You’d think, in this still-pandemic-limited climate of fewer theatrical releases making it to theaters, and the slow return to “normalcy” as Hollywood and other corners of film culture gear back up, concocting a “ten best films” list would get easier.
Thanks to the ever-broadening range of streaming platforms, pretty much the opposite is true. I mean, I didn’t always review 1000 films a year, and if you think most titles don’t turn into a memory blur at that volume, you’ve not been inside my head lately.
Normal “prestige pictures” pouring out at the end of the year used to make this easier. But they’re struggling to get a foothold with the public and develop an “awards season” consensus these days. As the New Yorker helpfully points out, nobody’s going to such films grown-up fare post-COVID.
Woody Allen and The Weinstein in The Weinstein Co. are canceled. Great filmmakers are working less and winding down their careers. Netflix has also played a role, throwing huge sums at one indulgent “personal” movie after another, films that no one else would finance and nobody is going to see in a cinema.
Almost all of Netflix’s prestige pictures, save for the animated ones, are terrible busts this year, which feels like Noah Baumbach et al chickens coming home to roost. Was “White Noise” ever filmable? Did “Bardo” need to be made?
Competing “personal” pictures, two film memoirs about growing up Jewish and becoming famous filmmakers, didn’t click with audiences. Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” should get an Oscar nominations bounce, but maybe not. James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” was never going to be as much “magic of making movies” fun, but had the potential to be more “Basketball Diaries” gritty and interesting. And it just isn’t. Why was this made, again?
Both films, “Fabelmans” in particular, drive a stake through the heart of the old notion that “famous directors sell tickets.” That goes for Sam Mendes as well. “Empire of Light” was a personal picture that just wasn’t very well thought out and scripted, much like “Armageddon Time.”
Oscar nominations may help Spielberg, and the lack of them would/will kill “Babylon.” And as far as directorial indulgences go, everybody who went that route with their 2022 film can be relieved that at least they’re not David O. Russell, at least their “hot mess” (a term I also used for “Babylon”) wasn’t the debacle titled “Amsterdam.” The best I can say about that disaster is that it made me hopeful that Nepo Baby Exhibit A John David Washington actually might make a decent actor someday.
The older audience required to prop “personal” films and adult dramas up is killing these higher-minded movies by having permanently gotten out of the habit of going out to the cinema.
But of course, “Elvis” was the exception to ALL of the above. The King is Dead, long live The King. Older viewers showed up for that one.
This fall produced plenty of worthy films that didn’t quite make it over the top for me. Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave,” a fine basic training while gay drama “The Inspection,” a grand and understated turn by Bill Nighy in “Living,” “The Menu,” “Causeway,” “Aftersun,” and going back to the summer, Ron Howard’s terrific “Thirteen Lives” are all rightly considered Oscar contenders. “The Whale” is quite moving and doesn’t seem like the “fat shaming” exercise the blowback suggests, although I’m willing to admit I’m not the best judge of that. It’d be a shame to deny Brendan Fraser an Oscar nomination because of a disagreement over the best of intentions.
The “Top Ten” process this year involved scanning through my reviews by “rank” via Rotten Tomatoes, which is how I came up with twenty-two worth lauding again via this Top Ten list. As there’s no hedging allowed (really, if you can’t winnow it to “ten,” don’t bother), this week became teeth-gnashing time as one tries to prognosticate which movies moved me, made an impact, thrilled and will “matter” five or ten years from now.
It was a stand-out year for horror, which produced both blockbusters and high quality genre entries such as “Black Phone,” “Smile” and the best of that lot, “Barbarian,” which was just shy of Ten Best-worthy.
International features that make it to theaters or onto streaming are always problematic because what “year” did they really “come out” gets in the way. Look at President Obama’s list. Half of the films are 2021 release. The pandemic didn’t make that call any easier, but the Iranian “Hit the Road” is a most rewarding viewing experience, and the Danish made Iranian serial killer thriller “Holy Spider” is a must-see.
It was a very good year for African American cinema, even as one notes what letdowns “Nope” and “Wakanda Forever” were. A couple of decent musical bio-pics — Jennifer Hudson as Aretha in “Respect,” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” — were joined by two very good takes on non-musical history, the Viola Davis hit “The Woman King,” and a Civil Rights story nobody saw, which made my Top Ten.
This past fall saw a string of Best Actress/Best Supporting-actress-loaded films, one of the best year’s for women in cinema EVER. From “The Woman King” to all-star-female-cast dramas such as Sarah Polley’s feminist fable “Women Talking,” and many others should ensure, for once, that the Academy has no trouble filling out the Best Actress/Supporting Actress fields.
The struggling box office this year was buoyed by big hits that I didn’t think were among the ten best. No, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Glass Onion” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” weren’t all that great, “Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” wasn’t awful and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was gonzo fun and should, by rights, close the door on “multiverse” movies, even though it won’t. Netflix’s “Bullet Train” was an action-packed hoot, and if viewers over 50, that elusive AARP filmgoing demographic, were going to the movies they could have made “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” a hit.
The hilarious anarchy of “Minions: The Rise of Gru” was underestimated by most critics, but not by your kids.
If you haven’t figured it out before now, lengthy Top Ten list “prologues” like this are both efforts to CYA, mention every title that by rights should at least be mentioned when considering the year in movies, and a next to last step in winnowing 22-30 memorable movie experiences down to ten. And in case you hadn’t noticed, every film mentioned here has a link to my review of it.
The Ten Best films listed below are in order of precedence, with the very best at the very top.
“Aurora’s Sunrise” — A lot of reviewers soiled their Underoos over what they proclaimed as that one movie this year that was unlike anything they’d seen before — “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — forgetting all the other multiverse sci-fi fantasies, most of them comic book-oriented (“Dr. Strange” and animated “Spider-verse” outings). For me, the year’s “I have never seen THAT before” experience is Armenia’s pitch for Best International Feature Oscar. It’s an animated documentary about an Armenian genocide survivor’s ordeal, and the making of an American film -starring her — about her experiences right after they happened, in the silent film era just after WWI. Filmmaker Inna Sahakyan uses surviving footage from the film made in America at the start of the Roaring 20s, documentary interviews with our survivor and others from the ’80s and ’90s, and gorgeous animation in bringing a moving and historical story to beautiful life. It’s the quintessence of “extraordinary.”
“Moonage Daydream” — Oscar winning music documentarian Brett Morgen’s masterpiece is a stream-of-consciousness David Bowie biography, definitive and as artistically-challenging as the man it celebrates in “an organized riot of image and sounds.” Glorious.
“Tar“ — Critics are finding all sorts of ways to sing the praises of this Todd Field “up close and personal” classical music drama. From “Give Cate Blanchett the Oscar now!” (Hear hear!) to the ending is — A puzzle? A dream? — it’s immersive and high-minded and filmmaking art built around a performance for the ages. If you aren’t into classical music or don’t know even the basics about this world, it should still be fascinating, with Blanchett as riveting as she’s ever been on screen. But if you do know even a little about Mahler or “The Big Five,” it’ll be all the more rewarding an experience.
“Till” — Hopefully, the Motion Picture Academy will give this film the love that audiences failed to. It’s “a period piece that reminds us of a time when an image could shock the conscience of a nation” and “an object lesson that chills when we realize this isn’t ancient history, that this happened within living memory, that had he lived, young Emmett Till would’ve been 81 this year.” Chinonye Cukwu directed “Clemency” and this, and there are worse filmmaking reputations than “makes terrific, well-acted movies about important subjects.”
“She Said” — Several times this fall, whenever I’d arrive at the cinema too early for whatever was being screened for me, I’d duck into Maria Schrader’s powerful “reporter procedural” about the #MeToo scandal that blew up Hollywood, and revel in the shoe-leather journalism it celebrates and the string of stunning performances that make it so moving. Lovely work by Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton and Carey Mulligan, with Andre Braugher stealing his few scenes and Ashley Judd getting the chance to play herself and dance on Harvey Weinstein’s grave make this film of recent history one not to be missed.
“Elvis” — Not just the best of all the musical biographies this year produced, Baz Luhrmann made “the ‘Titanic’ of musical biographies, a fantasia on its subject that synthesizes all that we know and much that we feel and wish about its iconic subject in a swirl of images, impressions and sounds surrounding Elvis Presley’s meteoric rise and tragic fall.” “Babylon” is but a pale imitation of the lurid, over-the-top Best of Baz.
“EO”— In a year that produced a great but bleak “livestock’s life” documentary, “Cow,” this donkey’s tale from Jerzy Skolimowski is European animal odyssey sticks with you and improves with memory, “a picaresque adventure never far from the dark shadow that hangs over domesticated animals in the service of humans.”
“Pinocchio” by del Toro — Disney rushed out a Tom Hanks version of this evergreen fairytale, not the Mouse’s first shot at “There are no strings on me.” They were right to be worried about Oscar winning fantasy director Guillermo de Toro’s take on the puppet’s tale. It’s biting, funny and topical, with del Toro & co. fleshing “out this familiar fable into a two hour movie with grand and glorious action beats and a decent-sized dose of life in Italy under Il Duce, whose Mussolini graffiti is glimpsed on walls and whose dogma is personified by the local fascist capo, Podesta (“Hellboy” Ron Perlman, perfect).
“Women Talking” –– This was a VERY good year for cinema that is ABOUT something, something more than looking good in tights and sticking “the superhero landing.” Sarah Polley’s conservatives worldwide/Republicans in the U.S. “war on women” parable “is about how to confront an increasingly hostile patriarchy when the men in question are not just silencing and controlling thy women in their midst. They’re beating and raping them and their little girls.” Brilliantly-acted, incisive and damning.
“The Banshees of Inishirin” — Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh is like a genre unto himself, until you remember his brother John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard,””Calvary”) is pretty good at getting the violence and dark humor of “The Irish” onto the screen. This fable is “equal parts funny and forlorn, with a smattering of the violence that always been a sort of Emerald Isle background noise.” It isn’t as good as “Three Billboards” or “In Bruges,” but it is this “McDonagh’s most Irish film, because it’s a lot like Ireland itself” — troubled, conflicted, whimsical, but dark beneath the surface.