2020s, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2022

By Roderick Heath

Jump to review index

Jump to Favorite Films of 2022 list



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performances of Note

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

Favourite Films of 2022

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

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

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

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

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

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

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

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

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

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

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

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

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

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

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

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

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

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

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

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

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

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

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

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

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

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

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

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

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

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

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

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

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

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

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

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

Runners-Up:

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

Interesting and/or Underrated

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

Disappointing and/or Overrated

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

Crap

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

Unseen:

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

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2022

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

In Memoriam

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

Review Index

The 355 (Simon Kinberg)

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)

All My Friends Hate Me (Andrew Gaynord)

Ambulance (Michael Bay)

Amsterdam (David O. Russell)

Argentina 1985 (Santiago Mitre)

Armageddon Time (James Gray)

Athena (Romain Gavras)

Avatar: The Way Of Water (James Cameron)

The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)

Barbarian (Zach Cregger)

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

The Batman (Matt Reeves)

Beast (Baltasar Kormakur)

Benediction (Terence Davies)

Black Adam (Jaume Collet-Serra)

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler)

The Black Phone (Scott Derrickson)

Bones And All (Luca Guadagnino)

Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Bros (Nicholas Stoller)

Bullet Train (David Leitch)

Confess, Fletch (Greg Mottola)

Crimes Of The Future (David Cronenberg)

The Cursed (Sean Ellis)

Day Shift (J.J. Perry)

Dead For A Dollar (Walter Hill)

Death On The Nile (Kenneth Branagh)

Deep Water (Adrian Lyne)

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi)

Don’t Worry Darling (Olivia Wilde)

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)

Emergency (Carey Williams)

Emily The Criminal (John Patton Ford)

Empire Of Light (Sam Mendes)

The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)

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

Fall (Scott Mann)

The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (David Yates)

Flux Gourmet (Peter Strickland)

Glass Onion (Rian Johnson)

The Gray Man (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)

The Hidden Fox (Lei Qiao)

Hit The Road (Panah Panahi)

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)

Honor Society (Oran Zegman)

Hustle (Jeremiah Zagar)

In Front Of Your Face (Sang-Soo Hong)

Interceptor (Matthew Reilly)

Introduction (Sang-Soo Hong)

The Invitation (Jessica M. Thompson)

Jurassic World: Dominion (Colin Trevorrow)

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

The Lair (Neil Marshall)

Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

The Lost City (Aaron Nee, Adam Nee)

Lost Illusions (Xavier Giannoli)

A Love Song (Max Walker-Silverman)

Mad God (Phil Tippett)

The Menu (Mark Mylod)

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (Ana Lily Amirpour)

Moonfall (Roland Emmerich)

Morbius (Daniel Espinosa)

Munich: The Edge of War (Christian Schwochow)

Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman, Saul Williams)

Nope (Jordan Peele)

The Northman (Robert Eggers)

The Outfit (Graham Moore)

Paris, 13th District (Jacques Audiard)

Pearl (Ti West)

Poker Face (Russell Crowe)

Prey (Dan Trachtenberg)

The Quiet Girl (Colm Bairéad)

RRR (S.S. Rajamouli)

Saint Omer (Alice Diop)

Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot)

Scream (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett)

See How They Run (Tom George)

The Seed (Sam Walker)

She Said (Maria Schrader)

Smile (Parker Finn)

Something In The Dirt (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)

Spiderhead (Joseph Kosinski)

Stars At Noon (Claire Denis)

The Stranger (Thomas M. Wright)

Tár (Todd Field)

Ted K (Tony Stone)

Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)

Thor: Love & Thunder (Taika Waititi)

Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)

Ticket To Paradise (Ol Parker)

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican)

Uncharted (Ruben Fleischer)

Watcher (Chloe Okuno)

Werewolf By Night (Michael Giacchino)

White Noise (Noah Baumbach)

The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Women Talking (Sarah Polley)

The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)

X (Ti West)

You Won’t Be Alone (Goran Stolevski)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2012

movies-interior

By Roderick Heath

Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.

Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.

The_Master_-_trail_2253117b
The Master

From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.

HolyMotors5
Holy Motors

I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.

Return2
Return

After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.

CloudAtlas2
Cloud Atlas

Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.

The-Grey-9-007
The Grey

Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.

Haywire3
Haywire

Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.

DamselsInDistress4
Damsels in Distress

Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.

Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-2011-h
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.

Oslo 21 August3
Oslo, 31 August

But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.

DeclarationOfWar2
Declaration of War

And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.

SleeplessNight3
Sleepless Night

The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.

MissBala2
Miss Bala

That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.

Cinema is dead, my arse!

Actor Appreciation

Sally+Field+LincolnWasserman

I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.

Scarlett Johanssonon-the-road-movie-image-sam-riley

Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.

DenisLavantHolyMotors300alps

Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.

439691_002anne-hathaway-les-miserables

Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0163058fbb58970d-600wi120625SistersSister_6341768

Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.

compliance4prometheus

Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.

482435_129tumblr_m378ruhK931qetojvo1_500

I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.

Favourite Films of 2012

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)

Alps3

Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)

AnnaKarenina3

Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now  almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

Cosmopolis-2

David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton)

DarkShadows3

A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)

The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong)

TheDayHeArrives3

Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)

OB-RB836_flying_EA_20111220012202

Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.

The Innkeepers (Ti West)

xlarge_4bcca30f956d03693e5538ff80bfd4fe

Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.

John Carter (Andrew Stanton)

JohnCarter4

This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)

Kill List (Ben Wheatley)

Kill List - Jay (Neil maskell) KLS215.jpg

A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
<p align="center"Lincoln07

Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)

On the Road (Walter Salles)

121219_MOV_road.jpg.CROP.article568-large

Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

OnceUponATimeInAnatolia01

What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.

Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)

rust-and-bone-movie-review

Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.

Tabu (Miguel Gomes)

Tabu5

Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.

Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Honourable Mention

The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)
Frankenweenie (Tim Burton)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson)
Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo)
Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier)
Savages (Oliver Stone)
Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)
Vamps (Amy Heckerling)
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

Reserved Approval

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov)
Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod)
The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli)
Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Killer Joe (William Friedkin)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
Return (Liza Johnson)
Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

Disappointing/Overrated

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb)
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Bourne Legacy (Tony Gilroy)
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Lore (Cate Shortland)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
Skyfall (Sam Mendes)

Crap

Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger  Michell)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
Lawless (John Hillcoat)
Les Misérables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)

Significant Blind Spots

Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Bernie, Detachment, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse

My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012

All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen)
A Bell for Adano (Henry King)
Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks)
Countdown (Robert Altman)
The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov)
Dark Waters (Andre de Toth)
The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman)
Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher)
Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle)
Farewell to the King (John Milius)
Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau)
Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa)
Gilda (Charles Vidor)
Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding)
Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava)
Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack)
Judex (Georges Franju)
The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester)
La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin)
Laura (Otto Preminger)
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz)
The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson)
Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey)
Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer)
The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
Phantom of the Paradise / Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma)
Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin)
The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed)
Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto)
Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki)
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk)
Torment (Alf Sjöberg)
Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman)
When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse)
Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock)
Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford)
Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2011

By Roderick Heath

“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)

It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.

And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?

Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.

Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?


Paul

Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.


Submarine

Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.

So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.


Rampart

The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.


The Ward

Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.


Margin Call

Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.


13 Assassins

Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.


Snowtown

PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.

Some Favourite Performances

Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.

Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.

Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.

Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.

James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.

I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.

Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.

Favourites Movies of 2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.

Hanna (Joe Wright)

Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.

Leap Year (Michael Rowe)

A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)

The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)

Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.

Scream 4 (Wes Craven)

Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)

The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)

I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.

Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)

A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.

Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

Honourable Mention

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)

I Liked, With Reservations

Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)

Significantly Disappointing

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)

Crap

Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

As Yet Unseen

50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend

My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011

Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)

Standard
2010s, Commentary

Confessions of a Film Freak, 2010

By Roderick Heath

I did resolve to do a more thorough and serious “confession” this year than those of previous years, in part because this piece will look at several of my favourite films for the year that, for various reasons, I’ve been unable to write up in the more traditional Ferdy on Films template. I doubt what follows lives up my lofty ambitions. It’s been a year, in terms of general quality of movies, both better than it seemed at first and yet also riddled with crushing disappointments. I doubt too many will argue with the proposition that there have been precious few great works, or ones that even tried for greatness. Greatness requires flashes of rebellion against what’s already been proven as reliable and sturdy, whereas today’s cultural centrifuges work to assert a pulverising sameness. That any art form can, and should, offer up many different paradigms of style and story at once has, oddly, never been a popular notion, and even those who claim to want something different often merely settle for repeated versions of something different. A film like The King’s Speech is no less formulaic than the average dim-witted action flick or rom com, and I’m surprised so few seem to notice.

As I’ve said in years past, I’m usually happier raking the debris of cinema culture rather than admiring its shiny new bastions. And at a time when contemporary Hollywood’s directors would benefit from relearning some rigorous classicism in their approach to storytelling and cinematic technique, I’m also finding more than ever that there’s a depressing homogeneity and surface-level pseudo-insight that’s infected the screenwriters in Tinseltown, and elsewhere, too. They’re all so reliant on the most predictable, by-rote, class-taught story structures, and producers have rarely been so fond of the notion that all you have to do is assemble certain disparate pieces in the correct order, and you’ll have a colossal hit. That sort of thing made itself particularly apparent in obscene chimeras throughout the year, in blockbuster fare like Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, Iron Man 2, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Robin Hood, as well as would-be serious dramas like The King’s Speech and Hereafter. On the other hand, easily illustrated by the likes of Splice and Black Swan, self-appointed auteurs often think it’s enough that they came up with a pile of provocative ideas, and leave most of the actual work to the audience in a patent search for cult status: if you didn’t “get” the movie, then you simply weren’t the right audience for it. If Christopher Nolan’s Inception was admirable for anything, it was that it was plainly the product of a singular aesthetic and artistic sensibility that wasn’t afraid to think big; and yet it, too, belonged in all aspects to this second category, except in terms of its budget and box office. One obvious reason for the giddy reception of Black Swan in some quarters is that whilst its story basics are hackneyed and characters numbingly clichéd, as filmmaking, it’s something far beyond the everyday.

In any event, I achieved a personal record in terms of the number of films released in the U.S. or Australia in the 2010 calendar year that I’ve managed to catch, but still not all that many by the standards of a professional critic. In the past few weeks I’ve had repeated conversations with esteemed colleague Marilyn Ferdinand about the year’s well-thought-of films which we’ve been working our way through at a time when we’ve had sharply diverging tastes and expectations about them. Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films. Movies seem to be channelling the repressed rage that many have felt in the past years of mismanaged wars and economies, the impatience with officialdom and low-burning unrest in our info-bombarded zeitgeist. Occasionally, the zeitgeist even provides its own revealingly mangled rhymes. One of the major screen heroes of the year was a bisexual Swedish female nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and brutally punishing rapists; one of the most controversial real-life figures of the year was an ambisexual Aussie nerd fond of exposing malfeasance on the internet and accused of rape in Sweden. One of the most “fun” films of 2010 featured a prepubescent girl butchering adults in a calculated but slyly passionate jab at the ever-more cloying, hermetic middle classes whose anxieties are usually the bread and butter of all big commerce, Hollywood included. Prime award-bait piece Rabbit Hole presented a great long wallow in the fallout of when the cult of suburban cocooning fails.

At the heart of that misanthropic streak, perhaps of the most interesting, continually recurring figure in this year’s more prominent works has been the antihero who, variously treacherous, criminal, reprehensible, even downright psychopathic in their war with the world, who find themselves finally, painfully, destructively tethered to their remaining human affections and emotions. Such a description roughly fits John Hawkes’ Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in Valhalla Rising, Eddie Marsan’s Vic in The Disappearence of Alice Creed, Casey Affleck’s Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, George Clooney’s Man with Many Names in The American, Olga Kurylenko’s Etain in Centurion, Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope in Animal Kingdom, Nicholas Cage’s Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, and even, in their less flashy fashions, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and Pierce Brosnan’s Adam Lang in The Ghost Writer. In contrast, the need and will to escape, whether it be from literal captivity, oppressive lives and crushing weights, in defiance of whole social hierarchies or merely of a daily grind or tragic memory, saw hapless but determined Everymen and women rise in counterpoint to the general run of bastards on screen. Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island and Cobb in Inception, Jim Carrey’s Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris, Katie Jarvis’ Mia Williams in Fish Tank, Aggeliki Papoulia’s Older Daughter in Dogtooth, Gemma Arterton’s Alice Creed, Keir Gilhcrist’s Craig in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt in Salt, the hapless heroes of Predators and The Town and Centurion and even, in their way, Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco in Somewhere and the unfortunate couple in Rabbit Hole—all were fighting against things as seemingly benign as the suffocating sponginess of consumerism or an inability to find their true selves, or very real, very dangerous corporeal enemies, and dread existential abysses. Even Serge Gainsbourg, as portrayed in Johann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: vie heroique, is chased around by the literalised ogre image of the anti-Semitism that terrorises and inspires him to the end of his days.

Some of these characters fit into both categories: does not One-Eye, in his wordless way, flee the lingering ghosts of the men he’s killed in search of a transcendence he finds in the most unlikely of places? Is not Teddy Daniels both killer and victim, quarry and pursuer? Doesn’t Mia nearly kill a small girl in her anguished attempt to protest her betrayal and limited life options? The American even trundles slowly to a dead halt, painted in his own blood, in a final effort to escape a life in which he is advised not to make friends—to be, therefore, dead whilst still alive. The young walking organ bags of Never Let Me Go did not try to escape physically, but they did try to establish their own identities and make their own pathetic protests against the inevitable. Their rebellion is to be much more human than the film’s imagined alternate society expects them to be. Steven Russell flees lives, sexual identities, and law enforcement with the panicked speed of a man desperately trying to keep hold of the one thing that gives his self-destructively consumerist lifestyle some specific gravity.

Many of those cinematic monsters, walking wounded, and wayward warriors had been raised virtually since birth to be the creatures they are, sometimes obeying their ingrained purposes to the letter, others rebelling and seeking out their own raison d’être. There’s a certain irony in this theme, insofar as there’s probably never been such a time in human history in which people are less required to master certain survival arts than today. But perhaps there is both the reaction to and commentary on the growing panic in which children are shoved into the rites of growing up and preparation for an ever more paranoiacally competitive world. Mindy “Hit-Girl” Macready, Evelyn Salt, and Etain are brought up as creatures of dynamic savagery to avenge murdered family members. Teddy Daniels and the Bostonian heavies of The Town are steeped in regulation American machismo and class warfare, struggling against all ingrained presumptions to think of another way out of their jams. Ree Dolly, as a backwoods, squirrel-shootin’, back-talkin’ Lady Liberty, advises her young siblings, “There’s a lot of things you’re gonna have to learn to stop being afraid of.” Nina Sayers of Black Swan is the product of a lifetime regimen of training and preparation for a great future that may never come unless she learns to rebel against precisely what has pushed her so far. The children of Dogtooth enact a perverted version of arch patriarchal, bourgeois fantasies of keeping children socially sterilised against pernicious, uncontrolled forces. Future king Bertie (Colin Firth) in The King’s Speech has been twisted into incoherent knots by the firm upbringing designed to make him strong and resolute, yet it turns out that’s exactly what was needed to fight the dirty Hun. Harry Potter lurched ever closer to the fate awaiting him since infanthood. Even the original gangster himself, Robin Hood, made a cursory outing, passing rapidly through alternate social ranks to finally discover he is the common ancestor of Winston Churchill and Glenn Beck.

If Hit Girl’s rampaging violence represented a kind of giddy fantasy of unleashed anarchy, Never Let Me Go examined the exact opposite world of existential entrapment, and Dogtooth remained balanced precariously and thrillingly between the two, all three nonetheless presented variations on this same theme of who we were are raised to be and why. The notion that, in the end, all behaviours and actions are both futile and infinite, resounds. The notion that the mind is its own deep well that contains entrapping depths and stygian nightmares, whilst hardly novel, again rose up to swamp many of these heroes and heroines. Shutter Island and Black Swan offered up male and female archetypes—the über-macho film noir hero and the innocent, fragile maiden—who take long trips through their own psyches, becoming their own enemies, soothsayers, and spirit-guides. Teddy and Nina are both disintegrating psychos who destroy themselves for a principle, and that principle is love in differing forms. Love also vibrates beneath the harsh, violent, taciturn surface of Valhalla Rising, where One-Eye’s affection for the child he adopts leads him to sacrifice himself to a tribe of Native Americans his mind has reconfigured into avenging demons, on the edge of all human existence.

A couple of more random notes:

—It was a good year for British directors, whether overseas or at home.

—If films like Inception, Black Swan, and The Social Network, in their differing fashions, tried to choke the audience with exhibitions of their own glib brilliance, The American, Dogtooth, Valhalla Rising, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed proved how little you need to compel an audience.

—Will someone buy Leonardo DiCaprio a decent razor?

2010 in Fragments

Even if films aren’t great or even that memorable as a whole, so many offer up glorious little bits that are worthy and make being a cinephile the fun business it really is. One of the great scenes in 2010 featured former boy wonder Harry Potter having the bleakest of Christmas Eve homecomings. He finds the graves of his parents and grotesque monsters wearing the guises of helpful humans whilst locked on the frozen exterior of a cozy world, the yuletide songs of that world emerging muffled from within the warmth of civilised security and all its stable assumptions. Our heroes are enacting some dark duties indeed these days to satisfy our sense of truth.

Another great scene, in Dogtooth, presented a dialectical opposite: in the nominal balm of her family living room on a celebratory eve, a young woman brought up on a scant diet of seemingly randomly absorbed pop culture moments amidst a sea of context-warping disinformation, attempts madly to please her parents with a grotesque aping of Flashdance’s iconic dance routines.

Teddy Daniels, in one of his psychotic dreams, imagines a smiling beauty covered in blood, cheerfully asking for and receiving his help in bundling away her murdered children’s bodies. In another, he stands amidst a shower of papers, denying a hideously wounded Nazi a quick coup de grace by pushing away his gun.

Wonder warrior Hit Girl finishes up beaten to a pulp by her arch nemesis and murderer of her parents, mobster Frank D’Amico, only for the baddie to be fired out the window on the end of a rocket by Hit Girl’s adoptive brother, with the advice, “Pick on someone your own size” trailing him. Truly, love expresses itself in some strange ways.

In Somewhere, Johnny Marco and his daughter Cleo bond over Guitar Hero, competing to see who can play the worse fake rock god. In Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a genuine rock god and momentary amour Brigitte Bardot celebrate sex and life with a joyous impromptu performance of their pop-art hit “Comic Strip” in a scene straight out of an old-school musical.

In Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame, the titular hero and his gang of oddball aides battle their nemesis in an underground city, huge spars of wood spearing a sunless sea as our heroes enact a ballet of superhuman motion, wire-fu dynamism, and lysergic imagery in the most intricate synchronisation. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Scott defeats an army of henchmen after he earns the Power of Love, sees a samurai sword spring from his body, his enemies’ bodies disintegrate into piles of arcade game-feeding quarters, leaving him standing on a field of victory decorated by piles of glittering silver. In Green Zone, Matt Damon’s all-American hero seems to defy the efforts of heaven and hell to stop the truth getting out, chasing down the Iraqi general who holds the key to Pandora’s Box and battling soldiers from both sides on the way in an astounding marathon for both actor and filmmakers.

In The Killer Inside Me, Lou Ford beats a woman’s face to a shattered pulp even as she moans, “I love you.” In Winter’s Bone, Ree’s quest to find her father leads her to the emotional and physical abyss, where she has to hold his rotting corpse’s hands out of the water so that they can be cut off with a chainsaw. The American commences with the ultimate act for a star looking to change his image: George Clooney shoots the woman he just made love to in the back of the head.

In Centurion, after killing another Roman in her unceasing quest to avenge atrocities, Etaine releases a scream of frustrated rage that echoes only with the unfillable void that endless slaughter provokes. In Never Let Me Go, Tommy (Andrew Garfield) releases a similar scream when he realises how hopeless his dream of escaping a slow death of being hacked up to keep other people alive has been. In Valhalla Rising, the lost Celtic would-be holy warriors devolve into hysterical mutual battery and desperate prayer, appealing to a God that doesn’t answer, squirming in the mud and howling at the wind. In I Love You Phillip Morris, Phillip, believing his lover Steven has died, receives a visit from his lawyer, who proves to be Steven. Faking your death from AIDS, he informs us, is quite a tricky feat.

Scott Pilgrim follows Ramona Flowers into her mystic abode, seeming to skate upon thin air. The American goes down on his favourite prostitute, to her utter surprise and swiftly captured affection. Black Swan‘s Nina, deep in a dug-addled fantasy, grasps her rival-cum-friend Lily (Mila Kunis) for the most ecstatic of erotic revels: the moment of seeing Nina give into lust with real joy made a refreshing contrast (even if it’s just a wet dream) to a spectacle like that of Greenberg’s Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) and Florence (Greta Gerwig) fucking in so pathetically uninspired a fashion that even they can’t be bothered sticking it out to the end. Perhaps better than Black Swan’s Sapphic onanism was the moment, both hallucinogenic and tender, when The Runaways’ Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) kisses Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) when pumped full of drugs in an infernal nightclub, the fetishist drone of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” blaring. Rarely has young lust seemed at once so innocent and so dangerous.

Some things that are remarkable about movies aren’t even so specific. The moody, hazy, blasted Beckettesque sands of coastal New England in The Ghost Writer infuses the drama of that film with an almost existential angst that almost convinces you you’re not watching a great filmmaker wasting his time on go-nowhere pulp. The equally devastated landscape of Winter’s Bone is dotted with the refuse of a civilisation that reached a high water mark and then retreated, leaving only stains and debris. The wondrous landscapes of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame burned with exactly the right kind of fantastic beauty, in the sort of film that the people who made the likes of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Clash of the Titans remake, and Iron Man 2 should be forced to watch on a constant loop until they forget their names and start speaking Cantonese.

Actors

When one talks about award-worthy performances these days, it’s hard not to take for granted that such acting usually come wrapped in crappy films. Two of this year’s best feats of acting, Natalie Portman’s in the cheesy if giddily entertaining Black Swan and Colin Firth in the stolid The King’s Speech are both elegant testimonials to both actors’ rise through wayward careers to the peak of their craft. Portman’s advance from the fetchingly sassy young outcast of Leon, The Professional to Black Swan’s anguished, ardent Nina caps off a fascinating trip, and if any human element gives material force to the trippy, dippy rush of that film, it’s her splendidly heady, overwrought presentation of a repressed girl who ruptures at the seams and learns to revel in it. Costar Mila Kunis wasn’t so far behind her, either. Firth comes across like he put himself in real physical and psychological pain to present King George VI as anything but the honourable cipher he’s always seemed to be. Just as dynamic and physically convincing was Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: vie heroique, a sustained incarnation of one of pop culture’s most protean figures, even if the film around him finally proved unable to take its reinvention of the biopic quite far enough. The late Lucy Gordon’s hypnotically beautiful contribution to that film only reinforced the tragedy of her death. After years of trying to establish his credibility as a serious actor, Jim Carrey finally achieved a near-brilliant synthesis of his comic talents with a meaty role in I Love You Phillip Morris: it’s as close as he’ll ever come to his Monsieur Verdoux.

Jennifer Lawrence’s incarnation of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, on the other hand, is the sort of performance that sends a fledgling career into the stratosphere. Lawrence got to speak several of 2010’s most memorable tough-guy lines, sometimes with a bloody lip. Just as important, if not more so, were John Hawkes’ and Dale Dickey’s respective contributions: both long-seasoned actors, it seemed hard nonetheless not to believe they’d been born the people they played. This year’s Hot Brit Miss, Gemma Arterton, who seemed to be in every other movie released in 2010, spent much of The Disappearance of Alice Creed tied to a bed, and yet her performance, riddled with an equal mixture of immediately engrossing fear, survivalist cunning, and spoilt party girl learning a few harsh truths, was my pick of them. Even better was Eddie Marsan’s incarnation in the same film as a gay ex-convict trying to project ferocity but ending up crucified by the one thing he loves: tossing Alice the keys that set her free was one of the most humane moments of the year. Miranda Otto’s turn in South Solitary presented a woman of advancing years and amazingly little good sense with the kind of utterly guileless quality that only the shrewdest actors can radiate. Ditto Greta Gerwig in Greenberg, whose fuzzy-headed distraction proved a defence system so resilient nuclear weapons would deflect off it. From the exact opposite end of the aggressive scale, Katie Jarvis’s excellent debut in Fish Tank provided exactly the right kind of shaded progression from jumped-up brat to newly wise existential wanderer; the clear indication that she’s older at the end of the film than her character’s mother ever will be is thanks entirely to Price’s elegant evolution. Michael Fassbender, her costar, continued moving from strength to strength, both in Fish Tank and Centurion. Mark Ruffalo likewise had a great one-two punch with Shutter Island, with his policeman’s act learnt from bad TV shows, and his unexpectedly affecting hipster douchebag in The Kids Are All Right.

Thekla Reuten’s contribution to The American as the liquid-nitrogen-cold assassin with whom the title character does business and then battle, is one of those innately convincing, utterly poised bits of acting that can make or break movies and yet rarely get noticed. George Clooney’s performance was just about as good a piece of star acting as I ever hope to see, revealing the weight of the film’s buried emotionalism almost entirely through his eyes. Similarly, Mads Mikkelsen, an intelligent actor of the highest calibre, embodied the ferocious One-Eye of Valhalla Rising with a primal grit by never speaking a word. Olga Kurylenko somehow compelled the eye with her equally wordless female equivalent in Centurion. Max Von Sydow, at age 80, actually managed to steal two huge movies this year (Shutter Island and Robin Hood) with finely pitched emeritus performances. In Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers was unique for a Dream Girl in a youth flick—she emerged as a credible, even haunted young woman with a nice line in martial arts moves. 2010 was also the year of the preternaturally mature adolescent girl: Elle Fanning’s gossamer presence in Somewhere and Chloe Moretz’s galvanising enthusiasm in Kick-Ass gave my favourite performances of the year as basically the same person in wildly different guises. Older in body, if not in mind, Aggeliki Papoulia delivered an epic performance in Dogtooth as a young woman who learns in the course of the narrative, how to bully and bribe, please and perturb, give and get orgasms, and finally, how to manipulate everything she’s been told about the world.

So, lists (stop sighing!) in alphabetical order:

My Ten Favourite Films of 2010

The American (Anton Corbijn)

Corbijn’s film version of Martin Booth’s novel “A Very Private Gentleman” was never going to win awards for originality, but it’s the film’s restrained, taciturn evocations, full of both sensuality and despair under the surfaces of the crisply described Italian setting, that made it pack a deceptive emotional punch. The American lived up to the legacy of great assassin films like Le Samourai and The Day of the Jackal it so patently wished to join.

Centurion (Neil Marshall)

There’s a lot of things wrong with Centurion—too much drive-in gore and a script awkwardly poised between providing a minimalist thrill-ride and something more meditative—but few films this year have stuck as firmly in my head. It’s a gamy, vicious, high-tensile riposte to the sloppiness of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as far as historical action films go, and the compelling vision of warring societies on the frontier of history actually bore the weight of parable, whilst the eccentric rhythm manages to be simultaneously cynical and yet riddled with a curious spirituality. It kicked large quantities of ass, too.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (J. Blakeson)

I watched Alice Creed just before The Ghost Writer, and there was no mystery for me which was the superior film. In spite of Polanski’s efforts, the hints of sexual satire and emotional gamesmanship in that otherwise timid thriller remained mere hints, whereas Alice Creed, whilst losing its grip at a couple of points, constructs a fraught situation that plays out with exhilaratingly nasty, yet strange, emotionally telling twists. If, as I saw it described, The Ghost Writer is “Nabokovian”, Alice Creed would only take a few slight tweaks to become a Harold Pinter play.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark)

Tsui Hark hasn’t made a good film in a long time, so his resurgence with this inspired action-adventure movie, apparently made after bathing in LSD and watching a bunch of his old movies, could be the pinnacle of the modern Hong Kong wu xia genre with a dash of steampunk, as the titular hero and his team of weirdo assistants battles secret supervillains and state-sponsored terrorism. It isn’t just Hark’s aesthetic riposte to Zhang Yimou’s Hero; it’s also a political one, insisting that loyalty to a society’s rulers must have its moral dimension.

Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)

Safer ground for me here, as most serious critics loved Dogtooth. I’ll point out a couple of hesitations: the basic idea, far from being unique, seems rather influenced by Australian director Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, if essayed in a completely different fashion. Also, there’s getting to be a bit too many of these arthouse movies that make a gag out of pathetic characters’ stilted attempts to reenact scenes out of iconic Hollywood movies. But that’s pretty minor in the face of a film that manages to be exactly grotesque, queasily funny, interpretatively ambiguous, and finally bizarrely beautiful.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughan)

Another film with a lot of things wrong with it, Kick-Ass nonetheless claims its place on this list for excellent filmmaking, and for being provocative and blissfully entertaining all at the same time.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright)

In years to come, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World might, I hope, look like one of the few films our era has offered that can rank with the likes of A Hard Day’s Night and Singin’ In The Rain as a film that seems perpetually, giddily in love with the possibilities of youth, art, and cinema. Edgar Wright’s third film transcends his brilliant, but comparatively familiar niche of satires that blend genre tropes and humdrum truths, to present a film high on the notion that anything might happen.

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese)

A minor film by Scorsese’s standards, nonetheless, the drenched Technicolor nightmares and the incipient hysteria that cranks up with no good place to release itself except in tortured self-realisation proved be the kind of minor film that only a great filmmaker can produce. Unfortunate enough to come out at the year’s start, 11 months later, it looks better than ever.

Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn)

This film perhaps might also be subtitled “Where’s Werner?” But I forgive Danish-American cult director Refn’s obvious emulation of Herzog and Tarkovsky if only because that’s at least a road less travelled when it comes to homage, and because this film’s deeply weird, yet remarkably lucid final vision of the very dawn of the modern world is quite original. When a Viking killing machine and a gang of Scottish religious warriors find themselves stranded on the shores of North America, the question is not will they get home again, but, how does a human react to being confronted by their own insignificance. Stylistically vivid and thematically obscure, it nonetheless grows green in the memory.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

I weighed up whether to put this or The Killer Inside Me on this list: Michael Winterbottom’s film is less uneven than Granik’s, but it’s also a more purposefully remote one. Granik’s, on the other hand, remembers the cardinal rule of the westerns and film noirs it channels: it excites.

Worthy

Agora (Alejandro Amenábar)
Another Year (Mike Leigh)
The Eclipse (Conor MacPherson)
Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
Easy A (Will Gluck)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
Gainsbourg: vie heroique (Johann Sfar)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (David Yates)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom)
The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi)
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears)

Better Than Expected

Alice In Wonderland (Tim Burton)
Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Predators (Nimrod Antal)
South Solitary (Shirley Barrett)
The Town (Ben Affleck)

Worse Than Expected

Aftershock (Xiaogang Feng)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev)
Inception (Christopher Nolan)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood)
The Social Network (David Fincher)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)

Fail

Animal Kingdom (David Michod)
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)

Unfortunately Unseen

Biutiful; Certified Copy; Toy Story 3; Vincere; White Material; etc.

My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films First Seen in 2010

Abismos de pasión (Luis Bunuel)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Burn, Witch, Burn! aka Night of the Eagle (Sidney Hayers)
Celine and Julie Go Boating / Duelle – une quarantaine (Jacques Rivette)
Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (Walerian Borowczyk)
Election (Johnny To)
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Intimacy (Patrice Chéreau)
La graine et le mullet (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Lady Snowblood (Toshiyo Fujita)
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
Night Tide (Curtis Harrington)
Red Psalm (Miklós Jancsó)
Osaka Story / Sisters of Gion / Women of the Night / Sanshô the Bailiff / Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
The Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has)
Sex and Fury (Norifumi Suzuki)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / Sayat Nova / The Legend of Suram Fortress (Sergei Paradjanov)
Shock Corridor / Verboten! / The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller)
Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini)
The Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
The Trip (Roger Corman)
The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis)
Trouble Every Day / 35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jirês)
Vampyres aka Daughters of Darkness (José Larraz)

Standard