mentions that not only have he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) had three children of their own – Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) – but they’ve also become adoptive parents to two more. One is Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), born out of Dr Grace Augustine’s mindless Na’vi avatar in a perplexing event, and a young human boy nicknamed Spider (Jack Champion), who was left behind with Augustine’s scientific team by the fleeing humans because he was too young for cryogenic stasis. Spider splits his time between the Na’vi fort and the laboratory still run by Na’vi-allied human scientists including Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore) and Max Patel (Dileep Rao). The question of who fathered Kiri and Spider is raised, although only that of Spider is answered in the course of the film: turns out he’s the son of the late Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a fact that sits uneasily in the back of the young man’s mind but doesn’t seem too important.

But then a fleet of human spaceships arrive again on Pandora, this time with the object of transforming the planet into a human colony to escape a dying Earth. With them comes a gang of “recombinants,” Na’vi bodies created from the genetic material of Quaritch and the other soldiers in his old squad and reunited with their saved memories and personalities, specifically to exploit their ingrained knowledge of fighting on Pandora. The reborn Quaritch, whilst readily perceiving himself as something different to what he used to be, nonetheless is exactly the same total jerkwad as ever, and delights in being set loose on Pandora to track down and kill Jake and Neytiri. Jake, Neytiri, their kids and clan recommence their guerrilla war on the invaders, but the children are captured by Quaritch and his unit. Jake and Neytiri attack and manage to free them all except for Spider. Quaritch intervenes to stop the new military commander of the invaders, General Ardmore (Edie Falco), from using torturous brain scans to force information about the family’s whereabouts from his “son,” instead using more psychological pressure to force Spider to become his guide and translator.

Meanwhile, realising the danger, Jake insists that the family flee their home and travel out to oceanic islands inhabited by the Metkayina, water-dwelling Na’vi who have evolved thick tails and arms specifically for swimming. They also have close relations with the tulkun, a species of whale-like creatures with advanced and communicative intelligence, but also an ethos of total pacifism that leaves them vulnerable to human predation. The Metkayina chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his shamanka-like wife Ronal (Kate Winslet) uneasily let the Sully clan into their midst, and Jake in turn demands his kids toe the line with the Metkayina, but after being bullied by Tonowari and Ronal’s son Aonung (Filip Geljo) and his pals, Neteyam and Lo’ak brawl with them. Under the guise of making peace, Aonung and his gang talk Lo’ak into accompanying them out to fish in the open ocean, but then abandon Lo’ak. He’s nearly eaten by a giant predator, but is rescued by a tulkun named Payakan, who’s an outcast from his kind because he once tried to fight back against human hunters.

The shift in locale from the lush forests of the previous film’s locations allows Cameron a new stage to purvey the pure immersive appeal of exploring his created environments, as the Sully clan are introduced to the oceanic environs the Metkayina live in. This entails challenges of adaptation for the formerly arboreal family, like swapping their pterodactyl-like, symbiotically-linked Mountain Banshee mounts for a new species that seem like cross-breeds of barracuda and flying fish, allowing them to not just wing over water but dive under it as well. As with the previous film, these environs and the creatures living in them are fantastically magnified versions of more prosaically familiar earthly things that gloss them over with a new coat of strangeness and luminous spectacle, even if the invention never quite gets as pleasantly nutty as the previous film’s floating mountains. Where the Na’vi were a melange of different indigenous American nations, the Metkayina are based pretty baldly on Polynesian and Maori culture (it’s also amusing to see the digitally transformed Winslet, who first gained attention in Heavenly Creatures, 1994, and Curtis, who became an international character actor on the back of Once Were Warriors, 1994, united in an accidental nod to the glories of mid-1990s New Zealand cinema — even if neither actor really gets much to do). Cameron treads oddly similar territory here to where his fellow digi-visionary blockbuster auteur George Lucas went with Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) with his visions of wicked machines descending from the sky and torching the natural environment, and Cameron blatantly makes the similarity plainer when he repeats the “always a bigger fish” joke from the Lucas film.

The choice of shifting much of the focus of the story of The Way of Water onto the next generation is one that most clearly echoes what Cameron did on Terminator 2. Where young John Connor was a wayward product of a quasi-countercultural youth terminally on the outs with the square world he’s forced to subsist in whilst being constantly conscious of another, impending reality, the Sully youngsters are conscious of their status of mutts born between species and cultures, anointing with both burdens and special status, although Spider has some of John’s PG-swearing attitude. Cameron puts much emphasis on the youngsters of the family trying to find their way and negotiate familiar problems of growing up, particularly in the elder brothers’ clashes with the snooty local youths who like teasing and hazing the new kids on the block. Kiri, meanwhile, emerges as the most interesting of the new characters, with her bizarre birth and hazy heritage, adrift with a moony fascination for the world and stirring mysterious interactions with it, that even strikes the Na’vi as pretty odd. The sight (and sound) of Weaver rendered as an alien adolescent is amusing enough in itself, but also gives the part some curious note of pathos: where much of the recent craze for wielding de-aging digital technology has been applied for pretty cynical ends, or was used by Martin Scorsese on The Irishman (2019) for discomforting musing on aging on screen, Cameron seems genuinely delighted by the possibility of setting such things in flux.

Like many very successful late-career filmmakers, Cameron’s become relatively indifferent to expected standards of realism, going instead for instantly legible visual mystique and dialogue that, whilst inflected with contemporary argot, is pitched on a level designed to be accessible to the young and to resonate on an essential level. The Way of Water strongly reminded me of a brand of family entertainments that used to be reasonably common on screen and in books, those ones where a gang of kids would be living on a permanent safari or the like because their parents had a weird job, and their ranks would be both open and loyal in all sorts of all-together-now fun – actually, Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) is a good, if particularly unnerving example of that – as well as more reminiscent of classic Disney live-action adventure movies than anything Disney makes now. I sincerely mean this as a compliment. Cameron’s insistent (bordering on bullhorned) approach to his environmental themes, as the youngsters are appalled to register violations of the natural world they intermingle with, echoes those kinds of stories too. Not that Cameron’s gone entirely soft: The Way of Water is still a big, booming action-adventure movie where the audience is however ironically encouraged to cheer when the nasty, exploitative humans get their violent comeuppance. Indeed, he expressly set out to create an interesting tension between the idea that advanced intelligence leads to more pacifistic behaviour, as expressed through the tulkun, and its impossibility when faced with naked aggression.

A while ago I pondered the notion that Cameron might indeed by modern cinema’s preeminent, old-school, capital-R Romantic artist. The fascinating result of watching Cameron’s output back-to-back was coming to recognise this, not just in the vast concepts but in the sense of passion as a world-reshaping force, as expressed in his crucial relationships. Cameron certainly invites overt connection with some greats of the Romantic school, most obviously his variations on the Frankenstein mythos of Mary Shelley. Of course, that could be just the pervasive influence on the genre Cameron works in, but he’s also gone further, annexing the specifically North American mythos of the likes of James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville and their own engagement with ideas out of Rousseau. Cameron’s fascination for technology, the foe of the Romantic Movement when it emerged in the late 1700s, might seem to preclude that, but for Cameron technology is both the tool of realising his fantasies and, within the frame of those fantasies, a source of monumental contradiction. Indeed, it emerges that Cameron loves tech because it allows Romantic concepts to regain precedence from realism; whether positively or negatively or with aspects of both, the success or failure of the tech shatters the stolid world and unleashes his heroes and their passions. That aforementioned similarity to The Phantom Menace also recalls how that film dipped a toe into a Wagnerian sense of the natural and spiritual world being violated by the spirit of industrialised greed.

Most of Cameron’s films, ranging from the dread apocalyptic fantasies of the Terminator films to the disintegrating modern dream of Titanic that specifically kills off both the Romantic artist and the aristocratic world that couched the style, and the dreams of perfect fusion found in The Abyss (1989) and the first Avatar, contended with that ambivalence. For Cameron technology had the ironic promise of stirring atavistic potential, repopulating the world with demons like the Terminators and neo-knights like the steel-suited Ripley. Again, also pervasive in the genre, but Cameron seems highly conscious of the traditions he works in. Here he wades into the south sea dreaming of Melville’s Omoo and Typee before wholeheartedly offering a variation on Moby Dick as retold from the whale’s point of view. Cameron’s well-known passion for the ocean, which evidently combines a healthy sense of unease with awe, is worked through here at length, as it presents an obvious example of a world that is at once familiar but also eternally alien to humanity. Cameron nudged quasi-transcendental territory with The Abyss and the blatantly angelic look of the aliens in that movie who have developed their technology to the state where there is no tension between it and their natural environment, leading to his messianic climax, in a grandiose cinematic articulation of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that technology rendered on an unrecognisably advanced level might as well be magic.

Cameron was of course pinching heavily from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) there, but Spielberg is less a Romantic than a curious blend of modernist sceptic and Old Testament thaumaturg. Cameron in Avatar finally went over his own theoretical horizon by presenting the fantasy of a natural system so complete and connected it essentially makes technology unnecessary, even primitive-seeming, so long as one developed sufficiently to meet it half-way: it was not so much an abandonment of technology as an attempt to imaginatively synthesis something that serves the same function. That system works not just as a great communication network but contains the memories of its world in a kind of spiritual database. Cameron tries to give this some specific new expressions in The Way of Water, particularly through Kiri, who has a peculiar relationship with Eywa, as the Na’vi call the planetary deity-consciousness that permeates all the life-forms of Pandora to some degree. Kiri’s first attempt to plug into the Metkayina’s local version of the spirit tree like the others can results in her suffering a seizure that gets diagnosed as something like epilepsy after having a vision of her “mother,” only for her to later try it under extreme pressure and reveal uncanny control that allows her to kill a couple of pursuers. Cameron keeps mum to a potentially frustrating degree about what’s going on here, which he plainly means to get into more in the next instalment. I could nonetheless venture a thesis – that Kiri likely had no father and instead is the spontaneously generated attempt by Eywa to reincarnate Grace, and came out connected to Eywa to a unique degree: she can’t link to the spirit tree because she is one.

Cameron seems to be pinching ideas from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels throughout here, with the recombinants reminiscent of Herbert’s gholas, Kiri resembling a less freaky variation on the super-consciousness-inheriting Alia, and the tulkuns as much friendlier sandworms. Fair play – Cameron seems more interested in those ideas and their potential that Denis Villeneuve’s recent hemi-adaptation of Dune was. The first Avatar came out at a time when the pervasiveness of the internet and the truth of a new kind of reality it was fostering had become undeniable, and Cameron’s portrayal of the human operators and their projected selves finding new truth in an extra-reality wonderland felt timely, even if he never let it get in the way of a good story. Today, the internet’s more unsettling traits have become plainer, but Cameron isn’t interested in reflecting on that, in large part because he’s now dealing with experience more explicitly related to the body, of changes to the body and its expressed meaning, which is also touching on fashionable concerns, if less encompassing ones. Repeatedly throughout Cameron explores the idea of a kind of afterlife made possible through both digital transmission and rehousing in the recombinants, and through the great neural function of Eywa, where consciousnesses live on and can be communed with in some form.

The release of the original Avatar inspired a fascinating variety of responses for what it entailed for the culture at large, ranging from right-wing readings dismayed by its environmentalist stance and borderline-misanthropic anger, to accusations from some leftists of dated racism and much musing over contradictions regarding Cameron’s imperial might as a film technician and what he chose to celebrate with it. Meanwhile its general success signalled that, over and above his great skill and showman’s instinct apparent purely on a filmmaking level, Cameron had the pulse of the mass audience still, speaking directly to common fantasies and worries. I don’t really know if The Way of Water will set any of that stuff in motion again. One of the values of sci-fi is of course that it offers a stage to explore such things on a quasi-abstract, displaced level: Avatar reflected on such things on the level of a parable, proposing what it would look if, say, one encountered an ecosystem as one, giant, literal living thing. The disparity with life as we know it is obvious: nature doesn’t work like that, at least no on this planet, and so we’ve been obliged to utilise the world to meet our needs, if indeed to the degree of forming contempt for it. The Na’vi are gifted a kind of exceptionalism because they know Eywa on a direct level, without which they might seem obnoxiously arrogant. Here Cameron does tacitly admit that they are a little, when he has the Sully children browbeaten by the Metkayina brats both as outsiders and as half-breeds. Their enclosed and sufficient world would likely to be even more, and not less, allergic to and intolerant of alienness and outsiders.

Which is perhaps the chief way The Way of Water is a trifle disappointing: Cameron backs away from offering any kind of dialogue or argument of values, of taking his concepts deeper. Even the Wachowskis with their forsaken The Matrix sequels dared to deconstruct their basic power fantasy, as did Lucas. Again, Cameron might be saving that for a later instalment, but I still felt a nibble of frustration as he shifted from an extrapolated “save the rainforest” message to “save the whales.” Quaritch and his team, meaning to track down the Sullys after catching wind of their general location, pressgangs some tulkun hunters into transporting them there and, once he grasps the power of the relationship between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, encourages the hunters to start killing close to the islands, to draw out resistance, and the Sullys very likely with them. Cameron stages a suitably spectacular and nakedly heart-rending sequence of the hunters, led by their ratbag captain Scoresby (Brendan Cowell), chasing down and killing a tulkun mother, a laborious process as the tulkuns have tough, bony bodies and have to be finished off with an explosive harpoon. Cameron gives a further kick in the ribs when he reveals the object of the hunt boils down to a couple of litres of brain fluid that has unique aging-halting properties, now the leading commercial prize on Pandora. This is nominally better as a plot propeller than the previous film’s notorious (perhaps unfairly so given its basis in theoretical physics) “Unobtainium,” and does actually reflect on some unpleasant facts about a long history of animal exploitation. Nonetheless it provokes many questions, as to when and how the humans discovered these properties, and how it became such a priority in the course of the very recent return of the colonial mission. It’s also very plainly there to make the audience whoop when the time to kick ass finally arrives.

Which takes some time, as The Way of Water resists simply leaping into all-action shenanigans, which could be a plus or minus depending on how it strikes you. Cameron deliberately stymies Jake, the accomplished swashbuckler, as he’s now a protective family man playing nice on someone else’s turf. After Lo’ak is nearly killed early in the film, when Jake and the Na’vi blow up a maglev train built through the jungle, Jake becomes increasingly concerned by his second son’s seeming recklessness in the face of danger, and his brood’s general difficulty with the concept of obeying orders. Lo’ak meanwhile feels like he’s considered less worthy compared to his more circumspect older brother, but his disaffection and determination to prove himself ultimately help him connect with Payakan, another being stray from his flock. Lo’ak tries to make others see the worth of Payakan, even as he’s told the reason why the other tulkun shun him. The chain of relations, elemental as they are, nonetheless accrue substance through insistence: connection, whether it be friendship, between Lo’ak and Payakan, synergetic, as between the Metkayina and the tulkuns, romantic, as between Neteyam and Reya (Baiey Bass), the chieftain’s willowy daughter, or familial, between the Sullys and even the Quaritchs, is a constant in this world, echoing in the mirroring father-son conflicts and played out on a more ethereal level by Kiri, who is at once an orphan and an expression of the very planet’s need for connection.

Quaritch in the first film was a heightened caricature of American militarist machismo, imbued with the traits of an explicitly Ahab-like character, scarred by his encounter with the fierce and ungovernable wildlife and determined to decimate it all in the course of asserting power. Here Cameron makes the connection more overt as Quaritch oversees the tulkun hunt, even if it’s only a means to end. Meanwhile his methods for interrogating and browbeating Metkayina villagers, where Spider’s presence influences him to avoid executing prisoners but still burns down their homes, confirm the Vietnam War is still on Cameron’s mind. Bringing Quaritch back smacks of waned inspiration akin to the way Agent Smith became a boring fixture in The Matrix sequels, but also understandable, as Lang’s marvellously sullen and contemptuous aggression in the role was one of the first film’s most potent if unsubtle elements. Cameron signals intention to take Quaritch to peculiar places. Even as for the most part he’s just playing the matinee villain again this time around, Cameron broaches some of this intent, now that Quaritch is inhabiting a life form built for a new planet and must soon or later respond to its wavelengths, whilst his son is still thoroughly human but identifies with the Na’vi. Cameron pauses to note the profoundly dislocating spectacle of Quaritch, after recovering the filmed record of his human body’s death at the hands of Jake and Neytiri, witnessing that death as a viewer locked in a new and alien body. The possibility that Spider’s presence coaxes something like humanity out of the now-inhuman Quaritch is dangled throughout the film, and whilst he remains a monster, he finally does prove to have this one, particular weak spot. Spider’s increasingly horrified response to both Quaritch’s methods and the hunting of the tulkuns eventually drives him to intervene on his adopted family’s behalf in the climax, but then also repays a debt by saving Quaritch from the fruits of his own malevolence.

One element The Way of Water definitely lacks that buoyed the first film had was the surreal, fetish-fuel romance of Jake and Neytiri. The love affairs here, such as between Neteyam and Reya and Spider and Kiri, are by comparison only glanced over, and don’t have the same playfully transgressive quality. The emphasis on Lo’ak’s journey also means that Kiri, who has the more intriguing story if less immediately important for how the plot resolves, isn’t given as much time as she deserves. Jake and Neytiri finally reclaim their eminence in the climax when they go on the warpath to save their brood from Quaritch, with Neytiri pushed to the edge of the genuinely unbalanced when the family take a brutal loss, reduced to taking Spider hostage to counter Quaritch and threatening to cut his throat. Which Spider seems oddly forgiving of later, but then again he’s not doing too well when it comes to parental figures. When push does come to shoot, the wrath of the Metkayina as they charge out to assault the humans is nothing compared to the show-stopping spectacle of Payakan launching himself out of the water and crashing down upon the deck of the hunting craft in trying to save his tiny friend, dealing out righteous destruction and turning Quaritch’s contrived trap into a chaotic free-for-all that also rewrites Moby Dick sinking the Pequod and killing Ahab from grim expression of cosmic indifference and chaos to act of direct and vengeful justice, even down to Payakan taking out his most hated foe by wrapping him up in his own harpoon line.

Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s extension of his mythos, it’s impossible to deny the man still knows how to make a movie on the biggest scale possible, and that’s become a rare gift even in an age where every two-bit director seems to fancy themselves a pontential special effects epic maestro. The years spent refining the special effects have paid off: even if they still sometimes look like what they essentially are, a very sophisticated CGI cartoon, they have a lustre, a richness of colour and grain of detail, that’s quite astounding, particularly with what must have been the excruciatingly finicky work of making digital effects interact with water. Cameron has one of the most clean and fluidic eyes for graphics of any director working, refusing at any point to let the movie degenerate into a jumble of shots for their own sake even as elements pile up to a crazy degree, so when the action finally, properly busts out in the climax it comes with exhilarating force: on a first viewing it leaves a delirious impression of charging flying fish rides and wild underwater battles with mechanical crabs and aerial assaults from a berserker Neytiri. Cameron has some fun tossing in touches ripped off from his own films, in his own aesthetic form of recombinant and daring the audience to call him on it – scenes recalling Titanic as the heroes and villains are trapped within the capsized and flooding hunting ship, Neytiri losing Tuk down a chute a la Ripley and Newt in Aliens, and nods to the angelic aliens of The Abyss as Kiri straps to her back a jellyfish-like creature that works like a scuba tank and spreads gleaming wing-like fronds.

The oddest and most stirring quality of The Way of Water is that it is, even more than its precursor, at once deeply misanthropic and perfectly idealistic, even corny (dig the Tinkerbell-esque way Kiri helps track down the trapped family in the ship), in the way it manipulates a puppet theatre of human facets, the clash between cruelty and empathy, destruction and protection, playing upon the desire for grand new landscapes whilst also insistently reminding us of how we’ve fouled up the ones we know too well. Cameron’s always been a fascinating bundle of contradictions, a male action movie director famed for female protagonists, who populates his tech-heavy films with some of the few memorable romances in recent popular cinema, a control freak who often delivers antiestablishment messages through the ungainly vehicles of colossal blockbusters. And he goes on being one even as the imaginative constructs of the Avatar universe labour so urgently to find some point of fusion for them all. Avatar: The Way of Water is also many warring things, a failure of imagination on some levels and a spectacular and hugely entertaining expression of it on others, a long and clunky example of franchise cinema but also a full-blooded, gleeful relief from it, a film that does its best to satisfy on its own merits whilst keeping on an eye on things still in the future.

Standard
2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

Tár (2022)

.

Director / Screenwriter: Todd Field

By Roderick Heath

Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.

His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.

Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.

Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.

The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.

More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.

Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.

Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.

Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.

Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.

Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.

By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.

Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.

What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.

Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.

Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.

Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.

Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.

By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.

The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.

Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.

This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Nope (2022)

.

Director / Screenwriter: Jordan Peele

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope opens with a pair of seemingly unrelated scenes. First we get a glimpse of a TV studio, filled with signs of bloodshed and rampage, a bashful-looking, bloody-pawed chimpanzee seated amidst the mess. Next comes a bucolic moment in the sun for father and son horse ranchers Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Jnr, or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as he’s found himself problematically stuck with being called: we see OJ going about his usual morning business of letting out the horses and exercising them, before chatting with his old man, who’s already mounted up. The two men are preparing for a TV show performance on star horse Lucky, which they hope will rescue their ranch from financial doldrums. The scene is shattered as a seemingly random shower of hard metal objects falls from the sky. A coin hits Otis in the eye, and he dies as OJ rushes him to the hospital. Cut to a few months later, as OJ uneasily tries to get on with his professional life by wrangling Lucky on the TV set, only for the horse to be irritated by a crewman and kick out dangerously. OJ is obliged to rely on his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose gregarious enthusiasm as a wannabe show biz player contrasts his sullen, taciturn, quietly grieving manner and fateful lack of assertive strength, but Emerald doesn’t want to be stuck with her brother in a failing business. OJ has been propping up the business by selling horses to a neighbouring ranch, the prosperous and popular Jupiter’s Claim, run by former child actor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt).

That night, one of the horses, Ghost, bolts into the dark, dusty, hilly landscape around the ranch. Chasing after Ghost, OJ hears Jupe’s voice on a loudspeaker in the distance whilst the horse gives an unearthly shriek, and glimpses a large, strange object moving fast through the sky above, whilst a rolling blackout afflicts the locale. Convinced he’s seen a UFO, OJ and Emerald buy a new surveillance system for the ranch, and the morose IT salesperson, Angel (Brandon Perea), who sells and installs the equipment becomes increasingly interested and involved as he’s a UFO freak. They also try to interest the acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who they met on the TV shoot, as they feel only he might be able to get photographic evidence of this scary phenomenon. As the enigmatic situation begins to resolve, the Haywoods are eventually faced with alarming proof that the UFO is actually some kind of living organism that eagerly eats just about anything placed in its path, and that Jupe not only knows about its presence, but even seems to be trying to make it part of his act, luring it down to his ranch with free lunches, being OJ’s horses.

New York-born Peele was best known for many years as a comic writer and actor. After dropping out of college to start a comedy act with future writing collaborator Rebecca Drysdale and spending some time with the famous Second City comedy troupe, Peele gained his big break as a performer on the sketch comedy show Mad TV in the early 2000s. Later he teamed up with another Black comedian, Keegan-Michael Key, for their cable TV show Key & Peele (2012–2015). The duo wrote, produced, and starred in the film Keanu (2016), and Peele made his standalone debut as director with the 2017 Horror film Get Out, a film that represented for the most part an apparently radical switch of vision for Peele, offering a woozy, unsettling blend of social and racial satire and straight-edged Horror and thriller stuff.


That film’s huge popular and critical success came in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as US President, seemingly on the back of a new reactionary feeling swiftly met by a bold progressive backlash, and Get Out, along with the Ryan Coogler’s successes with Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), seemed to announce a new mainstream hunger for films made by African-American filmmakers with a presumed, concomitant authenticity in needling racial and social angst. Peele’s success with Get Out was cunning in that regard, with his narrative of young Black man whose white girlfriend proves to be luring him in for her family to use in their business of swapping brains between bodies: Peele expertly made the mass audience empathise with his hero’s terror of having his identity erased and subsumed by representatives of a larger assimilating culture because it’s all the rage at the moment to be Black. He also deftly skewered and, ironically and if in all likelihood semi-accidentally, appealed to the white liberal guilt, portraying the wicked family not as overt racists but rather smiling, virtue-signalling bourgeois progressives pretending to be all cool with the new multiculturalism.

Peele has since become, with startling swiftness, a pop culture brand, evinced with his follow-up film Us (2019), through producing a refurbished take on TV’s The Twilight Zone and a reboot-cum-sequel of the 1990s cult film Candyman (2021), and now Nope. Peele is with increasingly plainness trying to position himself as an inheritor to talents writers like Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, with their penchant for depicting disturbing intrusions of the outlandish and the mysterious into exceptionally ordinary locales in tales touched with a mystique of fable. He also joins the ranks of directors anointing themselves as inheritors of Steven Spielberg, with his gifts as an orchestrator of the fantastic and of cinematic space for maximum audience impact. The traps in trying to occupy such a cultural crossroads were well-charted by M. Night Shyamalan in the 2000s. Peele’s chief proposition as a new and improved successor to Shyamalan is that he brings a less veiled approach to the metaphors inherent in those fable-narratives, with his specific perspective, which can keep his stories from dissolving into bombast: the idea that Peele’s critiquing gestures really mean something, rather than simply offering the usual glossy wrap of pseudo-meaning over the usual Hollywood bombast, is a big part of his cachet.

At the same time, Peele has also shown savvy commercial instincts. Get Out resisted going anywhere near as dark and mean as it might have, and whilst Us embraced a more surreal and allegorical aesthetic, also only took it so far: in the end it was still, mostly, the story of a threatened nuclear family winning through against erupting boogeymen. Nor were they so sharp a pivot from his previous metier of comedy as they might seem superficially. Get Out had a simmering sense of satirical bite and drollery throughout, such as the famous liberal cliche utterances of the white family’s patriarch (Bradley Whitford), like how he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, and an encounter with one of their victims, the body of a young black man now inhabited by an old white bourgeois, that was pure sitcom shtick. Both Get Out and Us were preoccupied by imposters, absorption, and doppelgangers, concerns he took a few steps further in Us where the central family were confronted by chthonic lookalikes, representing a kind of shadow realm of the oppressed and excluded, with the ultimate twist proving that the mother is herself an escaped double, having forcibly swapped places with her overworld counterpart, who is now leading the buried horde in revenge.

Nope tries to move on a degree from the preoccupations of Peele’s first two films, which is both a good idea in theory but in practice one that doesn’t work so well for him. Nope strongly recalls Shyamalan’s Signs (2002): like that film it depicts an alien invasion, constantly teased in oblique and fleeting ways before finally resolving into a heroic tale of little people standing up to cosmic menace. Peele’s story and style are however better described as an oddball forced mating of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), borrowing many beats from each: the incredible, elusive visitor from the sky is also the territorial man-eating monster. Peele, despite his success thus far, occupies a potentially hazardous place in contemporary screen culture. He has been so eagerly embraced as a figure that many felt American film desperately needed that everything he does has to be met as either total greatness or risk sour disillusionment, rather than simply being a new and talented genre film voice. Well, the first third of Nope is quite strong – indeed, whilst watching it I felt the film was shaping up as Peele’s best yet. He expertly creates, as he did in the fairground prologue of Us, a mood of cryptic menace and simmering tension whilst playing patient games with perspective, as OJ and Emerald keep getting fleeting hints of the nature of their strange and malevolent new neighbour. Peele uses sound well, particularly in the suggestive gruesome shrieks of the horses echoing down from the sky after being swallowed. In one particularly effective and creepy sequence, OJ is menaced by what look like humanoid alien creatures stalking him around his darkened stables at night, only to realise they’re just Jupe and Amber’s teenage sons in costume, playing a prank as payback for Emerald stealing one of their horse statues to use as bait for the alien.

The title’s blunt, folksy quality is constantly uttered by characters throughout, mostly when confronted by sights that confound their sense of reality and set off a profound war of impulses on the basic level of fight or flight. It also signals the way the film seems constantly at odds with itself, toying with being a kind of send-up rooted in a particular tenor of Black scepticism, whilst also trying to reap the popular benefits of a good old Spielbergian ride. I’ve suspected that Peele might get into trouble when he tried more boldly to crossbreed his penchant for horror with his reflexes as a comedic writer. Not in the sense that he tries to apply too much humour to Nope – in fact it could do with more humour than it has, and might have been better pitched as a blend of laughs and suspense like, say, Tremors (1990) – but he applies a fondness for unexpected segues and bizarre pivots to his essentially straight-laced core story. The most significant subplot of Nope involves Jupe’s experience as a child actor, specifically the infamous incident on a sitcom called Gordy’s Home which he featured on in the ‘90s, opposite a trained chimpanzee who played the titular Gordy, and the two of them “invented” their signature gesture of an exploding fist-bump. But Gordy went berserk during filming one day thanks to some random fright, and brutally killed several of Jupe’s costars. Peele keeps teasing this event through snatched glimpses, including right at the start and then a brief vision of the terrified young Jupe (Jacob Kim) hiding under a table and trying not to attract the crazed animal’s attention. Peele effectively employs this vignette after Jupe has wriggled out of recounting the event to the Haywoods during a business meeting. Jupe instead takes refuge in talking up a Saturday Night Live skit that made dark sport of the incident.

This segue has some evident personal meaning and insider referential appeal for Peele as a wry glance into the world of TV he emerged from, bringing up once-famous, half-forgotten comedy stars like Chris Kattan. Jupe mythologises the greatness of the skit before the trauma he’s trying to suppress is then seen by the audience. Later, Peele gives a more sustained version of Jupe’s memory, his perspective on the event used to avoid showing gory detail whilst still putting across a grim sense of the event’s dreadful violence. Eventually the resolution is presented: Gordy approaches Jupe not to attack but to seek their signature gesture, the ape suddenly just a pathetic, frightened animal needing its costar’s assurance, only for the ape to be gunned down, his blood spraying across Jupe’s face. This portion of Nope is striking and the film’s highpoint in many ways: it’s a more effective moment of restrained horror than the more accidentally silly depiction of people being sucked into the interior of the alien. But Gordy’s rampage isn’t convincing or realistic in its details. Peele requires a CGI chimp to impersonate that kind of deadly ferocity, and we’re forced to wonder why there wasn’t an animal wrangler on the set. Also, the way the fake portions we see of Gordy’s Home lampoons a style of family sitcom that died with the ‘80s, although admittedly Peele does an uncanny job recreating that style. It made me wonder if this was a sketch Peele wrote out and, realising there was no way in hell he could get it made as a feature, decided to weave it into this script.

How this aspect of the story connects to the rest of Nope is tangential but, to be fair, also suggestive. Peele hints Jupe has a pathological need to get close to another monster and make it the star of another act of showbiz hoopla, as if to prove even the wildest, strangest, most inhuman thing can be made amenable to the pleasures of being a celebrity. Holst later makes this idea more literal when he notes the sad fate of tiger-taming performers Siegfried and Roy. When the Gordy element is connected with OJ’s unfortunate sobriquet, it seems Peele’s trying to make a mea culpa-tinged point about the industry of comedy making sport of all kinds of tragic stuff such as was rife in ‘90s American TV culture. This is interesting, but it quickly reaps multiplying problems. Firstly, it makes Jupe a more interesting and indeed more detailed character than the Haywoods, privileging his background and formative experiences with vivid and galvanising power, and yet Peele keeps Jupe a peripheral and blandly executed figure. He should be the focus, a beaming, televisually canny Ahab stirring up monsters. With Nope the lurking point of all this is at once obvious and feebly interrogated: it proposes to be about the nature of spectacle itself, of show business and performance and reality and authenticity in age where those things have become perhaps irreparably blurred. This is literalised by having the monster attracted by being looked at, whilst its presence causes electrical systems to fail, making filming it extremely difficult. Our heroes then must find a way of both looking and not looking at the alien: they most pointedly cannot gaze on in awe like Spielberg’s people.

To this end, after Angel’s security cameras fail, the Haywoods turn to Holst, a portentous being who sits around watching nature documentary footage of predators chasing and consuming prey – thematics are being underlined, dig. Wincott brings his long-neglected but still-persuasive gravel-voiced gravitas to a role that’s pitched as Werner Herzog playing the Quint role, but he’s stuck with a one-dimensional part. His final act of self-annihilating consequence – “We don’t deserve the impossible,” he utters gnomically to Angel before venturing up to get the ultimate shot of being sucked up into the alien’s maw – aims for a note of crazy, nihilistic bravado but feels more like, once more, Peele taking an easy way out of resolving one of his story elements with some shallow portent. Angel himself, winningly played by Perea, is in many ways the film’s most vivid and believable presence, a shambolic character still processing a bad break-up and taking refuge in nerdy frippery. He attaches himself to the reluctant Haywoods to become an unshakeable if jumpy collaborator in their hunt. Both he and Emerald are driven frantic when a praying mantis insists on perching itself before one of their new surveillance cameras just as the UFO appears.

Nope essentially replays, in less funny and snappy fashion, the driving joke from a portion of The Simpsons’ episode “Treehouse of Horror VI”, which depicted an onslaught by advertising signs and mascots suddenly come to life, and could only be defeated by not being looked at, a weapon ironically facilitated with an advertising jingle warbled by Paul Anka. Rather than following such a mischievously satirical bent, Peele tries an each-way bet, wanting the respectability of inferred parable and the base rewards of crowd-pleasing. Peele also steals an idea from The Trollenberg Terror (1958), as it’s eventually revealed by Angel, scanning the ranch’s security footage, that the UFO hides behind a perpetually present, stationary cloud just about the valley. The alien  itself (which I’ll call it although Peele ultimately never defines what it is), once properly glimpsed proves to be saucer-shaped but when looked at beam-on looks like a gigantic eye in the sky – thematics still being underlined, folks. Towards the end it unfolds as a diaphanously swirling thing, like a mating of kite and jellyfish, and with a square eye – the most extreme possible variation on the old parental warning to kids that too much screen time will make their eyes go square? Anyway, it’s clearly an attempt by Peele to come up with something new and interesting in movie monsters, but it just looks, well, silly.

As these misjudged ideas accumulate whilst the threat and its underpinning metaphors emerge into view, Nope, after its promising early scenes, start to slide vertiginously downhill. Where in Us Peele’s spongily fable-like underpinnings gained a certain amount of power through his filmmaking, Nope fails for the same reason. But let me define what I mean by fable, which is a seemingly simple, naïve form of storytelling that privileges the illustration of emotion, ideas, and a certain kind of dream logic over rigorous narrative. In both Get Out and Us the mechanics of Peele’s plots bore no scrutiny, for the most part deliberately, I felt. The conceit of the underground tunnels and anti-people they housed were presented as nominally present in a kind of reality but were rather an illustration of a psychological zone. It was absurd that Allison Williams’ girlfriend character in Get Out had to role-play and prostitute herself for months on end just to nab one schmuck college student, when surely it could have been accomplished in an hour. But the object there was to chart the double goad to the hero’s aspiration and anxiety about the many barbs of interracial love. If one took Peele’s films on such a level, they worked. If you didn’t, you were in trouble. As for me, well, as I often do, I hovered somewhere between.

On a more prosaic level, Nope indicates that, good as he is at building mystery and tension, Peele is still quite clumsy at orchestrating large-scale action, in a manner already hinted at with aspects of the climactic scenes of Us. We get endless shots of OJ riding around on his horse without any particular sense of his objectives or tactics, when the alien can hoover him at will. There’s an old trope in monster movies that’s been sardonically recognised by fans where incredibly dangerous and threatening forces easily decimate hapless victims in early scenes but for some reason can’t quite get to grips with the heroes because, well, they’re the heroes, and this phenomenon is so pronounced here it could represent it from now on.  Also, the plotting is almost perversely clumsy. The finale hinges on the sudden intrusion of an unwelcome visitor as the Haywoods, Angel, and Holst are trying to lure in the monster so Holst can film it on a hand-cranked camera. The visitor proves to be some jerk online journalist riding a motorcycle. His kinship with the alien as an embodiment of the voracious eye is unsubtly suggested by having him wear a crash helmet that is, like the UFO, silver and sporting one large, dark orb for vision. He soon gets himself stupidly killed, which proves fortuitous as Emerald eventually commandeers his bike to lure the alien into a trap. Was this an aim all along? Or did it just occur to Emerald? Meanwhile OJ seems to be swallowed up by the monster only to emerge unharmed later, a la Hooper in Jaws.

Peele could get away with fuzziness on story details in his earlier films because of that aforementioned fable quality. But the kind of story Nope tells lives and dies on a precise sense of how elements interact. The alien is supposed to be attracted by things that look back, and can tell when it’s being looked at by some tiny animal from a long distance, but cannot distinguish between living creatures and inanimate objects. Its kryptonite, amongst all the non-organic material it tends to suck up, proves to be small plastic string flags, which it first swallows when sucking up the horse statue around which some are wrapped. Later Emerald weaponises these indigestible things against it. Which, frankly, is damn near as a stupid as the water-kills-aliens reveal at the climax of Signs. This frustratingly points up the awkwardness of Peele trying to subsume that sweeping, compulsive blockbuster appeal whilst also maintaining a slight tint of the arbitrarily ridiculous in the unfolding action.

Peele interpolates a few of his now-familiar flourishes of racial consciousness-provoking, particularly in making the Haywoods the imagined descendants of a black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his pioneering photographic studies, and also prominently featuring a poster for the relatively obscure but hardly suppressed Black Western Buck and the Preacher (1972). The object here is pretty patent, teasing the presence of a Black influence in cinema and its most stereotypically white American genre in particular. But part of me also wondered if Peele threw such flourishes in to make critics do the heavy lifting of inferring that he’s made some kind of profound parable, instead of a disjointed, half-digested one. Particularly in floating that dubious proposition that “everybody knows who Eadweard Muybridge is.” There’s also OJ’s name, which plays on evoking its bearer’s sense of exposure and connecting to that meditation on horror as exploited in the mass media, but also begs the question of who would keep insisting on calling their kid that when growing up in the last thirty years. There might have been some potential in the ironic portrait of Black and Asian-Americans applying their talents and identities to the cultural tradition of the Western, but again, it doesn’t progress much further than ultimately affirming OJ as a classical genre hero who looks good on a horse.

Kaluuya is a good actor – he was the visual and performative linchpin of Get Out as the bewildered, naïve, victimised protagonist, and was also great in the exact opposite kind of role as a vicious criminal in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018). But he’s entirely miscast here playing a brooding cowboy, which makes OJ something of a nonentity. He’s supposed to be a strong, silent type who comes to life as his best gifts are provoked, but he remains out of focus. Palmer compensates with an energetic performance, even as I never quite bought Emerald as a character either. Peele presents the Haywoods as a mismatched pair of personalities, Emerald garrulous and slick, a creature geared to perform in a world of modern media, where OJ is shy and wounded and old-fashioned in his enclosed masculinity. Their chief bond is in their uneasy relationship with their father and his unpredictable, sometimes hurtful ways, ways which bound OJ closer to him and pushed Emerald on her own path but left both unfulfilled. Peele’s attempts to give them some personal totemic investment in the battle with the alien feel forced. At one point Emerald recalls how Otis Snr once proposed to give to her horse named Jean Jacket, but then took back to use on a film shoot, only for OJ to later dub the alien Jean Jacket as if to make it the embodiment of their angst.

The mixture here is of squelchy hipster humour – oh, Jean Jacket, that’s so retro and uncool – and unconvincing emotional ploys. Peele similarly has, in a visual pastiche-cum-lampoon of Quint’s monologue in Jaws, Holst sing the lyrics of “Flying Purple People Eater” in a gravely raspy way. All this is the sort of thing Peele ought sensibly have dumped on his second draft of the script, along with the plastic flags thing. Which really only points to the major lack of the film’s climactic scenes, which is any genuine sense of dramatic tension between the Haywoods in their aims in dealing with their quarry. Perhaps Emerald, in her need for validation, might have been made more and more maniacally determined to photograph the alien, whilst OJ becomes increasingly heated in his determination to simply kill the thing that eats his beloved animals and inadvertently killed his father. Instead, their relationship is by and large stated and then allowed to coast. There’s no particularly palpable sense of danger to either, which means there’s never any, genuine thrill to their eventual triumph. Much of the power of Get Out came, for me at any rate, not from the racial provocation but from the portrayal of romantic disillusionment, which culminated in the hero impotently trying to strangle his blankly treacherous lover: that was an idea, an image, a feeling, that communicated a sense of real danger.

The finale makes a big deal of Emerald finally trying to capture the alien’s photo on the old-timey tintype carousel camera that’s used a gimmicky tourist trap on Jupe’s ranch, whilst distracting and killing it by releasing a flag-bedecked balloon mascot. This touch tries to close a loop of meaning with Muybridge’s photography, and perhaps might intend to suggest the only the way to break through to true original vision is to wield a painstaking method with essential tools. Or is it just something as trite as old-timey stuff trumps modern junk? Either way, everything about this struck me as laboured. Nope holds not just the sight of the alien but most of its ideas and feelings in a kind of dip-eyed cringe, and it can’t even quite land the straightforward monster movie is essentially is. It made me long for the potency of something like Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob (1988), which also feels like an influence in the mix here – the kind of old-school genre film that easily encompassed its revisionism and charged subtexts whilst sprinting onwards with crazy energy and careless gore. Never mind anything by Peele’s genre hero John Carpenter. Nope isn’t a bad film exactly. It’s well-made on all technical levels and for a while at least drags you along with its teases. And yet it never coheres, and by the end, rather than feeling Peele had broken through to new ground, I felt he’d made something closer to a car crash. Which might, in the end, be good for him. Peele can just be a filmmaker now.

Standard
1980s, 2020s, Action-Adventure, War

Top Gun (1986) / Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

.

Directors: Tony Scott / Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Jim Cash, Jack Epps Jr / Ehren Kruger, Christopher McQuarrie, Eric Warren Singer

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

The release of Top Gun: Maverick has proven a striking moment in contemporary pop culture. That is, it’s a blockbuster movie release capable of wringing the same reaction out of grown-up audiences usually reserved these days for the 14-year-olds flocking to see the latest comic book movie. Top Gun: Maverick is the belated sequel to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, a movie directed by Tony Scott but designed and implemented by its producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer as a precision-tooled star vehicle for Tom Cruise, who was 24 years old at the time of release. Top Gun’s long-simmering cult following is both a little surprising and not surprising at all. It made Cruise, already a fast-rising young star, a major-league big screen heartthrob and instant generational avatar. Its glitzy, glibly stylish look and hit-churning soundtrack pinioned it to a very specific moment in the cultural survey, a flagship of the 1980s cinema movement where pop movies were closely wound in with pop music, both in terms of their look and in their constant deployments of songs, and their mutual celebration of adolescent fancy. Now Cruise, who turns 60 this year (although Top Gun: Maverick has been delayed a couple of years because of the COVID-19 pandemic), returns to his first real signature role. Apart from the Mission: Impossible series which has proven an archipelago of popularity for him amidst the stormy waters of a late career and current screen culture, Cruise long resisted such backtracking.

Cruise has been a curious product of our love of movie stars right from the early days of his career. At once he was the inheritor of handsome ingénues from the dawn of time, the kind who set teenage girls (and quite a few boys) aquiver in their stomachs and itchy in the pants. But Cruise swiftly evinced far more canniness than most in establishing and protecting his stature. He seemed to emulate the careers of stars like Paul Newman and Jack Nicholson, who could for the most part effortlessly step between popular, image-cementing vehicles and artier, riskier, more challenging fare. Cruise has never quite gained their flexibility and reputation as an actor, because he remained first and foremost a star, but it’s precisely that quality which remained his advantage. Acting cred was always a far-off citadel he could storm when he felt like, but his real business was making movies for the widest possible audience, at a time when many a potential rival was sabotaging themselves by acting as if being called a movie star was an odious travail. Whilst Cruise had emerged playing relatively familiar kinds of young male starring parts – a football player in All The Right Moves (1983), a horny teen out for action in Losin’ It (1983) and Risky Business (1984) – Top Gun saw him emerge from a chrysalis as the perfect emblem of the yuppie era. Ahistorical in persona, white bread in ethnicity but disconnected from any sure sense of social identity, he morphed into a blank slate of Reaganite ambition.

With his carefully honed body, his capped teeth, his notoriously intense work ethic, and his air of self-willed exceptionality able to easily straddle personal ambition and embodiment of a creed, Cruise embodied the yuppie ideal perfectly. Cruise’s remarkable resistance to aging, his aerodynamic features only very slightly thickening and hardening over the years, has only amplified his strangeness, the way he seems to embody that essence of the movie star as something disconnected from normal life processes and inhabiting an exalted realm. After decades of having his character, sanity, even sexuality rifled from afar, the verdict has finally come fully down on the side of Cruise being perhaps the last common avatar of that ideal, and the very qualities that once made Cruise the most normcore and antiseptic of movie stars for all his occasional gestures towards stretching and perverting his image, have now become proofs of his specialness, his gift-from-the-movie-gods electness. Top Gun: Maverick is interesting in this regard but it finally evinces that Cruise is at least vaguely aware of his own mortality, especially when it showcases the ravages of aging inflicted on his Top Gun costar Val Kilmer. Both Top Gun movies are, both literally and metaphorically, about defying gravity, but finally must admit that gravity always wins.

Top Gun was based on a magazine article about the new elite training methods adopted by the US Navy air wing during and after Vietnam to improve dogfighting skills in their fighter pilots. Cruise was cast as Pete Mitchell, whose piloting call-sign is Maverick, a cocky but sublimely talented young fighter pilot. The film’s lengthy opening sees Maverick and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), Nick ‘Goose’ Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), on deployment on an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, off some purposefully vague conflict zone where their squadron of F-14 Tomcats encounter enemy pilots flying the flashy new (and imaginary) MiG-25 fighters. The MiGs outmanoeuvre the American pilots and seriously rattle the flight leader, Cougar (John Stockwell), by successfully targeting him, only for Maverick to expertly reverse the humiliation by flying more cleverly and making sport of the foes. After Cougar elects to quit flying, their CO, ‘Stinger’ (James Tolkan), chews Maverick out for his impudent and insubordinate antics, only to then inform him that with Cougar out he and Goose will take his place in the elite training scheme known as TOPGUN where they’ll be pitted against fellow hotshots, based at Miramar, North Island, near San Diego.

At TOPGUN Maverick encounters his one great rival as a pilot, Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazansky (Kilmer), and makes waves with his risk-taking tendencies, earning Iceman’s haughty assurance that he’s “dangerous,” and tangling with tutor ‘Jester’ (Michael Ironside), and program boss and Vietnam-era ace Mike ‘Viper’ Metcalf (Tom Skerritt), particularly when he violates the “hard floor”, that is the minimum altitude allowed during training, in his relentless chases. He also finds himself involved with another of the program tutors, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who he first meets in a bar and tries to pick up, only to learn her true identity later. Maverick’s close encounter with the new MiG gives him distinction and makes him a valuable source of information for her. As she gets to know him Charlie learns Maverick is haunted by his father’s fate as a fighter pilot, having vanished during an operation in 1965. During a training exercise where Maverick is playing wingman to Ice but the rival hotshot can’t nail a target, Maverick is caught in Ice’s engine wash, sending his plane careening out of control, and when he and Goose eject Goose hits the canopy and dies. Maverick is cleared of responsibility, but his friend’s death hangs heavily on him, and he considers leaving the Navy. He eventually turns up for graduation, just as he and the rest of the class are called to action back in the conflict zone and are flung into a deadly air battle.

One immediately eye-catching aspect of Top Gun is the burgeoning talent of its moment it ropes in, including Cruise, Kilmer, Meg Ryan (as Goose’s wife Carole), and Edwards, as well as notable also-rans like McGillis, Rick Rossovich, Adrian Pasdar, and John Stockwell, and counterbalanced by experts in surly elder attitude in Skerritt, Ironside, and Tolkan. Composer Harold Faltemeyer, straight off providing one instantly iconic theme for a new Hollywood hero on Beverly Hills Cop (1984), here provided the score and attached to Maverick a canoodling guitar theme that recurs every time Maverick does something cool, almost to the point of self-parody. The film opens with consciously glorifying images of the Naval pilots and their ground crews preparing to take off in shots drenched in a sunrise glow, men and machines made equivalent in their adamantine, architectural function in the buzzing enterprise. Segue into shots of the sky-thrashing pilots cavorting to the strains of the Kenny Loggins-sung, Giorgio Moroder-penned rock song “Highway To The Danger Zone.” Moroder also helped write the soundtrack’s other big product, “Take My Breath Away,” performed by the band Berlin, which captured the year’s Oscar for Original Song, and Scott does use its pulsing, breathy, deathless romantic quality to effect, interpolating it over a sex scene for Cruise and McGillis shot exactly like some high-end aftershave ad, complete with fluttering white curtains in a steely blue room.

As a movie, Top Gun belongs to a venerable subgenre. Films about the rarefied world of daring aviators date back to classic Hollywood flyboy flicks like Ceiling Zero (1936), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Test Pilot (1940), Dive Bomber (1941), intersect with war movies like Twelve O’Clock High (1949), and continue through the likes of Toward The Unknown (1956), Jet Pilot (1957), and The Right Stuff (1983). The popularity of this kind of movie is obviously rooted in the basic thrill of flying really fast, an inherently spectacular and dramatic business not many people have access to experience for themselves. But it also constantly touches base with an essential dramatic dynamic: such movies depict the hermetic, rivalry-filled, thrill-loving world of pilots assigned to push the limits and the constant wrestle required to balance such necessary roguish will and the needs of the hierarchies they nominally belong to, be they civilian or military. In this regard the flyboy movie is an ideal one for exploring the tension between individualism and group identity, a theme immediately interesting and compelling for a vast bulk of the audience who experience that tension daily. Many older movies were concerned with the wildcard having his burrs shaved down to more cleanly fit in with the group or die in failing to heed the lesson, befitting products of an age when conformity was required by mass mobilisation and imperial emergence.

Top Gun, by contrast, explicitly taps its potential as a metaphor for different fantasies promulgated by a new epoch. Maverick’s nickname encapsulates the idealisation of the main character as someone whose exceptionality and independence are ultimately affirmed as virtues. He embodies the dream of being at once undisputed as an individual whilst fitting into an institution, free but also dedicated, cool and square at the same time. He is the personification of a particular tide-mark in American culture, balancing the individualist ideal, both as manifest in classic American mythos and also post-counterculture anti-authoritarianism, and the new conservatism that insists that yes, that individualism can be achieved, but can and must be suspended when higher duty calls. Maverick as a character, like the film’s depiction of the American military in its moment, is rooted in a haunted sense of generational severing involving the Vietnam War that both bent things out of shape but also informs a new determination to get back on top. Only the nostalgic evocations of the former era’s music is retained – “The Dock of The Bay”, “Great Balls of Fire,” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” are wielded as shared touchstones, a lingua franca connecting new to old – but washed clean of any former meaning. Like the film about them, the songs have no specific meaning save as rhythmic variations for what the film is expressing about Maverick.

Maverick himself is offered as a vehicle for perceiving military service as a geopolitical equivalent of a football game, cemented by shared signs and gestures, expressions of both team identity and individual triumph. The film’s most famous catchphrase, recited by Maverick and Goose after a gruelling training session and facing down the snootiness of their rivals and bosses, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” is cemented with a high-five, a summation of this fantasising. Maverick and Goose are idealised in the film’s first half as the quintessential pair of wild-and-crazy guys who know how to make a party happen anywhere, with set routines for flirtation and a penchant for sitting at the piano banging on the keys and wailing Jerry Lee Lewis off-key. These moments are a recognisable point of descent for this kind of movie: some of those old flyboy pics I mentioned were directed by Howard Hawks, who was constantly fascinated by the rituals of close-knit groups dealing with specific pressures, and scenes of characters gathered around pianos. And yet the differences are very telling. Top Gun is Hollywood product at its most unrefined, much more the offspring of the desire to sell its star as simultaneously unstoppable and relatable and the producers’ mental check-list of how to ensure that, than it is of any authorial voice. Maverick’s friendship with Goose is positioned purely to impact upon Maverick’s journey. Goose’s death occurs to invest the last act with some emotional weight, and yet its real purpose seems to be to allow Cruise to be photographed in some different emotional registers. Here’s Tom Cruise looking moody. Here’s Tom Cruise still looking great in tighty-whities whilst mourning. Here’s Tom Cruise nobly resolving to lift from the ashes.

Similarly, the rest of the TOPGUN team are barely characterised beyond their postures of general antagonism with Maverick, and their inevitable shift to obeisance before his awesomeness. One of the film’s most famous/infamous vignettes sees Maverick and Goose playing Ice and his RIO Ron ‘Slider’ Kerner (Rossovich) playing a gleefully competitive game of beach volleyball, a moment beloved by many for its unabashed celebration of male physiques attached to charismatic actors. A brief interlude of carefully crafted pizzazz that says nothing about the characters beyond what we already know – they’re young, hot, and macho show-offs – when it might have been crafted to demonstrate the evolving camaraderie and inner natures of the heroes, as another potentially Hawksian moment. All of these are however illustrations of the postures the movie wants the audience to take towards the on-screen elements, and thus exist in a realm closer to advertising than drama, the audience being sold on the need to be/have/watch Maverick. Ice is the only rival graced with solidity, and Kilmer tries to give the character sharp angles of behaviour, particularly when he tries to console Maverick after Goose’s death, as if fighting to pierce a membrane of tension between the two of them. But even he’s essentially a one-dimensional foil, a locker room big-mouth with frosted tips and representative of the onus of establishment judgement. There’s some inherent irony in the casting insofar as Kilmer and Cruise as cast in roles the other might, given their career arcs and general ethos, more reasonably have played.

Top Gun is essentially Star Wars (1977) for jocks, mimicking that film’s essential story arc but removing its mythic element, not just by resituating it in the present day, but by reconfiguring the Luke Skywalker figure – the far-flung dreamer who realises brilliant potential – and substituting a state of already-achieved perfection, a hymn to narcissistic self-appreciation and fuck-I’m-good-just-ask-me posturing. The only quality Maverick needs to learn is humility, which Goose’s death finally instils – he learns to look outside of himself to a voice from beyond. The film plays an interesting game in this regard. The story makes much of Ice’s conviction that Maverick flies dangerously, but when there is a deadly consequence to his flying it’s carefully contrived to not really be his fault, but a by-product of several different forces converging to create a tragedy, of which Maverick and Ice’s competitiveness is only one. Maverick feels responsible because he finally learned he does not have godlike control in the air: he is graced both the gravitas of loss but relieved of the pressure of definite culpability. Maverick’s budding relationship with Charlie is both impaired and given new heat when she criticises one of his risky aerial moves, sparking a show of childishly argumentative behaviour from them both – they careen individually through traffic in their his-and-hers choice of vehicles – that inevitably leads to the sack. I’m sure there are more boring and asinine romances in cinema than that between Maverick and Charlie, but I’m not quite sure where. And yet Scott simply takes that emptiness as an opportunity to unabashedly sell music video-like fantasy, picturing the pair riding around on his Kawasaki and pashing on it in artful magic hour shots, much in the same way that Cruise’s general acting response to his situation is to flash his million-dollar super-cocky grin.

There’s no nice way of saying this – not that I feel any desire to be nice – but Top Gun is not a good film. Certainly from a technical filmmaking viewpoint it’s still mostly impressive, and the sheen of Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography retains its gorgeous, high-end magazine-shoot gloss. And yet it’s a curiously patchy work that scarcely has a plot, has assemblages in place of characters, and almost dissolves into a succession of shots roughly accumulating into scenes, illustrating a script so shallow it can barely pass muster as a bubblegum wrapper. Nonetheless Top Gun proved a vital pivot and permanent landmark in Tony Scott’s oeuvre, and indeed in recent years the general affection for Tony, following his tragic death in 2012, amongst movie fans who grew up on his big-budget, big-flash movies has begun to rival that being shown for Cruise. The younger brother of Ridley, Scott’s career mimicked his elder sibling’s, graduating from the same art college and moving into advertising at Ridley’s invitation, similarly investing heavily stylised visuals into commercials he directed. After forays into directing television, Scott made his feature filmmaking debut with the 1981 Horror film The Hunger, a movie that bombed at the box office but won some attention for its style, including from Bruckheimer and Simpson, who had begun their rise to eminence in Hollywood by shepherding the successful Flashdance (1983), directed by Adrian Lyne, another flashy Brit talent the duo brought over.

Bruckheimer and Simpson hired Scott for Top Gun, and a lot of the film’s success is certainly owed to his arch use of flourishes like sunset backlighting and delight in gleaming fuselage – both human and aircraft. By contrast with his brother’s woozy ambition and genre-hopping, Scott essentially and happily remained a maker of slick B-movies, investing them with a superficial intensity of look and sound. But I’ve never been able to get on board with the belated Tony Scott cult. Apart from a handful of top-level works like True Romance (1992), Crimson Tide (1995), and Enemy of the State (1998), which were mostly distinguished by relative stylistic restraint, most of Tony’s films represent the glibbest form of chic. The phrase “style over substance” doesn’t quite cut it in summarising Tony’s aesthetic: the substance exists purely to serve the style. Tony’s later movies like Domino (2004) are insufferably gimmicky in their shooting and cutting. The Hunger is the most boring lesbian vampire movie ever made, and whilst it presaged Top Gun in establishing Scott’s comfort with extolling various forms of homoeroticism, it also established his airbrushed approach to such things, wrapping everything in a haute couture glaze. Rather than erotic, it’s a post-sexual world he inhabits, where all things are permitted so long as they have no definable weight and can be made to look really cool. Top Gun does at least move, but there’s a weird jerkiness to its construction, as if the film had a troubled shoot and what we see had to be laboriously patched together (a problem that would become more defined on the production team’s follow-up, Days of Thunder, 1990).

The most effective scenes in the film are its two real character moments, both of which revolve around Maverick’s troubled relationship with his father’s memory. When Maverick tells Charlie about his father’s disappearance, Scott performs a simple, effective tracking shot that slowly moves around Cruise as the actor expertly shifts from laughing nostalgia to musing introspection, a clear signal that Cruise is a performer who knows what he’s doing. Later, Viper takes him for a walk on the beach and explains that he was a part of the mass dogfight that claimed his father’s life, which was hushed up because it “took place on the wrong side of some border,” and assures Maverick his dad really was a hero. This scene certainly gains a lot from Skerritt’s expertise as a grizzled character actor. These flashes of substance are however quickly disposed of. They serve less to tell us that Maverick has psychological issues than to have one of the last impediments to understanding himself as awesome have been removed. The inevitable action climax, in which Maverick is sent out to rescue Ice and others from an ambush by MiGs and saves Ice by shooting down three of the enemy planes, is spectacular stuff in a jumpy sort of way. Where in the training scenes Scott and his filming team do a good job of establishing the relationships of the various aircraft, in the combat the editing turns chaotic. The film’s most truly outstanding element remains the flying, when you can see it properly, which is almost entirely authentic.

Top Gun concludes triumphantly, of course, with Ice and Maverick cemented finally as mutually appreciative if still sardonically rivalrous comrades, and Maverick reuniting with Charlie after she seemed to choose her career over him, whilst Maverick contemplates turning TOPGUN instructor himself. Flashforward to the present day. Top Gun: Maverick has the difficult task of locating any form of seriousness in the inherited material, and its main choice in doing so is to make Goose’s death a cross Maverick has been carrying throughout his 30-plus-year flying career. Maverick is rediscovered working as a test pilot on the Darkstar, a prototype plane that can hopefully go to Mach 10. That’s, like, really fast, yo. When he learns the project is being shut down early by its overseer Rear-Admiral Cain (Ed Harris), Maverick, hoping to save the project and its employees from the scrapheap, takes the plane up and goes for broke, busting Mach 10 before crashing. Maverick earns a customary chewing-out, and it’s made clear he’s never risen above the rank of Captain because of his habits of insubordination, and only has a place in the Navy still thanks to Ice’s protection, as his former rival turned eternal pal is now an Admiral.

Maverick is nonetheless saved once again when, through Ice’s intervention, he’s called to TOPGUN to quickly school a select group of graduates for an extremely dangerous mission: they’re assigned to attack and destroy a clandestine uranium enrichment facility in some other (or the same) unnamed rogue nation, an installation built in a remote and rugged locale and heavily defended to the point that Maverick describes as needing “two miracles” to destroy. Maverick soon has to deal with blasts from the past upon returning to Miramar, most agreeably in the form of Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), one of his former girlfriends (who is mentioned in a running joke but not glimpsed in the first film) and the daughter of an Admiral who now runs a bar at North Island for pilots. More disturbing is the presence of Goose’s son Lt. Bradley ‘Rooster’ Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who has become a top pilot in spite of Carole’s wish for him not to follow in his father’s footsteps, a wish Maverick hesitantly tried to enforce by failing to recommend him for the Naval Academy when it was in his power. Maverick also chafes under the watchful eye of the Naval Air Forces honcho ‘Cyclone’ Simpson (Jon Hamm), who has no time for Maverick’s loose cannon antics, dammit.

Perhaps taking some heed of how angrily many fans took to the borderline contemptuous use of the classic Star Wars heroes in the new Disney-backed trilogy, and perhaps also thanks to Cruise’s ever-rigorous grip on how to manage his screen image, Top Gun: Maverick resists making sport of its hero’s condition of arrested development. When, in the opening minutes, Maverick is glimpsed sweeping the canvas cover off his old Kawasaki and dashing across the desert to work like he’s still the same flashy kid he was in the original, it’s not to service any humour but for the audience to delight in the way Cruise-as-Maverick still embodies their fantasies – in this case to still act like a 24-year-old when you’re pushing 60. Top Gun: Maverick’s most vital theme nonetheless quickly proves to revolve around fear of obsolescence, as Maverick stares down his last real chance to make a mark in the Navy. Maverick’s opening escapade is very obviously based on The Right Stuff, and director Joseph Kosinski acknowledges the model by casting Harris. Cain is nicknamed “The Drone Ranger” and wants to shut down the Darkstar specifically to channel its funding into his drone warfare projects, an offence to any self-respecting, old-school warrior. Thus, the onus of hierarchical command’s paternalistic authority and sometimes blind verdicts Maverick faced in the first film is here also conflated with the threat of the new, a newness that’s blandly impersonal, technocratic, and, well, just plain unmanly.

Not that piloting is strictly a manly business anymore: Maverick’s trainee squad also includes female pilots Natasha ‘Phoenix’ Trace (Monica Barbaro) and Callie ‘Halo’ Bassett (Kara Wang), as well as the braggart  Jake ‘Hangman’ Seresin (Glen Powell, stealing scenes with his smugly louche alpha act), whose rivalry with Rooster echoes Maverick’s with Ice. Hangman is more of a provocateur and bully than either of them were: Phoenix comments dryly that his call-sign stems from his habit of leaving his comrades “hanging out to dry” in tough situations. There’s even a dorky non-alpha named Bob – just Bob (Lewis Pullman) – who serves as Phoenix’s RIO. Throughout their training Rooster’s resentment of Maverick clashes with Maverick’s fear of sending Rooster off to his death, compounding the Bradshaw family tragedy. Hangman eventually catches wind of Rooster’s spurring loss, which also purposefully echoes Maverick’s in the first film. The film hits many of same basic story beats as the original, even going so far as to have Maverick sent on his way to TOPGUN by a bald character actor, before entering into some deliberate doppelganger moments, building to a strong vignette as Penny notices Maverick staring into the bar with a stricken look whilst Rooster within bangs out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano for his pals just as his father used to. Arguably this is going a few steps too far in positing Rooster as a chip off the old block, considering he was an infant in the original film, but of course it gives both Maverick and the audience familiar with it a hot dose of instant nostalgic connection.

Top Gun: Maverick keeps in mind lessons from some of the more successful extensions of venerable franchises or “legacequels” of recent years. There are detectable likeness to Rocky Balboa (2006) and Creed (2014), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and Kosinski’s own Tron: Legacy (2011), from which it repeats the idea of positing a generational interchange as, basically, a father-son tale. This is one of the best aspects of Top Gun: Maverick, but also an exasperating one, as the film avoids giving much information about just what kind of relationship Maverick and Rooster had as the young man grew up. Their relationship is also defined in a way that resembles the original film in skipping around the issue of responsibility: Rooster’s anger at Maverick for holding him back is used as a stand-in for the audience’s awareness of Maverick’s role in Goose’s death whilst also dismissing that as a lingering issue. The film also generally still exists to affirm Cruise as the fount of all awesomeness. When the hat is tipped to the original’s volleyball scene as Maverick and his students play football on the beach together, it’s mostly to draw the viewer’s admiration for how good Cruise’s physique is still, rather than celebrate those of any potential replacements, and Kosinski avoids filming with the same soft-core sheen that Scott so readily indulged.

Kosinski is one of the more interesting talents to break into big-budget filmmaking in the past decade or so. He started off as a would-be screenwriter but gained attention working with CGI on advertisements and cutscenes for video games, developing a fine eye, a sleek sense of style and function, but also emerging as a film director with a good feel for actors. He’s more classical and has a finer touch than Scott ever had – he cares that Cruise and Connelly seem to really get along on camera where in the original Cruise and McGillis seemed to be thrown together because of their clashing eye hues and bone structures. But he also lacks the fetishistic clamminess that clung to Scott’s imagery, the quality that, for better or worse, defined Scott as a premiere Dream Factory stylist. Scott’s film also belonged to an era when filmmaking was strongly attuned to physicality, which Scott took to typically hyperbolic lengths by coating just about every actor in sweat to catch all the lighting hues but also give the impression these are guys feeling extremes at all times. Top Gun: Maverick by contrast has no such feel for hothouse climes. Kosinski links his shots together better than Scott, but lacks his pictorial intensity. Kosinski settles for reproducing the opening of Top Gun in his edition, down to the backlit crew and planes and playing “Highway To The Danger Zone” on the soundtrack, as if this isn’t some epic years-later revisiting but maybe the first or second imaginary sequel that might have come down the pipeline in the late ‘80s if Cruise had been so inclined. Perhaps if I was more nostalgic for the first film this would pinion me with Pavlovian sense-memory, but apart from mildly liking the song it doesn’t have that leverage over me. This sort of thing is instantly reassuring to fans but it also signals just how derivative and unimaginative this take is going to be. The film doesn’t even have some of the eccentric qualities Kosinski invested in the generally underrated and trend-setting Tron: Legacy.

Similarly, Top Gun: Maverick also reproduces the original in failing to sketch the members of the pilots beyond a couple of basic traits. Kosinski tried his best to invest a definably Hawksian sensibility in his firefighter drama Only The Brave (2017) through portraying group dynamics in difficult, cut-above jobs: he failed – who wouldn’t? – but it was a nice try. He makes a similar play here, introducing the pilots in the trainee team in a lengthy sequence in Penny’s bar as they josh and jibe, compete and party. This sequence is also clever in the way it remixes Maverick’s meeting with Charlie in the original, with the young pilots mistaking Maverick for just another old fart, only to cringe when he strides out before them at TOPGUN. But despite Kosinski’s best efforts everyone remains locked into their specific, generic functions, barely fleshed out or given characteristics, except for Hangman, whose preordained act of redemptive rescue is both delivered with a dash of humour and again tips its hat to Maverick’s role in the original’s climax. And that’s ultimately both what distinguishes and hampers Top Gun: Maverick. Whilst it’s both much more of a real movie than its predecessor, it’s also a simple, straightforward, unambitious one. That sort of thing can be a relief in today’s blockbuster zone filled with multiverses and cross-promotional tie-ins, and it’s plain by the general, initial reaction it’s proven exactly that for many.

Still, I can’t help but wonder when the mass audience became so undemanding. Despite being a paean to unruly willpower, there’s nothing of the like to the film’s crisply ordered, very familiar plot progression, nor anything daring about its approach to its characters and their stories. Where the original at least made gestures towards complicating its morality and destabilising the aura of its hero before reconfirming it, Top Gun: Maverick only goes through the motions of character conflict. Maverick’s calls this time are far more insubordinate than they were in the first film but the movie assures us they’re the right ones (even in the opening vignette where he destroys a multimillion-dollar aircraft). His skirmishes with Rooster are ultimately straw-dummy headbutting. Maverick’s relationship with Rooster is essentially the same as his with Penny – they knew each-other back when, they’ve been through some stuff, and despite the superficial spurning and sparring they all still like each-other, and we don’t have to go to any effort making them connect. Those connections are just there.

Cruise and Connelly bring a decent level of chemistry to their scenes together, convincingly portraying a couple who have been around the block a few times but still have the fire of their younger selves guttering within. Kosinski works in some amusing flourishes that give some flickers of life: Penny takes Maverick out on her yacht and has to teach him basic seamanship despite him being the career Navy man, and later he has to sneak out of her bedroom to avoid giving the game away too early to Penny’s teenage daughter Amelia (Lyliana Wray), only to drop down directly before her expectant gaze and stern warning, “Don’t break her heart again.” None of this escapes the bonds of a standard-issue C-plot romance, and the scene where Penny consoles Maverick through a crisis of confidence feels like it copy-and-pasted from the script of Rocky Balboa, which also dug up an obscure character from the franchise opener to serve as the fill-in for a previous love interest. The film’s best scenes are calculated in divergent ways. The first comes when Maverick goes to visit Ice, who, like the actor playing him, has been debilitated and left almost voiceless by cancer. Maverick confesses his worries and doubts to his old comrade and defender, who tells him by computer that “it’s time to let go” when it comes to Rooster, and then huskily pronounces, “The Navy needs Maverick – the kid needs Maverick.” It’s virtually impossible not to be moved by this, even given what stick-figures the actors played in the original. Part of the new gravitas comes from time and affection for these two actors who remind us for good or ill that more time has passed since the original than anyone involved would care to remember.

Kilmer’s strength as an actor still glows under the ashes of illness, his bond with Cruise has a genuine feel, and the scene ends with a deft flash of audience-tickling humour when Ice then prods Maverick with the question “Who’s the better pilot, you or me?” and Maverick responds dryly, “This is a nice moment, let’s not ruin it.” Later in the film Ice dies from his illness, leaving Maverick defenceless before the military hierarchy, but he decides to take another risk after Cyclone decides to dump him and try a more conservative approach to the raid when it seems no-one can traverse the twisting terrain in the necessary span of time to avoid detection on the impending bomb run. Maverick takes a plane and puts all his piloting legerdemain on the line to prove it can be done, convincing Cyclone that only he can effectively lead the team into battle. This sequence is certainly on point, exploiting both the sophistication of the aerial photography and flying and the straightforward rah-rah of seeing the old hero get his mojo back and prove the world still bends before the awesomeness of Maverick. The actual bomb run proves almost a little too straightforward, despite the inevitable little foul-ups like failing laser guidance that requires so old-fashioned down-home shooting skill.

Both Top Gun movies are inarguably about celebrating the legend of American military strength. The first film, famously, generated a 500% spike in applications to become pilots. The narrative through-line of both movies, whilst preoccupied with Maverick as, well, a maverick, his arts nonetheless simply make him the apex predator in this kind of warfare. But the movies’ pitch also comes with the curious caveat that it is above all just that, a legend. That military strength is rendered a trope, as inconsequential in its way as the realities of Charlemagne’s empire to the stories of Roland or Dark Age Britain to the Arthurian Knights, or the Bengal Lancers in some 1930s Hollywood-made film extolling British imperialism. The abstraction of the enemy in both films, with their menacing black aircraft and face-covering helmets, underlines this legendary conception, even as it also highlights a worrying aspect of military thinking. The “enemy” becomes an amorphous thing, detached from all geopolitical immediacies, turning politics and war into an eternal duel pivoting from foe to foe. Both movies tap tension in anxiety that American military capability isn’t really that much – the MiGs in the first film and the “fifth generation” enemy fighters in the sequel are both described as being formidable and more sophisticated than the US fighter planes – and it’s the calibre of people flying them is what really counts. In the original Top Gun the enemy starts shooting first, and the American pilots are forced to fight for their lives, placing them not only in an underdog position but also in the right. In Top Gun: Maverick they’re engaged in a covert operation and pre-emptive strike.

The potential repercussions of this, and how the pilots feel about it, could be very interesting, but aren’t investigated at all. “Don’t think, just feel,” Maverick instructs Rooster and the rest of the team, which is supposed to relate purely to the required surrender to pure instinct in the heat of jet-powered flying, but also describes every other aspect of their roles. Ours not to reason why, etc. The similarity of Top Gun: Maverick’s basic plot to a host of older war movies is also hard to miss. The bombing run is closest in nature to Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and indeed it’s basically the same film, down to Maverick getting shot down after successfully completing the seemingly impossible mission. Except that where Robson took a risk and kept the downbeat ending of James Michener’s source novel in which both pilot hero and his would-be rescuers were shot dead, Kosinski sets up the same situation but delivers crowd-pleasing stuff. Rooster returns to save Maverick from a helicopter that pursues him across the snowy wasteland, only to be shot down himself, forcing the duo to make their way across country together.

Teller, not an actor I’ve felt much liking for thus far in his career, proves surprisingly effective in his role, as far as it goes. With a scruffy moustache he looks enough like Edwards but with a slightly burlier, overcompensating edge. His interactions with Cruise are however more stated than felt. The last portion of the film sees Maverick and Rooster trekking across the snow-crusted landscape and electing to steal a vintage, surplus F-14 from a hanger bay. As far as fan-pleasing touches go this is again pretty good, setting up a finale that wrings excitement from this twist, as Maverick has to not just outfly but outthink two far more modern and formidable opponents in the ultimate dramatization of his career doldrums. But the situations are robbed of what should be some of their tense and immediate impact by the blankness of the setting and the absence of enemy soldiers. It remains as bland and plastic and straightforward as a mid-2000s video game. Which is a significant lack considering that what distinguishes Top Gun: Maverick up until this point is the remarkable beauty and immediacy of the flying sequences, which mostly eschew special effects enhancement as much as the first film and indeed go a few steps further, utilising the cutting-edge camerawork and lensing to show the audience the cast in the planes, and giving a potent sense of the thrills and dangers of weaving a path up a narrow gorge in a plane going hundreds of miles an hour.

The visual drama and immediacy of the flying and filming throughout have been immediately celebrated by viewers and critics alike, and it feels like it could be an important moment in the history of current big-budget cinema, if anyone cares to learn the lesson. At the very least, Top Gun: Maverick is, quite genuinely, an islet of old-school cinema values: putting good-looking people on screen and having them do interesting, spectacular things – an essentialist approach to making popular cinema going back to Pearl White. For all the advancing sophistication of CGI-era cinema, the human eye retains a capacity to tell what’s real from what’s bogus, as Hollywood has begun using its computers as a catch-all for all its efforts, but Kosinski and his crew and actors provide ample evidence that approach to making movies need not be the whole future. Top Gun: Maverick also manages the rare feat of improving enormously on a facile precursor and using it as a solid template, which might well be because that template in turn is rooted in primeval Hollywood lore, however bastardised. Top Gun: Maverick aims to summarise and provide apotheosis for Cruise as a star, but it does so in a manner that confirms just how much of the star’s ambition has waned, and how much the audience expects of him, taking this mostly bland, efficient, solid programmer as some sort of grand return.

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Historical

The Northman (2022)

.

Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.

That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.

Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.

More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.

Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.

The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.

From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.

Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.

Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.

One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.

Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.

Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.

Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.

Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.

Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.

The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.

Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women  and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.

I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.

Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.

At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.

Standard
2020s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

The Batman (2022)

.

Director: Matt Reeves
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Matt Reeves

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

With Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s versions of Batman now sliding into generational memory, and Zack Snyder’s firmly written off as a blind alley, the time is apparently ripe for another reimagining of a character now firmly lodged as a supreme archetype in pop culture. Somewhere along the line Batman replaced Superman as the preeminent comic book hero, supplanting the dream of vast power and matching, rigorously honed moral perspective – the fantasy embodiment of mid-20th century America – with something more concrete and troubled. When Batman first emerged as a comic book character as created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the late 1930s, he had obvious roots reaching back to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his prodigious pulp fiction and funny pages offspring, including Zorro, Doc Savage, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow. Batman was also rooted in the cultural climes of the 1930s, a time when gangsters were celebrities, and movie theatres were filled with the influence of the German Expressionist cinema movement with their reality-distorting gravity of style as exemplified by movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), all of which inflected the comic’s vision in ways overt and clandestine. Today Batman has survived where only vague cultural echoes of the property’s inspirations resound.

Ever since Taxi Driver (1976) firmly inscribed itself as an ideal model for summarising a dank facet of the modern American psyche where everyone’s waiting for the real rain to come and wash out the streets, Batman, revised radically from the playful version of the character popularised by the 1966-68 TV series starring Adam West, suddenly found himself the perfect mediating vessel. Batman is defined by his seemingly incoherent yet perfect assemblage of traits. Rich but forlorn. Free but obsessed. Orphaned but surrounded by a form of family. Living as an emblem of all that’s desirable in worldly terms yet lacking desire. Batman appeals to the whole swathe of a modern movie audience. To the young, in his ingenious gadgets and naggingly memorable mystique, and his simultaneous defiant attitude towards and exemplification of parental authority. To teenagers in his self-emblazoned embodiment of torment and sceptical campaign to right institutional wrongs. And to adults as the most quasi-complex of superheroes, the one whose splintered psyche is animated in the apparel of his universe. The sprawling old-world manor as the emblem of civilisation with the bole of secrets lodged underneath. The villains who all reflect Bruce Wayne’s alienation and splintered identity back at him. The diffused yet pervasive and ambiguous sexuality.

With The Batman, director Matt Reeves attempts a task of synthesis, charting a middle course between the dusky fantasia of Burton’s films and the sly pseudo-realism of Nolan’s, whilst also harking back to aspects of the material’s early days. His stylistic inspirations, are chiefly movies like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1996), both themselves children of Taxi Driver, and also nod to a brand of burnished style popular in the 1980s as practiced by the likes of Walter Hill, Ridley and Tony Scott and others, directors who created stylised worlds where the streets were always wet from rain and reflected multi-coloured neon whilst some raffishly beautiful people got in trouble. Given how boring so much contemporary filmmaking looks, it’s not surprising that kind of movie is becoming more and more of a touchstone for more ambitious emergent directors. Reeves takes his stylistic conceits and thematic inferences to obvious extremes – it rains so much in his Gotham City I wondered if it’s supposed to be located in the tropics. Reeves, who once upon a time cowrote Steven Seagal and James Gray movies, debuted as a director in spectacular style with the facetious but compelling found footage monster movie Cloverfield (2008) and followed it up Let Me In (2011), a solid remake of the Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In (2008) and a couple of entries in the renewed Planet of the Apes series. Despite his writing background Reeves  belongs to a cadre of current directors also including Joseph Kosinski and Gareth Edwards who try to fuse highly technical filmmaking with visual artistry.

The Batman also splits the difference in taking on the material in at once exacerbating still further the more serious, grounded aspect of Nolan’s films whilst providing an ironically revitalising stab at providing a classical kind of Batman story. Whilst the very familiar tragedy of the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents is invoked in the story, it’s not portrayed yet again, nor any other element of his origin myth. Moreover, The Batman sets out to emphasise the title character’s prowess as an investigator, harking back to his status as the “world’s greatest detective” in the comics but long quelled in adaptations. This film’s version of Bruce (Robert Pattinson) has been inhabiting his Batman guise for two years. He’s become, thanks to his alliance with Gotham Police Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), a folkloric figure skirting the outermost fringes of legitimacy, regarded with hostility but not quite outright violence by cops, just infamous enough to scare street punks when his searchlight signal emblem is projected in the sky but not yet sufficient to scare the criminal outfits about town. Despite the newly thick pall of goth-noir self-seriousness, in certain ways The Batman resembles the 1966 film of the West imprimatur, directed by Leslie Martinson, more than any other movies of the franchise since, insofar as much of it deals with the essential story pattern of Batman trying to follow a breadcrumb of trails left for him by The Riddler which eventually proves to point to a project of anarchic and iconoclastic intent.

The film’s choice of title confirms a yearning to restore some mystique and mystery to the character, appending a definite article to make him seem less personable and more like the creature haunting the dreams and sneering quips of his criminal prey, and nodding back to the more arcane writing style of the early comic books: he is as much a rarefied emanation of Gotham City’s psyche as The Joker and The Riddler. And so the film opens with Bruce musing in his diary on the purpose of the Bat Signal as a tool of intimidating criminals, warning them he’s out and about, whilst also quaintly musing that he doesn’t merely hide in the shadows, but “I am the shadows.” That line seems like something a teenage boy overly fond of Poe and Nine Inch Nails might write on a schoolbook. But Reeves cleverly insinuates the Batman guise is in part a riposte to the kinds of club-like disguises becoming popular amongst Gotham’s thug element, like a gang of clown make-up-wearing goons who like filming their random acts of brutality and set their sights on a lone commuter (Akie Kotabe) who tries to slip away unnoticed. The gang corner him on an L station only for Batman to emerge from the darkness and beat the living hell out of the gang, saving special rough treatment for one who vainly tries to shoot their masked and armour-plated vigilante. Batman isn’t calling himself Batman yet, instead repeatedly referring to himself as Vengeance, personified.

Gotham is currently in the throes of a mayoral election, with the plutocratic incumbent Don Mitchell Jnr (Rupert Penry-Jones) duking it with young, upstart, reformist challenger Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson). But Mitchell is attacked in his office and beaten to death by a lurking figure who wears a crude, bits-and-bobs disguise. Gordon contrives to bring Bruce in to view the crime scene, because a letter addressed “To The Batman” was found taped to Mitchell’s body, which was also missing a thumb. Gordon’s former partner, now the Commissioner, Pete Savage (Alex Ferns), objects strongly to Gordon’s action, but Bruce is able to sort out the killer’s queasy blend of sick humour and intricate puzzles leading to clues, with the help of his butler, pseudo-father, and former intelligence officer Alfred (Andy Serkis). When Bruce locates Mitchell’s thumb, tethered to a fingerprint-unlocked thumb drive, he and Gordon open it, to find it contains photos of Mitchell with a bruised young woman outside The Iceberg, a popular nightclub, controlled by crime lord Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his lieutenant Oz, known by his underworld sobriquet The Penguin (Colin Farrell). The thumb drive also, the moment it’s accessed, automatically sends the pictures out online. The mysterious killer, who calls himself The Riddler, soon makes a victim of Savage by kidnapping him and torturing him to death, and makes clear he’s pursuing some vendetta against those he brands the corrupt and hateful overlords of Gotham’s institutions, both official and criminal.

Bruce visits The Iceberg in Batman guise and, after bashing his way inside, talks with The Penguin, but his eye is caught by club employee Selina (Zoe Kravitz), whose distinctive boots are glimpsed in the photos of Mitchell. Tracking her, Bruce finds she’s harbouring the bruised girl, Annika (Hana Hrzic) in her apartment, and soon observes her in action in her metier as a cat burglar, breaking in to Mitchell’s apartment to try and steal back Annika’s passport. Bat and Cat form an uneasy alliance as Selina agrees to become Batman’s eyes and ears and penetrate the exclusive club-within-the-club inside The Iceberg called 44 Below, which regularly entertains Gotham’s supposed elite of law and order. There she encounters the city’s chatty DA, Gil Colson (Peter Sarsgaard), and picks up slivers of information that begin pointing along the path to uncovering a conspiracy linking Falcone and the city bosses. Meanwhile Colson himself is snatched by The Riddler and employed in a most spectacular fashion to crash Mitchell’s funeral.

The Batman betrays efforts to keep up with the zeitgeist: where in Nolan’s films Batman was necessary because the police were under-resourced and outmatched in a cynically neoliberal epoch, here it’s because they’re largely an inherently corrupt organism serving fraudulent oligarchy. The Batman reiterates ideas employed in Nolan’s films, covering similar ground to Batman Begins (2005) in portraying efforts to take down Falcone, a representative of familiar organised crime, only to create a vacuum where more perverse villains will burgeon. Reeves also revisits and intensifies The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) themes of collective punishment by self-appointed anarchist-avengers, and choice of characterising Catwoman not as a sly opportunist or, like Burton’s take, a crazed and eroticised avatar of feminist rebellion, but a blunter, demimonde-produced rebel locked in a dance of duality with Batman in seeking retribution. That said, The Batman hews in its darker, weirder bent to elements of Burton’s vision, presenting a more detailed and realistic version of its perma-noir city replete with Edward Hopper-esque diners and looming urban-industrial fixtures. Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac (2007) are also evident reference points in remaking The Riddler over as a tricky, ironic, viciously moralistic foe reminiscent of Se7en’s John Doe, and sporting personal branding in his logo and cryptic puzzles reminiscent of the Zodiac Killer’s. The Riddler is a menacing, deeply malignant weirdo who contrives to have one character’s face eaten off by rats. Taking inspiration from something like Se7en, an exemplification of a movie that contrives to look grown-up but actually disseminates the worldview of a morbid high schooler, doesn’t charm me.

Allowing that kind of Sadean edge also pushes The Batman into territory verboten to kids and a mite unpleasant for grown-ups too. Reeves is at least judicious, implying and skirting such grisly things whilst avoiding overt gore. The Batman labours to construct a mood of creeping, incipient dread infecting all things that makes Burton’s once-controversial style choices – remembering that he was the one who fatefully inducted darkness and grit into the lexicon of the modern fantastical blockbuster – seem nearly as playful and frivolous as the West series by comparison. The pall is emphasised by Michael Giacchino’s grand and menacing score, which builds themes, in radically different counterpoints, derived from “Ave Maria,” which The Riddler adores. The film’s extreme length, at nearly three hours, is enforced in large part by Reeves’ extremely deliberate pacing, and it’s both a plus and a minus in terms of the movie’s overall success. Reeves strains to give every gesture and plot turn a sense of weight and foreboding, each revelation leading on to another, grimmer truth. One real plus of The Batman is that it believes in basic principles of popular cinema as a blend of story and style. Even if the story is very familiar as it largely from god knows how many urban thrillers and conspiracy dramas, it’s more than just a convenience to pass the time between action scenes and cheap jokes that come every five minutes to sate seat-kicking 13-year-olds.

Despite its veneer of social invective, The Batman is as nostalgic in its way as anything in current cinema, looking back longingly for an age of romantic desolation in big cities rather than the smothering blandness of a gentrified age. Preoccupation with the dark side of the Batman fantasy as rooted in vigilantism, a contemporary concern augured deep in the zeitgeist by films like Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and Taxi Driver itself as well as perpetual tabloid controversy, was initially interrogated in the likes of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke before then being transmitted into the movies, supplanting the old, simple image of the masked, heroic crime fighter. Dirty Harry itself can be seen as both a derivation and anticipation of eras in Batman lore with Harry as the Dark Knight and Scorpio as The Joker. The septic avenger angst is now so familiar, in short, as to be as big a cliché as anything it was meant to dispel, especially when it has become, in its own way, just as romanticised. Reeves however tries to take it seriously in his own way. The film makes much of the common roots of Bruce, Selina, and the Riddler’s motives to become extra-judicial punishers, with sharply divergent sociological and psychological paths trodden to become what they’ve become. This kind of characterisation tries to take on themes of inequality and privilege, with Selina explicitly suggesting only someone born rich can afford morals. Trouble is, this treads very close to making very conservative arguments: Bruce, rich and comfortable despite his traumas, has the luxury of being good; Selina, hardscrabble survivor, is more focused, angry, and ready to countenance theft and murder; Riddler, product of an orphanage, is a maniacal slayer, forging a shadow army out of the dispossessed and the never-had like the embodiment of every upper and middle class nightmare. Good things those lower orders are being kept in hand.

Of course, there are other ways of reading this. Reeves’ attempt to return the material to a zone that feels more psychologically animate makes it easier to see the characters as facets of the same personality – Bruce/Batman as superego, Selina the ego (and anima), Riddler the id. Bring on the Joker for superficial antithesis. Farrell’s Penguin is left out of this equation. Burgess Meredith’s fabulous performance in the West series made the Penguin the most intelligent and impudent of Batman’s opponents, so he took on a greater importance there than in other mediums. Here the character is most plainly used as a movie buff and acting fan reference point: Reeves has cast Farrell and covered him in make-up to do a pinpoint imitation of Robert De Niro’s similarly transformed performance as Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Reeves and Farrell do sneak in a deft reference to the more traditional version of the character as he’s left waddling when Bruce and Gordon tie his feet after capturing him for interrogation. There is nonetheless appropriate cunning in positing the character in a  milieu that’s an extrapolation of a 1930s movie gangland (Jared Leto’s much-mocked but interesting performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad, 2016, also tried to bridge such roots, but with his nods going to James Cagney and George Raft). There’s a coherently and realistically paranoid lilt to the film’s vision of the official ruling class and underworld bosses of a city locked in an uneasy, mutually contemptuous but inescapable gravity, a state of decay where Batman seems most justifiable.

The neurotic dance of attraction and disdain between Bruce and Selina, constantly grazing each-other whilst wearing their sexuality as masks, has long been a sustaining element of the material, and Reeves to his credit doesn’t awkwardly skip around it like Nolan did for most of The Dark Knight Rises, although he also stops short of acknowledging it as deeply pathological as Burton indicated in Batman Returns (1992). That film, which, despite being violently uneven and about 70% misfire, sported in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman a definitive characterisation as a post-Madonna, pre-#MeToo sexual avenger. Reeves aims at least to let the couple evince attraction that feels more bodied and hot-blooded than the constant puppy love found in the Marvel Studios series, complete with the odd bit of snogging, even if their relationship is still ultimately stymied and chaste. Bruce’s attraction to Selina is part of his character journey as she taunts his code but also ultimately reinforces it, more perhaps than The Riddler does, through her actions.Unlike a great majority of moviemakers today, Reeves seems aware that he has two movie stars on hand to do what people used to go to movies to see, and so he bravely allows the audience to enjoy watching two very hot people play characters whose chief affinity seems to lie in both being vinyl fetishists. Kravitz, having a good year between this and her starring role in Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, has just the right screen presence and persona for the role, a gamine projecting a quality half-feral, half-wounded beyond repair, driving her to become a kind of urban guerrilla fighter fighting a private war. She looks so hard, so gimlet-gazed and self-contained, that the sight of her responding to Bruce reveals  someone who might well rather be an animal remembering she’s human. That Selina clearly swings both ways is also signalled in her apparent relationship with the victimised Annika, who vanishes from her apartment, apparently snatched by Falcone and his people.

Later Annika’s corpse is discovered by Bruce and Selina when they spy on a drug deal orchestrated by The Penguin. The Penguin’s goons fire on them when they realise they’re being spied on, but Bruce brings out the Batmobile to chase down The Penguin in a spectacular, sometimes quasi-impressionistic highway chase. Reeves’ cinematic setting, with the sepulchral visual palette and Giacchino’s thrumming, tolling score, reach towards grandeur, and yet Reeves labours at the same time to reset Bruce/Batman at basics – his bulletproof suit and contact lens cameras are fancy stuff but most of the rest of his operation is quite low-tech, reliant on simply hitting stronger and faster than opponents through relentlessly honed skills. The Batmobile is essentially just a souped-up muscle car which, it’s hinted through his predilection for stripping his motorcycle down to components and back again, he likely built himself. Reeves, who keeps any tendency towards boyish delight on a tight leash for much of the movie, at least can’t disguise it in the sense of moment when Bruce first fires up the car, glimpsed in silhouette, revving up the motor with thunderous grunts and spurts of flame to give chase. The chase concludes with an equally iconographic vignette as The Penguin gazes on, battered and mortified, inside his upside-down car as the Caped Crusader emerges from his vehicle, every inch the gothic nightmare to the criminal element he intended, and approaches at a slow, menacing mosey.

In tone and outlook The Batman just about as far as it’s possible to get from the West film and series without perhaps becoming a snuff film, and yet it’s still recognisably the same stuff. Reeves’ work tries hard also to distinguish itself from Nolan’s trilogy. Where Nolan’s films had their arrhythmic, sometimes borderline incoherent visual jazz and propulsive editing, Reeves goes for a stately tension, with painterly smears of drenched colour and punctuated by eruptions of chaos. An early scene where Bruce fights his way into The Iceberg, creaming bouncers and wiseguys, is sleek and bleakly beautiful and touched with an edge of abstract artistry by the flashing lights and booming music, in comparison with a similar scene in The Dark Knight (2008) where Nolan’s gibberish cutting simply located Batman in the midst of a brawl. Later, Reeves reiterates the edge of abstraction to intensify rather than mute an action sequence, as Bruce fights his way into The Iceberg in trying to rescue Selina from her own maniacal choices, his stalking, silhouetted, nightmarish guise glimpsed in the flashing of machine guns as their bullets bounce off his armour. There’s a fierce beauty to such moments, and the film as a whole, and if I liked The Batman more than Nolan’s films, it’s because Reeves is a far more elegant filmmaker. On the other hand, Nolan’s expansive, fidgety narratives kept tripping over themselves because they tried to do too much and betrayed Nolan’s hyperactive synapses, whilst The Batman tries to make a busy but essentially straightforward narrative into the stuff of epics.

There’s a lot of to-and-fro in the plot involving Selina’s covert connection to Falcone – she’s the illegitimate result of his contemptuous fling with one of his club dancers – and the conspiracy The Riddler’s project is meant to both avenge and reveal. Whilst Reeves does manage to keep most of this in balance, The Batman would ultimately have been better, indeed close to the classic of its genre, if it had less focal points. Reeves introduces a motif in the film’s very first scene as The Riddler spies on Mitchell, who plays a bit with his son, dressed as a ninja and fighting invisible enemies in his father’s office. For a moment you think this might be a prelude depicting Bruce in his childhood. Instead the lad, orphaned by The Riddler’s actions in a bitter irony, becomes an emblem for Bruce, who keeps seeing him and experiencing moments of powerful identification that he must keep secret: any expression of emapthy would be a disastrous unmaksing. He saves the boy’s life during a later eruption of chaos, action being the only way he can express and contend with such sad knowledge. Bruce follows the breadcrumb trail to find that not only did Falcone manipulate the city’s honchos to get his former boss locked away but also brought them in as partners in the drug trade, and they divvied up the large urban renewal fund that Bruce’s father established for his own, brief mayoral run not long before he was killed. This in turn obliges Bruce to consider the possibility his father was also corrupt, when The Riddler suggests he had a journalist murdered for prying into his private life, and also to look out for himself and Alfred when The Riddler makes clear Bruce is his next target. This swerve of story essentially goes nowhere. Alfred, wounded in an assassination attempt on Bruce’s life with a letter bomb, angrily tells Bruce the proper story, which does leave Thomas Wayne a compromised and culpable but not villainous figure. The main point of this seems to be to release Bruce from feeling entirely crushed by the mythos of a heroic father (and also that mental instability might be as much his inheritance as Wayne Enterprises) and also able to finally embrace Alfred as decent substitute, as the pair have interacted uneasily through the movie on this topic. Serkis, unusually but effectively cast, characterises his Alfred as an aging man of action eased into a quietly circumspect life of nurturing whilst still musing on his days “in the Circus” (vale LeCarré) and operating as the paternal figure Bruce needs whether he wants it or not. He’s really good and the film needed more of him.

The same thing can be said for Pattinson. For anyone who hadn’t seen any of his performances since his star-making but largely derided turns in the Twilight series, his casting was liable to be bewildering, just as it was inevitable-feeling to anyone who had watched him in the likes of Cosmopolis (2012) and High Life (2019). Pattinson, whose features are the stuff of the officially handsome yet from certain angles appear quite Boris Karloff-esque, knows well how to channel his image towards playing neurasthenic adonii, and twists it a few more turns here. Pattinson’s avowed inspiration for his characterisation was Kurt Cobain as the poster boy for troubled greatness, but with his stringy, floppy haircut looks more like Crispin Glover, whilst his Batman costume with its high, very pointy ears is vaguely reminiscent of the first onscreen appearance of the character, in Lambert Hillyer’s 1943 serial. Refusing to get jacked in a Chris Hemsworth fashion, Pattinson nonetheless projects a newly intimidating physical presence, and he depicts Bruce’s physical bravura well, particularly in the opening fight scene where he mercilessly bashes a hapless thug into submission as much to show his pals what they’re up against as to lay him out. Here the film’s thesis, of Batman as an empowerment fantasy concocted by a haunted young man which he then relentlessly adapted himself into, is illustrated without any further underlining required.

Pattinson’s Bruce and Batman aren’t yet clearly divided personas: in Batman guise he doesn’t put on any kind of gruff-rough voice (thankfully), whilst Bruce Wayne is living as a detached and obsessive recluse neglecting not just a social life but also the family’s waning fortunes, far from the studied appearance of a playboy as stolen from Percy Blakeney. Bruce’s habit of venturing into deadly situations without a gun is both defining and also galling, as Gordon quips, “That’s your thing,” as he pulls out his pistol for a venture into an old dark house: not everyone has a few million dollars’ worth of carbon fibre on hand. There’s also an interesting disparity in Bruce’s personal fame and that of the Batman, who is still a spreading legend, whereas Bruce is instantly recognised despite his reclusiveness as the avatar of Gotham’s elite, both glimpsed during his attempts in both guises to get into The Iceberg. Bruce’s decision to appear at Mitchell’s funeral results in many turned heads, including that of Falcone, who scarcely ever leaves his headquarters above The Iceberg Lounge: a mayor’s funeral is the last social unifier. Which is then crashed as a car smashes through the cathedral doors and scatters the crowd before slamming to a halt against the altar. Colson emerges from the vehicle with a bomb tied about his neck and a cell phone taped to his hand. Bruce returns in Batman guise and converses with The Riddler over the phone, who cruelly forces Colson to expose his own corruption before blowing him to pieces.

Bruce, knocked out cold by the blast but protected by the suit, is then carried to the police headquarters where arguing cops want to unmask and arrest him, but Gordon convinces them to let him deal with the captive, and gets Bruce to make a break for it. Here the narrative takes a risk with logic in making you wonder why the cops didn’t unmask him right away. The apparent explanation is Gordon’s shepherding prevented this, but it’s still a bit thin. Better, perhaps, is the notion the rank-and-file cops already largely feel Batman is their last, best friend, in a story that tries to dramatise the longest bow of the basic Batman format, the embrace by the police of a civilian dressed as a bat as a trustworthy, even vital ally: Reeves gives it his best. As far as finally letting Batman the Detective have his day, The Batman is absorbing, even if some of the expository dialogue Pattinson is stuck mouthing is exasperatingly obvious. The trouble is Batman doesn’t come out of it looking that great as a detective, with The Riddler holding his metaphorical hand and leading him step by step into his malignant plan. Bruce eventually foils Selina’s avowed design to assassinate her father in punishment for his many sins, but just as Bruce drags Falcone out of his headquarters with the aid of true cops, he’s gunned down by a sniper from an apartment across the street. This proves to be The Riddler’s home: when they invade the apartment the investigators find evidence of his activities but not their quarry, but he’s soon located drinking coffee in a nearby diner.

Dano, who can play weirdos in his sleep by now, nonetheless modulates his performance mischievously, the figure of bleak, volatile menace captured on cell phone video screen supplanted by a twee, damaged pervert who sometimes whispers in alternation with piercing, drawn-out, quasi-autistic moans that abruptly become words. Here however the film hits a speed bump of narrative intent. With The Riddler imprisoned, Falcone dead, and The Penguin neutralised for the moment, the movie lacks a villain. Turns out The Riddler has a network of fellow internet oddballs and angry orphans who adopt his guise and follow his plan to wreak havoc at Réal’s inauguration whilst bombs he planted around the city unleash flooding torrents. Here Reeves labours to evoke both obvious historical parallels, with shots modelled on the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and movie models, nodding to The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with the assassins lurking in the rafters of the “Gotham Square Garden” to kill Réal. This larger plot, in a campaign of havoc previously confined to one creep, takes everyone by surprise, including the attentive viewer. There’s definitely something interesting in The Riddler replicating himself like glitch code in the city matrix by assimilating other damaged loners and rejects, but where the film might have devoted some of its copious running time to setting this up, it instead sprung as a shocking twist.

The spectacle of the flooding city could have been a memorably apocalyptic signature, but it’s rather flatly done, and Batman can’t do much about it. At least Bruce and Selina can intervene to beat up The Riddler’s assassins in a potent action scene, even if there’s still the problem of their foes not really having any identity: they’re just anonymous thugs. Bruce is almost knocked out of the battle when one of the goons shoots him up close with a shotgun, requiring Selina to help him, and then giving himself an adrenalin injection to roar back into battle as a berserker. This gives way to a visually striking and affecting coda as Bruce, descending into the floodwaters to rescue some cowering Gothamites, holding a flare aloft as a beacon amidst carnage and realising he needs to be more than Vengeance, and he embraces the role of a public hero rather than someone merely following his own obsession. I liked this final flourish, one that endows Bruce/Batman with a character arc without reiterating things that have been done to death with the character. The film ends in curiously languorous fashion with Bruce and Selina going their separate ways, lingering on shots of them riding motorcycles alongside each-other – a definite motif in the film – but then diverging.

The Batman is a peculiar creation at once endemic of and off the beat of contemporary Hollywood, in that it doesn’t entirely succeed, but also feels like a real movie. It takes chances and pulls most of them off, and whilst derivative in vital aspects it has an aura that’s specific, dramatic and aesthetic musculature that’s substantial. The Batman recalls expressions of Hollywood imperial stature like Ben-Hur (1959) or Cleopatra (1963) or Doctor Zhivago (1965), but instead of depicting some great confluence of history and myth it confidently expects an audience to sit through a three-hour mood piece purely because it’s a Batman movie. It comes close to describing an ideal of what a Batman movie can be, even as it can’t quite embrace the extremes it should be heading to, and cuts itself off ultimately from the awareness of the kinky wish-fulfilment Burton, for all his faults, understood. I wish the script was less pedantic and had some of the more blasted romanticism and cynical poetry of its noir and cyberpunk models that Reeves successfully channels into the look of the thing. That it could have been about twenty minutes shorter without any real damage seems obvious. Indeed, the entire style of The Batman risks leaving behind the specific pleasures of pulp fiction and exchanging them for the last word in pseudo-seriousness. But that in itself makes The Batman arresting. If Reeves’ film is better than this might make it sound, and indeed close to my favourite outing to date for the character, it’s through the accumulation of elements, the tangible, powerful style and strong performances, that make it a big, woozy, uneven, but riveting experience. The film signs off inevitably with signals of sequels, apt in this case as The Riddler finds himself, despite his misery at his plan’s failure, making connection with a sardonic fellow prisoner (Barry Keoghan) in the next cell of Arkham Asylum, whose identity will be plain enough to protoplasmic fish in the Challenger Deep. And the very last shots of Bruce watching Selina vanish along a hazy, light-smeared Gotham street at dawn in his rear-view mirror, the duo having fought their way through into light at least, before Bruce sets his jaw and rides on to his mission, does capture that ephemeral pulp poetry the film seeks earnestly.

Standard
2020s, Auteurs, Comedy

Licorice Pizza (2021)

.

Director / Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Roderick Heath

Paul Thomas Anderson Land is a familiar place by now, if only in its strangeness, and the opening moments of Licorice Pizza lead us there hand in hand. The familiar Andersonian motif of flowing, seemingly dreamily free and immersing but also subtly disconcerting, unmooring tracking shots is this time used to immediately introduce Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). Alana works for a school photography outfit called Tiny Toes, which is busy taking class photos of the denizens of a Los Angeles high school, all of it set to Nina Simone’s “July Tree” with its sonic textures evoking lazy summer days in reedy fields whilst the camera scans spraying sprinklers, gleaming halls, and long legs. Alana encounters the brash, 15-year-old Gary, who charms her with the same breezy efficiency as Anderson’s camera locates them. Gary asks Alana out on a date, and when she asks what he’d use to pay for it with he not at all humbly brags that he has a lot of money because he’s a successful actor. Alana is of course highly sceptical of this, but soon finds that Gary is indeed telling the truth, having found success as a child star in a hit stage musical called Under One Roof and its film adaptation. Despite her jolly mockery of Gary’s ambitions, the pair plainly experience instant chemistry, and Gary has something that Alana, despite her greater years, lacks badly: a sense of confidence and effectiveness in the world, the kind of confidence that’s the natural provenance of Hollywood itself, a blend of showmanship, hustle, and an eye on the prize.

From a distance, Licorice Pizza looks a little like an artistic retreat from Paul Thomas Anderson. After the risky, influential excursions into semi-abstract character drama on There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), and the queasily funny-sad retro outings of Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017), films that all gained great critical admiration but most of which did weak box office, Licorice Pizza sees Anderson retreating to a warmly remembered version of the 1970s, the era he painted with such acid verve in Boogie Nights (1997), his second feature film and the one that made his name. It might even be said to round out a trilogy about the decade, taking place roughly half-way between the post-Manson dizziness and confusion of Inherent Vice and the disco-to-camcorder age Boogie Nights charted. But it might actually be closer in nature to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), as a study of human affection at strange extremes. Actually, all of Anderson’s films are fundamentally about that, about needy people urgently hunting for those who can sate their desires, be it a lover or something less obvious, a mentor, a pal, a parental figure, or indeed all rolled into one. Alana and Gary’s relationship seems to have potential to evolve into any of these things, as it sees them locked together in a centrifugal whirl that provides the only real gravity in the unfolding film, both symptomatic of the ridiculousness that surrounds them and yet ultimately hallowed amidst it.

Alana ticks off the many good reasons why Gary’s overtures are absurd, including their verboten age difference, even in the louche atmosphere of the era. But she finishes up being so sufficiently charmed and compelled by the teenager she does turn up at the time and place he proposed: Gary offers something, even if only a sliver, of something new and possible. The opening scene, as well as throwing us in the deep end when it comes to this pair, nods back to the early scenes of The Master where, in very similar fashion, Anderson presented being a workaday photographer as a weird nexus, the sort of job shambolic people take, but which involves freezing the images of the people they shoot into lacquered instances of false perfection. Alana soon finds Gary has quietly assimilated and mastered the affectations of a Hollywood player, with his favourite local restaurant popular with stars, as well as his PR agent mother Anita’s (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) talent for spin. In short, he’s scared of nothing, because he thinks he knows how things work. And for the most part he does. Even when it becomes plain his acting career’s at an end now that he’s had his growth spurt and lacks mature performing technique, he reinvents himself without much concern as an entrepreneur on the make. Alana, by contrast, has no idea what she wants or how to get it: she still lives at home with her parents and sisters, and comments to Gary with plaintive simplicity, “When you’re gonna be rich in a mansion by the time you’re sixteen. I’m gonna be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m thirty. You’re never gonna remember me.” “I’m never gonna forget you,” Gary retorts with firm ardour.

Licorice Pizza is a certainly a nostalgic work, as preoccupied as Anderson’s pal and rival Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) was in resurrecting the flavour of a specific bygone era in the climes of Los Angeles, a place defined then as now by an inherently surreal dialogue between the world of show business and its denizens and everyone else. Where Tarantino naturally looked for the combustible tension in that scene, Anderson looks for the absurd and the romantic. One could also add in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016) into the mix, a film that followed a more familiar genre film template but emulated much the same brand of humour in sarcastically reflecting on growing up in a wilder time. Anderson, the son of an actor and voice artist who was well-known once upon a time for hosting a creature feature show and being the official announcer for ABC Television, is certainly an industry brat, and for all the effort he’s put into not simply being another chronicler of being a Tinseltown scenester, he’s remained preoccupied by the kinds of creatures the town attracts in droves: people dedicated to enriching themselves and to realising their personal desires and lifestyle aspirations and enthralling others. As young and still relatively naive as he may be, Gary shares nascent traits with such notable Anderson characters as The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner, the gamblers of Hard Eight (1996), and There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview – he’s an impresario with peculiar talents for sustaining himself in perpetual motion with an eye always out for the next angle, an incarnation of American hustle. He’s absorbed a certain lexicon of urge and power that’s hilarious at his age but wouldn’t be so much if he were older, as when Alana encounters a waitress, Frisbee (Destry Allyn Spielberg) she knows who works in one of Gary’s favourite restaurants, and she comments that he’s always after a hand job: “I’ll pass the baton to you.”

Anderson mines the essential disparity between Gary and Alana, his premature worldliness and her floundering immaturity and uncertainty, for a unique amalgam of humour and pathos. The disparity locks them together in a folie-a-deux where neither can quite escape the other despite making gestures at pursuing less troublesome connections. When Gary learns his mother can’t accompany him to New York so he can make a TV appearance with the cast of the Under One Roof (based on Yours, Mine, and Ours, 1968, which featured Gary’s inspiration, Gary Goetzman, and Lance’s, Tim Matheson, amongst its cast) and borrowing its theme song) with its star Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), he manages to sell Alana as a substitute chaperone. As they jet across the country, Gary’s slightly older co-star Lance Brannigan (Skyler Gisondo) flirts heavily with Alana: soon they become a couple, but break up when Lance proclaims he’s an atheist to Alana’s family during a dinner with them. Gary becomes fascinated by a waterbed he spots through the window of a wig store and immediately sees a business he can get aboard on the ground floor: soon he has a thriving outlet of his own. When they’re unexpectedly reunited thanks in part to Gary being arrested in a case of mistaken identity, Alana throws in with Gary’s enterprise and proves a dab hand at publicity and over-the-phone sales. So good that Gary talks Alana in trying acting, arranging for her to have an interview with a top agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris). This leads to her being considered for a role in a movie playing a hippie girl alongside major star Jack Holden (Sean Penn). When this shot goes nowhere and the 1973 oil embargo puts the waterbed business on ice, Alana makes a play for a more substantial life, volunteering for the political campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whilst Gary sees another golden opportunity when he overhears Wachs talking about pinball machines being legalised in California.

Large portions of Licorice Pizza are dedicated to portraying thinly veiled real show business figures in acerbic, anecdotal-feeling vignettes, with Doolittle as Lucille Ball stand-in, Jack Holden as a William Holden skit, and gravel-voiced, caution-impervious director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) a spin on Sam Peckinpah. The skin of fictionalising seems so flimsy as to be barely worth the bother, but it does emphasise that Anderson is not so much interested in them in a gossipy sense than in evoking the way they exemplify the time and place, and the temptations and traps before its two shambolic heroes. The film’s third quarter is transfixed by Anderson’s take on Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the former celebrity hairdresser turned movie producer who was dating Barbara Streisand at the time, who swings wildly between intimate charisma and combative, confrontational attitude. Anderson uses these portraits both as sources of fun in their own right, and to dig into the large gap between the image of show business success and stature and the perversity of having such figures at large in the same streets and places as everyone else. This point is underlined when Alana, initially stunned and smitten by the showbiz zones she drifts into, eventually realises in being wined and dined by Holden that whatever actual person was in there has long since been supplanted by a collection of old movie lines and well-honed chat-ups, as when he mentions that Alana “reminds me of Grace.” Gary falls afoul of Doolittle when playfully whacks her with a pillow during the song and dance number on the TV show and makes a very adolescent bawdy joke when being interviewed by the host: Doolittle unleashes her wrath backstage, slapping and threatening him, and she has to be dragged away by some stagehands, bawling that Gary is finished for humiliating her in front of her fans.

The theme of professional performances that become subsuming in lieu of an actual personality both contrasts the portrayal of Alana as someone urgently seeking a path in life and sarcastically echoes it. Alana feels the allure of Peter Pan-ish youth as she falls in with Gary and his cadre of teenage pals and younger brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), a gang of rambunctious, energetic, mutually reinforcing lads who follow Gary in implicit and total respect for his sense of enterprise. Alana encounters the same temptation being embraced in a more institutionalised fashion when flung into Holden’s proximity with his attempts to seduce a woman thirty years younger and prove he hasn’t lost his mojo by performing a motorcycle stunt for the entertainment of a few dozen onlookers. An even more bizarre, but also needling example of performance sustained by unknown rules and logic crops up in the form of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a restaurateur who opened LA’s first Japanese restaurant, The Mikado, and who is portrayed here as a client of Gary’s mother. In his first appearance Frick brings his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) to a consultation with Anita and speaks to her in English but with a fake Japanese accent like a middle schooler doing an impression, and she answers in Japanese which he seems to translate. Only in his second appearance, when Mioko has been mysteriously and summarily replaced by Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), does Frick admit he doesn’t actually speak Japanese. Later, in a more subtle and distressing moment of realisation, Alana becomes privy to understanding Wachs is a closeted gay man, whose public persona and ambitions depend absolutely on keeping this side of himself under wraps no matter the personally destructive results. Both these vignettes comment with differing tones and methods on some of the least attractive traits of the otherwise warmly-remembered past but completely avoid any form of hectoring.

Trouble is also sparked when people refuse to put on a convenient act or sustain the rules of an agreed-upon illusion, as when Gary decides to act up during the Under One Roof performance, and when Lance refuses to do a blessing for the Kane family’s sake during their dinner together. This refusal he couches in the most pleasant manner possible but still causes a fateful rupture with Alana, who gives him a bawling out outside the house – “What does your penis look like?…If you’re circumcised then you’re a fucking Jew!” – before heading back inside and laying down an equal bombardment on her family. Gary’s discovery of the waterbed is essayed as a libidinous fantasia as he lays upon the undulating mattress, the flirty sales assistant (Iyana Halley) hovering over him like a blessed angel from the land of commerce. Gary’s subsequent attempt to flog waterbeds at a “Teen-Age Fair” becomes another dreamy excursion through the regalia of another age (yet still tantalisingly familiar) in youth culture through another of Anderson’s majestic tracking shots. The Batmobile from the Adam West series and Herbie the Love Bug roll by and the fair is attended by Fred Gwynne in Herman Munster guise (played, in a mischievous blink-and-miss cameo, by John C. Reilly) making a personal appearance, as well as Cher but not Sonny. Alana proves to also be at the fair to sell wares for a friend, approaching Gary in a vignette that sustains the dreamy texture, as they two smirk at each-other and swap flirtatious greetings, as if sequestered and afloat on a raft of milk foam.

Despite granting his line of wares the unappealing name of Soggy Bottom, which Alana says sounds like someone shit their pants, Gary’s understanding of salesmanship proves basic but sound, as he’s hired a woman, Kiki Page (Emily Althus) to sprawl across the show model bed to attract customers, and sees the potential when one of his young entourage, Kirk (Will Angarola), has the great idea of selling weed along with the mattresses. This has nothing to do with why two cops suddenly manhandle Gary and handcuff him. They drag him to a nearby police station where they cuff him to a bench, telling him he’s going down for murder, whilst the frantic Alana chases him down. Gary is quickly cleared by an annoyed witness despite roughly tallying with his description, whereupon Gary is freed without any apology, and he runs off with Alana. This scene sees Anderson briefly revisiting the mood of Inherent Vice and its blindsided sense of law enforcement as a virtually arbitrary faction tormenting the clueless hero, but the main result is that, thrown back into each-other’s company, Alana comes aboard the Soggy Bottom enterprise. She makes the first order of business changing the name to something more appealing, which is, apparently, Fat Bernie’s, and then when called on to improvise in trying to appeal to a customer on the phone, suddenly making headboards part of their service to enable implied sexual gymnastics. Getting a DJ to plug the business helps drive booming sales, and Anderson scores their rapid rise to middling success in a montage ingeniously set to The Doors’ “Peace Frog.” Meanwhile Gary and Alana’s flirtation continues in schoolkid fashion, letting their legs touch whilst pouring over an attempt to design a logo.

For a filmmaker who’s gone from strength to strength as Anderson has, Licorice Pizza, rather than a recourse, reveals itself as a notable and brave new step, as a movie that manages to be a pure and unmistakeable product of his imagination and style and yet dares to lack any compulsion to prove his artistry as many of his earlier works have – the film resists being as stylised and cryptic as Inherent Vice or skirting the same sleazy zones as Boogie Nights despite connective gestures to both – through some overtly strange stylistics or challenging or cruel twists, save the puckishly deployed levels of discomfort the characters suffer through. Even the verboten affection at the story’s heart remains, at least as far as we see, remains more a source of teasing sarcasm in charting its to-and-fro of flirtation and spurning, than actual transgression: Gary and Alana remain in one of the most chaste relationships in a modern movie. Anderson made his name swerving hard between high comedy and glaring melodrama on Boogie Nights before embarking on such would-be epic exercises in heavy-duty drama as Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood, and The Master, although the latter two films still had many flickers of Anderson’s underlying comic sensibility. Phantom Thread went through an extended burlesque of gothic romance and psychodrama tropes before resolving into a particularly odd kind of romantic comedy. The sinuous mixture of the blithe and the fastidiously-observed that flows through Licorice Pizza slowly accrues emotional gravitas in a manner that doesn’t entirely hit until the end of the film.

As well as contending with it as a subject at hand, Anderson pays many nods to the blurring of boundaries between performance and reality in casting, placing Haim alongside her real-life sisters playing characters who like Alana have their real names, as well as their parents (all of them, within their limits, doing superlative comic work), and casting Anderson’s own children and Hoffman’s siblings amongst the horde of Under One Roof, and other children and parents of Hollywood players. Licorice Pizza seems to yearn, whether it intends to or not, for a time long before everyone started living virtual lives, when movies could follow their own eccentric prerogatives when it comes to privileging character over story, and when human perversity was easily and readily encompassed by mainstream cinema to a degree that’s almost alien in our era of hyper-vigilant online moral police. Licorice Pizza can be likened to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1972) in their nimble blending of taboo themes with humour and lightness of touch, as well as classics of the era that dealt with people and cultures in flux, including Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), Francis Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1971), and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), whilst charting a middle path between their extremes of melancholia and frantic humour. I was also reminded at points of Guy Ferland’s Telling Lies In America (1997), which portrayed, via a Joe Eszterhas script, a not-dissimilar rites-of-passage tale for a teenage huckster in love with a mature woman.

Gary’s experience in a wing of pop culture aimed at pre-pubescent and “family” audiences, with Under One Roof typifying a kind of wholesome entertainment crowded out in cultural recollection of the era by edgier fare at a time when Hollywood was being much-celebrated for finally growing up, couches Gary’s pseudo-sophistication in its opposite: professional infantalisation. Small wonder Gary’s urgently trying to grow into adult life which seems way more exciting, eyeing newspaper ads for porn movies and moving to exploit gaps in the market that service the tastes of adolescents, and perma-adolescents. Anderson seems to see something pertinent in this cultural tension, when today a company like Disney has conquered what’s left of Hollywood through its cultivated capacity to assimilate everything into the precepts of the professionally inoffensive – the revenge of an infantile culture the great shifts of the late 1960s and ‘70s was supposed to have supplanted. Alana’s flirtation with acting also means negotiating the potential roles open to her in the era, with Grady assessing her in their meeting, or rather freely inventing poetic impressions of her, and harping on her “very Jewish nose,” which is for once kind of cool in the moment. Alana also follows Gary’s advice about saying she can do whatever zany thing the filmmakers require, although when she’s considered for Holden’s film that means archery and horseback riding. She also readily says yes to doing nudity, although that’s the one thing Gary told her not to do, sparking a ruction between them as Gary complains she’ll get naked for the world but won’t show him her boobs.

Which she finally does just to make him happy, but slaps him when he asks to touch. Great character comedy, of course, but Anderson here also twists the hall of mirrors that is acting back to where it starts, in the specific quality of the movie actor. When Holden insists on showing off his riding skills, he’s exhibiting a real talent but using it as just another a perpetual game of pleasing an audience, like the lines he rattles off from his beloved old movie The Bridges of Toko-San (a riff on Mark Robson’s excellent William Holden vehicle The Bridges of Toko-Ri, 1954, whilst the movie he’s to appear in with Alana is drawn from Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, 1973). One irony in this is that Haim and Hoffman are first-time actors although both trail strong associations for the knowing audience, Haim as a pop star and Hoffman as the chip-off-the-old-block son of Anderson’s regular collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman: although they’re ingénues being tapped for unpolished talent, they already possess an identity you can’t help but factor in in appreciating what they do, making them at once fresh and yet familiar. Both are allowed a palpability that’s rare in modern movies, Hoffman’s acne and puppy fat and Haim’s gawky, blemishy looks rendered not just patent but luminous. Alana is the first female character in Anderson’s movies who is the unarguable central figure, and she’s thankfully just as shambolic and wayward as his male protagonists. Alana is beset by a classic case of what today is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, defined by reaching the point where adult life is really supposed to begin, but having no idea which direction to chase it in, and the film essentially draws all its eddying anti-narrative energy from her.

A recurring flourish sees Alana meeting people she used to know in school now settled into low-tier jobs, including Kiki and Frisbee, and later Brian (Nate Mann), who works on the Wachs campaign and agrees to bring Alana into their ranks. Alana proves in the course of her wanderings to be canny and talented but has no idea what to channel her energies into or how to sustain them: at first only Gary seems to stimulate something latent in her. Alana is a long way from being a perfect or even particularly good person, and her generally frustrated maturation is relieved by getting to play at still being a teenager. She’s blessed with a spiky and quarrelsome aspect, most memorably displayed when she chews out Lance and her family, including taunting her older sister Este: “What are you thinking? ‘I’m Este, I work for Mom and Dad, I’m perfect…Alana doesn’t have her life together, Alana brings home stupid boyfriends all the time!’” Which Este can only acknowledge with minimal expression is pretty accurate: “I mean…” Alana occasionally smokes pot with other sister Danielle, only to erupt, when Danielle finally tells her she needs to stop fighting with everyone, “Oh, fuck off Danielle!” Her squalls of feeling are really about self-castigation, reaching a climax when after one a most strenuous and dangerous escapade with Gary and his friends she slumps into a glaze-eyed funk, making it clear she’s reached a point of epiphany in her life and is desperate for something, anything to grab hold of to get her out of her rut.

Alana is also rather gormless when it comes to the kinds of industry charmers Gary mixes with: Lance easily snares Alana by treating her with the same fascination that a flight attendant (Emma Dumont) shows Gary. Later she’s easily swept off her feet, before being dumped on her ass, by Holden. Gary and Alana’s alternations of spurning and neediness are the closest thing the film has to a narrative spine: early on, when Alana is dating Lance, Gary rings her but won’t speak, resulting in a long moment where the two hover on either end of the line, each aware but again held in check by some mysterious logic, some refusal to break the surface tension that would sink them both. This mutual taunting continues at intervals, as when Gary and Alana try to ignore each-other when with different dates in a restaurant, and towards the end when Gary finally seems to break from Alan altogether when she accosts him for being opportunistic in comparison to the noble Wachs. Later, when Gary opens his own store for the waterbeds, Alana serves as eye candy dressed in a bikini and gets high, causing her to get increasingly clingy to Gary and irked when Gary finally seems to be getting somewhere with a girl his own age, Sue (Isabelle Kuzman). This sequence is one of Anderson’s finest despite resisting any kind of dramatic push and instead aiming to portray a nexus for the characters in their differing life stages that’s funny whilst also cringe-inducing. Alana dances woozily to a band consisting of Gary’s teenage pals, gets clingy with Gary, and finishes up trying to spy on him and Sue when they duck into a back room to have sex, before kissing one random man by way of revenge and stalking off in pot-sodden frustration, yet another grievous episode of humiliation and self-mortification racked up.

Alana’s subsequent encounter with Holden and adventures with Gary and team in a delivery truck present more ebullient slapstick moments, but reiterate the same motif as Alana is repeatedly humbled and defeated. Holden gets talked into performing a motorcycle stunt by Blau when he’s taken Alana out for dinner. Holden gets Alana to ride on the bike with him, only for her to fall off when he tears off, and Holden himself crashes after making a jump: Alana’s fall is noticed only by Gary, whilst Holden’s is hailed when he gets raggedly to his feet: not only is Alana literally dumped here but she becomes privy to how ridiculous the celebrity scene really is. The film’s set-piece comic sequence is however when Alana, Gary, and the gang go to set up a waterbed in Peters’ mansion, with the livewire Peters switching modes of relating mid-sentence, alternating praise and seeming identification (“You’re like me, you’re from the streets.”) before threatening to choke Gary’s brother in revenge if he does anything to mess up the house. Gary takes this as a challenge and deliberately lets the hose filling up the waterbed slip loose and start pouring over the carpet of Peters’ bedroom, and when he and the crew come across Peters left stranded when his sports car runs out of fuel and obliges them to drive to a gas station, Gary doubles down on payback by smashing the windscreen of Peters’ car, only for this discursion to result in their truck to run out of petrol, forcing Alana to perform the dangerous work of freewheeling backwards down a hill.

This whole movement of the film sustains unique comic texture, with elements of both character and verbal humour and physical farce of a kind comedy directing greats as disparate as Mack Sennett, Howard Hawks, and Frank Tashlin might have recognised. Cooper’s scene-stealing performance coming out of nowhere and providing moments of unbalancing delight like him fighting for control of a gas pump by threatening to use it as a flamethrower on a customer, and him raging along the pavement behind the cringing, mortified Alana once the strange night has hit its dawntime shoal only to switch on a dime to flirting with a pair of women dressed for tennis. This sequence also proves the last straw for Alana as, after surviving the risky ride, she stares into the abyss of her own absurdity. With the Wachs campaign she seems to find a new niche in directing his TV commercials (actually they were filmed by Anderson’s friend and mentor Jonathan Demme), and employs Gary to run the camera for them. This inversion of their previous positions sows the seeds of a rupture between them as Alana tries to assume superiority to Gary – “I’m cooler than you, don’t forget it.” – and chastises him for turning her ploy for respectability into another get-rich-quick opportunity, which causes Gary to leave in a cold huff in a seemingly permanent break. Gary gets down to opening a pinball parlour whilst Alana has hopes raised for a romantic liaison with Wachs when he goes out of his way to praise her work, and contends with an ambiguous source of threat in the form of a tall, thin, long-haired stranger (Jon Beavers) who hovers around the campaign office.

Anderson makes a pointed nod to Taxi Driver (1976) in this scene as Alana and Brian confront the man, with an accompanying evocation of unease, and although the actual import of his presence proves different to the model, it does nonetheless serve the purpose of revealing a different, deeper layer to what we’ve seen. When Alana gets a call from Wachs asking her to meet him for a drink, she leaps at the chance, only to quickly realise that she’s actually been brought there to provide a beard for Wachs’ boyfriend Matthew (Joseph Cross), as the stranger is hovering in a corner of the restaurant and Wachs is more afraid he might represent some force that can out him than anything else. Anderson manages one of his most intelligent and effective pieces of camerawork here: he frames Alana’s reflection in a decorative mirror whilst Matthew is foregrounded but out of focus as he argues with Wachs, who is just edged out of the frame: Matthew’s own erasure from Wachs’ public persona is visualised at the same as Alana’s realisation of what’s going on is registered, her embarrassment and also her dawning empathy. Her potential self-possession asserts itself too, as she quickly moves to warn Wachs about the stranger, and calmly ushers Matthew out.

The subsequent scene sees Alana escorting the stewing, tearful, heartbroken Matthew home and gives him a hug of comfort. This provides a potent emotional epiphany in crystallising the underlying sense of neediness and appreciation of the rarity of connection and the pain inherent in loving: “Is he a shit?” Matthew asks Alana when she says she has a sort-of boyfriend: “They’re all shits, aren’t they?” As with her earlier race to help Gary during his arrest, this affirms Alana’s best quality and indeed sees at least perhaps the maturity she’s been chasing so desperately. That maturity also demands, in a last irony, that she face up to her love for Gary, as the two search for each-other in a satire on the familiar montage of criss-crossing lovers that resolves when they spot each-other and ran to embrace only to misjudge and crash into each-other, under a theatre marquee advertising Live and Let Die (1973). Gary insists on triumphantly introducing Alana to his new kingdom of mesmerised pinball addicts as “Mrs Alana Valentine,” to Alana’s scorn, but he finally kisses her with a man’s purpose. The more incisive and quieter perversion of romantic cliché here, nonetheless, is that Anderson notes that their reunion solves nothing, instead leaving Gary and Alana with a whole new stack of questions, confusions, and impossibilities that can only find resolution in experience without safety nets, which is essentially life in a nutshell. Anderson finally seems to avow faith it’s the will to keep moving, to keep improvising the great performance, that best manifests life itself.

Standard
2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2021

.


By Roderick Heath

My late father used to ritually quip on every New Year’s Eve: “Well, we survived another one.” Actually, I’ve cleaned that up somewhat, but you get the idea. These past couple of years surviving has started to feel like more of an achievement than it used to be, and that’s as true for the movies as any of us. Year Two of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc on cinema’s traditional tenets, but things are clearly still in flux. The colossal success of the latest entry in the Disney-Marvel junket, Spider-Man: No Way Home, in the last days of this year gave the whole idea of mass movie-going a shot in the arm, but it was a singular hit that seemed to come at the expense of a slate of far more ambitious and interesting movies by great filmmakers, in a time when just about everything pitched at anyone over the mental age of nine flopped hard. It also raised the curtain on a dread new phenomenon: early-onset millennial nostalgia as a box office value. Then again, the great collective shrug given to the release of a new The Matrix movie suggests that even that has its limits.

Godzilla vs Kong


Against all the odds, however, 2021 managed to be a strong, even superlative year for movies. Whether it was with films that won distribution and attention simply from having less competition, or amongst the backlog of major releases which eventually came out only to trip over each-others’ feet, it was a year bursting with goodies. Even when major directors turned their minds towards remakes and reimaginings, like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story or Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, there was definite creative purpose exhibited, and the messiness of something like Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections went hand-in-hand with its ambition. Some films took on the circumstances of their making in such an odd time and wove it into the texture of their efforts, like Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and In The Earth, whilst others took the enforced limitations and used them to advantage. And others, like Red Notice, felt like dress rehearsals for a grim new age of lazily shot and assembled sound stage wonders with digital backdrops rather than rear projection, now entirely freed from any reference to reality in production as well as writing.

Red Notice


One increasingly notable trend perhaps speeded up by the pandemic as evinced in the likes of Spencer, Azor, Pig, The Power of the Dog, Nightmare Alley, Titane, and others was the infiltration of high-end horror movie aesthetics into psychological dramas, the camera’s truth increasingly inflected with a bewildered, spacy sense of telling absence and unknowable dread. By contrast the resurging popularity of musicals in the past few years finally birthed some more adventurous and stylistically diverse examples of the breed, ranging from the muscular realism of West Side Story to the surreal conceits of Annette. 2021 also saw a plethora of movies sharing persuasively similar preoccupations, some of which instantly congealed into new clichés, many riding the swell of the past few years of social questioning and discontent. Parables for women being mistreated and fighting back or just weathering the storm were plentiful, encompassing a slew of releases too numerous to easily list.

Army Of The Dead


The testing, wearing zeitgeist didn’t spare beloved and usually omnicompetent heroes, who faced and often suffered death, ruination, and the splintering of their identity, in No Time To Die, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Jungle Cruise, The Matrix Resurrections, Black Widow, Godzilla vs Kong, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Harder They Fall, Cliff Walkers, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League; only the beloved petro-swashbucklers of F9 came through enhanced, and even the hero of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gained his birthright and hero status at the cost of his father’s life. Some protagonists found monsters hatching out of their flesh and psyche, as in Titane, Malignant, Last Night In Soho, Dune: Part One, The Card Counter, Cruella, Nightmare Alley, Censor, Nitram, and Azor, pushing them to commit terrible acts to sate a dire inner need.

Mass


People debilitated or thrown out of all compass by encountering grief or cruel experience abounded in the likes of Pig, Eternals, Those Who Wish Me Dead, Last Night In Soho, Identifying Features, The Matrix Resurrections, Wrath of Man, C’mon C’mon, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Censor, The Lost Daughter, Nitram, Drive My Car, Mass, The Hand of God, CODA, Spencer, The Power of the Dog, The Card Counter, This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Films like The Woman In The Window, Censor, Dune: Part One, The Matrix Resurrections, Benedetta, Malignant, The Souvenir Part II, and Riders of Justice encompassed characters struggling with the malleable nature of their reality and finding submitting to the force of their own mental conjurings easier than facing the chaos of real life. Other protagonists in movies like The Night, In The Earth, Last Night In Soho, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Memoria encountered zones where reality crumbled and forces from beyond twisted experience out of all shape, presenting paths that demand to be followed to the end.

Censor


Nostalgia itself had a siren song power both within movies and in selling them, but many of the best films of 2021 dealt with it as a double-edged thing. Creativity, as an elusive and sometimes torturous and destructive wellspring, was ransacked for meaning in the likes of The Disciple, The Matrix Resurrections, Malcolm & Marie, Annette, The French Dispatch, Pig, Ema, The Souvenir Part II, and Drive My Car. Some films, like Belfast, The Hand of God, tick, tick…BOOM!, and The Souvenir Part II, presented autobiographical depictions of creative artists in genesis, passing through stations of learning in loss, disillusionment, and the getting of inspiration. King Richard dealt with sport rather than art but still saw it as informed by a radical drive defined by a contradictory need for grounding and the urge to escape gravity. Some made by anxious male auteurs explored their uneasy relationship with the assertive independence of their female lovers and muses in a climate of prosecutorial interest in such things, evinced in the likes of Malcolm & Marie, Ema, The Worst Person In The World, The Woman Who Ran, and Annette.

Malcolm & Marie


Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie tried to turn the limitations forced by the pandemic into a dramatic weapon, by making a chamber-piece drama about domestic strife. Levinson portrayed two young black creatives, one, John David Washington’s Malcolm, a director who has just scored his critical breakthrough, the other Zendaya’s Marie, an actress and recovering junkie whose youthful travails inspired her husband’s movie. Their story, played out in and around the chic modernist mansion hired for them by the movie studio, detailed the strife unleashed by Malcolm forgetting to thank Marie during his post-screening presser. Malcolm & Marie was admirable in flying the flag for a type of adult drama filmed and acted with theatrical gusto, depicting the couple’s borderline-perverse mixture of ardour and emotional sadomasochism, and took sidelong swipes at current culture and critical pretences via Malcolm’s amusing rants. The problem was Levinson’s verbal warfare too often felt calculated and overblown, in a work that indulged its own tendency to hyperbolic effect rather than explored that of its characters. Also, his choice of filming in black-and-white, perhaps to nod to inspirations like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whilst shooting his gorgeous actors in a spotless environment, insistently gave proceedings a sheen of glossy posturing, like a Calvin Klein commercial.

Ema


Pablo Larrain’s Ema presented a similar starting point in Gael Garcia Bernal’s choreographer and Mariana Di Girolamo as the title character, one of the major talents in his troupe of dancers, and the aftermath to their disastrous attempt to adopt a young boy. When eventually they separate Ema begins a journey of self-discovery involving lots of sex and random acts of arson that finally lead her to embrace something like a group marriage. The film’s opening movement, as Larrain sketched the situation of his characters, intercut with one of their dance performances, signalled a new level of stylish velocity and structural daring for the director. His choice of theme, too, offered an antistrophe from the suffering stoicism of Jackie and his many looks backwards to the repression of Chile’s past, here embracing a heroine who explodes all cages about herself and eventually creates a small world ordered to her needs. Something about the film remained frustratingly opaque, however, with a patchy script that never quite accessed the ferocity of the characters’ emotions. Larrain tried to make Ema a multileveled and bravely transgressive figure trying to mature without losing her trademark wildness, yet she never convinced me, being one part melodrama vixen, one part cuckold fantasy, one part internet meme of female intransigence.

Spencer


Larrain’s second movie of the year, Spencer, told a similar sort of story, harking back to another tabloid heroine of yesteryear, presenting what it described as a “fable based on a true tragedy,” which roughly translates “pseudo-arty fan fiction.” Kristen Stewart was cast with a degree of cunning as a version of Princess Diana in the waning days of her marriage, stifled by the absurd weight of Royal tradition and pissed off by getting a pearl necklace as a present from her husband the same as one he gave to his unnamed mistress, and struggling through the tedium of a joyless Christmas feast. Larrain’s take on the myth of Diana aimed to transform it into an experiential passion play, describing oppressive straits ironically applied by people not evil or hateful but prizing their own glum and boring outlook. Somehow though it had nothing interesting or insightful to say about Diana or the people around her, inventing characters including Timothy Spall’s ambiguous major-domo and Sally Hawkins’ loving servant instead to better leverage its shallow and contrived description of a nascent rebellion, mixed with overbearing pseudo-gothic visuals. Stewart gave a nervy but affected and superficial performance.

The Night


There were a large number of art-house-skewed horror movies this year, and many of them looked and felt rather interchangeable in subject and approach. The best of them was Ben Wheatley’s In The Earth, a return to Wheatley’s early fare blending folk horror motifs and lysergic delirium, but with a new precision to his thrill-mongering and evocation of enigmatic powers. Kourosh Ahari’s The Night had an interesting slant, filmed in Los Angeles but largely made by, about, and starring Iranian expatriates with separation and dislocation a vital factor in the drama. Ahari’s protagonists were a husband and wife, beset by personal tension and with a small baby in tow, who check into a large, virtually deserted hotel only to find themselves harassed by spectral beings that demand they expose and confess their guilty secrets if they want to escape. The film was absorbing in its early scenes, capturing a charged and aggravated tension in the characters before the customary wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo began, complete with the compulsory Lynchian drony-rumbly soundtrack. Ahari remained excessively vague about the lode of guilt suffered by the husband, however, and left off with a non-ending that aimed for a chilling note of waking dreaming, but failed to elicit more from me than a weary sigh.

The Power


Corinna Faith’s The Power also featured a lot of wandering around in the dark waiting for something to go boo. Faith depicted a naïve and troubled young nurse spending her first night on the job in a cavernous London hospital in the late 1970s, during a power cut caused by a strike, and soon finds herself dogged by a haunting entity out for revenge. This time the thematic roster ticked off institutional abuse and a “believe women” message, but despite an initially restrained and eerie approach, the film was riddled with unsubtle characters, pushy thematic underlining, and eventually some very ordinary evil possession stuff, building to the inevitable, cringe-inducing moment when the double meaning of the title was spoken aloud. Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor was more effective in dovetailing a similar evocation of a period and place and its antiheroine’s damaged headspace. Bailey-Bond depicted a straitlaced but fraying film censor of the early 1980s dealing with the wave of “video nasties” and becoming convinced her sister, who went missing in a vaguely remembered traumatic incident when she was a child, is now the enslaved starlet featured in a renegade goreteur’s movies. As a debut Censor was intriguing and promising, despite its problems: Bailey-Bond forged a strikingly surreal netherworld where traumatic delirium and confrontational junk-art formed an effectively poisonous brew. But she didn’t develop the slow uncoupling of heroine’s mangled psyche from reality as carefully as she might have, leading to a confused climax.

Shadow In The Cloud


Some other genre entries went for gaudier thrills, like James Wan’s Malignant. Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud tried to mate suspense and action with feminist parable in boisterous style, casually ripping off the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and resituating it aboard an Allied bomber over the Pacific during World War II. Chloe Grace Moretz played the witness to a marauding gremlin. Shadow in the Cloud started very well, with a lovely, eerie prologue on a fogbound runway, and ratcheted up tension splendidly as Moretz’s enigmatic heroine was trapped in a belly gun turret and forced to contend with the variably suspicious and dismissive voices of the crew as well as lurking enemy fighters and a malevolent critter. Liang managed to sustain something very close to a radio play whilst still proving energetically cinematic. The second half went badly awry as eventually both plot and action took increasingly absurd swerves, and like too many other recent movies insisted in turning its dramatic underpinnings and amplifying them into deliriously on-the-nose metaphors, delivering a kind of animated Rosie the Riveter poster at its climax. Still, the film managed to be enjoyable all the way through.

Till Death


S.K. Dale’s Till Death was another chamber-piece thriller concerning misogyny and entrapment, but this one emerged as one of the year’s quieter successes despite not being as affected as its rivals: rather it was a triumph for old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts suspense. Megan Fox was the guilty and traumatised wife of a DA who shoots himself after chaining himself to her, in revenge for her infidelity as well as avoiding the consequences of his corruption, leaving her to drag around his bloody corpse at a remote lake house and elude a violent criminal. The set-up had a rather Hitchcockian blend of simplicity and resonance, and Fox was surprisingly strong in the kind of role she ought to have been cast in ten years ago, part neo-Gene Tierney suffering beauty, part splatter movie heroine. The situation was cleverly heightened without too many gimmicks, and the theme of variably weak men constantly trying to offload responsibility onto the shattered but resourceful protagonist, as well as the more obvious metaphor for the dead weight of a failed marriage, came across without needing a rhetorical bullhorn.

The Woman In The Window


Joe Wright’s adaptation of the bestselling trash novel The Woman In The Window also dealt with a fraying woman caught up in a drama of deception and lethal intent and played out in an entrapping space, although this time in the mould of a bold-faced psychothriller. Amy Adams was the brilliant but psychologically crippled therapist trapped in her New York townhouse by trauma-enhanced agoraphobia, convinced her new neighbours are up to something whilst forced to establish her own sanity. Wright had an uphill battle given the general cynicism sparked by revelations about the meretricious source material and the film was met with some withering reviews, but Wright give it the old school try, wrapping the clunky plot with its multitude of red herrings in a veneer of high style laced with swooning staircases and hypervivid hallucinations. Wright teased by inserting a clip from Rear Window, but his chief inspiration proved less Hitchcock than the more decadent phases of Italian giallo. Adams and the rest of the cast were also enthusiastic, and the whole package was enjoyable it in its absurd way. The other top British director surnamed Wright, Edgar, offered his own, superior spin on giallo with Last Night In Soho.

Werewolves Within


Josh Ruben’s Werewolves Within set out to infuse fun horror with a vein of satirical purpose, drawing on the likes of And Then There Were None and The Thing as it threw together an assortment of neo-Americana caricatures, from rude crude rednecks to a disruptive Trumpian magnate to a folksy, needy Black hero, in a small Vermont town where the power’s been cut off in the dead of winter and a lycanthrope seems to be at large. Werewolves Within proved a tiresome experience, largely because of its weak script, with a comic approach that seemed like a Comedy Channel show writ large but never delivered the laughs, and failed to develop its potentially interesting plotline and social commentary, where the predations of the werewolf were almost incidental compared to the mixture of greed and stupidity afflicting the townsfolk, before the real villain proved to be a gaslighting, self-righteous millennial. The film looked surprisingly good on a low budget, that said, and Milana Vayntrub as a wry and illusive mailperson gave an eyecatching performance, including a brief spasm of dancing to Ace of Base more entertaining than either movie Dwayne Johnson was in this year.

A Quiet Place Part II


Dealing with similar ideas if in a resolutely non-cynical vein, John Krasinski returned to the director’s chair for a follow-up to his big 2018 hit, A Quiet Place Part II. Krasinski initially moved back in chronology to portray the invasion of the marauding alien beasts, sowing havoc in Smalltownia USA. Eventually we returned to where the first film left off, as the remaining members of the Abbott family each learn to forge ahead, with Cillian Murphy brought in as a surrogate father. He travels with young Regan (Millicent Simmonds) on a mission to let others in on her method for paralysing and killing the monsters, whilst her mother and brother contend with their own troubles. Krasinki confirmed he’s a genuinely dynamic and intelligent director of action and suspense sequences, and he wisely if not always effectively expanded the scope of the drama to explore and test diverse brands of survivalism and questions of mutual responsibility amidst calamity. And yet Krasinski couldn’t overcome the increasingly apparent truth that the story played itself out in the first instalment, as the sequel couldn’t muster the same level of heart or excitement because it was clear there were now unkillable characters, and moved a little too impatiently to effectively introduce new ones. Nonetheless it was a superior entertainment.

The Tomorrow War


Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War came across like a gene-spliced chimera of a few different sci-fi action hits, including the first A Quiet Place with its scuttling, marauding monsters. Chris Pratt starred as a former soldier turned frustrated teacher who finds himself, along with millions of others, drafted into a war in the near future by time-travelling emissaries. Those future dwellers desperately need manpower to fight off an invasion by a race of marauding alien hellbeasts, and he learns his own grown-up daughter is leading a research team racing to develop a toxin to take out the beasts before extinction hits. The plot hinged on a global warming warning, which, in case that was too lefty for some in the audience, was balanced by a clunky libertarian anti-government theme. But the real meat of the story lay in its metaphors for intergenerational resentment and need, becoming essentially a monster-killing version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Pratt was decent if unremarkable in the lead; Yvonne Strahovski was more effective as his older, wounded daughter. All in all it was just well-done enough to be a decent matinee flick, with a solid, serious tone, forceful, intimidating action, and an effective climax, even if the characters’ actions often seemed too conveniently stupid.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League


When it came to monster movie business, Godzilla v. Kong was determined to deliver the audience what it came to see, and horror auteur Adam Wingard brought headlong energy to proceedings, hurrying to set his story in motion as the titular beasts resumed their respective species’ warfare only to find them both up against a new, inimical threat. The freewheeling pulp magazine pace and imagery made up for Wingard’s choice, for better and for worse, to throw out the conceptual and metaphorical pretences of the previous entries in the series, as well as signs of rather severe editing to the human-level drama, and settle for a big, noisy, extravagant good time. It did, at least, succeed in that. Zack Snyder resurged with two films in the course of the year, one the much-anticipated restoration of his original vision for the 2016 flop Justice League, the other the zombie action flick Army of the Dead. Surprisingly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League proved easily the superior of the two, with its rich and spectacular, if unwieldy, exploration and expansion of the superhero mythos Snyder erected in his previous entries in the DC superhero series, with a newly textured feel for character as well as grandiose action sequences. Army of the Dead by contrast felt like a big step backwards even as it tried to put something new in motion, as an exasperatingly clumsy mixture of laddish black comedy, straight-up horror and action stuff, and an emotionally exposed metaphor for loss. Those elements impeded rather than amplified each-other, with a script that constantly felt a few drafts away from working despite Snyder applying all his technical might.

Undine


In a very different kind of monster movie, German auteur Christian Petzold made an unusual segue into magic-realist romance, albeit laced with his refrains delving into ambiguous identity and history, with Undine, the tale of a woman who proves to be, true to her name, a mermaid. After being dumped by her lover, she resists the established course of action she’s supposed to take of killing him and returning to the water: she instead falls in love with another man, a diver, but eventually finds fate cannot be easily cheated. The first half, exploiting Undine’s job as a museum lecturer in Berlin history as well as her hidden identity as a repository of the city’s underground dream-life so Petzold could incorporate an essayistic element, seemed to be gesturing towards symbolic aspects to the drama that never resolved into much of anything. But as the film settled it blended deadpan realism and the oneiric with unique assurance, leaving off with a lingering note of romantic melancholy, making it easily my favourite of Petzold’s films to date.

Black Widow


Cinema’s all-powerful overlords at Disney-Marvel had both a good year and a bad year – good in that they had, as usual, several of the most successful movies of the year, but bad in that three of those very expensive movies likely didn’t turn a profit. The best of the three was Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, which also served as Scarlett Johansson’s kiss goodbye to her superspy character Natasha Romanoff. Despite being killed off in Avengers: Endgame, she was allowed her own vehicle at last, one carefully situated in the series timeline. On many levels Black Widow had a frustrated air, trying to offer something darker, tougher, and more suggestively perverse than the MCU had ever been, but never daring to truly break the mould. Still, Shortland managed to invest the movie with flickers of personality, both visual and thematic, turning it into one of her familiar dark fairy-tales about young women lost in the world and learning to fend for themselves, and dedicated to evoking her characters’ identities as the tormented playthings of power and the refuse of great designs who find themselves fused into a false yet real family. Action scenes came laced with kinetic Bond and Bourne tributes, pulling off action feminism with some real flash, and the film did well by both Johansson and her heir apparent Florence Pugh, building to a dynamic blow-everything-up finale.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tried for its part to introduce a new hero, a superpowered kung fu warrior created originally as a comic book version of Bruce Lee and son of Fu Manchu. Here Shang-Chi was presented as the listless slacker son of an ageless and magically endowed crime lord, who tries to escape his legacy and take up a new life in America, only to find destiny, and inane plotting, pulling him back into his father’s maniacal orbit. Cretton invested the film with sufficient superficial energy to keep it watchable. Virtually nothing about the script bore up to even the slightest scrutiny, that said, on top of the tepid, imagination-free attempt to annex Chinese folklore and mysticism into the MCU, which only achieved some traction in the loopy climax. Simu Liu in the lead role seemed to have been cast to be as blandly inoffensive as possible, obliged to awkwardly play both a hardened, purpose-built war machine from a nefarious underworld and a nice, reluctant hero rendered sufficiently assimilated to still be relatable to American teens. Tony Leung was both the best thing about the movie and miscast as Shang-Chi’s obsessive papa, whilst Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley were embarrassingly wasted in comic supporting roles.

Eternals


Somewhere in between was Chloe Zhao’s much-hyped Eternals, an attempt by the fresh-minted Oscar-winner to invest some mythological gravitas into a drama drawn from one of Jack Kirby’s more obscure cosmic creations. Eternals depicted a team of manufactured guardians, sent to Earth in civilisation’s infancy who foster human development, but eventually learn there is a grim motive for the great project, on top of their own varying levels of private disillusionment and torment, eventually sparking schism and strife within their ranks. Zhao, working with an interesting cast and a megabudget production, invested her visuals with a classy lustre and strove to introduce some plaintive, meditative depth to signal how far the franchise had come, or at least hoped it had, since the first Iron Man. The sprawling, millennia-spanning storyline badly lacked a compelling focal point, and despite all it was yet another MCU film saddled with a clumsy plot and rote monstrous antagonists, as well as ungainly overlength. Where the movie needed efficiency and drive, it provided loping wistfulness, and vice versa. Gemma Chan was trapped in an oddly listless performance as the nominal lead, whilst Richard Maddern was effective as the fanatical antihero, but easily the most potent performance came from Angelina Jolie as the troubled warrior Thena, giving despite her oddly displaced part in the film a swift lesson in authentic star hustle.

Spider-Man: No Way Home


Jon Watts returned for his third turn at the helm of a (partial) Marvel film with Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that performed an unexpected, near-miraculous rescue job of its own for the moviegoing box office in the waning days of 2021. That success was in large part because of a remarkably cunning marketing campaign that whet the appetite with glimpses of returning, classic (and not-so-classic) villains from the Spider-Man legacy, whilst playing coy about whether previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield would also show up. The actual film ably gave the audience what it seemingly wanted. The story involved Tom Holland’s Peter Parker making an appeal to Doctor Strange to cast a spell to nullify the revealing of his secret identity, only to cause a rupture in reality, allowing alternative dimensional editions of Peter and his foes into his. For Watts, third time was definitely a charm: No Way Home gained unexpected gravitas as well as fun from loudly ringing the nostalgia gong, but it was solid and smart in its own right, far more shaded and mature than the previous, flimsy character instalments in the MCU. Stars Holland and Zendaya gave newly felt performances, whilst the storyline took some risks in killing off a beloved character and leaving its hero in a desolate limbo. Watts offset the darker edge by balancing the energy of three different Spider-Men to delightful effect, and handling their differing angsts with finesse. But the frisson of galactic-level fan service did much to also mask the very questionable plotting and the awkwardly structured script, which needed some lessons in efficiency.

The Matrix Resurrections


As if determined to contrast Watts’ film in exploiting millennial nostalgia with a far more metafictional and self-referential edge, Lana Wachowski returned, sans sibling, to the franchise that once made them pop culture heroes, with The Matrix Resurrections. Wachowski tried to make nostalgia, creative legacy, and audience investment aspects of the drama itself, in depicting a now middle-aged Neo, played with stricken, hangdog intensity by Keanu Reeves. Entrapped in a new version of the Matrix, Neo thinks he’s the creator of a hugely popular video game standing in for the original trilogy and is forced into rebooting the property, only to be soon plucked out of the digital realm by a new generation of rebels desperate for leadership. The Matrix Resurrections was initially intriguing and inspired in weaving a dialogue between fantasy and reality in terms of creative control and fan affection, and teased the commercial impetus behind its making with spry humour. Once the story proper got moving, familiar elements resurged and the film devolved into a succession of wonky impulses, some engaging, some tired, some silly, trying to be revisionist in regards to Neo’s relationship with his great love Trinity, but never quite breaking through to fresh ground.

Jungle Cruise


With Jungle Cruise, Disney tried to pull off the same alchemy that made its Pirates of the Caribbean films so successful by turning to another of its theme park rides and fashioning a big, expensive spectacle around it. The story, such as it was, pitted Emily Blunt as a determined explorer, Jack Whitehall as her effete brother, and Dwayne Johnson as the rough diamond skipper they hire, against evil Germans and zombie conquistadors in the hunt for a tree with miraculous medicinal properties deep in the Amazon. Jungle Cruise had a good director in hand with Jaume Collet-Serra as well as likeable stars, and if it had been executed with a lick of sense it could have been a grand old-fashioned romp. Instead it proved a monument to everything wrong about modern Hollywood, swathed in flashy but flavourless CGI, replete with incoherent, ripped-off story beats and strained messaging, blowing the talents behind and in front of camera on a frenetic yet joyless, zany yet witless, fantastical yet unimaginative exercise in marketing fodder. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, billed as a thankful swing towards violently larkish absurdity in following up David Ayer’s much-loathed 2016 Suicide Squad, wasn’t as wall-to-wall bad, with a few good moments and impulses, and yet it was too often painfully unfunny and glazed with a smug and smirking conviction it was being clever and offensive on some level. 

Dune: Part One


Audiences and critics grasped on to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One in famished glee, as it was the rare new special effects blockbuster that wasn’t a superhero movie, even as the property it’s based on supplied the mythopoeic fuel for a swathe of current franchises, including The Matrix. Villeneuve was the one to dare wading again into a deluge that nearly drowned David Lynch, and chiefly leveraged it by cutting Frank Herbert’s cult novel in half and proposing to do the rest whenever. Dune: Part One had many things going for it. As well as the inherently meaty source material, the new take came armed with a fine, star-studded cast and good-looking, clever special effects. But I was enormously disappointed by the stripped-down script, which wasted much of the time splitting the adaptation bought on a long, climactic chase, whilst leaving out extremely important plot and world-building details, and that great cast was often poorly served in scantily written roles. Villeneuve’s direction proved superficially chic but tonally monolithic, stripping out complexity and then belabouring the obvious. All that said, it was an entirely watchable movie, one that did just enough to whet the appetite for the second part.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife


Jason Reitman emulated his father Ivan in making Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a loving homage-cum-sequel that proved a curtain raiser for 2021’s late wave of nostalgia bait, one that took the opposite tack to the clumsily farcical 2016 remake of Ivan’s fiercely treasured 1984 hit. Jason’s take on the story leaned for much of its length closer to his own early style of low-key indie comedy, following the teenage kids of a frazzled single mother who learn they’re the grandchildren of the late Egon Spengler, who destroyed his life in the conviction the monstrous entity Gozer would return, sparking an adventure that eventually sees the resurgence of both familiar villains and heroes. Afterlife took some savage reviews, most of them barely disguised payback to the perceived cadre of fans who rejected the 2016 take. And the movie was certainly imperfect, taking too long to get going and then rushing its best elements, offering some limp stabs at new-but-not flourishes like a cadre of tiny Staypuft Marshmallow men, and not knowing what to do with all its characters. Jason’s choice of a kid-centric, Spielbergian take on material seemed notably at odds with material originally defined by its zany disreputability, but there was just enough sardonicism in there to maintain the brand. Young Mckenna Grace, wonderful as the heir to Egon’s smarts and fortitude, helped bridge the uneasily coexisting frames of reference. The finale, which finally brought the remaining original team back into the fray, saw the old boys in delightful form, particularly Bill Murray as his Peter Venkman taunted his ancient foe with the lament they never became a great power couple.

Nightmare Alley

Guillermo del Toro’s first movie since his Oscar-winner The Shape of Water proved a sharp pivot away from that film’s romantic fantasy. Del Toro chose to make a new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s infernally bleak novel Nightmare Alley, previously filmed with the more morbid and downbeat edges sanded off in 1947 by Edmund Goulding. It’s easy to see what drew del Toro to the material – the heart-of-darkness anatomisation of both the old weird America and its shiny uptown superstructure encompasses a whole genre in miniature much as del Toro has tried to assemble for himself in movies like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, swerving from the garish trove of the old timey carnival to art deco bastions inhabited by gilt-haired succubi. Nightmare Alley was initially absorbing in exploiting the carnival setting, complete with high-cineaste nods to Tod Browning’s Freaks and The Show, only to bleed steam as Bradley Cooper’s tunnelvisioned conman fell into the clutches of Cate Blanchett’s more patient quack in the course of spiritualist machinations. The film was ultimately too heavy-footed, too weighed down by the regalia of its own dark nostalgia and prestige movie trappings to really dig into the cruel, surreal edge of Gresham’s story, and star Cooper was strong playing a slick asshole but could never quite penetrate this shell to get at the self-destructive neurotic below.

Cruella


Another tale of an outcast, criminally talented antihero who destroys themselves in the course of seeking riches and power, albeit very different in tone, Cruella saw Craig Gillespie revisiting territory akin to his I, Tonya in offering sympathy to a female devil. This time Gillespie made over the gleeful villainess from the 101 Dalmatians films into a would-be fashionista bitch-queen, played with archly stylised relish by Emma Stone. Cruella charted her life from arrogant tyke to hardened survivor to would-be worker drone, before she finally and effectively unleashes the punk provocateur, doing battle with her professional nemesis and secret mother, played by Emma Thompson. Cruella was one of the odder, and more oddly entertaining, packages of the year, part comedic romp, part psychodrama. Something that by rights should have been more egregious IP exploitation instead came laced with jazzy imagery and perverse psychology, even if it came to a shuddering halt with a weak climax that stopped well short of the kind of grand guignol spectacle the outsized characters deserved.   

No Time To Die


After considerable delay, Daniel Craig’s last dance in the role of James Bond arrived in the form of No Time To Die, a would-be epic farewell to the actor and his version of the character. The Craig Bond’s drift towards a mere stolid and generic weepy tough guy was completed in an overlong and jarringly uneven entry that hinted at uncertainty on the behalf of the filmmakers as to how far to push their end-of-an-era motif. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction only came to life in spasms, as the film briefly regained some of the old razzle-dazzle in a couple of early action scenes, particularly one sporting Ana de Armas as a surprising newbie agent, and Rami Malek was effective if mostly wasted as the fey and sibilant evil mastermind. No Time To Die proved strangely committed to revealing the very premise of the Craig Bond era, as an origin story for the classic character, to be a false promise, seeming to kill him off after wading through acres of half-hearted plotting and some narrative busy-work. By the end of it I felt a little glad to finally see Craig go.

The Protégé


To get some more genuine Bondian spirit ironically one had to look to the ladies this year. Martin Campbell, who first vested Craig in the role and proved he still knows how to shoot and cut a good ass-kick scene, offered The Protégé, a star vehicle for Maggie Q that paired her with Samuel L. Jackson as the man who schooled her in the deadly arts and whose apparent assassination drives her into battle with a shadowy mob, and Michael Keaton as her weathered but spry foe-cum-lover. The film had a thin, standard-issue story, aging cast, and a slickly tony look that identified it squarely as straight-to-streaming fodder. Campbell’s touch with action and the strong cast elevated it considerably into the kind of B-movie that satisfies: Q and Keaton had more actual, sexy spark than just about any other pairing of the year, and Campbell knew how to take advantage of it.

Kate


Kate, sporting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, had a very similar starting point but swerved to become a variation on D.O.A..  Winstead’s Tokyo-based super-assassin embarked on hunting down the men who served her a dose of radiation poisoning, only to find the trail leading back home (with Woody Harrelson playing basically the same corrupt father figure as he did in Solo), and gained a last chance for redemption in protecting the daughter of a Yakuza kingpin. Winstead was terrific, again playing the kind of role she should’ve been given years ago, and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyen put The Huntsman: Winter’s War far behind him by making a sleek, fun, good-looking movie, even if the Japanesey tropes piled up a little thick. The main pity of it was the ending necessarily precluded a sequel, as I would much rather have seen Kate’s return than some of the other dullards we’re doomed to see resurge.

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Angelina Jolie returned to a proper leading role in another valiant heroine part, albeit one more grounded, in Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead. Jolie played a forest fire fighter haunted by deaths she couldn’t prevent, who by pure accident takes in charge a teenage boy who stumbles upon her in the woods, after his father has been murdered by some hired killers. Like a lot of recent movies of this kind, Those Who Wish Me Dead had a chintzy, knocked-off feel from a combination of a strained budget and a lazy production filled out with weak special effects, and the storyline rushed through its set-up, leaving a pile of plot holes and broad-stroke characterisations. The improbably classy cast and director helped a lot, that said, and as it unfolded reminded me a little of some good 1950s noir thrillers with similar stories and settings. A couple of strong and surprising suspense sequences helped, as did Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen as the grade-A scumbag villains.

No Sudden Move


Steven Soderbergh’s busy retirement continued with No Sudden Move, a 1950s-set thriller that tried to double as an acid satire on the period’s suburban pretences, social schisms, and corporate malfeasance. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro headlined as two losers hired to take a family hostage to force the father to hand over some valuable industrial secret, only to quickly find things are deliriously complicated and literally everyone is playing their own game. Soderbergh employed a terrific cast and the film started strong. But taken as a whole it summarised many reasons Soderbergh has long aggravated me, with a script that devolved into an endless maze of plot and intolerable characters, the brittle, affected visual style (shot once more on iPhone but without the pulpy enthusiasm of Unsane), and a strained attempt at cynical social commentary, which Soderbergh actually ripped off from The Nice Guys, a much better film.

Wrath of Man


Guy Ritchie’s recent run of form continued with Wrath of Man, perhaps his most controlled piece of direction to date matched to a story that kept twisting with verve and delivered with unusual seriousness. Jason Statham was the ice-eyed new recruit at an armoured car company who quickly proves to have skills, and purposes, far beyond natural for a security guard. Ritchie’s choice of turning to a greyer, sterner mould of crime drama, reminiscent of Peter Yates and Michael Mann, was hampered by his relative lack of a feel for the minutiae of the different milieu and subgenre. But the story gave Rashomon a run for its money in its ellipses and managed to do something new with the well-worn heist movie template, building to a ferocious robbery and shoot-out sequence. Only right at the end did the film felt like it cheated a little and ran out of really good ideas to bring its story home.

Nobody


Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody offered a more waggish and sarcastic take on the idea of an omnicompetent warrior hidden in sheep’s clothing, ingeniously casting Bob Odenkirk as a middle-aged family man who loses his son’s respect when he refuses to intervene in a home robbery, only for another, suppressed side to his identity to begin emerging, one craving brutal and bloody expression. Nobody was short, snappy, and a bit slight, with frustrating signs it might have been heavily cut before release, as its running thread contemplating familial masculine identity, with Odenkirk’s relationship with bo