2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2022

By Roderick Heath

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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 preoccupied by anti-German sentiment, and obliged to care for her paralysed father whilst 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 we already know from 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 driven by 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 study of shambolic individuals with mind-bending high conceptualism and a veneer of post-modern knowing, in what ultimately proves a shaggy dog yarn. But it did 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 protagonists 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. Pugh suffers from an 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 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 by 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 unfolding mayhem. 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 ambiguity. 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. Barely escaping whilst the critters rip apart some hapless Taliban, she takes refuge at a US Rangers outpost, only to suffer siege by the 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, with 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 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 providing thrills aplenty, as a calling card for Mann that proved him capable of sustaining a sweat-inducing sense of danger in a tightly focused setting.

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 indiscriminating, homicidal 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 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 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 little more than a sick joke with a self-congratulatory Hollywood player point, in arguing hamburgers for the masses are superior to fine dining for the discerning.

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 once again 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. 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 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 painful 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 an isolated, 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 for 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 absurd 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 acting skills 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. For his second go-round as Hercule Poirot, Branagh 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 was bolder this time in suborning the ritual form of the whodunit to his own fascination with formative psychology and cine-theatrical staging. He painted Poirot more overtly as a damaged misfit posing as suave force of justice, and surrounded him with versions of 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 Skarsgard, 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, only 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 in 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 the story at hand with 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. 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 as 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, ever-so-posh environs occasionally violated with calculated eruptions of defiling mess. 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 overt but 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 viewer with witnessing 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 part of the 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 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 the 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 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 pretences 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 filmmaker’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, having moved to the US, and his principles in achieving his status, whilst also 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 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, decorated with ineffectual satiric swipes including the purchase of Baja California by Amazon and a Trumpian American president. The greater 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, whether it made sense to in a cinematic setting or not. 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 like a baby xenomorph, 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 as Padraic’s more determined sister and Barry Keoghan as an abused local boy.

Probably no other director could have weathered the pandemic in so unruffled and productive a fashion 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-for-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 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, with 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 needed 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)

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Halloween Horror Film Freedonia

Halloween Horror Kill List

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Hi there. Just a post where I’ll be placing links to all this year’s Halloween Horror pieces when they’re posted on my two sites, hopefully making them easier to keep track of, so you poor babies don’t strain your handsy-wandsies clicking too often.

1: Messiah of Evil at This Island Rod

2: Shivers and The Brood at Film Freedonia

3. Horrors of the Black Museum at This Island Rod

4. Sleepy Hollow at Film Freedonia

5. From Hell It Came at This Island Rod

6. The Old Dark House at Film Freedonia

7. Woman Who Came Back at This Island Rod

8. It Came From Outer Space and Tarantula at Film Freedonia

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2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2021

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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 both his son and his aging but deadly father (Christopher Lloyd) and withdrawn but still loyal brother (RZA), never quite got the attention it craved. That said, the finale where the men got together to battle off an army of gangsters, was beautifully zany and hilarious, and the set-piece fight on a bus that raised the curtain on the violence wielded a rare sense of physical intensity and intimate damage of bone and flesh and metal colliding, as Odenkirk found his old gifts for bringing and taking pain still operating, if in need of some fine-tuning.

The Dry


Robert Connolly’s The Dry cast Eric Bana as a federal cop drawn back to the small Australian country town he grew up in, and finds himself investigating the fates of two of his old high school friends. One was a girl he himself was accused of killing when they were teens, the other a man who seems to have shot himself and his family in the midst of a sweltering, gruelling drought, and solving one mystery demands reckoning with the other. Some of the plotting, particularly the final revelation of just what happened to the girl, was unconvincing in the mechanics, but Connolly forged a strong atmosphere evoking the oppressive in both temperature and social climes. Bana was very good as an intelligent and haunted hero constantly obliged to step back and forth in time and contend with the possibility of the monstrous lurking behind his most cherished yet double-edged memories, resulting in something close to a Proustian detective movie.

Silk Road


Tiller Russell’s Silk Road recounted one of the more fascinating and oddly tragic true crime sagas of recent years, involving a young would-be libertarian entrepreneur who set up the “eBay of drugs” and found immediate, enormous success, but for all his new-age ideals quickly found himself driven to the oldest and most despicable of kingpin activities, and the burnt-out DEA agent who first set out to nab him but then, through a variety of motives, became something like his protector. Russell’s direction was plodding and the film didn’t have the budget and scope to do the story justice, but it held my interest by focusing on the psychology of the two men and their different urges towards self-destruction, and setting up what seemed to be a familiar heroic arc for Justin Clarke’s weary and cynical agent only to see it twist in dismaying directions.

The Ice Road


Blockbuster screenwriter turned director Jonathan Hensleigh released The Ice Road, a sub-zero Canadian take on The Wages of Fear mixed with action-thriller elements, casting Liam Neeson yet again as a grizzled veteran, this time of truck driving, who along with his troubled younger brother, left brain damaged by military service, accepts an offer to lead a truck convoy carrying equipment to help save some trapped miners in the frozen north. They and the other drivers soon find the mining company using a saboteur to foil their mission to cover up their nefarious business practices. The Ice Road made me wish one of the high-octane talents Hensleigh used to write for had tackled the film back in a ‘90s heyday, rather than trying to pull it off with a thin-looking straight-to-streaming budget and too much CGI. But the film hung together and delivered enough thrills and spills to count as a solid action programmer. Neeson and Laurence Fishburne gave proceedings a dose of gravitas, Benjamin Walker was niftily cast as the seemingly bland but relentlessly malevolent villain, and Amber Midthunder injected spunk as a bristly Native American driver on the crew.

F9


For more high-speed thrills, this time delivered with a budget equivalent to some countries’ national debt, there was F9, the ninth instalment of the once-trashtastic, now venerable and classy Fast and Furious franchise. Justin Lin returned as director for an entry that gleefully decided to clear the last obstacles between it and utter fantasy with a car launched into space, yet another old character returning from the dead, and Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto taking out a fighter plane with a truck. Absurd, silly, and barely bothering to conceal the cracks in its aging fuselage with its many retcon patch jobs, F9 was nonetheless riotously entertaining, readily showing off the qualities that have kept the series alive – the characters whose reflexes feel like old friends, and the fluency and finesse of Lin’s direction, with a special delight in letting everyone, from the newest characters to the old salts, have their vignette of derring-do.

Mortal Kombat


Simon McQuoid’s tilt at reviving the cinematic wing of the video game franchise Mortal Kombat tried its best to fashion a working storyline out of the game’s trippy pretext mythos, involving warring dimensions and ritual combat by anointed superwarriors. This was never likely to earn itself a place on top ten lists or Oscar nominations, but as far as this sort of thing goes the film was surprisingly okay: the plot was slim enough to be translucent and and the cast lacked star power, but the film had a bracing sense of its own ridiculousness, spent just enough time setting up the characters to make their eventual evolution a little cheering, and embraced a gory, foul-mouthed vigour. Josh Lawson enlivened proceedings enormously as a ratbag Aussie fighter, and the film looked better than many of these CGI-caked movies: one image, of a hero’s wife and child impaled and frozen together by his malignant enemy, had more visual and metaphorical kick than anything in some of the year’s more self-serious fantasy films. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice tried to revive a classic brand of screwball action-comedy, as two roguish thieves and a straight-arrow FBI nemesis forced in league with one of them went on the hunt for some old treasurey things that are worth something and yadda yadda and the twist with the thing and stuff. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson (not having a good year), and Gal Gadot were handed a script that seemed to have been scribbled on the back of a matchbook and told to be fun whilst standing in front of a bunch of poorly greenscreened backdrops.

The Green Knight


David Lowery’s The Green Knight presented the would-be highbrow counterpoint to fantasy-action movies like Shang-Chi and Mortal Kombat. I had remained highly suspicious of Lowery, director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Ghost Story: the latter film was laboured but doggedly interesting whilst the former was a trite imitation, so whatever he made next he made was going to be the test case for his evolution. That follow-up proved to be an adaptation of the medieval poem about a callow member of King Arthur’s court, Gawain, who finds himself committed to a possibly fatal quest after playing a Christmas “game” with a mysterious visitor to the court. Dev Patel was an inspired choice to play the questing hero, but the film gave him little to actually do in playing a character who’s supposed to be learning lessons but instead is trapped by Lowery’s relentlessly dour and witless stylistics, yearning desperately to be taken for something profound and arty, and yet leaning heavily on anime and computer game imagery in tracking a hero with an oversized novelty weapon and a cute offsider. The script’s hollow take on the driving parable translated the evergreen poetics of the source material into an airless mass of dimly lit images and dead-on-arrival conceptualism. Lowery coated proceedings with a host of affectations like barely legible ye-olde-timey chapter titles flashed on screen and plenty of witchypoo segues, promising to make him the king of millennial cinema at least, and yet the film desperately lacked the energy and creative furore apparent in Excalibur and The Last Temptation of Christ, two movies it notably ripped off.

Riders of Justice


Danish director-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen trod the well-worn paths of the revenge movie with Riders of Justice, only to apply a mischievous, satirical lilt, blended with a study in the irrationality of grief and the lingering pall of various forms of trauma. Jensen cast regular collaborator Mads Mikklesen as a hardened soldier forced to return home and look after his teenage daughter, following his wife’s death in a railway accident. Soon a trio of nerdy statisticians, one of whom was also in the disaster, convince him it was actually staged by a nefarious biker gang to assassinate a witness, sparking a campaign of payback. Jensen set out to deconstruct the familiar motif of violent revenge as cathartic and rewarding for über-machismo, playing the taciturn warrior off against the obsessive and damaged savants for rich and surprisingly nuanced comedy, whilst still delivering a dose of thrills and violence. If the mixture was just a little too affected in places, Jensen’s deft humour and the excellent performances made it a very enjoyable ride all the same.

Six Minutes to Midnight


Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight aimed to be a good old-fashioned spy thriller and had, in theory, an interesting setting and premise to leap off from – an English girls’ boarding school on the eve of World War II catering entirely to the daughters of high-ranking Nazi officials. Judi Dench was the nostalgic headmistress trying very hard to remain oblivious to the dark side of her student body and faculty’s new brand of patriotism, and Eddie Izzard was the MI5 agent posing as a new teacher, trying to uncover an enemy spy ring operating around the school. In practice, the film was a half-hearted effort, and came across like the discarded rump of a more ambitious project. What should have been a study in the divided loyalties of the girls instead took recourse in pseudo-Hitchcockian suspense, as our inept hero was forced to go on the run from the police, with Izzard trying desperately to be nondescript despite being the least nondescript person imaginable, and the script (from a story Izzard cowrote) was packed with incoherent character actions and contrivances, like villains who give the plot away to a hero crouched behind a desk.

Cliff Walkers


Another retro spy thriller, Zhang Yimou’s Cliff Walkers, saw the director returning to the 1930s milieu of his Shanghai Triad, albeit in a very different key, as he focused on a team of Communist Chinese spies parachuted into the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo with the intent of exposing a war crime; meanwhile a team of collaborationist police, knowing they’re coming thanks to a turncoat, try to net them, but have to deal with their own hidden traitor. As usual with Zhang the film looked gorgeous, with a painstakingly art-directed period Harbin, using the snow as a character in itself in painting the moral and existential climes for the embattled heroes and villains. There were some punchy action scenes and an eye-catching performance from Liu Haocun as an angel-faced but deadly member of the heroic team. And yet Cliff Walkers finished up little more than a mild exercise in well-worn thriller stuff, laden with poorly delineated characters and a byzantine plot, lacking the interludes of operatic emotion and style Zhang usually conjures to compensate. Gestures towards exploring the struggle as one of gruelling communal attrition expressed through individual fates had potential, but too often this was displaced by the zigzagging business at hand, and Zhang leaned on some rather clunky sentimentality to provoke sympathy for the protagonists. Ultimately Zhang seemed much more energised by the bad guys, a mixture of Japanese officers and local quislings, some wielding cynical cruelty and others a strangely fraternal respect in their situation as both occupiers and the besieged, but again the jumbled script kept Zhang from exploring them in depth.

The Harder They Fall


Musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall set out to revive the Western with added Blaxploitation attitude in the tale of two criminal gangs, consisting of characters named after some authentic African-American Wild West figures, on a collision course to rumble in a small, entirely Black community over debts both fiscal and moral, with the will to revenge entwining the two leaders for extra spice. Samuel’s flashy, energetic direction showed real visual talent, backed up by Mihai Mălamaire Jr’s terrific photography, and the climax went for broke with a great fight between Zazie Beetz and Regina King as the opposing pirate queens, and the last jolt of melodrama between Jonathan Major’s sort-of hero and Idris Elba’s mostly villain was interesting. Problem was, to get that far I had to wade through Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s tediously smug, one-note script, big on tough posturing and bloody violence and very light on convincing characterisation, memorable dialogue, and good twists. It also made highly confused stabs at a meditation on period racial politics, like trying to complicate the story by presenting the nominal villains as proto-Black nationalists, but then abandoning that when the film needed to make sure we knew they were the bad guys.

Cry Macho


Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho played as something like a gentle send-up of the year’s genre films, as well as sigh of relief for Eastwood’s entire screen persona. The nonagenarian actor-director was quietly delightful, trying to will away the years in playing a broken-down former rodeo hero sent to Mexico by his frenemy former boss to fetch his son away from his mobbed-up mother, and stumbles into an idyllic village where he finds a community and one special lady to while away his remaining days with. The droll, ambling story mostly set the scene for grace-notes of acquiescence, an expression of an old man’s sentimentality hampered to a degree by flashes of goofiness when ticking off its supernal plot and perhaps deliberately avoiding some more pointed potential dramatic and thematic flashpoints. Underlying the pacific tone, nonetheless, I sensed a desperate stab not merely at providing Eastwood with a fitting career coda but an attempt to counter the negativity that’s cast a heavy pall in the past few years, a wish for peace and connection for all.

Stillwater


Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater was another portrait of a hardened American male flung far out of his comfort zone, and one that saw McCarthy trying to do something interesting and delicate: blend the torn-from-the-headlines realist-thriller aspect of his Oscar-winning success Spotlight with the humanistic tone of his earlier indie hits about wounded people forging relationships despite wildly different worldviews. Taking evident but very loose inspiration from the Amanda Knox case, McCarthy cast Matt Damon as an Oklahoma oil driller and recovering addict who goes to France to help his daughter, who’s been imprisoned for murdering her former flatmate and lover. He’s drawn into staying by both his sense of duty and obligation, and because he finds himself drawn to a young girl and her actress mother he crosses paths with. Damon gave a superior performance, nailing both a type and also his hidden layers, and the film was at its best when concentrating on his interactions. The plot, when it finally kicked in, unfortunately squirmed in awkward and forced-feeling directions, although McCarthy recovered for an ending charged with weary regret and sad self-knowledge.

Nitram


Justin Kurzel returned to Australia to rekindle some of the old Snowtown attention by tackling another true-crime subject: with Nitram, Kurzel regarded Martin Bryant (referred to on screen only by the title, being his first name backward), the mass shooter who committed the Port Arthur Massacre, parsing the events that set him on such a murderous path, painting a portrait of a painfully asocial and mentally unbalanced creature, for whom the loss of his few stabilising human contacts proved calamitous. Caleb Landry Jones played Nitram with fierce commitment, in a film that tried at once to be sympathetic to his excruciating solitude whilst stopping short of apologia. Kurzel’s direction was less mannered than usual but still sometimes pushed the grotesquery a little hard, encompassing flashes of garish Aussie Gothic in Essie Davis’ performance as the equally troubled heiress who became one of Nitram’s few friends and accidental patron in homicide, whereas Anthony LaPaglia as Nitram’s depressive father was quietly believable. The film itself was superficially persuasive, but ultimately lacked any driving motive for existing: its Bryant was too recessive a personality to glean any immediate insight or empathy from, so it made a stab late in proceedings in reinforcing an anti-gun message. All it really achieved was being awfully depressing. Fran Kranz’s Mass took on the same terrible phenomenon from an opposite viewpoint, depicting the parents of a mass shooter and those of one of his victims locked in a purgative meeting many years after the event, in the bland confines of a Midwestern church hall. The film made no bones about being an actors’ showcase with theatrical rules and confines, and proved just a little too compressed to be entirely convincing as a portrayal of catharsis, with an excess of noble gravitas towards the end. It was gripping and psychologically sharp for much of its length, that said, and the cast were dynamite whilst being cast ever so slightly against type, including Jeremy Isaacs and Ann Dowd.

House of Gucci


Ridley Scott resurged with force in 2021, offering two movies that tried to fly the flag for old-fashioned grown-up cinema for the mass market to dismaying results, with The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Both films featured Adam Driver expanding his repertoire, playing a smarmy, self-deluding, charismatic creep in the former and an awkward young man with promise who evolves into a smarmy, self-deluding, uncharismatic creep in the latter. The Last Duel proved the superior of the two, working as both a contemporary parable and an historical vivisection, whilst House of Gucci chased a note of tabloid pep, as the true crime/Fortune 500 companion piece to Cruella. House of Gucci saw Driver playing the scion of the titular clan who married a hard-driving social climber, played with broad but spunky force by Lady Gaga, a woman who proved to have the will to take the reins, but not the tact or guile for navigating this hermetic little world, causing mutual and eventually fatal offence. House of Gucci was an odd duck of a movie all told, sometimes playing as broad satire on the inherent absurdity of a family business, whilst quietly setting the scene for a tragic melodrama about differing types of ego and entitlement. Scott’s direction settled in the most part for being merely efficient and glossy, but he did seem to be having fun through the variably arch and broad performances from a sterling cast, which in the best manner of dark comedy often risked caricature to find peculiar truths beneath.

The Dig


Australian director Simon Stone tackled difficult material in The Dig, an adaptation of a well-regarded novel depicting the events around the discovery of the Sutton Hoo horde of Anglo-Saxon artefacts just before World War II, centring on Ralph Fiennes as the reticent, self-educated archaeologist who first discovered the site and Carey Mulligan as the sickly but purposeful widow who commissioned him. The difficulty lay in the allusive approach to a story without major incident, blending gentle character portraiture with a meditative tone poem as the people drawn into the dig comprehend both the immutable depth of the past and the imminent fragility afflicting their own lives. Stone arguably leaned a little too heavily on mimicking Terrence Malick with lots of running montage and shots of sun-touched fields, and the script had some awkward sojourns into romantic subplots and social commentary, as when Ken Stott’s pushy bigwig turned up to provide both snobbery and sexism for the price of one. For the most part, nonetheless, it managed to be quietly powerful and sometimes mesmerising, as Stone wisely trusted the work he was detailing would convey an appropriate sense of the excitement in finesse and discovery. Uniformly good performances helped.

The Human Voice


Pedro Almodovar returned to material plainly crucial to his artistic sensibility in adapting Jean Cocteau’s famous stage piece The Human Voice, which he previously partly filmed in Law of Desire, realised here as a short but lushly styled and mordant work that served in some ways as the non-genre companion piece to other movies of the year like Till Death and The Woman In The Window. Almodovar cast Tilda Swinton as the spurned woman oscillating between nobly wounded stoicism and destructive wrath in dealing with her former lover over the telephone. Almodovar’s overtly theatrical conceits, presenting the woman’ abode plainly as a set in a movie studio and decorating it with Almodovar’s beloved colourful kitsch, provided an effective aesthetic to match the ironic match of potent emotions to elegant articulations in the dialogue, the stylised theatre finding grandeur in ignominy, building to a spectacular auto-da-fe. Almodovar also released the full-length feature Parallel Mothers this year, but unfortunately I haven’t seen it; in fact at this point I’m wondering if it was a rumour started purely to frustrate me.

Pig


Michael Sarnoski’s Pig offered a peculiar spin on star Nicholas Cage’s popular cachet as the great shaggy renegade of star acting, casting him as a former chef of renown who’s retreated into a hermit lifestyle in the Oregon woods after his wife’s death, spending his days digging up boles of truffle with his beloved pet pig. When the pig is stolen, apparently to exploit its foraging talent, his owner goes on an odyssey through Portland’s haute cuisine scene in the hunt for whoever took it, and eventually finds the crime connected with the callow, wannabe-player sprat who buys the truffles from him, and his powerful bully of a father. The film’s mix of Sahara-dry humour and feeling, contending with the background radiation of intense grief and regret, was quite unique, and almost transcended the way it was built around an odd, gimmicky pseudo-lampoon of a revenge movie plot. Pig proposed weirdness like hidden underground fight clubs for restaurant employees only for the storyline to ultimately prove to actually be about catharsis and acts of compassion. This approach left me more than a bit unsatisfied in the desire to more properly understand the characters and the mystique the film sought to describe surrounding the ability to make good food. It was, nonetheless, an affecting experience.

Zola


Janicza Bravo’s Zola hinged upon an arresting gimmick, adapting a viral Twitter thread reporting on an apparently true course of events that befell a young Black waitress and part-time pole dancer who found herself drawn into the crazy, scary world of a white girl she became fast friends with. She found whilst accompanying her pal on a supposedly fun trip to Florida that she was actually a deceptive prostitute under the thumb of a volatile, browbeating, oddly pathetic pimp, and found herself pressganged into serving as her minder, only to prove rather better at rustling up business than the half-smart panderer. Bravo attempted to nimbly encompass the story’s heady blend of menace and black comedy, and the hot-button issues of sex and race, as well as the complicating factor of the story’s basis in social media where different narratives compete and images are invented and discarded at whim. She beautifully captured the seamy, sleazy atmosphere of a world lying just under the surface of the fantasy life of sun-kissed swinging. And yet by the film’s end I wasn’t sure if there was enough of a story to justify the whole thing. Bravo tried to comment on the shallowness of the culture she’s describing, but came close to reproducing it in lacking any sense of character beyond the obvious, and willingness to venture beyond the sketched superficial facts of the story. Eventually the film didn’t so much end as stop.

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar


Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo reunited to write and act in Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, an infinitely lighter spin on the same basic story (and setting) as Zola. The authors played a pair of middle-aged, recently retrenched furniture store workers who have scarcely ever left the hermetic climes of their small town, but decide to invigorate themselves with a vacation at a Florida resort. There they become involved with an enigmatic young man who proves to be engaged in nefarious business on the behalf of his supervillainess girlfriend-boss. The film had, at its heart, a classical comedy precept, building on caricatured types in the two titular ladies, a relentlessly chatty, joined-at-the-hip duo whose general optimism helps them skate over their anxieties, interlaced with a freeform mixture of nonsensical segues, musical sequences, ribald cheekiness, and genre film send-up, all tied up with an earnest message about friendship.  Director Josh Greenbaum gave it all a lively gloss and it was exactly the kind of movie 2021 needed more of. Jamie Dornan was surprisingly fun as the befuddled love interest, whilst Damon Wayans Jr as an overly-talkative assassin and Wiig’s excoriating Cate Blanchett lampoon in her secondary performance as the baddie, stole proceedings.

Don’t Look Up


Adam McKay aimed to move beyond the stylised, pseudo-satirical reportage of his The Big Short and Vice to make a would-be Kubrickian screed in the form of Don’t Look Up, focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers who find themselves thrust into the spotlight when they identify a comet on a collision course with Earth, only to find the forces of ignorance and corruption foiling all attempts to deal with the problem. The film’s central conceit was plied as an obvious but questionable commentary on climate change denialism, whilst also taking detours into mocking Trumpism and Silicon Valley, but really, much as one might expect from contemporary Hollywood, was actually mostly about the media and its narcissism. Don’t Look Up was given occasional jolts of passion by its two classy stars and some nice supporting turns, particularly Mark Rylance as a phlegmatic tech giant. Otherwise the film was an excruciatingly blatant and almost entirely unfunny disaster, hitting cheap and easy targets again and again with nothing to say about any topic beyond the most shallow and self-congratulatory hipster postures, by way of tacky homage-cum-theft from such movies in the same vein as Dr. Strangelove and Network. McKay’s complete incapacity to develop either the comedy or the necessary mood of hysteria eventually drove him to take refuge instead in mawkish, faux-Capra feels.

The Woman Who Ran


Panic was set off amongst cineastes early in the year because almost 15 minutes went by without a new Sangsoo Hong movie, but the day was saved by The Woman Who Ran. Minimalist even by Hong’s standards, The Woman Who Ran was nonetheless a real if minor triumph for the director, portraying a woman, released from the company of her husband for the first time since getting married, visiting various friends who are all settling into life, and contending with still-potent memories of one of her own, fairly recent yet remote-seeming past romances. With some sidelong dashes of self-critique akin to that in other movies this year, Hong managed with his unique dexterity to offer a movie that seemed at once utterly affectless and plainspoken, and yet managed to both evoke and conceal hidden realms of meaning and history, painstaking in depicting both the consuming tyranny of everyday foibles and the background radiation of personal big bangs, as well as finally affirming the ever-welcoming embrace of cinema’s amniotic warmth.

Annette


Possibly mad, certainly long-suffering French director Leos Carax released Annette, his first film since 2011’s Holy Motors and one all but bullet-proofed by its impeccable hip credentials, with Carax working from a story and score provided by the Mael brothers from the cult band Sparks and wielding a hit-for-the-stands performance from Adam Driver. Driver played an edgelord comedian whose career sputters after he marries Marion Cotillard’s revered opera singer, and his increasingly desperate and self-centred actions harm everyone around him, including the title character, his preternaturally talented infant daughter. Annette started well with a dynamic prologue featuring the cast and authors singing on the street. But once it got going it proved the director, far from rebounding to form, had made another conceptual stunt project, one it was easy to conclude would have made a better concept album. The thin story and thinner characterisations came laced with self-conscious touches – Annette, was played until the very end by a succession of marionettes – but despite the nominally zany approach, Annette proved protracted and faltering in story and aesthetic gestures, and struck through with another, oddly smug take on reckonings for male artists in the #MeToo moment. Carax’s usually dynamic eye was often paralysed in having to track through masses of banal recitative.

The Card Counter


With The Card Counter, Paul Schrader revisited very familiar ground in again depicting characters exiled within society who feel temptations to vigilantism. This time Schrader focused on a former soldier who spent time in prison for his involvement with abuses at Abu Ghraib, who moves just a little out of his solitary and sharklike existence as a professional gambler when he forms new connections, one romantic, with a fellow gambler, and one quasi-paternal, with the son of one of his former comrades. Trouble is the lad has designs on assassinating their former commander, whom he blames for destroying his father and his own life. The Card Counter was a study in both the bracing qualities and habitual problems with Schrader’s films, even as it was certainly one of his best. The film unfolded with spacy, nerveless cool whilst focusing with on a sequestered lifestyle ideal for the rootless and the self-excised, with concerted performances, particularly from lead Oscar Isaac. Sequences depicting flashbacks to Abu Ghraib were the most effective cinema Schrader has offered since Mishima. Otherwise his direction, however, as usual ultimately felt too mannered for my liking, like a coating of gelatine on a storyline that was just a little bit too much like fan fiction for Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with added quasi-political dimensions, dimensions which, once again, Schrader refused to truly burrow into.

The Souvenir Part II


Joanna Hogg returned with her promised The Souvenir Part II, a continuation of the autobiographical saga she began in 2019, taking up in the immediate aftermath of the death of Anthony, the drug-addicted older lover of budding filmmaker Julie, once again played with rare, limpid intelligence by Honor Swinton Byrne. The wrenching process of coming to terms not just with loss but also lingering mystery and unease ultimately provides her with creative meal, as she channels experience into an ambitious student film project that ultimately launches her career, whilst also trying to fully emerge into independent adult life. The film was a fascinating, sometimes funny, often penetrating work, not simply as a continuing bildungsroman but as a contemplation of art itself, and how the artistic persona, and its overriding urges, is formed, as Julie bucks teachers and others to realise a personal vision, which in turn presents a transformed, surrealist mirror to life. What the film lacked, for me, despite its real quality, was the same feeling of intrigue and powerful but inchoate romantic gravitas the first film had, and Julie’s fellow director tyro Patrick, played again by Richard Ayoade, ironically emerged as a more interesting figure, doomed by his own driving but unyielding talent.

Titane


Raw director Julia Ducournau captured the Palme d’Or with her second feature film, Titane, a would-be outrageous, punkish clarion work depicting an exotic dancer who, thanks to a childhood car crash, has a steel plate in her head, an attraction to muscle cars, and a tendency to murder people. Torn between humanising impulses and the desire to retain her singular existence as she falls pregnant to one of her vehicular lovers, she eludes police by pretending to be the long-lost son of a macho firefighter, who has his own reasons for playing along with her glaring deception. Titane contained intermittently arresting vignettes, but all in all was a bit of a mess, absurdist narrative conceits tethered to some half-baked commentary on gender, family, and sex, sometimes playing as an overtly surreal edgelord epic and other times as a slightly heightened familial melodrama: the gruesome, affecting climax almost forced the two hemispheres into cohesion.

The Lost Daughter


Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut film as director, The Lost Daughter, had a completely different style but some definite thematic similarities to Titane, in again contemplating a mother’s ambivalence regarding her offspring in terms of what it costs her own, separate flesh and mind. Gyllenhaal’s movie, an adaptation of a novel by the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante, depicted a middle-aged English academic taking a solitary holiday in Greece where she encounters a large, pushy Greco-American family on holiday, and drifts through often painful reminiscences of times when she put her own needs above her family life, choices she now feels she’s paying the price for in her solitude. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley gave strong, if not that convincingly connected, performances as the main character at different ages, whilst Colman’s chemistry with Ed Harris as an aging bohemian gave shots of entertainment amidst the angst.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye


Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye proved a different, cosier, if perhaps ultimately no less depressing a drama about aging with regret, recounting the ascent of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker from Bible School cut-ups to cable TV squares to celebrity preachers through expertly combining religion and show business, but ultimately running afoul of their own errant characters and desires as well pure-sprung greed, and the conniving of supposed allies. Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield eagerly played the Bakkers as they evolved from goofy, talented youngsters to beings embalmed by wealth and self-betrayal before finishing up as pitiable exiles. The film tried to balance a puckish, semi-satiric lilt indicting the contorting effect of the Bakkers’ attempts to exemplify prosperity gospel, as well as taking cues from the couple’s terminally perky style, with a fair-minded attempt to portray Tammy Faye’s principled and empathetic attempts to stick up for gay people and AIDS sufferers. The film was a lot more entertaining than expected, but also felt superficial. Some caution in the narrative felt enforced by legal niceties, meaning the film didn’t quite dare to get to really interrogate the Bakkers, either in terms of Jim’s apparent bisexuality or Tammy Faye’s complicity in financial misdeeds, whilst Showalter’s direction was slick but derivative, particularly in the climax.

King Richard


Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard set out to tell the opposite kind of true story, portraying the near-legendary project of Richard Williams to set his two daughters Venus and Serena on the path to becoming tennis stars, a venture that begins running about in a van in Compton and concludes with world domination. With an ending not just happy but triumphant looming as inevitable for everyone not on Mars for the last 30 years, the film wisely used that to avoid some sports movie clichés, ending on a relatively muted note as Venus loses her first big-time match but emerges stronger for it. It also used that inevitability as an excuse not to ask too many questions about the title figure, whose exasperating streak is expertly captured but also constantly excused, and like The Eyes of Tammy Faye seemed to buy what the title character is selling just a little too unquestioningly. The film plainly offered a riposte to media portraits of Richard as a high-handed self-promoter, with Will Smith’s lead performance capturing the affect of a man long used to deflecting the world’s stones and holding to his own, fixed internal compass, but without really giving access to the man within. The occasional moment of complication, as when it’s revealed he has other children and when he goes too far in pushing his progeny towards lessons he considers desirable, were neatly called out and then put to rest by his fearsome wife (played with no-nonsense punch by Aunjanue Ellis).

Passing


Rebecca Hall made her directorial debut with an ambitious project, Passing, adapted from a well-regarded novel that was both a product and portrait of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hall depicted two African-American women, one, played by Tessa Thompson, who had married a prosperous but fretful Black doctor, and the other, her old school friend played by Ruth Negga, who was light-skinned enough to pass for white and marry an obliviously racist man. Hall, drawing on both her family background and her theatrical grounding, proved remarkably adept at portraying a dichotomous time and place, with characters belonging to an uneasily diplomatic intelligentsia aware of both the insidious craziness of racism and the absurdity of the human condition in general, and aided Thompson and Negga to excellent performances as the two friends who find themselves doomed to embody that dichotomy. Hall’s stylised approach was attractive, but also finally hampered the impact of her strong script, filming in soft-palette black-and-white that emphasised a wistful, bygone, hermetic texture, in a story that might have been better played as busy and immediate. Also, the last third depended on a portrayal of one character’s spiral into pathological jealousy, leading to jagged tragedy, but this felt a wee bit contrived.

Petite Maman


Celine Sciamma cleverly made Petite Maman to suit the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown by utilising a minimum of performers and settings and winnowing down concerns to the most intimate in taking up a theme of generational connection and loss. Sciamma portrayed a young girl who, staying in the house of her recently deceased grandmother as her parents work through grief and prepare to sell the estate, heads out into the neighbouring woods one day and finds she’s gained access to the past, meeting her mother at her own age and making fast friends with her. The film was more a gently meditative fable than a narrative and within those confines worked well. The delightful performances by the Sanz sisters as the girls provided the film with most of its charm, even if it offered perhaps the most haute bourgeois parental wish-fulfilment vision of children behaving ever: kids who speak with very proper diction, put on plays rather than play video games, don’t get mud on their clothes, and learn to see the world through their parents’ eyes.

About Endlessness


Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had a banner year with two films, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car, movies tonally similar if subtly different in style depicting the lovelorn, the grieving, and the terminally bewildered, the first film telling three different stories, the latter an epic anatomisation of a doomed marriage and its fallout. Swedish director Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness flitted through a free-ranging selection of random vignettes tied together by an overarching fascination with the scantness of human life and the eternal desire for something immutable, some comic in tone, some tragic, many both at once, all filmed in rigidly framed single shots. Andersson’s hyper-minimalist, fustily clean aesthetic often verged close to a self-parodying extreme for a brand of droll, chilly, deadpan Nordic absurdum, and the recurring image of a ghostly couple floating in an embrace over a ruined city had a flavour of Magic Realism 101. The film’s best moments nonetheless had a piercing quality, from a scene depicting Hitler at the moment of realising he would lose the war, to one where an enraged husband alternates between attacking and embracing his unfaithful wife, and another where some girls spontaneously dance to the bemused fascination of onlooking boys, somehow managing to tether them together into a coherent if unsummarisable totality.

The Worst Person In The World


Next door in Norway, Joachim Trier made The Worst Person In The World, a companion piece to his Oslo, 31 August from a few years back in studying another anxiously eddying personality, albeit this time not a suicidal young man but a young woman on the search for personal fulfilment, fighting to avoid taking the path of least resistance in her life. Trier’s heroine Julie morphed from straight-A student to boho photographer and left one partner, an aging bad-boy comic book artist, for a younger, more fun if less interesting chap in the course of her adventures, only to find the former relationship still binding when the artist falls fatally ill. Trier made a determined attempt to offer a complex female focal point, one whose actions often cut across the grain of expectations, and it felt accurate to a degree to a generation experience. But it also reminded me of Ema insofar as it had a strong element that reeked of a male auteur’s masochism in the face of female independence (particularly in a vignette depicting the artist’s roasting by caricatured feminists). More importantly Julie, despite Renata Reinsve’s committed efforts in the role, simply never really proved that interesting, more a collection of gestures than a truly sketched person.

Memoria


Several major releases of the year from international filmmakers, like Azor, Identifying Features, and This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection, shared a troubled and sometimes nightmarish sense of mystery and cast a sidelong view at centrifugal forces shattering social structures in their respective cultures, as well as sporting protagonists driven into the wilderness in the hunt for answers. One of the year’s most placatory movies took on a similar theme but with a very different tenor: Apichatpong Weerasethakul ventured out to Colombia with Tilda Swinton (officially displacing Isabelle Huppert as the big European actress most likely to work with international auteurs), to make Memoria, a typically dreamy, if more nominally procedural than usual, tale for the director. Swinton played an academic awakened one morning by an unidentifiable sound that even a sonic engineer can’t exactly identify. Thanks to a seemingly chance encounter with a man who claims to be able to remember everything that’s ever happened to him she gets a chance to understand the sound, and moreover when he’s in in contact with her they form a psychic receiver able to pick up echoes of long-ago, mysterious events. Apichatpong’s filmmaking was at a height here, his ability to evoke vast hidden worlds and alternate identities with the most minimal elements still singular and sublimely poised in trying to reorientate the viewer’s perceptions towards nature and time. Even if the story, in again depicting a lost woman encountering a visionary who helps evince those hidden zones, recycled elements of Cemetery of Splendour, and the change of locale robbed the film of Apichatpong’s usual, needling political and historical subtexts, and so insights into darker truths were held at arm’s length.

Belfast


Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God both converted the stuff of their makers’ early lives, winnowing crucial formative experiences into movie narratives revolving around wrenching loss of family and place and the birth of creative aspiration, and represented the directors returning to something like their best form, albeit in ways that evinced their differences. Branagh’s film depicted events that drove his family out of the title city when he was still a pre-teen, and so represented a more innocent and jocular perspective, the relative purity of Branagh’s impressions – the first unsullied love, the transporting pleasures of movies and theatre, the embrace of family – were darkened but not tainted by perceived tensions of family and identity, whilst Branagh’s style alternated a poised and deadpan air of wistfulness in evoking his lost world, with a vigorous, immediate, frightening evocation of a community falling prey to violence and sectarianism. Branagh’s approach to dramatizing and illustrating his tale was derivative, but he made up it for it with the sheer poise of his filmmaking and the quality of his cast.

The Hand of God


Sorrentino’s resurgence was more fraught and impish as The Hand of God depicted his teenage years, bifurcated by the tragic death of his parents, an accident from which he was only spared because of his obsession with Diego Maradona, who had recently joined the football team of his home city Naples. Sorrentino seemed bent here on exorcising both personal memories and aesthetic influence, leaning into his Fellini emulation to the nth degree with his parade of bizarre and beautiful physiques and attending eccentric behaviour, and depicting his wayward teenaged horniness which focuses on his hot but unbalanced aunt, whilst also portraying his tight-knit if not untroubled clan with boisterous high-spirits before the inevitable, radical tone shift. The film’s first half was as good as anything Sorrentino has done; the second, depicting his rootless experience after terrible loss, failed to completely shift to a more interior narrative and ultimately couldn’t entirely reinvent the familiar patterns of budding-young-artist tales. Sorrentino’s more provocatively strange touches, like a scene of his alter ego losing his virginity to an elderly Countess, might well have been true but nonetheless felt rather too iconically self-conscious in a manner that habitually mars Sorrentino’s work.

tick, tick…BOOM!


Lin-Manuel Miranda made his directorial debut adapting Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s musical tick, tick…BOOM!, a work that portrayed yet another stage in the life an evolving artist, in this case Larson’s own struggle to complete and stage his first musical project whilst battling the angst of turning 30, faced with the escalating problems inherent in resisting moving on with his life, including a girlfriend who wants to leave New York, two friends sick with AIDS, and a shit day job, all the while straining for crucial creative inspiration. Andrew Garfield proved his musical theatre chops by playing Larson with gusto, easily carrying the film even as it forced him to abandon all subtlety. tick, tick…BOOM! investigated both the pains of facing up to failure and also the equal, opposite pains of blinkered determination and the demanding spectre of responsibility to talent. There was some irony, however, in filming a thirty-year-old musical which contains a demand for fresh visions. Manuel’s direction was serviceable and sometimes clever (like a song number offered as a music video within the film itself). But for material that was rooted in a specific time and place and valued an earthy sense of that life, everything in the movie was rendered glossy and slick and invested with restless theatre major poptimism, even when dealing with personal tragedy, and Manuel had surprisingly few good ideas for staging the performances. Also, speaking as one allergic to Larson’s music style, there was little pleasure to be had in that side of things either. Still, Bradley Whitford’s brief but amusingly shaggy performance as Stephen Sondheim was salutary.

In The Heights


Miranda’s own, pre-Hamilton Broadway hit In The Heights was brought to the screen by Crazy Rich Asians director John M. Chu, endeavouring to weave a panoramic portrait of a vibrant but endangered community, the Latin American populace of Washington Heights, with a focus on two pairs of lovers with wildly divergent ambitions and uneasy feelings about their culture-spanning identities. The film had superficial flash and energy to spare, with a couple of fun production numbers and one excellent vignette in which the aged matriarch of the district reminisced on her life journey, a sequence particularly inventive in blending flashy filming and artful choreography that seemed sensibly close to how it was probably handled on stage. By and large though I found the film an aggressive mediocrity: Miranda’s songs were unmemorable with his processed takes on blended musical influences. Chu shot the whole thing with an airbrushed and idealised style that Disneyfied the experience, and if ever a movie screamed out for the streetwise grit of many ‘70s and ‘80s musicals this was one. It didn’t help that the characters and their travails were bland and generic and the plotting unnecessarily silly, whilst the baby’s-first-pop-up-book political messaging didn’t help. Ironically, Miranda himself as a finally triumphant street vendor provided the biggest dash of real charm and lyrical fun, right at the end. Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, whilst adapting a much older property, nonetheless felt far more immediate and meaningful in presenting a melodic exploration of racism and community.

Benedetta


With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven seemed to be reviving and relishing his provocateur cred in tackling the true story of a 17th century nun who was in her time both exalted for her mystic visions and condemned for a lesbian dalliances with a fellow nun. Here at last was a project to focus Verhoeven’s many facets – the raunchy intellectual pervert, the medievalist imagination preoccupied with the wrenching poles of physical nature and transcendental urge, the social satirist mocking power and greed. Come for the hot lesbian nun sex, stay for the meditations on spiritual ecstasy and institutional abuse. The film didn’t entirely work, partly through never quite getting to grips with the title character: Verhoeven presented her as both potentially an authentic visionary and accidental transgressor and also a deluded con-artist whose egotisms destroy people close to her, before avoiding resolving the question by switching gear for a finale where the patriarchy was literally slain. Verhoeven’s direction didn’t work up the madcap passion required to portray such delirious and dangerous straits either, with an overly-clean period milieu and strained Ken Russell-esque hallucination sequences. But Benedetta was well-acted, particularly by Efira, Charlotte Rampling, and Lambert Wilson as vengeful but complex church elders, and the sex scenes were refreshingly full-blooded.

The Power of the Dog


Jane Campion made her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, adapting Thomas Savage’s cult novel The Power of the Dog. Campion cast Benedict Cumberbatch, against type but cunningly so, as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Wyoming who likes to bully and belittle everyone around him, in part to disguise his own homosexuality. Phil is provoked to his most insidiously destructive efforts when his brother marries a widow and brings her and her gawky teenage son into their homestead, only to find himself and the boy locked in an enigmatic dance of attraction and repulsion. Certainly the film was in line with Campion’s fascination with people trying to get the upper hand over each-other. But of all the films of 2021, The Power of the Dog left me the angriest as the implications of the superficially cunning climactic twist sank in. On top of the banal and dated driving psychology – angry macho men are really frustrated queers – the film seemed utterly unaware of the way what it frames as a justified act of protection and retaliation actually stumbles into horror movie territory, as well as stretching a long bow in portraying a clever enemy not only murdering his foe invisibly but playing upon his secret predilections as well, making it a kind of heroic hate crime. That’s on top of Campion’s chosen style, rich with exactingly framed and filmed but entirely inert landscape shots and endless atonal music to make sure we know dark and serious things are happening. Only the performances, from Jessie Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as well as Cumberbatch, alleviated the unpleasant taste it left in my mouth.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn


Radu Jude returned for another commentary on life in Romania with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a project that served as a reflection and by-product of the moment, in particular the COVID pandemic, which helped exacerbate the mood of free-floating, reactionary hysteria. Jude’s unfortunate lead character was a school teacher whose raunchy home-made mpeg of having sex with her husband has escaped onto the internet, setting her off on an odyssey across Bucharest that must inevitably end with her confronting a meeting of irate and viciously insensitive parents at her school. Jude’s approach had a strongly Godardian flavour, presenting his narrative in three segments after a prologue consisting entirely of hardcore footage, the first tracking his heroine through the city, noting casual vignettes and sights totemic in various ways for how Romania has fared in the post-Communist era. The middle third comprised of sardonically illustrative vignettes wrestling with history, war, violence against women, and other bugbears. The last third finally dealt, in a more absurdist and confrontationally theatrical manner, with the actual war of words at the school meeting. The changes in style were invigorating at a time when so many filmmakers labour fastidiously to achieve a dominant aesthetic and never deviate from it. Results wavered between the sophomoric – Jude, for instance, made the parent body a caricatured embodiment of all that’s septic and hypocritical in Romanian life – and the truly biting. The last of the three different possible endings presented at the close was certainly, hilariously cathartic.

The French Dispatch


Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch was by contrast a study in an entirely imaginary world that deliberately cut itself off from all connection with historical fervour and seeking. Anderson applied his familiar doll’s house/magazine cartoon aesthetic to synthesising the legend of a formerly great magazine supplement to a Kansas newspaper, a sort of combination of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and within that frame telling three distinct stories through the eyes of its best writers, each a riff on a different kind of fetishised Frenchypoo cliché – the tale of a mad artist and his prison guard muse, a cod-Godardian portrayal of student rebellion, and a Maigret-esque police caper. Anderson’s France was one where buildings are impossible tangles of architecture and scruffy artists paint naked ladies, accomplished with some of his most admirably exacting and ingenious stylisation, and it all wielded a few fitful chuckles here and there. It was also Anderson at his most aggressively shallow, pining for a bygone day of sardonic and spectacular intellectuals whilst remaining entirely detached from any concept of consequence in words, although there were glimmers of an attempt to wrestle with the isolation of creative life for the various writers like Jeffrey Wright’s elegant James Baldwin avatar. Amidst the ridiculously good cast, Wright, Adrien Brody as a slick art dealer, and Léa Seydoux as the stone-faced guard turned supportive and gymnastic nude model came off best.

C’mon C’mon


Siân Heder scored plaudits with CODA, an American remake of a French hit, about a young woman who faces the challenge of moving on from life with her deaf family, who rely on her as their interlocutor with the world in their work as fishermen, when her singing talent opens up new worlds. The story was as hackneyed as it gets and Heder was shameless in plying both calculatedly eccentric humour and sentimentality, particularly in the climax, whilst the overbusy storyline was crammed with drama-cranking plot elements, including one of the most boring romances ever to hit the silver screen, that were then left dangling to get on with the officially feel-good project. Heder did at least wield a skilful mix of Hollywood poise and indie energy in utilising the setting, one that allowed the film to unfold against a reasonably fresh backdrop and maintain a level of class consciousness and authenticity in dealing with family dynamics and disability, whilst still providing a slick and populist brand of entertainment, and proceedings were kept buoyed by generally terrific performances, especially Troy Kotsur as the often overly-enthusiastic patriarch. Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon offered a more precious glaze of artistry with its soft-palette black-and-white and tone of lo-fi realism whilst dealing with a similarly sentimental theme in depicting the bond between an uncle and his nephew. I have nothing to say about it.

The Disciple


By contrast, Chaitanye Tamhane’s The Disciple illuminated another, much less explored facet of show business, in countenancing failure. The title character was a student of Indian classical raga music who has devoted his entire life to mastering the complex blend of traditionalism and highwire oral improvisation that defines the form, obsessively mastering technique and assimilating the advice of older masters, but finds himself drifting into middle age without success and faced with mounting evidence he doesn’t have the authentic spark of artistry to make all the sacrifice worthwhile on a creative or fiscal level. Tamhane told a universal story, which in many respects might have unfolded anywhere, but in culturally specific terms, contending with the wane of a once-mighty folk culture and the feeling of being cut off from a powerful wellspring of spiritual and creative meaning, a feeling illustrated in a bleakly amusing vignette in which the hero encounters a brutally demystifying music writer. The Disciple did an excellent job of sensitising the viewer to the particular art at its heart and was teeth-grittingly acute in portraying the pains of weathering career doldrums. Both the most interesting and most vexing aspect stemmed from contending with a central character who was almost a self-rendered void, lacking the kind of inner life to fuel expression in part because he has no life to imbue it.

Being The Ricardos


Much as he inspires eyerolling amongst the cognoscenti these days, Aaron Sorkin still has enough of a classy lustre about him to be an awards season player, and he took on authentic Hollywood legends in depicting Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Being The Ricardos. Sorkin cast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the husband-and-wife team, trying to make it through one particularly fraught week at the height of their zeitgeist-defining career, dealing with a red-baiting scare targeting Ball, a magazine accusing Arnaz of womanising, and a flabby script and dull director for the week’s show. Kidman and Bardem in particular gave their all, but ultimately there are likely axolotls that look more like the duo and have a better approximation of their comic timing; Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons fared better as their long-suffering supporting stars. The real problem though was Sorkin’s ambling, shapeless, more-stagy-than-ever direction, and his facetious script, which proposed to analyse Ball and Arnaz’s fruitful if fatefully unstable marriage, but kept silent on an important aspect of it to serve a bitter punch-line. As a whole the film was infinitely less memorable and convincing than the brief portrait of Ball in Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s far more dynamic and inventive portrayal of retro Hollywood and its heroes.

CODA


Performances of Note

Niamh Algar, Censor
David Alvarez, West Side Story
Adam Arkin, Pig
Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II
Caitriona Balfe, Belfast
Paula Beer, Undine
Nicholas Bro, Riders of Justice
Matt Damon, Stillwater
Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar / Belfast
Virginie Efira, Benedetta
Ralph Fiennes, The Dig
Megan Fox, Till Death
Andrew Garfield, The Eyes of Tammy Faye / Spider-Man: No Way Home / tick, tick…BOOM!
Mercedes Hernández, Identifying Features
Jason Isaacs, Mass
Oscar Isaac, The Card Counter
Michael Keaton, The Protégé
Troy Kotsur, CODA
Thomasin McKenzie, Last Night In Soho
Mary Twala Mhlongo, This Is Not A Burial, This Is A Resurrection
Jason Momoa, Dune: Part One
Anthony LaPaglia, Nitram
Vincent Lindon, Titane
Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow In The Cloud
Ruth Negga, Passing
Renata Reinsve, The Worst Person In The World
Diana Rigg, Last Night In Soho
Fabrizio Rongione, Azor
Reece Shearsmith, In The Earth
Emma Stone, Cruella
Tilda Swinton, The Human Voice / Memoria
Annabelle Wallis, Malignant
Kristen Wiig, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar
Lambert Wilson, Benedetta
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kate
Zendaya, Malcolm & Marie
Ensemble, Licorice Pizza
Ensemble, The Last Duel
Ensemble, Shiva Baby
Ensemble, Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Ensemble, The Woman Who Ran



Favourite Films of 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana)


A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in the 1980s to pick up the pieces after the absconding of his business partner, trying to finalise some business deals and mollify some anxious clients. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of high drama, and director Andreas Fontana’s quiet, inferring approach even less so, offering a story that unfolds as a succession of business meetings, working lunches, and quiet soirees where little of immediately apparent meaning is ever said and larger tides of history seem displaced by the most banal activities. Even the title was in code, drawn from the peculiar lingo of the banking community, a plea for someone to help extricate anyone driven to utter it from awkward and boring situations. But Azor slowly accrued the quality of a waking dream whilst being concerned with fiddly minutiae and only the vaguest suggestions of mysterious and disturbing things, as its protagonist was slowly drawn into elite circles in the period junta and finally became agent for an operation in wholesale plunder enabled by political repression and murder.


The basis was a distant but discernible take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, swapping out gothic colonial plunder for something more nervelessly systematic, all horror and danger well beyond the margins of the storytelling. Fontana cunningly obliged the viewer to form a certain level sympathy for Yvan, his tense, self-doubting main character, beautifully played by Fabrizio Rongione, as a scion who feels anything but worthy, particularly in comparison to his charismatic but wayward predecessor, as he drifts between camps of the sullenly enraged and bereft and the suited, soft-spoken mandarins of power. Reduced to exploring this world of secret designs like a medieval cartographer guessing at the size and shape of continents, Yvan eventually gained a longed-for triumph, in a climactic gut-punch, that came at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives: his sickly smile lingered in the mind after the movie ended like the Cheshire Cat’s grin.

Drive My Car / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)


I hadn’t seen any of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films before this year, which at least gave me the pleasant feeling when I watched his one-two punch for 2021 of seeing a great filmmaker seem to arrive fully formed. Hamaguchi’s blend of delicate melancholy and often wry, sometimes indulgent, always empathetic study of human need permeated the two movies, although they were ultimately quite different. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy told three distinct if tonally connected stories meditating on regrets amplified by passing time and the evanescence of human contact, whilst Drive My Car was an epic dedicated to small things, depicting an actor working his way through his wife’s death whilst in the process of rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Ideas and figurations recurred throughout both films – romantic betrayal and lingering affection, bewildered and exhausted creators and their angry younger rivals, erotic perversity linked closely to acts of both creation and destruction, and the simultaneous specificity and interchangeableness of humans in relation to each-other.


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s episodic approach presented tight units of supple, ironic storytelling, particular its best, middle chapter depicting a shambolic woman whose entitled younger lover sends her to ruin the life of his former teacher, also a successful novelist, by seducing him, a task she ultimately succeeds in through cruelly ironic means. Drive My Car also had an episodic structure, with a first hour that served more or less as a prologue, and was indeed the strongest portion of the film with its fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of a married couple who are somehow at once desperately intimate and estranged, ghosts in each-others’ lives, and where inchoate acts of artistic inspiration take the place of actual children. Hamaguchi’s style, whilst focused on his performers and their interactions, nonetheless had a firmly propelling touch as a subtle sense of atmosphere: the chapters of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy felt beautifully fulfilled just as Drive My Car’s length never felt wearing.

Identifying Features (Fernanda Valadez)


Like Azor, Identifying Features was concerned with a largely oblivious character forced to explore a dark antiverse of violence, terror, and pure amorality in a Latin American setting, although its focus and method were more traditional and plainly urgent. Director and coscreenwriter Valadez followed Magdalena, an aging woman who makes a groping effort to find out what happened to her teenaged son, who set off with a pal to cross the Mexican-US border and find work, only to vanish and likely be murdered when a gang of bandits held up the bus they were on. Along the way she encountered other women in the same situation, before eventually falling in with a young man just kicked out of the US and looking for a way back in, a lad who proves something of a surrogate for her son, eventually playing out the role to the last, full measure.


Valadez’s film unfolded as a briefing for a descent into a particular hell, where the homely landscape of Mexico has transformed into a space as alien and unknowable as the Zone in Tarkovky’s Stalker, a place where people vanish and return transformed, and the bright lights of modernity in the cities suggest islands of stability but just beyond their field primal forces rule. If Azor emphasised the banality of evil, Identifying Features approached it from a folkloric understanding, as Magdalena experienced her approach to the infernal through appropriate imagery, conjuring a lurking devil as the embodiment of the consuming, nihilistic forces that took her son, before the coldly ironic and inevitable kicker when the devil’s identity finally became clear. Valadez took on the subject of maternal devotion, that most familiar and patronised of transcendental forces in the world, whilst also exploring its ambiguities, the way not everything it embraces is necessarily worthy of it, and how its strength can be measured in knowing when to let go as well as what to hold onto.

In The Earth (Ben Wheatley)


In abstract, In The Earth looked like a retreat for Ben Wheatley, following the highly underwhelmed reception of his take on DuMaurier’s Rebecca, back to the kind of movie he made his name with – a creepy, low-budget, small-scale genre movie with strong doses of folk horror and psychedelic imagery, in which mundane English eccentricity bonds with surreal and disturbing cosmic forces. But in returning to formative passions Wheatley showed off what he’s learned in the past few years in sustaining more genuine suspense as well as trippy weirdness, and came close with In The Earth to offering the horror movie equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in trying to leap beyond the liminal and portray an entirely different way of experiencing existence. Along the way, Wheatley cleverly riffed on the film’s made-in-a-pandemic minimalism, incorporating a heightened version of the same phenomenon into the film to reinforce the spell of latent hysteria and anxiety, and focusing on a small cast.


In The Earth casually inverted a familiar figuration as Wheatley obliged a very urban man with few survival skills and no bushcraft to team up with a hardy if hardly superheroic female forest ranger, as he journeyed into the depths of a seemingly benign English forest in search of a scientist colleague, and his former lover, who’s engaged in esoteric research that might be connected with an ancient myth about a mystical intelligence living in the forest. Wheatley beautifully built up an air of oblique and spacy dread even before a tormenting encounter with a seemingly decent hermit with his own ideas about how to communicate with the entity, punctuated by flashes of very dark humour, particularly in the scientist’s efforts to bridge the divide by becoming a sort of new-age DJ and laserium maestro. Wheatley brought malicious glee to vignettes like our hapless hero having a couple of gangrenous toes hacked off, and sustained the sense of siege and the unknowable without special effects, only sheer camera and editing chutzpah.

The Last Duel (Ridley Scott)


The first of Ridley Scott’s two films for the year was the superior, and despite lucklessly ringing a loud gong at the box office it emerged as one of Scott’s best films. A rich, nuanced, troubled disassembly of the same historical macho mythology Scott rode to career-renewing glory with Gladiator, The Last Duel recounted known facts and imagined particulars in the true story of the duel to the death between French knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris in 1386, a duel sparked by the accusation Le Gris raped Carrouges’ young wife Marguerite and a fin-de-siecle moment for what was left of the old, chivalrous worldview. Scott ticked off three disparate versions of the events leading up to the duel, each account invested with different emphases and sometimes diverging details by a trio of smart screenwriters. Cowriter Matt Damon was the glum, resentful, but to his mind stolidly fair and courageous Carrouges, Adam Driver the emergent Renaissance man and deluded lothario, and Jodie Comer the lady almost crushed between their armour plating, whose attempt to secure justice means facing the most hideous of potential deaths.


Scott managed something appreciable and rare in making The Last Duel simultaneously coherent as a parable for contemporary concerns as it dealt with sexual assault and difficulties in gaining credence and aid in suffering it, and a general, smouldering dissection of a time and place, deftly depicting the mores and semi-submerged social structures of the late medieval setting and skewering the lingering ideal of knight and lady fair. The deliberate contrast in screenwriting styles presented a challenge in cohesion of style and dramatic approach, a challenge Scott couldn’t entirely mask, but he managed to keep those centripetal forces mostly in balance, rendering the varying perspectives of the characters coherent even as the ultimate reality of the situation steadily and unsparingly came into focus. The finale, a depiction of the duel that represents one of the best single units of filmmaking in years, finally saw the attendant questions of guilt and wrath swapped out for the pure spectacle of intimate and deadly violence where the drama of truth has to be finally and inerasably etched upon a tablet of flesh and bone.

Last Night In Soho (Edgar Wright)


Wright’s first real tilt at making a mostly straight-up genre film was a tribute to bygone epochs and beloved art, but also one preoccupied by the distance between such half-imagined golden ages and the disillusioned now. Wright’s heroine Eloise was an innocent abroad, gifted and cursed with a preternatural awareness of things lost, pining after the glory days of Swinging London whilst trying to animate her own nascent ambitions as a talented youngster hitting the big city. Wright cleverly bound his frames of reference together as Eloise experiences psychic visions that plunge her into the past, offering her a movie that reflects her fantasies in all their lush and swooning spectacle, before suddenly breaking down the distance between viewer and tale, plunging her into a nightmarish netherworld haunted by victims of self-perpetuating violence and abuse. Anya Taylor-Joy was the trapped thrall of Matt Smith’s slick-haired creep whose cracked sanity collapses not just her reality but that of her unwitting future witness, and Diana Rigg had a great last role as the seemingly thoughtful little old lady who proves the wicked witch in her own, particular brand of gingerbread house.


Wright’s filmmaking was much less frenetic and forcibly dynamic in Last Night In Soho than in his earlier comic deconstructions, but never more poised, from the epic first entrance into the heart of period London where the macho heroism of yesteryear, embodied in Sean Connery’s James Bond smirking down from billboard, reigns supreme whilst Cilla Black’s singing encompasses an equal feminine ideal in soaring expressions of devotion, to the fiery climax where the survivor of lost illusions sits amidst billowing flames. In between were Wright’s familiar refrains of troubled maturing and flecks of mischievous humour, as well as trying with new finesse to dovetail one of his familiar comic weapons, his carefully diagrammed sense of cause and effect, with an approach to genre that was knowing without being outright satiric, as a flashing restaurant sign threatened giallo colour schemes, a library visit sparked a witty riff on the cliché jump scare, and joyous art student jaunts scored to Siouxsie and the Banshees presaged visits by psychedelic wraiths. Last Night In Soho wasn’t a perfect film, as Wright, in trying to do without the familiar crutch of his sense of humour, instead belaboured horror shtick in places. But as a whole it still had a swaggering cinematic poise and force, as well as a sense of a director trying at once to indulge and exorcise his fetishes, and it offered up to a film much more substantial than many took it for at first glance.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson)


On the face of it, Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intentionally relaxed and frivolous film, delivering the fun period soufflé he refused to turn Inherent Vice into and returning to the milieu of Boogie Nights whilst avoiding directly contending with the same shady, decadent dimension, whilst not as woozy in its exploration of fixated romance as Punch Drunk Love or Phantom Thread. Counterpoint: Licorice Pizza is strangely, restlessly, beatifically individual and inspired in exploring its conjured world and the characters Anderson plants in it, managing to at once satisfy a need for breezy comedy charged with oddball joie-de-vivre whilst painting a delicate portrait of a knotty love affair. Alana Haim gave a star-making performance as a character also named Alana, a flailing twenty-something who finds herself against all her wishes gravitating with increasing intensity to a fifteen-year-old former child actor turned entrepreneur, played with remarkable poise by Cooper Hoffman, she meets whilst taking school photos. Soon she ends up joining him in clammily platonic partnership, trying to get rich quick in an LA that’s wide open, populated by fading heroes of yesteryear and livewire riders of the moment.


Licorice Pizza actually managed to not just emulate certain kooky 1970s comic studies like Brewster McCloud and Harold and Maude, but to match and maybe outdo them. Anderson inflated brilliant comedic arias, laced with moments of trenchant and unexpected emotional sting and a sustained note of rising desperation in the way two non-lovers keep trying and failing to move on, out of such period-specific and humdrum elements as attempts to sell waterbeds and weather gas shortages. Along the way our heroes had to endure and survive encounters with celebrity figures, like a slightly disguised William Holden and Lucille Ball and a not-disguised Jon Peters, fixtures of the town so numbed from feeding off its mainline energies they charge with crazed and jealous fervour through existence. The climax, with a surprisingly delicate emotional epiphany gained thanks to Alana’s attraction to a closeted politician, managed to describe a more subtle and genuine sense of the past’s sadder zones, and oblige the final, still-verboten and impossible yet perversely cheering get-together.

Malignant (James Wan)

The most purely entertaining movie I saw in 2021, Malignant had a level of colourful gusto rather missing from the year’s big spectacle-driven movies and indeed absent from major-league horror cinema altogether of late. James Wan, who’s signalled for a while now he might prove one of the most visually dynamic of current genre directors in Hollywood, had a happy old time freely mashing together slasher and giallo clichés and taking them to a ludicrous extreme in the story of a woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), stuck in a marriage to an abusive creep and pregnant in the latest of many failed attempts, only to find a monstrous entity starts stalking her life, killing her husband and others, and seeming to share some kind of psychic connection with her that allows her to see its murders. Could it all be related to the time Madison spent in a mental hospital when she was a child? Who is the mysterious Gabriel, once thought to be her imaginary friend? Why is Gabriel targeting former employees of the hospital? Why does he seem to have supernatural powers? Why does he apparently reserve a particular hatred for Madison’s adopted sister?


Malignant’s plot proved the ne plus ultra for the kinds of games played in giallo movies with deception, doubling, and physical perversity, pushed to a parodic extreme but playing its essential story absolutely straight. Wallis, freed from playing posh English birds for a moment, had a whale of a time playing the tortured heroine who finds her own body quite literally rebelling against her, in a film that had timely themes but settled for using them as light spicing for an otherwise deliciously corrupt stew. The Seattle setting was cleverly exploited in a dynamic chase sequence through the underground city, and the climactic scene where Gabriel finally emerged in all his glory and rampaged through a police station was delightfully sick and spectacular. Wan brought on lashings of gore and vibrant colour. Great special effects and stunt work amplified the blend of slick, classy filmmaking and balls-to-the-wall drive-in-flick energy in a manner that reminded me a little of the great days of stuff like The Manitou and Prophecy, and the film as a whole presented a thankful counterpoint to the more pretentious variations on similar motifs in the likes of Titane and Censor this year. Long live unelevated horror.

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman)


Amazingly assured for a debut film, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby presented a very modern fable and proved a master-class in mixing tension, drama, and cringe-inducing hilarity. Seligman’s antiheroine Danielle was a young woman who, trying to avoid making serious choices about where her life is going and defensive about her less-than-practical choices of study, has struck up a relationship with a sugar daddy, and finds herself trapped with him and his shiksa wife after going to a shiva with her parents. Seligman sustained a singular blend of vinegar humour and teeth-gritting suspense, drawn not from life-or-death danger, but simply the imminence of public humiliation and emotional wounding. Danielle struggled not just to keep a tight leash on her own jealousy, frustration, and flashes of imploding attitude as the temptation to say too much gains singularity-like power, but in negotiating with her parents, a diptych of tart-tongued and shamelessly oblivious helpfulness, and her former high school girlfriend, who constantly provoked with her x-ray vision for Danielle’s bullshit, as well their still-simmering attraction.


The stifling set-up and liberal doses of very New York Jewish humour broadly resembled a Neil Simon one-act given a contemporary gloss. Seligman brought something new to the table in her prickly, flailing, rudderless central character as well as the sops to contemporary mores, a more unusual but also more convincing portrait of an intelligent but confused woman careening in a 21st century quarter-life crisis than The Worst Person in the World, one able to use her sexuality but not sure what her sexuality is, withering under the constant bombardment of other people’s designs on and for her, constantly tempted to throw back bombs of her own whilst knowing that could only bring about Mutually Assured Destruction. The climax consisted simply of Danielle’s happily cajoling father offering everyone a lift in his van, forcing the motley crew to jam themselves in, combining unforced slapstick and a hint of delighted metaphor, the perfectly excruciating ending for a perfectly excruciating film seeing the whole contorted, ridiculous, shiftless bunch rolling down the road together.



This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese)


Like Identifying Features, Lemosang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection portrayed an old woman contending with the loss of a son and a rapidly changing, increasingly inimical world. This Lesotho film, one that took some time to gain international exposure, nonetheless is very different as a less immediately bristling but equally uneasy depiction of gruelling change and threat. Mosese’s film depicted an ancient but still sturdy grandmother whose miner son dies on his way back home for holidays, leaving her entirely without living family, and soon after finds that she’ll be forced to abandon her dead too when a new dam project threatens to flood the valley where her small but tight-knit village lies. The tough old bird soon becomes a rallying figure for the locals as they begin to protest and push back against the project, but they find out quickly enough that resistance is dangerous. Director Mosese’s elliptic style suggested failure from the outset and the subsuming of the fertile little culture into the gut of a blankly dispossessed world, as the tale was narrated as a new legend by a storyteller inside some grimy tavern, a flicking light of empowering myth to be sustained in an alienating new world of sorrow-drowners and rootless labourers.


The mystically invoking and resisting tenor of the title was nonetheless justified through the portrait of simmering anger, passion, and the determination to remember, the most seemingly disposable member of a community the one anointed as champion and voice of disdain for change that pays no heed to the people it’s nominally serving, even as she struggles with being forced to remain alive when everything that gave her life meaning and shape has been lost. Mosese’s focus alternated between his aged heroine and the community to which she belonged, a group etched with an occasionally sardonic but always loving eye and expertly charting the way they maintained both a firm sense of their history and culture whilst also being inhabitants, however bewildered and impotent, of the modern world, resisting any hint of quaintness, whilst the sense of mourning was mediated with tinges of irony, as when it’s noted the village was both created through expedience during a time of upheaval, as a stopping point for travellers during a plague, and ended by one. The climactic image of a naked old lady advancing defiantly on infuriated enforcers achieved a quality of genuine, precipitous delirium.


West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

After nearly a half-century of patently harbouring desire to make a musical, Steven Spielberg finally took the leap. His choice to tackle a mighty but obviously dated Broadway show, already filmed to the glint of many Oscars in 1961 and still familiar and beloved of that genre’s aficionados, was a risky project. The new film’s failure to make a dent at the box office seems pretty well to confirm that risk. And yet West Side Story emerged as a remarkably vibrant, relevant work, worthwhile in updating not just the casting and the sense of milieu, but in proving surprisingly volatile and engaged in its portrait of period racism and sexism. This made it, in a way, a companion piece to movies like Last Night In Soho and The Last Duel, both summoning and dispelling nostalgic fantasies about the past, presenting it as a place where a knife in the gut and a racial epithet both land with undeniable and deadly consequence at a time when there were no cell phone cameras to document such things. It also emerges as an ideal confluence for Spielberg’s two most significant personas, the dynamic choreographer of action and the compulsive storyteller obsessed with communication and its failure at the heart of social schisms.

Spielberg’s lingering affection for the old-school, leather jacket-clad rebel ultimately didn’t cloud his and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s disdain for the things they represent in the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents show. Spielberg purposefully contrasted the old film’s shticky take on a long-vanished rough side of Manhattan and the pop-art flourishes of its direction, with his more imperative vision of encroaching desolation as gentrification threatens everyone, and the modern urges starting to emerge from this particular melting pot – the staging of “America” even more forceful in understanding it as a feminist anthem as well as an immigrant’s patriotic one, whilst the temperatures of the Jets and the Sharks climb in frustration, both gangs of potent young men provoked to contest as they sense, with different causes, their old cock-of-the-walk impunity fading. Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort were if anything even blander than Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the original, but they did their jobs as the endangered innocents who ironically provoke death and calamity with sufficient lyrical and performing poise to let the other, more colourful elements blaze, particularly David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose as Bernardo and Anita, and Rita Moreno returning in a role revised for her, providing at once a presence comforting in nostalgia and invigorating in her vitality.

Added To Favourite List After Posting:

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Honourable Mention

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude)
Belfast (Kenneth Branagh)
The Card Counter (Paul Schrader)
Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)
The Dig (Simon Stone)
The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)
Undine (Christian Petzold)
The Woman Who Ran (Sangsoo Hong)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven)
Black Widow (Cate Shortland)
Cruella (Craig Gillespie)
Eternals (Chloe Zhao)
F9 (Justin Lin)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman)
House of Gucci (Ridley Scott)
Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyen)
Malcolm & Marie (Sam Levinson)
Passing (Rebecca Hall)
Riders of Justice (Anders Thomas Jensen)
Titane (Julia Ducournau)
Till Death (S.K. Dale)
The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright)
Wrath of Man (Guy Ritchie)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Army of the Dead (Zack Snyder)
Cliff Walkers (Zhang Yimou)
Dune: Part One (Denis Villeneuve)
No Sudden Move (Steven Soderbergh)
No Time To Die (Cary Joji Fukunaga)
The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton)

Crap

Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay)
Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Red Notice (Rawson Marshall Thurber)
Spencer (Pablo Larrain)
The Suicide Squad (James Gunn)

Unseen:

∙ A Chiara ∙ All Hands on Deck ∙ Ahed’s Knee ∙ Beginning ∙ Bergman Island ∙ Candyman ∙ Compartment No 6 ∙ Cyrano ∙ Flee ∙ France ∙ A Hero ∙ Jockey ∙ The Killing of Two Lovers ∙ Mandibles ∙ Murina ∙ Old ∙ Old Henry ∙ Parallel Mothers ∙ Red Rocket ∙ Saint Maud ∙ The Tender Bar ∙ The Tragedy of Macbeth ∙ Vortex ∙ What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? ∙ Wife of a Spy ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2021

Antigone (Yorgos Tzavellas)
Beach of the War Gods (Jimmy Wang Yu)
Buffalo Bill (William A. Wellman)
China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman)
City of Women (Federico Fellini)
The Coward / The Holy Man (Satyajit Ray)
The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
Hondo (John Farrow)
A Letter to Three Wives (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Marked Woman (Lloyd Bacon)
Les Maudits (René Clement)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur)
Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm)
No Name On The Bullet (Jack Arnold)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin)
Penda’s Fen (Alan Clarke)
Sanshiro Sugata Part II (Akira Kurosawa)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923)
The Traveller (Abbas Kiarostami)
The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray)
Under Fire (Roger Spotiswoode)
Wild Bill (Walter Hill)
The Wings of Eagles (John Ford)

In Memoriam

∙ Michael Apted ∙ Ed Asner ∙ Ned Beatty ∙ Jean-Paul Belmondo ∙ Shane Briant ∙ Sonny Chiba ∙ Richard Donner ∙ Olympia Dukakis ∙ Charles Grodin ∙ David Dalaithngu Gulpilil ∙ Haya Harareet ∙ Monte Hellman ∙ Patricia Hitchcock ∙ Hal Holbrook ∙ Jean-Marc Vallée ∙ Yaphet Kotto ∙ Cloris Leachman ∙ Norman Lloyd ∙ Jackie Mason ∙ Helen McCrory ∙ Roger Michell ∙ Mike Nesmith ∙ Melvin van Peebles ∙ Christopher Plummer ∙ Jane Powell ∙ John Richardson ∙ Tanya Roberts ∙ Giuseppe Rotunno ∙ Richard Rush ∙ George Segal ∙ Barbara Shelley ∙ Anthony Sher ∙ Felix Silla ∙ William Smith ∙ Stephen Sondheim ∙ Dean Stockwell ∙ Bertrand Tavernier ∙ Cicely Tyson ∙ Jessica Walter ∙ Joan Weldon ∙ Betty White ∙ Clarence Williams III ∙ Michael K. Williams ∙

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2020s, Film Freedonia, This Island Rod, This Island Rod

My Collected Film Writing For 2021, Free To Download

Well, that’s another year gone by. It was a busy one for me, both here at Film Freedonia and its sister site This Island Rod — 54 essays and reviews posted comprising over 200,000 words. The good news is, if you missed anything at either site, or want to read it again, or just want me to shut up already, you can download my collection of all my online film writing for this year simply by clicking this link…

Roderick Heath Film Writing 2021

…and I shall you in a few days’ time with my annual year-in-review article, Confessions of a Film Freak 2021. Ciao ’til then.

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

If there’s any conviction underpinning my yearly film round-ups, it’s the feeling that the movies are talking to each-other. In 2019, it seemed the conversation was more intense and deeply interwoven than ever. As the way we consume cinema evolves and a moment of generational change looms in terms of who makes and watches movies, the common references and preoccupying themes gained something like a collective voice. Filmmakers and their on-screen avatars faced the treachery of their bodies, floated in dreamscapes of nostalgia and sore memory, felt the nature of identity becoming porous and confused, and pondered the meaning of relationships between people in many different figurations testing all for their perversities. 2019 proved a formidable year in terms of the sheer number of excellent films; indeed, I’d say at this point the best year of the closing decade by a good measure. This is not to say it didn’t have its share of duds, disgraces, and acreage of mediocrity. But it was a year when old cinema heroes and new ones offered a surfeit of boldness and quality, all determined to prove their boisterous energy and vision.

02
Parasite

Perhaps it’s a result of facing excruciating political choices and dim prospects, but many of 2019’s films betrayed a desire to crawl into a subliminal space of dreams and remembering and wrestle with the meaning of experience, in what might called, however paradoxically, urgent nostalgia. Films as violently disparate as The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Nightingale, Us, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Ad Astra, High Life, The Aeronauts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, revolved around an unstable evocation of pasts, presents, and futures private and communal, featuring characters who, willingly or not, drift into places beyond recourse, obliging them to justify their living tenure. Many dug into a place in the creative mind where fetid experience and adored art mash together in a polymorphous lode, often conflating filmmaker and on screen characters in implicating webs, autobiography and cultural reportage merging. Works like The Lighthouse, In Fabric, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wind saw characters plunge into zones where all certainty over what constitutes reality dissolved.

03
Ford v Ferrari

Protagonists of films like Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rambo: Last Blood, The Irishman, and King of Thieves struggled with their own fraying bodies and wits, forced to recognise the limitations of their prowess and power, several tossing away their curatives in exchange for more direct purgation. The hero of Gemini Man was literally confronted by his own clones, young versions free from such weary flesh but lacking the seasoning imbued by hard experience too. Many stories of 2019 dealt with harsh necessities, people seeking sustenance and shelter without time for navel-gazing, like the lost folk of The Chambermaid and Little Woods and Arctic, the rogues of Dragged Across Concrete and Triple Frontier, Les Misérables, Hustlers, Joker, Birds of Passage, and Parasite. Works as tonally diverse as Hustlers, Holiday, Booksmart, Richard Jewell, The Hustle, Marriage Story, Ride Like A Girl, Men In Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ash Is Purest White, The Aeronauts, and The Nightingale portrayed women trying to assimilate themselves into realms more usually associated with masculine behaviour, often for reasons blending wisdom and futility and finding their efforts leading them to places that left some triumphant but others discomforted, even damaged or perverted, by the experience. Adoring artists feverishly sketched the forms of their beloved in Pain & Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, trying to capture the fleeting being in a moment, or lost themselves in the orgiastic in the likes of Tempting Devils, The Beach Bum, and Under the Silver Lake, trying instead to accept with equanimity the fluidity of ardour.

04
Fighting With My Family

Property, and characters’ desperation and determination to hold it or regain it, was central to many stories, and some had to surrender it amidst hard choices. The antihero of Uncut Gems forced himself into situations of existential risk purely to feel that kind of shocking urgency and danger. Nor were there hard borders between the wistful and the immediately anxious stories, as a film like The Last Black Man In San Francisco perceived the connection of the two states. Studies of close friendships and family, the people we share life with in bonds of need that sometimes turn strange and painful in their very necessity, also permeated 2019. The people we lean on as life whittles away choices and chances, the people life would be unbearable without even if it’s unbearable with them, in relationships that can be noxious or umbilical or both – the tethered sisters of Little Woods and generational unions of Fast Color and Shaft, the magnet pals of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and people trapped together in situations they can’t escape, like the aging bastards of The Irishman and the fraying coworkers of The Lighthouse and the crumbling interstellar exiles of High Life. Others searched for those who taunted in their absence and embodied gaping holes in psyche and memory, the son hunting for his multifarious father in Ad Astra, the sought-for ghost of a lover in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and reunited gangster and moll in Ash is Purest White. Deterioration and death waited for all, from the poet of Hotel by the River to the killers of The Irishman and Ash is Purest White. Only taking on a burden of care saved many a 2019 character from sliding into limbo.

05
Arctic

Joe Penna’s Arctic gave Mads Mikkelsen a strong if strenuous role as one such character who enacted perhaps the most basic and essential variation on that theme. Mikkelsen played a plane crash survivor stranded in remote and icy climes, who does everything right in weathering his situation but finds himself obliged to take a dangerous chance when a helicopter that comes to rescue him crashes too, forcing him to care for an injured woman. The storyline obeyed familiar beats of the survivalist tale without much variance, but Penna distinguished it with patient, detailed filmmaking, well-matched to Mikkelsen’s expert depiction of a good and sensible man driven through stations of bitter humour and tragic acceptance in learning just how bad bad luck can get when contending with an indifferent universe.

06
The Aeronauts

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts took authentic history as a leaping-off point, mashing together real events and personalities from the pioneering days of ballooning, portraying prototypical meteorologist James Glaisher’s landmark ascent and inserting a female pilot to accompany him, imaginary if a composite of some real figures. In abstract it sounded a bit try-hard when it comes to fashionable revisionism. In practice, thankfully, the film proved a vivid, gorgeous-looking Jules Verne-esque adventure that played smartly on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ established if previously ill-served chemistry, and found effective ways to complicate a straightforward story, with an eye to the way science and showman’s hoopla have so often been obliged to play uncomfortable bedfellows.

07
1917

Sam Mendes made 1917, his first non-James Bond feature in a decade, as an attempt to render a revisit to the grim trenches of World War I an immediate and intense experience rescued from all hint of period quaintness, depicting the fates of two luckless soldiers dispatched on an urgent and dangerous mission across No Man’s Land to prevent a doomed attack. Mendes joined the growing ranks of directors who have made a movie in a simulation of a single camera take. The approach sometimes paid off, particularly during an unblinking depiction of a character’s slow death. But as is often the case with such strenuously achieved cinema, the hoped-for immediacy and realism was instead squelched by a tendency to theatrical awkwardness in acting and dialogue, and Mendes’ tendency to offer excessively preened visual flourishes was pushed to the nth degree: too often, for all its would-be sombre grandeur, the film resembled a video game where for each level survived you met a prominent British actor.

08
The Nightingale

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra expanded on their debut Embrace of the Serpent in continuing to study the travails of South America’s indigenous peoples, portraying traditions tested to the limit by involvement in the drug trade. The Babadook creator Jennifer Kent released her sophomore feature, The Nightingale, a gruesome revenge saga set in Tasmania in the bloody throes of colonisation, where an Irish convict lass is compelled to join forces with a bereft Aboriginal tracker and chase down and kill the thuggish English officer who brutalised her and her family. Kent roped together some very trendy themes and points of thorny, lingering contention in a potentially fruitful manner, and offered a couple of properly powerful scenes, when her heroine confronted the reality of brutal payback and her hero despaired at an act of apparent hospitality. To describe the bulk of the film as blunt and heavyhanded would be understating things, however, with the conflation of a specific and personalised battle with evil, represented by Sam Claflin’s ridiculously over-the-top villain, with a general portrait of historical brutality, ultimately self-defeating. Kent’s attempts to extend the best aspect of The Babadook, its delving into a subliminal world afflicting a troubled mind, proved merely clumsy.

09
Monos

Alejandro Landes gained wide attention and acclaim with his debut film Monos, grappling with South America’s agonised recent history of guerrilla warfare as glimpsed through a cracked and absurdist lens. Landes portrayed a gang of teenage warriors, impressed and indoctrinated as members of an insurgent force, assigned to guard a dairy cow and a ransomed American doctor, but who steadily become wrapped up in rites of passage and tribal power games until their cause, and their community disintegrates in a welter of bloodshed and lunacy. Landes’ fragmented images were alternately impressive and opaque, the arty postures vigorous and overbearing, with early scenes chasing a Dogtooth-esque vibe in portraying strangely socialised behaviours but without the same precision, whilst nods to Lord of the Flies towards the end were likewise a bit tinny. The basic storyline, although more conventional, steadily gained force and tension, and the sense of place, particularly when the guerrillas relocated to the jungle, was palpable.

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In a year filled with some extremely accomplished studies of more quotidian situations, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco became one of the year’s major indie successes, depicting a flailing man’s efforts to reclaim the house his family once owned, now a pricey piece of desirable real estate in once-homey, now-gentrified inner San Francisco. Talbot took on a theme difficult to dramatize, the angst and disruption caused by urban renewal and displacement of black neighbourhoods, with first-time actor Jimmie Fails, whose experiences inspired the story, proving a thoughtful lead. Talbot offered an open-hearted humanism, permeated with an honest sense of yearning and regret, that felt peculiarly acute in describing 2019 as a moment. Still, his direction alternated interludes of attentive and nuanced beauty with patches of mannered windiness, the slight story taking far too long to play out, and the personal drama trickled away.

11
The Art of Self-Defense

With The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns returned to the appeal of cultish allegiance for disoriented personalities he explored in Faults, in depicting a dweeb accountant’s rebirth as a karate student following a vicious assault, only to find himself under the thumb of a fascistic sensei, played with a drone of cold wit by Alessandro Nivola so sly it was almost occult. Stearns’ style, this time inflected by a blackly comic absurdism enacted by a selection of characters at once pokerfaced and verbose, lacked the cryptic and dreamlike visual quality that marked Faults, but the film’s wry confidence in depicting an increasingly bizarre and shocking situation, and the ironic sharpness of its denouement, marked it as a small gem.

12
Uncut Gems

Fraternal directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie continued a negotiation with the mainstream whilst retaining their squirrely street energy with Uncut Gems, making ingenious use of Adam Sandler’s talent for playing fraying hotheads by casting him as Howard Ratner, a jewellery seller out on a limb thanks to his love of gambling and other rowdy appetites, trying to land a big score with a hunk of illegally imported black opal before loan sharks come in to feast. Whilst the Safdies tried valiantly to set up political and spiritual subtexts, the real engine of the drama was simply Howard’s endless capacity for self-sabotaging risk-taking. This added up to my least favourite work by the Safties to date however, lacking the submerged and alien sense of individuals cleaved out of society found in Heaven Knows What and Good Time, instead offering a hyperbolic update of ‘70s films like The Gambler and California Split, deployed with a high-pressure style but without that much to say about the lead character other than his being a very trying, half-smart jerk: the schmuck also rises.

13
The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell took up a basic story template that’s been run ragged in American indie films, the uneasy family reunion where a lurking crisis threatens general high spirits and feels, and gave it a unique bilingual gloss. Wang recounted a lightly fictionalised take on experiences with her family returning to China to stage a fake wedding as an excuse to say goodbyes to the clan’s elderly matriarch, whose diagnosis with a fatal illness they’ve elected to keep from her. Wonderful performances from Awkwafina as the frustrated, terminally honest artist and Shuzhen Zhou as the beloved, unflappable grandmother, coupled with Wang’s well-knit flow of vignettes and a meditative sense of cross-cultural and intergenerational attachment, amounted to a lovely piece of work. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir offered a similar project, transmuting personal experience into an inquisitive artwork, although Hogg’s labours proved much more complex and ambivalent, testing all her sentimentalities.

14
Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took on one of those cultural grail quests that occasionally preoccupy both filmmakers and the commentariat – to make a hit girls-behaving-badly romp. Wilde revealed directorial promise, particularly in a marvellous sequence in which Kaitlyn Devers’ nervous queer heroine gains her mojo as she swims amidst jostling bodies on a high of sensual possibility only to run aground on heartbreak. The film also had a starting point with potential – what happens when the intellectually confident start trying to be socially and sexually adventurous? But the script was a grab-bag of tones and ploys for Twitter feed approval, the film less about and for teens than for an older audience’s idealisation of themselves, and an overt attempt to make a woke artefact that forgot to check its own haute bourgeois privilege. Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot was a similar attempt to make an of-the-moment work pleasing its presumed progressive audience as it portrayed a romance between Charlize Theron’s glamorous Secretary of State running for the Presidency and Seth Rogen’s shabby but zealous journalist-turned-speechwriter. What could have been a smart new age take on The American President instead lurched between incompetently deployed jokes, unable to decide whether to aim for satiric hyperbole or something more credible.

15
The Beach Bum

Recovering arthouse sleaze merchant Harmony Korine returned with The Beach Bum, featuring an impishly cast Matthew McConaughey as a sometime poet who’s abandoned himself to a wild bohemian lifestyle around the Florida coast, forced to return to his art after his rich wife’s death but still refusing to take anything seriously. Korine located a new, if still very earthy breeziness as he blended a hyperbolic take on the mystique of the wild-living genius, with a gamy modern twist on classic anarchic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. If Korine had set out to counter the tendentious and dogmatic tenor of much cultural attitude in 2019 he couldn’t have done better in his depiction of absurd and happy hedonism as a curative for artificially stoked angst, and Korine’s eye, as hinted on Spring Breakers, has evolved into a good one. But his familiar monotone dramatic style, able to focus only on one mode of behaviour reiterated endlessly, meant that despite some comic and visual coups, The Beach Bum turned pleasantly dreary well before it ended.

16
Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was supposed to be released with all the occasion due a notable new director following up a hit like It Follows, but after a weak reception at Cannes it was eventually, rudely dumped. Whilst enlarging upon aspects of Mitchell’s first two films, this one proved something else again, a portrait of shambling bohemian discontent and disconnection contending with malign and paranoid forces of money and power. Under the Silver Lake was by turns fascinating, dazzling, annoying, silly, undercooked, and ardent, alert to the incoherence of the moment if also often inclined to chase its own blue balls. In short, a definite failure that was more interesting than most successes. For his first film since the gimmicky but compelling Locke, Steven Knight offered Serenity, at first seeming to be a sun-kissed neo-noir piece that proved rather a meta-narrative stunt. Even before it reached a truly stupid central twist, the film was beset by pointlessly showy direction and overheated performing from a strong cast who deserved a straight-up, old-school genre vehicle: only Jason Clarke’s malignant gangster offered real juice.

17
The Hustle

Writer and actor turned director Stephen Merchant aimed for and scored a modest populist hit with Fighting With My Family, recounting the real-life rise of a goth girl from a wrestling-mad Norfolk family who found fame and fortune with WWE after overcoming a crisis of identity. Despite Merchant’s brainy reputation the result was a succession of trite and familiar loser-makes-good audience manipulation ploys, leavened largely by Florence Pugh’s excellent lead performance and the generally good-natured support around her. Chris Addison, another talent honed on British TV, made a foray into star vehicle directing with The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels casting Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as con artists (and actors) engaged in a duel of abilities based in their disparate varieties of guile and skill. The script was broad and the humour leaned on the comic value of colliding chic and crudity like a crutch, but despite the general caning it got from critics I finished up mildly enjoying it, mostly because of Wilson and Hathaway’s gusto in their roles.

18
Rambo: Last Blood

2019’s action cinema quite often resembled that of thirty years ago. Rambo: Last Blood saw Sylvester Stallone returning to his other beloved hero role for some septuagenarian slaughter, this time avenging the despoiling and death of his housekeeper’s daughter at the hands of a scummy Mexican drug cartel. As an extension of Rambo lore it was at least slightly better than the previous film in the series, with some lip service to the lingering sway of PTSD to leaven dully xenophobic politics and a stagnant sense of what the character means. Adrian Grunberg’s anonymous if efficient direction and a painfully straightforward script made for a contrived and negligible experience for the most part, but the bloody climax, if not exactly making the outing worthwhile, did at least deliver a hot dose of entertaining violence. Michael Bay was one of several big-time directors who explored the pleasures and pains of Netflix bankrolling in 2019, with his 6 Underground debuting on streaming despite being made with all of Bay’s blockbuster braggadocio undimmed. Ryan Reynolds turned his patented wiseass act to playing a billionaire who’s faked his own death in order to set up a team of talented pros for the purpose of taking down an evil dictator. Bay wielded all his craftsmanship and managed for a time to sustain a free-flowing tapestry of frenetic humour and flashy, even beautiful imagery, particularly in the lengthy, bravura opening chase scene. Melanie Laurent was particularly good as the team’s deadpan resident badass babe. The problem was, Bay’s hasn’t gained any capacity to vary his style and rhythm, every scene pushed to an artificial extreme, and by the second hour it was more chore than thrill ride.

19
Daughter of the Wolf

Hans Petter Moland remade his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance in the USA as Cold Pursuit, sold as darkly comic variant on the accustomed Liam Neeson action flick. The original plot was transposed to the Rocky Mountains, with Neeson’s irate father out to destroy a drug dealing syndicate to avenge his son’s death, accidentally sparking a gang war in the process. Some touches, like having the villain be an über-macho fad food freak, hit the right zone where gallows wit and noir unease can mix, but the movie still felt like a theory by its end, not quite funny, not quite exciting, affecting sardonic distance but foiling itself with rather too much CGI. David Hackl’s Daughter of the Wolf took a similar winterbound setting for a far more traditional type of revenge flick, with Gina Carano playing a rampaging army-trained momma bear chasing down her kidnapped son and doing battle with the “family” of Richard Dreyfuss’ monstrous criminal patriarch. Scruffy production values and a basic script kept the result from being much more than streaming fodder for a rainy evening, but as with Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze it was honourable as a cheap and efficient blood-pumper, anchored by Carano’s convincing toughness and Dreyfuss having a ball as he officially enters the “old coot” phase of his career.

20
Us

Neil Jordan returned with his first feature in six years, Greta, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman acclimatizing to New York who becomes the object of obsession for the title character, a crazed, aging, would-be maternal moulder, played with crafty bravura by Isabelle Huppert. Ultimately the film proved a nasty, chamber-piece variation on Jordan’s fascination with characters trapped in situations defined by perverse modes of loving, but only after trekking through many a stalker movie cliché and never really engaging with the sort of emotional complexity Jordan was once a master in locating. The fun performances, also including Maika Monroe’s hilarious turn as Moretz’s sturdy gal pal and a cameo by Stephen Rea as a mordant private eye, did most to keep the film animated. Jordan Peele unleashed a second helping of his special brand of socio-politically charged horror-fantasy after Get Out with Us, an off-kilter tale of an upwardly mobile black family being tormented by a gang of enigmatic doppelgangers. Peele’s visual talent is swiftly evolving with flashes of genuine strangeness and intelligently oneiric imagery. These remained largely isolated, however, amongst a story at once bold-type and vague in its symbolic dimensions, the solid suspense filmmaking balanced by an overdrawn and sometimes borderline silly glaze of would-be creepiness.

21
The Wind

Emma Tammi’s The Wind, whilst straying more overtly into the blurry hinterland between psychodrama and horror film, sought to portray desolate straits in an isolated setting, depicting two frontier families contending with a destructive force that might be supernatural or mental, the difference between the two increasingly beside the point. Tammi’s direction was initially intriguing, with a potent sense of place and mood nimbly complicated through a splintered sense of time. The Wind nonetheless lost cohesion as the threat became more literal and overt, whilst the acting was awkwardly TV-like and callow. The Vanishing saw Danish TV director Kristoffer Nyholm tackling an infamous mystery of Scottish history, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote island early in the 20th century, for a grim tale of madness and murder. The Vanishing proposed a solution to the mystery in a basic film noir plot, with a more allusive patina imbued by the theme of men contending with the corrosive and destructive intensity of grief. The actors did their best to imbue proceedings with gruff and hirsute grit, but the storyline was far too stock and predictable, and the film overall proved drab and demoralising where it should have been flavourful and exciting.

22
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse proved a very different piece of work even in dealing with the same basic setting and theme. Eggers’ second feature also offered a similar proposition to his first film The Witch, studying characters stranded in a setting geographically and historically remote, succumbing to a collapsing sense of reality. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson brought startling, stylised passion to the project in depicting the grizzled, perhaps deliberately histrionic and hammy elder and his young, quietly neurotic employee who alternately loathe and love each-other. When the film concentrated on their fluctuations of affection and hatred, accord and dominance, it was interesting. And yet The Lighthouse felt less mature than The Witch in its bombardment of hoary surrealism, sickly physical textures, and general portent rammed home almost from the opening frames, overloaded with suggestions of the supernatural and even religious symbolism and yet offered with little sense of measured effect: the totality looked uncomfortably like an overblown student film.

23
High Life

Claire Denis’ High Life was an even more high-falutin’ take on the same motif of disorientating isolation, again armed with Pattinson. This sci-fi chamber piece depicted a spaceship crammed with prisoners sent on a one-way trip to check out a remote black hole. Juliette Binoche was the ship’s witchy doctor, pursuing a sideline in experimental fertilisation, eventually leaving Pattinson’s monkish survivor to raise his biological daughter alone after his fellows all crack up and die. The result was familiar Denis in the stringent evocations of weird sexuality and psychological torment. Something about the movie overall didn’t gel for me, however. The provocations were a bit too predictable, the approach uncomfortably pitched between realism and stylised allegory, and the tone of acting apart from Binoche rather stilted. By the end, the attentiveness in Denis’ best work to finite glimmers of the sublime amidst the forbidding had devolved here into a vague, zombified sort of sentimentality. One scene, the freakish “fuck box” excursion for Binoche, was basically the justification for the whole exercise. James Gray’s Ad Astra was similarly preoccupied with space voyaging as a metaphorical canvas of evoking human connection and alienation, depicted in a relatively more conventional narrative, but Gray managed something surprisingly akin to cinematic jazz in setting up vast surveys and big feelings and yet managing to syncopate them allusively.

24
Dragged Across Concrete

Back down in the mean streets, men and women still battled for such petty issues as money and power. J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier leaned, like The Vanishing, on a Treasure of the Sierra Madre riff in portraying a team of former soldiers turned Robin Hood adventurers out to steal a drug lord’s fortune only to crash literally and metaphorically into the rugged and impoverished Latin American landscape. Chandor’s storyline offered some dramatic turns and the methodical directorial method was initially engaging. But as the film became more serious it proved excruciatingly heavy-footed on all levels, indecisive in toggling between a dark parable about corrosive greed and a more forgiving attitude towards its mercenary heroes. S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete was another variation on the same basic motif of blue-collar warriors contemplating a turn to the dark side to combat financial distress, in this case Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan’s unruly cops, balanced by Tory Kittles’ more practical and patient ex-con, who all find themselves contending with an especially scummy crew of bank robbers. Zahler proved gutsier than Chandor if also perhaps disingenuous in portraying his antiheroes’ crude and unromantic aspects. Zahler’s style, offering concerted escalation of narrative through a minimalist palette, was still effectively peppered with islets of startling brutality, but now stumbled into the blurry area between slow-burn and long-windedness, trying to tell a taut thriller story with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker trying to turn.

25
Les Misérables

Brian De Palma’s long-delayed Domino invoked a similar sense of urban warfare, although its thematic reach invoked geopolitics and media event-making, his heroes defined by the struggles to direct their well-honed skills despite their own earthbound humanity. Ladj Ly hijacked the title and original spirit of Victor Hugo’s venerable Les Misérables for a very contemporary study of the Parisian neighbourhood where, long ago, Hugo wrote his tome, now crammed with poor immigrants. Ly depicted a newly transferred cop’s experiences with his bilious, exasperated partners and the seething, easily provoked denizens, with an adolescent boy’s act of thievery kicking off snowballing acts of abuse and confrontation. Ly expertly charted the social schisms and little ironies inherent in the locale and cleverly built tension as the seemingly happenstance meshed into a trap of fate, even if the essential set-up wasn’t that original and the sociology never deeply interrogated: how many times in movies and TV have we seen bullish cops and troubled youth make friction until they kindle a blaze? Moreover, the movie resolved in a lady-or-the-tiger situation more liable to exasperate than distress.

26
Shaft

Where the first John Wick movie, the renascent Keanu Reeves’ all-style-no-substance action franchise, left me quite bored, the second episode at least managed to complicate its oddball universe and leave off on an intriguingly precipitous note. The third episode, Parabellum, got off to a good start as Wick had to battle off armies of assassins, including one stirring quote from Sergio Leone, and fun turns from Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. But as it lumbered on it became clear that for all the hyped-up yet pointless fight sequences, this episode was simply one long exercise in marking time, quite truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Nominally engaging a similar zone of urban thriller grit but in a completely different key, Tim Story’s Shaft invoked not just the stature of Gordon Parks’ 1971 hit but also John Singleton’s 2001 sequel-cum-reboot. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as John Shaft Jnr, Richard Roundtree returned as the grizzled but still potent elder, and Jessie T. Usher was installed as grandson JJ, a milquetoast FBI agent who evolves into a next-generation standard bearer. The original’s suave, clever, worldly Shaft was left far behind, instead offering more a riff on Jackson’s familiar persona as a truculent hard-ass, and the new edition tended far more cartoonish than its predecessors. But Jackson and Regina Hall as his perpetually aggravated ex gave performances of whirling-dervish comic ability, the outing had spunky energy and real understanding of the appeal of star power, earning the status of guilty pleasure.

27
Avengers: Endgame

2019 delivered a deluge of would-be blockbusters, most of them at least nominally in the science fiction genre. The superhero vogue reached its official zenith with Avengers: Endgame, a pseudo-epic that saw the familiar team return for one last adventure with daunting stakes, trying to undo archenemy Thanos’ exterminating victory through time travel. Endgame certainly hit the spot for a vast number of moviegoers. It left me dispirited, however, even in comparison to the better-organised, more exciting Infinity War. The directing Russo brothers sacrificed vast swathes of running time to reiterating well-worn parental traumas for its characters whilst neglecting their camaraderie, served some heroes very poorly, and slogged through a plotline more busy than epic. Worst of all, it somehow became the biggest hit in movie history whilst representing cinema’s ultimate surrender to a drearily digitised aesthetic somewhere between seniors insurance commercial and video game desktop wallpaper.

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Another great epoch in blockbuster hype concluded as J.J. Abrams rounded off the third Star Wars trilogy, delivering Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams had a job of work ahead of him to conclude the saga in anything like a coherent and satisfying manner, especially considering how the previous episode left much of the narrative infrastructure in tatters, and the disorderly development of the new trilogy was more obvious than ever. The strain of trying to come up with something momentous enough to please fans, critics, the studio, and general audiences all at once showed, in a film stuffed to bursting point as it laboured to do justice to the characters and motifs already in motion but introducing a grab-bag of new ones too. And yet as a totality the episode was as much buoyed by excess as it was hampered, with a blissfully freewheeling pace and a real sense of dramatic weight in its most important scenes. The storyline took the crucial duologue of heroine and antihero to some interesting new places, and Abrams offered some powerful flashes of visual mystique.

29
Captain Marvel

Shazam! proved an entertaining and well-made entry for the Warner Bros./DC universe, which confirmed signs in last year’s Aquaman that, having abandoned cyberpunk grandeur as the series model, the new one is ‘80s blockbusters. Director David F. Sandberg went for a full-blooded tone and really grasped the empowerment fantasy complete with a finale where its collection of hapless orphans became a stable of bemuscled champions, whilst only slightly diluting the found-family sentimentality with knowing. The familiar enemies of lumpen CGI and over-length did retard the product, but not too greatly. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel aimed for a similar gloss of playful nostalgia, casting Brie Larson as a spirited military pilot who evolves into the eponymous spacefaring swashbuckler after getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic war. Larson and costar Samuel L. Jackson did their best to make everything seem gallant and chirpy, but the script might as well have been was written on a tissue, and Boden and Fleck’s direction was stupefyingly plastic.

30
Brightburn

David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, written by two members of the Gunn family dynasty, offered an intriguing basic premise in taking up Superman’s origin story in all basic details but recasting the adopted alien superbeing as a psychopathic parasite whose genetic programming kicks in at puberty, leading him to wreak carnage as he comes to understand his role and powers. There was certainly a prospect here to deliver a scurrilous assault on the all-conquering superhero genre and a twist on slasher movie chestnuts, and it mooted an interesting, emotionally immediate theme in the spectacle of desperate broodiness turning a blind eye to all warning signs. Actually delivering on such potential proved beyond the filmmakers: the storyline showed it cards far too soon, and devolved into an inevitable string of bluntly gory killings as a sense of the inevitable robbed proceedings of surprises and tension. F. Gary Gray reportedly had a hard time behind the scenes in taking on another backdated franchise, with Men In Black: International. The filmmakers had the right idea in reuniting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to expand on their chemistry, and the notion of turning the established concept’s framework from cop tale to extra-terrestrial spy movie parody, with Hemsworth as a hunkier Maxwell Smart, could have resulted in something really good. The movie failed to do anything even faintly original and exciting with such quality parts, however, completely neglecting the founding film’s oddball streak as well as its propelling concept as a metaphor for modern subcultures, filling in instead with weak plotting and some laboriously on-trend nods.

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a designated critical and box office bombsite, but I liked it a lot. Debuting director Michael Dougherty honoured the old Toho franchise with real affection, and added new layers. Like its monsters it was a bit too big and cumbersome. But it also wielded a proper sense of immense spectacle that also described the emotional chaos of its human characters, and gained zany energy in fusing together classic bits of kaiju eiga and Lovecraftian lore. Of all the FX spectacles released this year, it seemed the one least embarrassed with itself. Simon Kinberg, like Dougherty a Hollywood player trying to level up, took his tilt at ushering out the X-Men franchise as we’ve known it with Dark Phoenix, recapitulating Jean Grey’s infestation by an alien energy that exacerbates her wild mutant talent. The film was met with particular derision, but again I liked it more than the last 3 or 4 entries in this franchise, with Kinberg retaining a down-to-earth approach to action, and a serious sense of the characters, contending in their different ways with knowing the extraordinary is possible whilst languishing in a depressingly predictable world: this felt more keen to the moment for me than many number of others attempts to nail the zeitgeist down. But the very end went bewilderingly awry, punching unexplained holes in series continuity for the sake of an unearned note of closure.

32
Fast Color

Julia Hart’s Fast Color offered an intriguing variation on the notion of people with extraordinary powers subsisting in clandestine fashion, used to illustrate an intriguing metaphor for the covert strength and resilience of matrilineal traditions, in depicting three generations of African-American women blessed with mysterious but tormenting gifts that ultimately prove to have world-saving potential. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was particularly good in the central role and Hart’s direction effectively fused the mundane and the fantastic, although what felt like a very cramped production limited its ultimate effect. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate had some unusual similarities, in also concentrating on a rebel band of mutually reliant women contending with impending apocalypse and pursuing authority, whilst also trying to revive a doggedly beloved but waning franchise. The return of Linda Hamilton’s majestic Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sardonically pokerfaced T-800 offered shots of grizzled, nostalgic appeal to punch up a script lacking any true innovation and imagination. Actually, Mackenzie Davis provided the best reason to watch as the latest dedicated defender from the future, even if the plot gave her tour of duty little to distinguish it.

33
Joker

M. Night Shyamalan signalled intent to get back in on the superhero craze he gave some impetus to with 2000’s Unbreakable, offering Glass as a sequel to both that film and 2017’s Split. The movie pitted Bruce Willis’ homey hero against Samuel L. Jackson’s nefarious title character and James McAvoy’s multitude of acting class skits, with Sarah Paulson added for a neat study in smiling castration as a psychiatrist with a mysterious agenda. The result was initially engaging but went nowhere fast, Shyamalan backsliding with alarming speed into familiar habits of empty showmanship and witless meta pizzazz that laboured desperately to disconnect itself from any hint of the material’s pulpy roots. Todd Phillips’ Joker became the year’s succes de scandale in netting the Golden Lion at Venice whilst provoking oodles of ridiculous pre-release commentary. When it did come out Joker scored big at the box office and became perhaps the instant go-to archetype of what you think is a really great grown-up movie when you’re 13. The actual movie, a middling rip-off of several superior films and sporting a violently overhyped Joaquin Phoenix performance, wielded an effectively grimy feel, but only offered vague and generic social critique and misfit-turned-vigilante clichés, so loosely anchored to a nominal basis in comic book lore that it managed to betray both those roots as well as any ideals of proper drama.

34
Dumbo

Disney’s much-discussed and wearying grip on the box office in 2019 came in large part through expertly playing to several audiences, offering up plenty of material for young viewers whilst also repackaging old successes just in time for the first wave of Millennial nostalgia. Whilst Jon Favreau and Guy Ritchie were richly rewarded for doing hackwork in helming The Lion King and Aladdin respectively, Tim Burton placed his neck on the chopping block as he deigned to helm one of Disney’s live-action remakes of more hallowed animated fare, in his case Dumbo. Burton’s film was imperfect but at least an honourable negotiation, his familiar gothic tint lightly applied to lush period Americana, perfect for a tale of the misbegotten’s gentle melancholia struggling to bloom for a romantic adventure. The film had a better performance from its CGI title character than many real actors offered in the course of the year, and Burton’s theme of the regret inherent in selling private dreams to large entertainment concerns came perilously close to biting the hand currently feeding him.

35
Aladdin

Aladdin was a much bigger hit, but despite Ritchie’s relentless attempts to invest the splashy production with vaudevillian energy, the project never felt anything but forced and hollow. Will Smith turned hammy and floundering with third-rate material as an all-powerful Genie who still couldn’t conjure up good comedy writers. The rest of the cast was boring and wooden, and the price we keep paying for “Let It Go” notched higher with the one new song tacked onto the dolorously well-scrubbed score. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opened a campaign to build a big screen franchise out of the gaming and anime property. The product was so functional, processed, and bland it made Styrofoam seem tasty, and yet it was kept watchable by Ryan Reynolds’ affable shtick as the mysteriously loquacious title character, and Kathryn Newton’s zest as a plucky reporter: anyone wanting to update Torchy Blane for the 21st century should hire her.

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 offered a gallery of cute animated house pets, many of them blessed with voiceover work by a top-drawer cast, and their adventures in trying to save a white tiger cub from a vicious circus owner whilst canine protagonist Max (Patton Oswalt) learns to let go of his protective role over his owners’ infant son and mans up under the tutelage of a gruff farm dog (Harrison Ford). The film certainly wasn’t any sort of classic, but it was slickly animated, occasionally quite funny, and offered an unpretentious simile for the trials and tribulations of helicopter parenting. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part saw Mike Mitchell subbing for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, taking up the lingering note of threat to lad paradise at the end of the first instalment to portray one boy’s efforts to play nice with his sister through the prism of unruly Lego avatars. As a second helping, it couldn’t recapture the original’s furious pace and heady legerdemain in making comedy from nerd-canon literacy. But in some respects it was more sophisticated and substantial in marrying absurdist humour with insight into childhood dynamics. Plus that song got stuck inside my head.

37
Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez joined forces with writer-producer James Cameron to adapt the manga Alita: Battle Angel as a CGI-heavy action-adventure flick, following Rosy Salazar’s robotic heroine from junkyard foundling to unleashed supersoldier. Rodriguez executed the film in a more colourful and expansive version of his stylised Sin City films. Salazar proved a capable star as the empathic but vigorous title character. The movie ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth despite her however, with swerves into ugly violence and distressingly tacky-looking special effects throughout. Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth made waves by scoring a colossal success at the Chinese box office, evincing that country’s new outlook in offering not historical gallivanting but mammoth sci-fi action filmmaking. As a movie, The Wandering Earth was much less notable, a flat, flashy, alternately wooden and overacted assimilation of Hollywood’s goofier precincts, and how much it entertained depended on how much you wanted to turn your brain off. Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was more traditional, a martial arts action flick set in a mythic past, albeit with the action essentially offered as decoration for a dark melodrama about identity and loyalty that built beautifully to a finale where underclass rage and feckless aristocratic entitlement meet and lose all shape: the result was perhaps Zhang’s finest excursion into genre film to date.

38
Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl sounded just like what the doctor ordered amidst the desultory mid-year blockbusters, an unpretentious thrill-ride built around a perfect cliffhanger situation, pitting a young would-be swimming champ and her injured father against alligators amidst a raging hurricane. The result was entertaining in a kinetic and mindless manner, but the attempt to stretch the situation out to fill an entire movie via contrived thrills, as well as a rather tinny dramatic pitch, kept it from being anything like as good as it could have been. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It concluded with It: Chapter Two, a capstone taking up the tale of Derry, Maine’s Losers gang, now forty-somethings in various states of middle-aged unease, forced to return to their home town and do battle once more with the monstrous wraith Pennywise. The film’s bloated expanse incidentally confirmed how clumsy Muschietti’s first part was in laying out story essentials by having to introduce some here via flashbacks, whilst being incompetent in itself. The characters were still sketchy assemblages of identifying traits and cliché traumas battling an endless succession of lacklustre shock sequences, building to a finale that tried to make an agreeable point about victim empowerment that unfortunately reduced an unholy cosmic terror to something that could be defeated by a schoolyard chant, an event horizon for the horror-is-a-metaphor-for-something school of thought. Good actors like Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy went terribly wasted.

39
Gemini Man

Hobbs & Shaw set out to expand the Fast and Furious franchise by forcibly uniting Dwayne Johnson’s hulking FBI agent and Jason Statham’s reformed mercenary, in an entry replete with middling rival alpha comedy and passable action scenes. John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch failed to inject much of his patented Vodka ad style, and Idris Elba and Eiza Gonzalez were pathetically wasted as the android villain and a criminal queen. To be fair, though, eventually it cut loose with a gleefully ridiculous finale, and Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s kick-ass sister gave a dose of elegant spunk. Ang Lee continued his recent campaign to revitalise cinematic showmanship through technological advancement in releasing Gemini Man, Will Smith’s second underwhelming stint in front of a green screen for the year. Lee pitted the middle-aged Smith against a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, as he played a brilliant but burned-out hitman forced to go up against a clone raised by his former mentor turned enemy. In flashes, Lee recalled the graceful staging and sense of physical action of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days and he tried to work in his familiar motif, the struggle with one’s sense of self and one’s progenitors, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong gave expert support as Smith’s allies. But the storyline was excruciatingly familiar and clichéd, decorated with action sequences lacking real conceptual edge, whilst the fancy effects proved largely underwhelming and sometimes actively annoying. Worst of all, Smith was called upon to give one of the least animated performances of his career so the one-note inexpressiveness of his digital doppelganger wouldn’t seem too flaccid.

40
Knives Out

Jim Jarmusch, having tackled vampires in 2014 with Only Lovers Left Alive, turned to the living dead for The Dead Don’t Die, depicting the chaos befalling a small town during a zombie apocalypse, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny as the outmatched local cops, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician with a secret, amongst a host of other notable players. The result was fitfully amusing and Jarmusch indulged a waggish brand of fourth-wall-breaking, with characters who know the film’s theme song and have read the end of the script, plus a late swerve into another genre. But the film almost entirely lacked its precursor’s richness as a deconstruction of genre concepts, settling instead for recapitulating the already given themes of the Romero zombie flick as a dull screed with some witless satirical jabs, and failing to make much of his excellent cast save a superlative Sevigny and a cunningly deadpan Driver. By contrast, Peter Strickland’s return with In Fabric saw the director balancing black comedy, fetishistic horror, and surrealist consumer satire with dazzling gall. Rian Johnson recovered after his divisive Star Wars outing with Knives Out, a wry and energetic twist on whodunit essentials that suited Johnson’s sensibility far better, with a pointed, merrily obvious subtext taking aim at arrogant privilege being displaced by immigrant pluck and decency.

41
Hellboy

After patiently waiting nine years for a new movie from Neil Marshall, it proved especially disheartening that he should return with a reboot of Hellboy, stepping into Guillermo Del Toro’s very large shoes for a movie that never stopped feeling like a studio trying to squeeze juice out of a convenient intellectual property. Miraculously, some essence of Hellboy as a character, along with his circle of outcasts and eccentrics, came through, and Marshall occasionally nailed the tone of gory-corny musketeering he was aiming for. But overall the film badly lacked Del Toro’s playful yet earnest connection with the material, with lashings of CGI bloodletting that couldn’t hide how rote the effects and plot stakes were.

42
Top End Wedding

Elizabeth Banks took a stab at rebooting Charlie’s Angels with a suitably trendy makeover, casting aside the day-glo jesting of the early 2000s films as well as the glycerine gloss and blow-dried spunkiness of the old TV series, instead slotting a new selection of omnicompetent ladies into a free-range mash-up of other heist and action movies. The film’s many miscues included casting Kristen Stewart, hardly known for on-screen levity, as the scrappy, zany team member, failing to back her up with some strong and defined star charisma in her co-stars, using a script crammed full of harvested internet memes, and piling on girl power touches about three decades past their use-by date. That might all still have been forgivable if the film had any real wit or skill in staging action, but the result seemed only desperate to be called fun and affirming. The Sapphires director Wayne Blair and star Miranda Tapsell reunited for Top End Wedding, a starring role Tapsell cowrote for herself. Tapsell’s enormous appeal and skill as a comic performer and a generally good-natured vibe in contending with the clashing vagaries of modern and traditional identities helped keep the movie watchable. But the confused story and pat emotional resolutions saw Tapsell cheating herself of a vehicle worthy of her.

43
Ride Like A Girl

Rachel Griffiths, an actor who had shown a breezy touch in her sporadic short films, made her feature debut with Ride Like A Girl, a biopic depicting the often gruelling life course jockey Michelle Payne travelled to gain her landmark 2015 Melbourne Cup win. Payne’s story was certainly worth a movie and came with its feminist message built in, and the ever-undervalued Teresa Palmer supplied a strongly felt lead performance where you could feel the character’s many hard knocks etching themselves on her bones. But again the script was a cornball amalgam of crowd-pleaser clichés and formulaic dramatic swerves, with costar Sam Neill gorgonized by some of the dramatic beats and lines he was obliged to enact. The project as a whole was swathed in impersonal gloss, with Griffiths’ direction long on cute touches like a flock of betting nuns, but short on specifics, like scarcely properly identifying many members of Payne’s big brood.

44
Midway

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was another Aussie film depicting a true subject, albeit one rather more grave, depicting the clash between green conscripts and their estranged leadership when thrown into a vicious battle with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1966. Red Dog director Kriv Stenders handled events mostly with insipid professionalism, although he did try early on to offer a dialogue of perspectives on battle – chaotic immersion for fighters, distant glimpses for hapless entertainers, sputtering radio reports for the commanders. That gave way however to overworked visuals and clunky war movie cliches. Somehow screenwriter Stuart Beattie dared not only to offer a variation on “It’s quiet” “Yes, too quiet” but followed it immediately with one soldier showing another a picture of his family. Another recreation of a famous battle, Midway saw Roland Emmerich trying to mesh his penchant for historical subjects with his more familiar trash-spectacle expertise in depicting the early months of the Pacific War, climaxing in a big, brash recreation of the titular naval battle. Emmerich’s long-apparent desire to make a proper 1950s B war movie with modern special effects finally found true realisation, and early reels loped awkwardly with some tonelessly jut-jawed acting and lapses into near-cartoonish affect. Like a few of Emmerich’s films it proved however cumulatively something better than initially proposed, as he tried to counterbalance a straightforward depiction of heroism with a more holistic and attentive attempt to convey a moment in history and its players than Michael Bay’s haplessly melodramatic Pearl Harbor. Emmerich’s fluid visual gifts touched the wartime action with a sense of beauty as well as thrilling immediacy.

45
Hustlers

British bandit of bland James Marsh offered King of Thieves, recounting the true story of a gang of elderly underworld figures who banded together to pull off a colossal diamond heist, only to be undone by their long-simmering enmities and tunnelvisioned worldviews. It was worth watching to see a battery of terrific actors still strutting their stuff as men to whom age brought no wisdom, and yet Marsh’s limply jaunty style couldn’t mesh with the low-key storyline and the script never worked out what the real crux of the drama was. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was another, lightly fictionalised spin on a real-life case involving sympathetic devils, a gang of strippers who, hitting hard times after the global financial crisis, started drugging and robbing men under the guise of hard partying. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez anchored the film with smart performances, and Scafaria’s direction was both muscular and finely textured, turning sequences of bump-and-grind and felony into arias of physical and mental contest, making it one of the best of the many fake Scorsese films in recent years. Scafaria also managed what most directors to try it before her failed to do: weaponize J-Lo’s celebrated booty. The characterisations were shallow and evasive, however, with Lopez’s character in particular intriguingly sketched but never fleshed out, and Scafaria left me unsure us to just how seriously we were supposed to take its characters’ facetious self-justifications as social commentary.

46
Synonyms

Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday offered a more focused and quietly remorseless tilt at a similar subject, portraying an attractive young female trophy who in one gesture rebels against and accepts the logic and cruel pleasures of an abusive subculture. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms recounted the anxious adventures of a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, who lands in Paris determined to recreate himself as a Frenchman, a being he conceives in the most quixotic fashion. He is slowly disillusioned in the face of poverty and the subtly vampiric relationship he strikes up with a privileged, arty young couple, whilst his strong young buck’s body slowly becomes a rather cynical object of exploitation for him and others. Lapid, dramatizing his own experiences, managed the creeping transition from a sprightly tale of romantic overreach to a clammy portrait of a man’s incapacity to escape himself and the immigrant’s agonies in trying to change from one state of sponsored self-delusion to another. Tom Mercier’s excellent lead performance was charged with just the right kind of neurotic energy. And yet something about the film didn’t quite cohere, its calculated ambiguities, particularly in regards to the central character’s mentality, ultimately rendering it merely a collection of impressive vignettes rather than a coherent character and social study.

47
Luce

Julius Onah’s Luce took up a similar concern, the discomfort of the transplanted, and also had a certain resemblance to Brightburn. The title character, a former Eritrean child soldier adopted by some Americans bourgeois and transformed into a poster boy student, seems to begin a war of nerves with a teacher he believes unfairly treated one of his friends. The film, adapted rather obviously from a play, tackled a host of hot-button notions and was most effective at portraying the kind of performances black (and other) Americans are expected to put on for the sake of enforced equilibrium: Octavia Spencer, as usual, was splendid in an hesitantly written role. The pseudo-thriller framework was more aggravating than tension-provoking, however, foiling its dramatic punch as it reduced the essential question to whether or not Luce was the next Obama or Unabomber, as one of far too many recent dramas unambiguously about ambiguity, before throwing up its hands.

48
Share

Pippa Bianco’s Share was another adventure in high schooler angst and one that took seriously an issue Luce grazed rather foolishly, analysing the impossible position of a teenage girl who awakens on her front lawn after blacking out at party and must face the legal and personal fallout as fragmentary video footage of the party leaks out. Bianco did an admirable job avoiding the tone of an op-ed piece or cautionary after school special, the fuzzy digicam naturalism meshing effectively with a story rooted in disorientation and confused feelings, although the story and characterisations ultimately proved a little too superficial and so never really transcended the realm of illustrative cautionary anecdote. The Upside, Neil Burger’s remake of the French hit The Intouchables, relied entirely on the expert playing of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as a man flailing after a prison stretch and a paralysed tycoon who forge a friendship and help each-other overcome their various life crises. The film got a long way on playing games with prettily photographed stereotyping and the most obvious tweaks therein – ha ha! a black ex-con liking opera! a stoned rich white guy! – but did offer flashes of emotional depth as it unfolded.

49
Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name united a formidable battery of creative talents: screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tackled another of their trademark biographical subjects in Rudy Ray Moore, the flailing nightclub comic who reinvented himself as a folk hero with his Dolemite character and found unlikely cinematic success. Craig Brewer took on directing duties and Eddie Murphy played Moore. Murphy was characteristically terrific, nailing Moore’s blend of bluster and ingenuity, and he was backed up by some delightful supporting turns including Wesley Snipes as the perplexed D’urville Martin. Overall the film was good fun, even if the script recycled a few too many jokes and flourishes from the writers’ Ed Wood, and Brewer’s direction was oddly lacking in his usual, shaggy energy and texture: where Moore’s work had madcap confidence, Brewer’s take on it was only slick and sufficient. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood likewise revisted a wilder, woolier age in filmmaking, and amongst its manifold qualities it depicted the co-dependent reliance of actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-dogsbody-cum best pal Cliff Booth, as they face unemployment and more overt terrors in a changing cultural moment.

50
Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods played as a fringe underclass variation on the topic of women relying on each-other in tough times, with Tessa Thompson and Lily James playing sisters in a North Dakota town, one trying to walk the line after being busted for smuggling prescription drugs out of Canada and the other contending with an unwanted pregnancy. DaCosta’s terse, evocative direction and sense of milieu went a long way, and Thompson and James cemented their resumes with effective if occasionally theatrical performances, as well as Lance Reddick as a solicitous parole officer. Ultimately, though, the film didn’t really distinguish itself that much amidst a plethora of recent movies depicting hard times in flyover states, with a cliché collection of bearded deadbeats offered as foils for the heroines. Chinese wunderkind auteur Bi Gan went for a deep dive in carefully delineated zones of cinema and consciousness with Long Day’s Journey Into Night even as he also described a depressed and backwards region and the people subsisting there. His film was half bleary meditation, half lucid dream about making peace with the past and self in the context of China’s gritty and decaying provinces not yet caught up with the national boom.

51
Marriage Story

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White likewise wrestled with the sense of jarring uprooting and the petty sadisms of aging. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory took on the same concerns with a more overtly autobiographical inflection, meditating on the director’s life and career in a tapestry of past and present, art and life. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also transmuted a director’s personal experience into a would-be incisive drama laced with barbed comedy. Baumbach depicted the agonising way good intentions in divorce easily slide into recrimination and legal drama, as Adam Driver’s engrossed New York theatre director ends his union with Scarlett Johansson’s once-and-future LA star wife and struggles to stay in his young son’s life. The film neatly captured the ratcheting frustration such situations generate, and sported terrific supporting turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as divorce lawyers who channel their personal outlooks into cases. But as usual with Baumbach I found it overall too archly loquacious and smugly theatrical to really galvanise, and also far too tightly wedged in a privileged niche. The characterisations evoked the surface furore in a disintegrating partnership but stopped well short of really exploring its central figures as both individuals and a failed couple, whilst Baumbach’s efforts to net awards attention saw a new mawkishness and episodes of strident acting spectacle bloom despite the stars’ great efforts. Also, Randy Newman’s score annoyed the shit out of me.

52
Jojo Rabbit

Marriage Story was however certainly part of a terrific year for Johansson, who also invested her mainstay heroine Black Widow with a tint of melancholic necessity in holding down the fort before meeting a tragic end for a noble cause in Avengers: Endgame, and was tremendous as the doomed radical mother of Jojo Rabbit. The latter film saw Taika Waititi, after his own sojourn in Marvel service, returning to his more common concern with a child’s perspective on the adult world this time attached to a risky topic. Jojo Rabbit was the account of a young German boy weathering the last six months of World War II, instilled with fanatical love of Hitler so thoroughly that he conjures his own fondly imagined version of the Fuhrer as a mentor, but eventually confronts reality when he discovers a Jewish girl living in their attic. Waititi’s evocation of the young hero’s viewpoint with all its transformative inflections helped the film keep balanced whilst exploring madly divergent tones, although Waititi’s goofy, anachronism-laced approach hampered any hope of truly disquieting meaning, not quite working as a portrait of a specific age nor exactly nailing a more general thesis about misaligned hero worship and in-crowd longing.

53
The Two Popes

Most other 2019 films dealing with history played a more familiar game. The Two Popes offered an intriguing proposition, a chamber piece drama describing the retirement of the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his uneasy conversations with the modern and open-minded Jorge Borgoglio, about to become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles trying to imbue a distinctively South American lilt to the portrayal of Francis’s ascension. The stage was set for a meaty portrayal of two completely different men enclosed nominally by a common tradition expounding on serious and urgent moral issues and the various crises facing the church, as inhabited by two great actors. That film never quite arrived, however: what we got instead was a sort of buddy comedy and glossed-over piece of Church-approved marketing that quite literally muted Benedict’s role in hampering action against criminal priests, whilst offering a once-over-lightly portrait of Bergoglio’s own experiences and lapses under the Argentine junta, before assuring us that as long as the Pope can enjoy a soccer game everything’s pretty forgivable. Some of Meirelles’ lushly decorative shots confirmed he still has an eye, but he should still be ashamed of himself.

54
Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets followed his drone war drama Eye in the Sky as another slickly packaged study of contemporary political dilemmas, this time recounting the true tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s struggles with government chicanery in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Keira Knightley’s customarily strong central performance, capturing Gun’s unstable mixture of flighty uncertainty and deeper resilience, gave the film backbone, and Ralph Fiennes was equally good as her calm and cunning lawyer. Gun’s story, however, was a bit too thin and anticlimactic to justify an entire movie, and the neat, audience-flattering approach to a fraught moment in recent history was ultimately a bit cheap. Scott Z. Burns likewise tackled the War on Terror’s fallout in The Report, a journalistic portrayal of the efforts of a US Senatorial staffer to compile a comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program unleashed on captive suspects in the wake of 9/11. Burns’ crisp direction laid down the details with admirable clarity, ably describing the way bureaucracy and political balancing acts foil accountability, even if the gestures towards character drama and tension were mostly supernal.

55
Hotel Mumbai

Anthony Maras made a bold feature debut with Hotel Mumbai, recounting the dreadful events in the Taj Hotel at the climax of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Dev Patel wielded his familiar aura of guileless yet stalwart humanity as the waiter who exemplified the hotel staff’s dedication amidst the horror, amongst a squad of quality actors. The depiction of the events as a pulse-pounding thriller veered towards the tactless on occasions amidst the delirious carnage, but Maras managed to coherently depict the furore of such nightmarish straits and maintained a sense of pathos even in the gunmen, depicted as bribed and brainwashed yokels who nonetheless thoroughly owned their villainy, driven to acts of astounding callousness to nullify their own bewilderment at a word that refuses to obey a neat moral order. James Mangold got back to doing what he does best for his first non-Wolverine movie since the ‘00s for Ford v Ferrari, recounting a clash of carmakers in the mid-1960s climaxing in the infamous 1966 Le Mans race, but more deeply interested in the travails of the people hired to enact contests of plutocratic ego with their own acts of genius and physical commitment. The script leaned a tad too heavily on some conventions straight out screenwriting manuals, and yet Mangold’s flashy, detailed direction and lush sense of the period backed up the terrific cast’s expert work in creating a popular entertainment actually worthy of the name.

56
Richard Jewell

Martin Scorsese’s name was used in vain throughout 2019 when he dared critique the notion that popularity is virtue in cinema, but he put his money where his mouth is in style with I Heard You Paint Houses, called The Irishman in promotion, a revisit to his old gangster movie stomping ground based in the allegedly authentic exploits of Teamster official and supposed Jimmy Hoffa assassin Frank Sheeran. Clint Eastwood tackled another page of recent history in his ongoing project of locating unexpected value amongst ordinary, often scorned people, with Richard Jewell. This time he harked back to the mid-1990s and the story of the portly security guard whose punctilious approach to his job helped save lives amidst the infamous bombing of a public concert during the Atlanta Olympics, only to find himself the lead suspect behind the attack chiefly because of stereotyping. Eastwood’s cool and measured directing counted amongst his best as he depicted the actual bombing, even down a witty use of the Macarena to not just nail down the time period but describe a moment of communal experience. But he also nudged the material towards the melodramatic and partisan as he offered a version of Jewell that did some caricaturing of its own, making him seem more like a persecuted naïf than he ever appeared in real life, and his enemies in the media and FBI into blunt instruments of ego and unchecked power. It was a reminder that Eastwood, once a nuanced and complex conservative artist, has lately been degenerating into punchy propagandist. Nonetheless, within such limits the cast had a ball, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Olivia Wilde as the tabloid spirit incarnate.

57
Dark Waters

Dexter Fletcher followed his rescue work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, a portrait of Elton John, tracking his rise from prodigious but emotionally bereft boy, through stardom and a spiralling crisis of drug use whilst contending with his queerness, to eventual recovery and self-acceptance. Fletcher mashed together approaches and styles, making the film part standard biopic, part jukebox musical, part sub-Ken Russell fantasia, and part TV talent show bumper, sporting Taron Egerton’s superficially convincing approximation. None of it congealed, however, with a desperate shortage of story to tell, a surplus of shallow psychology, and even a lack of promised gritty sexuality: despite Fletcher’s many, often clumsy magic-realist flourishes, it couldn’t even finish with good spectacle. Todd Haynes turned his rarefied, acquired-taste aesthetic to a mainstream end with Dark Waters, the tale of a corporate lawyer drawn into advocating for a West Virginia town where he has roots as it becomes clear residents’ lives have been poisoned by Dupont dumping carcinogenic Teflon waste from a local plant. Haynes made it a fittingly explanatory companion piece to Safe, as well as a peculiarly muted and world-weary variation on the familiar crusading lawyer tale, noting the capricious nature of life between the official margins as the case drags on for years and the might of a monolithic corporation seems intractable. Mark Ruffalo did fine work in the lead, although Bill Pullman stole scenes as a colourful legal ally.

58
A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick resumed a relatively conventional narrative form for A Hidden Life, contending again with the issue he wrestled with in The Thin Red Line, the possibility and meaning of pacifistic stands in wartime. This time he recounted the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. The leisurely three-hour running time was wielded with a sense of purpose, as Malick tried to capture a sense of open spiritual experience balanced by a portrait of a society sliding towards bigotry and scapegoating. The customarily dazzling imagery drank in the beauty of Jägerstätter’s native Alps and was attentive to the physical immediacy of his performers, and despite a grim theme and length the film held attention easily. That very silkiness was a signifier of the underlying problem, however, as it failed to truly ignite the sweat-inducing fires of imminent martyrdom and real moral and mortal terror. Malick’s sense of Jägerstätter’s saintliness was so airy it never touched earth. As a whole it proved one of Malick’s least original and compulsive labours to date, as the straightforward method cut off access to his poetic arsenal whilst failing as prose to really gain access to any character’s head, so Malick was largely reduced to offering variations on the same two or three scenes over and over.

59
The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid, actor-turned-director Lila Avilés’ debut feature, depicted the working travails of Evelia, palpably incarnated by Gabriela Cartol, a young, single mother who works in a luxury downtown hotel in Mexico City, and her encounters with coworkers and guests, trying to maintain a taciturn and businesslike demeanour in her quest to get ahead. Avilés deftly sustained a mode of cinema based around the rhythms of a workaday world, a constant roundelay of toil leavened by flashes of both farcicality and crisis amidst floating islands of luxury, populated by the daffy despots of privilege. Only towards the end, as Avilés piled up dashed hopes for Evelia, did it start feeling untrue to her initial, observational project in order to underline a point. Tell It To The Bees, one-time Super Mario Bros auteur Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of a respected novel, wanted to be a British equivalent to Todd Haynes’ Carol as it portrayed a working class woman of the mid-1950s with a young son who, after breaking up with her thuggish husband, falls in love with a female doctor new to her town. Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin did right by their roles, but the film’s sluggish, precious tone and ridiculous late swerves into both melodrama and magic-realist inanity aimed for daring but gained only embarrassment.

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was a carefully paced, concertedly self-serious period drama about a young female painter commissioned to paint the portrait of a young bride-to-be for a distant, arranged intended’s inspection, but finds herself falling in passionate love with her moody, cloistered subject instead. Sciamma managed for the most part to walk a fine line between potential traps of Harlequin romance and anachronism, delivering a keenly felt tragic romance laced with finely observed touches and excellent lead performances. That said, I found the early scenes, with the artist-heroine’s attempts to divine both her own nature and the mysterious blank that is the assigned centre of her art with an implied struggle between phony artistic conventions and psychological reality, more interesting than the affair once it fully bloomed, the style a little too cleanly glazed to entirely evoke the depth of anarchic passion running under a staid surface the title image evoked, although the elegance of the last shot was a great salve.

61
Transit

German director Christian Petzold, maker of Phoenix, returned with another tale of people displaced and cleaved from identity by war and dislocation, Transit. Petzold’s boldest decision was to take Anna Steghers’ World War II-set source novel and retain its period specifics, but play it out in present-day surrounds, Nazi occupiers dressed like French SWAT teams and the like, erasing the gap of years between the refugee crises of the past and present to elucidate our short tribal memories. Petzold’s vision proved beautifully controlled in parsing his characters’ state of entrapment in an everyday setting, and the quietly tormenting anxiety of the refugee’s lot, watching as they try to cling to their morals and illusions. But as with Phoenix, Petzold’s penchant for vaguely Hitchcockian images and themes in his human drama, attached to a central anti-romance revolving around concealed and mistaken identities, cut against the grain of his cool realism and failed, ultimately, to truly resolve into something persuasive.

62
Non-Fiction

Bong Joon-ho captured the year’s Palme d’Or with Parasite, a film that started off as a jolly-nasty satire about a hard-luck family who efficiently insert themselves into the lives a richer clan with various acts of fraud, before becoming a malicious morality play. Bong’s filmmaking was at its most energetic and deceptively amusing throughout, and it’s somewhat easily the best of his work I’ve seen. But Bong’s brand of social satire, much as it wields hipster appeal, remains one-note, and the late swerve into bloodletting mostly came across as an attempt to make the film seem less like a well-shot sitcom, whilst failing to even try living up to the more insidiously Bunuelian aspects of its set-up. Non-Fiction was one of those very French movies Olivier Assayas makes in between his attention-getting exercises in po-mo mindbending, tackling the upheavals facing the French publishing industry in the internet age. Such cultural dislocation is experienced by an equable editor trying to decide what his career mission is, his actress wife ensconced in a TV cop show, and a shambolic author who can only write about personal experience, even as their private lives suggest not everything changes in such realms. As a movie it was entertaining if relatively slight for the director, with pretences to hot-button commentary already dated. Assayas’ handling was still sleek and witty, and the portrayal of the randy intelligentsia shot through with both acerbic knowing and affection.

Performances of Note:

Fabienne Babe, Tempting Devils
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
Juliette Binoche, High Life ; Non-Fiction
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917
Deng Chao, Shadow
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die ; Marriage Story ; The Report ; Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame ; Jojo Rabbit ; Marriage Story
Sun Li, Shadow
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
Vincent Macaigne, Non-Fiction
Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Ruth Negga, Ad Astra
Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Christopher Plummer, Knives Out
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out ; Uncut Gems
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
Victoria Carmen Sonne, Holiday
Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
Ensemble, The Irishman
Ensemble, Hotel By The River
Ensemble, The Lighthouse
Ensemble, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

Familiar in aspects and yet in totality a creation with a singular creative stamp, Ad Astra was unmistakably a James Gray film even as it saw the director making a valiant stab at breaking out of his craft-art niche to paint on larger canvases without sacrificing his delicate textures. Gray managed a twinning of opposites, a grand odyssey rendered as a sombre, semi-abstract, psychological tale, a story invoking big ideas and vast realms but in the most interior emotional terms. Ad Astra teased apart the Kubrickian blueprint that’s long held sway over the space movie even whilst seeming to honour it, demanding we turn our attention from fantasies of gods and monsters to study the face in the mirror.

64

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

In a particularly excellent year for Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke didn’t offer formal stunts as heroic as Bi Gan or action spectacle as fervently as Zhang Yimou. But his patient, accumulating style, punctuating an earthy sensibility with moments of lyricism and fantasy, tackled a common theme in recent film, people tied together as they slip from youth to decrepitude and confront their mistakes in spasms of anger and acquiescence. His characters, a gangster and his girlfriend who somehow manage to keep betraying and exiling each-other even as they stumble on through changing times into shambolic co-dependence, made for a sarcastic kind of neo-Western, as China’s prosperity cleared the boondocks of its last feudal lords and drowned memories along with cities under the rising tide.

65

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

Made amidst the directing team’s divorce but betraying only sublime balance of sensibilities, Birds of Passage saw Gallego and Guerra following their debut Embrace of the Serpent with another study of South America’s troubled native populaces. This time focusing on Colombia’s Waayu people, the duo used an ill-starred marriage as the central catalyst for a descent into hell, as a tribal identity made potent by tradition is laid waste by involvement in the briefly enriching drug trade. The plot recalled classic gangster movies but told in a manner closer to the cool, folkloric approach of directors like Paradjanov and Herzog, with references to Ancient Greek literature offering mythopoeic echoes to hint how the same stories recur from age to age, world to world.

66

Domino (Brian De Palma)

Domino limped out into the light after several years on the shelf only to be swiftly reburied in general estimation, a once-titanic director tackling a low-budget Euro-thriller that arrived backdated and curtailed. And yet Domino proved a superlative example of what a great director can spin from such crude circumstance, ransacking the material for opportunities for clever filmmaking and sigils of sharp characterisation, along with De Palma’s still-quicksilver feel for the game of cinema correlated with political messaging. De Palma wove in a needling dialectic about characters who cling to philosophies that underpin their actions in the world, and the sorts of faiths, and illusions, that sustain them on the way. Movies of 2019 that cost a hundred times as much couldn’t boast set-pieces as beautifully sustained and diagrammed as the key early rooftop chase and the climactic terrorist attack at a bullfight.

67

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

Gaining bizarrely little acclaim despite being a highly accessible yet still rigorously fashioned film from a major director, Everybody Knows saw Farhadi landing in Spain and making deft use of stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, cast as former lovers who find themselves bound together in a fraught reckoning when Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped. If the story frame was melodramatic, it served Farhadi well in lending new intensity and purpose to his usual, novelistic texture in exploring human dynamics, detailing sweat-inducing straits of personal crisis and families in stifling proximity with a needling understanding of the way even the most intimate relationships can be contingent on money and the things it can accomplish. All was fleshed out with a lively, convincing portrayal of communal joy and friction.

68

In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

In comparison with Peter Strickland’s last two works, lushly suggestive and esoteric imaginative realms where dream and waking worlds slowly merged, In Fabric to a certain extent offered a more waggish and explicit, if still often surreally fractured, variation on his honed aesthetic. This time the melding of retro horror tropes with a satire on commercialism’s distorting effect on lifestyle alternated the truly weird with a skit-like sense of humour in recreating bygone textures, in devices like tacky ‘70s late-night TV ads as vehicles for evil influence. The compensation for the new archness was a diptych of insidiously brilliant character portraits, as Strickland pitted hapless everyfolk in oblivious contest with agents of dark forces masquerading as purveyors of consumerist paradise, churned together with a delightfully bizarre and sickly-erotic evocation of the stygian, delivered in images that came on with mesmeric verve.

69

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

Sharp and bright as jagged glass and about as cuddly, Holiday presented for our consideration the tale of a young woman who’s attached herself to the boss of a drug trafficking crew and vacations with him and his hard-partying but dreary and moronic clique, weathering storms of abuse and violence in exchange for being an anointed creature of the globetrotting set. When she reaches out for a more becalmed form of affection, the gesture leads to some nihilistic conclusions. Holiday overlapped with Ash is Purest White and well outpaced something like Hustlers in contemplating a young woman who proves far tougher and more dangerous than anyone expects. Eklöf’s cool, taut filmmaking and unnervingly sustained, rhetoric-free approach paid off in a finale that made its central character’s recourse to violence shocking but comprehensible on several levels, from psychic pressure release to self-reassuring achievement of equality.

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Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

Hong’s long been a quietly marvellous filmmaker who always manages to skilfully work invest novelty and dexterity into his movies despite their superficial similarity. Hotel By The River took up some of Hong’s well-trod concerns, like artists dealing with the mess of real life and characters wandering in places of humdrum exile where everything feels at once familiar and disorientating, with a new lilt of aged and wintry regret. Here his most lovingly crafted images, crystalline in their simplicity and integrity, became the aesthetic springboard for the deftly tragicomic, in his twinned depictions of mutually reliant women and a father and his sons whose lode of tension and resentment boils over. The very end stepped over a threshold other directors this year marched up to and paused before. Death is an end to pain; it’s the living we have to worry about.

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I Heard You Paint Houses (aka The Irishman) (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s epic anatomisation of both recent American history and a film genre he helped invent, the modern gangster movie, The Irishman pieced together a cold indictment of both its specific players and the world they represented, relating the maybe-true adventures of hitman and Teamster official Frank Sheeran, who confessed to killing his legendary former boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rarely has such a long film been so tightly wound and cohesive in first forcing the viewer to understand a certain subculture’s worldview and then obliging us to consider the ugliest consequences for buying into it. A great piece of moviemaking that was also that rarest of cinematic blessings, a coherent and fitting monument to filmic figures of the calibre of Scorsese and his battery of still-mighty stars.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Bi’s second feature felt in many ways like the essential condensation of 2019’s cinema even as it beat most of it to the punch. Bi portrayed landscapes physical, mental, and artistic whilst correlating cinematic experience with the haze of memory and the transformed lucidity of dreaming, via a tale that can only be described as the story after the story, his characters wandering about in the wreckage long after a standard-issue film noir plot has played out, trying to piece together an accurate sense of the past’s meaning and the present’s possibilities. The airier themes were coupled with a pungently evocative contemplation of life in modern China’s backwaters, whilst the long final sequence was an act of cinematic cabalism.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A droll, Cassavetes-like character study and a Proustian recreation of a lost time mated with meta-western and true crime drama, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood saw Quentin Tarantino lingering in unusual territory, at least before the characteristically outrageous finale, in contemplating the terrors of middle age and the travails of weathering a hostile zeitgeist. His ninth film proved at once deeply funny and cumulatively, emotionally piercing, finding a uniquely nimble way to study both the fear of creative irrelevance whilst also celebrating the lingering influence of pop cultural heroism, a force imbued with strange magic: even if it can’t literally save lives, as the climax ironically depicts, it still elevates and envelopes commonplace experience with epic lustre, giving form to modern life it too often otherwise lacks. The Manson Family murders offered their legend as the basis, only to be rudely inverted as the antiheroes doled out harsh chastisement to malign berserkers.

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Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

The thought of Pedro Almodovar, ever the colourful raconteur and provocateur, getting gloomy and facing up to the predations of age sounded in abstract like a thoroughly depressing chore, and Pain & Glory tackled the subject with a lightly fictionalised gloss that might have proved in the hands of a lesser artist a study in navel-gazing. Almodovar instead turned this into the stuff of one of his best films, a memoir-like portrait of a once-outrageous gay film director struggling to overcome niggling physical ailments and general dejection as he faces decline only to be released for new adventures thanks in large part to revisiting the past and his formative experiences. The film was loaded with beautifully crafted images and portrayals of characters laced with both cutting wit and insight, as well as a spry sexiness that was ultimately invigorating. Antonio Banderas deftly incarnated both the director’s troubled and meditative streak and his remnant lode of bantam cock pride in creative achievement.

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Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

With Shadow, Zhang tried his hand again at the same conceit he fumbled years ago with The Curse of the Golden Flower: using the trappings of a wu xia saga to depict forms of evil, particularly the venomous nature of unchecked power, and vagaries of identity, as people deform themselves into perverse shapes to fit into social roles even as they contort with lethal vivacity in battle. This time Zhang applied his most dazzling and accomplished stylistics to a cunningly developed and focused story, avoiding his usually lush colour schemes, adopting a nearly monochrome look instead, to lend a noir-like texture to his narrative, where the abstract political games always had a precisely identified impact on human players, complete with a barbed punchline that did cruel things with the familiar worm-turns tale.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Hogg’s fourth feature gained her a breakthrough to broader recognition with an autobiographical story, but The Souvenir was still a rarefied piece of artistry, building a subtle yet definite emotional texture whilst also unfolding in layers of reference and aesthetic query. Like Almodovar, Hogg asked intelligent questions of a familiar mode of storytelling, scratching out its own path in considering the quandary of an artist’s growth, taking shocks through risk in life. The Souvenir reached back into Hogg’s past and retold a tragic romance, framed through not merely a metafictional statement about artistic becoming but also perceiving how all realities, personal and cultural, are amassed in webs of borrowed likenesses and echoes. How do I know who you are? is also How do I know who I am?

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Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

Cheap-looking, capriciously horny, and barely distributed, the final film from an old pervert saw Brisseau plying arthouse-softcore as the shiny wrapping on a beguiling package filled with deeply sardonic romantic and slapstick comedy, philosophical inquiries into art, love, death, and transcendence, anecdotal portrayals of endemic social evil, and gleefully tacky special effects where lesbian threesomes hovered amidst galactic visions. Brisseau managed at once to send himself up mercilessly whilst also becoming himself at last in entirety, and of the many filmmakers to offer studies in imminent mortality of late, his seemed the most blithe, the most determined to do a good turn in trying to release people from cages of varying types. Whilst Tempting Devils certainly wasn’t the most politely refined work, it was lively, funny, and heroically accepting of human strangeness and resilience in ways many a more polished and posturing release of this year failed to be.

Honourable Mention

The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)
The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés)
Dumbo (Tim Burton)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Transit (Christian Petzold)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Martin Dougherty)
High Life (Claire Denis)
Hotel Mumbai (Anthony Maras)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Shaft (Tim Story)
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Under The Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Us (Jordan Peele)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

1917 (Sam Mendes)
Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
Brightburn (David Yarovesky)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck)
Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland)
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Gemini Man (Ang Lee)
It: Chapter Two (Andres Muschietti)
John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Joker (Todd Phillips)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
The Vanishing (Kristoffer Nyholm)
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo)

Crap

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie)
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Men In Black: International (F. Gary Gray)
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
Serenity (Steven Knight)
Tell It To The Bees (Annabel Jankel)
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

Unseen

An Elephant Sitting Still ∙ Asako I & II ∙ Atlantics ∙ Bacurau ∙ Bombshell ∙ Border ∙ The Burial of Kojo ∙ Diane ∙ Doctor Sleep ∙ Frozen II ∙ Gloria Bell ∙ Honey Boy ∙ Invisible Life ∙ Just Mercy ∙ The Lion King ∙ Little Women ∙ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ∙ The Mountain ∙ One Cut of the Dead ∙ Peterloo ∙ Queen & Slim ∙ Sunset ∙ Tigers Are Not Afraid ∙ Toy Story 4 ∙ Waves ∙ The Wild Pear Tree ∙ Young Ahmed ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

As Tears Go By / Days of Being Wild / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Avenging Conscience / Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages (D.W. Griffith)
The Awful Doctor Orloff / A Virgin Among The Living Dead (Jesus Franco)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)
Bigger Than Life / Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)
The Blue Bird / Victory / The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)
The Boy Friend (Ken Russell)
Cairo Station (Youseff Chahine)
Carnival Rock / Sorority Girl / A Bucket of Blood / The Young Racers / Bloody Mama (Roger Corman)
The Champagne Murders (Claude Chabrol)
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Ossie Davis)
Darling Lili (Blake Edwards)
Dolemite (D’urville Martin)
Foxhole in Cairo (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nabuo Nakagawa)
Godzilla vs Monster Zero (Inoshira Honda)
Glastonbury Fayre / Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Hangmen Also Die! / Cloak and Dagger / American Guerrilla In The Philippines (Fritz Lang)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
The Hired Hand / Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda)
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni)
It’s Alive / God Told Me To / The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
J’Accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille)
La Venere d’Ille (Lamberto and Mario Bava)
Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer)
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 / Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
The Outlaw and His Wife / The Monastery of Sendomir (Victor Sjöström)
Private Hell 36 / Flaming Star / The Killers (Don Siegel)
Red Ball Express (Budd Boetticher)
Robbery (Peter Yates)
The Shanghai Drama (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller)
Svengali (Archie Mayo)
Ulysses (Mario Camerini)
Wavelength (Michael Snow)
We Were Strangers (John Huston)

Standard
2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Asghar Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here. His study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, matched his care in describing the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island and the colourful childrens’ adventure of Hugo (2011) and the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

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Film Freedonia, Podcast

The Film Freedonia Podcast

Friends, readers, internetians: introducing a new feature to this site, the Film Freedonia Podcast. Which is basically just me reading the featured essays here, so you can have all the mental stimulation and vague irritation of reading one of my film commentaries whilst you do something actually useful like fold the laundry or pick the lint out of your belly button. The first instalment is my look at Robert Rossen’s 1956 historical epic Alexander The Great.

Click here to go to Anchor.fm where you can listen or download.

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