We continue our family tradition of Academy Awards counter-programming. Josh and Izzy are busy this weekend celebrating my niece’s 5th birthday, but they still managed to send me lists, and I even got comments from Josh for his top ten. I went with a top 15 for myself, and Angela and Izzy both wanted to stick with ten. It wasn’t the best year in film for me, but the high points were high.
15) Benediction (Davies)
The flipside of A Quiet Passion, swapping one sort of gendered quiet desperation for another. It’s a melancholy late film that uses biographical form to reflect more generally on the way our lives only become legible to us in retrospect.
14) Pacifiction (Serra)
I find this more interesting as a Serra text than a post-colonial inquiry. Magimel was fed dialogue through an earpiece, so that he had to think on his feet within a scene, and extraneous cameras were set up so that the actors wouldn’t know which one to play to. The story is indeterminate all the way down: even Serra didn’t know who is ultimately on which side and who is or isn’t a spy. His chaotic artistic methodology is mirrored by Magimel’s character, who struts around intervening in inscrutable ways in an inscrutable situation.
13) Il Buco (Frammartino)
Another work of lyrical minimalism from Frammartino. It’s a mostly wordless depiction of the 1961 expedition that reached the bottom of a 700-meter deep cave in Calabria. The magnificent soundscape surrounds the viewer with drips and sloshes that become hypnotic as we venture deeper and deeper into the abyss.
12) The Munsters (Zombie)
In an era when commercial films have become synonymous with soulless recycled IP, Rob Zombie took studio money and corporate IP and used it to make a vibrant, goofy love letter to his wife. You won’t find a contemporary studio release with a purer heart.
11) Down with the King (Ongaro)
A standout American indie. It may be the first hip hop pastoral, and it shows remarkable restraint in the way it allows Gibbs’ internal conflicts to structure the film and doesn’t pack in unnecessary incident.
10) Introduction (Hong)
Like The Woman Who Ran, this is a brisk triptych that might look slight at first glance, but once you start digging, you find such a dense structure that it demands a second viewing. Notice, for instance, the way each segment features a prominent embrace, but each has a notably different posture. Taken together, these three embraces summarize the film as a whole.
9) Fabian: Going to the Dogs (Graf)
The film of a free man. Comparisons to early Von Trier are inevitable, but my preferred point of reference is the first half of Vincere. Gorgeous digital textures give Fabian a pervasively modern feel, which plays well with the parallels it finds between the Weimar period and the present.
8) Thirteen Lives (Howard)
An outstanding procedural about professionals doing a difficult job. I also thought Rush was very good, so between these two movies I’m coming around to an idea of a late Ron Howard cycle about the best in the world tackling the most severe challenges. I expected this to be sappy and sensationalistic, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mortensen and Farrell are terrific as tired middle-aged guys who have been doing this too long but accept there’s no one better to take the lead. The movie takes its time and studies their patient, systematic resolve. Its moral and emotional center runs deep, but it sticks with the nuts and bolts of the job. The digital photography is beautiful and effectively claustrophobic. All the lens flares and splashes don’t disrupt the film’s immersive quality but rather enhance it, as we feel like the camera is in the fray of the action. Thanks in part to its vivid physicality, it towers above the weightless CGI spectacles clogging up theaters.
7) Both Sides of the Blade (Denis)
Characteristically, Claire Denis’s films omit most of the connective tissue of their narratives. This does the opposite: it isolates the middle third of a narrative and stuffs it to the gills with detail. It’s very thorny (how many movies that are primarily about a love triangle between three white people remind you to think about Fanon?), and doesn’t give itself over readily. I’m struck by the way Juliette Binoche portrays the kind of deception that doesn’t feel deceptive to the person perpetrating it, because the emotions behind it are honest. She conveys a divided self without the usual sort of histrionic pathology. Lindon gets to really sink his teeth into this one, and of course he delivers. It’s great to see Bulle Ogier, who holds down a delicate role.
6) The Novelist’s Film (Hong)
A wonderful Hongian ourobouros, where the subject of an artist retreating to a more personal form of expression becomes the occasion for a film that does the very same thing.
5) Dark Glasses (Argento)
If Argento’s received classics are grand operas of fear, this is a late-career piano sonata. It’s essentially a series of digital giallo abstractions in different sensory modalities, but it also reprises his career-spanning affection for outcasts and is in the running for his most warm-hearted movie.
4) Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg)
This is unmistakably part of what we might call Cronenberg’s technology cycle. Arguably, the central theme of this cycle is the blurring of the line between self and technology. Someone who uses a tool every day may start to feel as though the tool is an extension of their body. Ubiquitous smartphones and search engines are in some sense an extension of our cognitive faculties. It’s just an ordinary, entirely routine stage of thinking to do searches on one’s phone. The possibility of not being able to remember or find out some fact is largely gone from the world, because we can always just look it up.
In the case of a prosthetic limb, the integration of a technological device into the self is very intuitive. Cronenberg is interested in finding the same kind of literal and direct representations of a broader range of ways that technology and the self interrelate. So much of the imagery he developed in Videodrome, eXistenZ, and other films recurs here, but now as a kind of summative statement at the end of the world (or, the leap into the transhuman). But this is also a widower film, and as such it is nowhere near as cold as its subject matter might lead one to expect. It’s the year’s greatest love story.
3) Dead for a Dollar (Hill)
The closest thing we’ve seen to the great B westerns of the 50’s in a very long time. Hill dedicated it to Budd Boetticher, but Filipe Furtado is right to point out that it’s closer to the cycle of films that Randolph Scott made with André De Toth. Its greatness is bound up with Hill’s insight into the ways that old forms both can and cannot be resurrected. It slips between the Scylla of nostalgia and the Charybdis of topical revisionism, delivering something that is authentic to the present in a way that parallels the relationship between the films of artists like Boetticher and De Toth and their own era.
2) Limbo (Cheang)
Limbo has the most intricate mise-en-scène of any new film I saw this year, and it is built almost entirely out of garbage. A post-handover Hong Kong death rattle, the likes of which we have never seen before and may never seen again.
1) Stars at Noon (Denis)
Like Both Sides of the Blade, Stars at Noon gives us the intact core of a narrative and leaves ellipses around the edges. It’s all about following Margaret Qualley through liminal spaces (which even include the “home” space of her hotel room, always positioned as a place she’s trying to leave). It’s important that the film stays with her, just as stuck as she is. She’s the feminine noir figure made protagonist, mystique replaced with sticky, sweaty tangibility. She reminds me strongly of Juliet Berto in Out 1, prowling like a cat through alleys and hotel lobbies. Here, the malaise of the post-May ‘68 counterculture is swapped for Latin American political purgatory, which takes on a surreal character as events resembling the 20th century Nicaraguan Revolution are set in the present (covid masks and all). I like the casting of Joe Alwyn. I know Denis wanted Pattinson, but he would have been too much of a presence. Alwyn is a mannequin for Qualley to play off of, and that’s what the movie needs. He’s far more pathetic than Pattinson could have managed, and it works. It’s her movie, and she turns in the performance of the year.
10) Elvis (Luhrmann)
I don’t care for the musical biopic in general, but the combination of Luhrmann’s propulsive style and Butler’s charismatic energy is thrilling.
9) The Whale (Aronofsky)
This movie offers such a strange cocktail of cruelty and empathy. It’s not an element that many people are talking about, but I was deeply moved by the thorny father-daughter relationship, and watching this was cathartic for me.
8) Three Thousand Years of Longing (Miller)
Stories about stories. Every movie that made me cry this year made my list, and this was one of them. The chemistry between Elba and Swinton is magical and I was excited by the way Miller moves through history.
7) Thirteen Lives (Howard)
The emphasis on community organization and massive coordination of effort warms the heart without becoming overly sentimental. It’s an absolute nail-biter and I could have kept watching it for hours.
6) Aftersun (Wells)
Another vexed father-daughter movie that moved me. I watched it twice. The intimacy between the two actors is something rare and special. The first time, I naturally connected with Sophie, who reminds me very much of myself at that age, but the second time I connected more closely with her dad, which speaks to the emotional richness of the film as a whole.
5) Eo (Skolimowski)
I love Eo, because he’s just a sweet little donkey going through the world alone. He’s an uncorrupted little angel donkey and I love him.
4) Blonde (Dominik)
I avoided reading anything about this before watching it, and I was surprised when Matt told me that internet feminists hate it. I found that it very effectively crystalizes my experiences as a woman living in a world full of disgusting men. Ana de Armas is great and the way Dominik films her is often beautiful.
3) Dark Glasses (Argento)
I was so happy to see a new one from the maestro, and I’m not at all surprised that it’s fantastic. It’s a gift.
2) Deep Water (Lyne)
Sexy! I love Ana de Armas’ treacherously seductive outfits in this and would wear every single one of them.
1) The Northman (Eggers)
Matt somehow got me into viking metal, and this is the cinematic equivalent. A bloody fairy tale that creates a strange world I keep wanting to return to.
Honorable Mention: The Menu, Prey, Ambulance.
25) Kimi (Soderbergh)
24) In Front of Your Face (Hong)
23) Nope (Peele)
22) Confess, Fletch (Mottola)
21) Three Thousand Years of Longing (Miller)
20) Halloween Ends (Green)
19) Moonfall (Emmerich)
18) RRR (Rajamouli)
17) The Munsters (Zombie)
16) Elvis (Luhrmann)
15) Top Gun: Maverick (Kosinski)
14) Both Sides of the Blade (Denis)
13) Armageddon Time (Grey)
12) Benediction (Davies)
11) Apollo 10 1/2 (Linklater)
10) Ambulance (Bay)
It was hard to get my ass to the theater this year with two little kids at home, but you better believe I made it to this. It’s finally a Michael Bay movie that people feel like they’re allowed to like, but I’ve always been a true believer. It rips.
9) Decision to Leave (Park)
A truly modern noir. Intricate plot mechanics function to deconstruct familiar tropes, but in a way that adds rather than subtracts emotional weight.
8) Deep Water (Lyne)
Adrian Lyne is underappreciated as a master of the erotic thriller. This is in freaky-deaky Ben Affleck cuck territory, with Ana de Armas absolutely tearing up the screen. This story has been told before, but this version is wildly unpredictably in its details.
7) Dark Glasses (Argento)
The maestro revisits familiar ideas from across his career, but flips them on their head by taking the perspective of the victim more fully than he ever has before.
6) Limbo (Cheang)
There’s nothing else like it. People use the word “visionary” too lightly, but this movie demands it. Nightmarish images in stark black and white that feel completely alien, like they’re from another universe.
5) Stars at Noon (Denis)
Almost impossible to blurb, because the emotions it evoked in me are difficult to articulate. I felt lost in it, like I was drifting along in a sad romantic song.
4) Thirteen Lives (Howard)
I didn’t know Ron Howard had this in him, but he reveals himself here as a true picture maker. Immediate, immersive, and intense.
3) Dead for a Dollar (Hill)
Like The Outlaw Josey Wales, it unites a band of outsiders who are deprived of agency by the dominant power structures of the time and connects their story with contemporary political concerns. Stripped down, unpretentious, and made on the cheap, but with the chops of an all-time master.
2) The Fabelmans (Spielberg)
Our greatest pop filmmaker rips open a psychic gash and spills out his mommy issues for all to see.
1) Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg)
Not just my favorite of the year, but the best new release I’ve seen in a decade. After waiting so long for a new Cronenberg film, it arrived as a glorious summation of the career of a great master. It’s a surprisingly tender movie that scrambles the audience’s responses to body horror by rendering it as an act of connection and creation.
10) The Whale (Aronofsky)
9) RRR (Rajamouli)
8) Thirteen Lives (Howard)
7) Ambulance (Bay)
6) Crimes of the Future (Cronenberg)
5) Kimi (Soderbergh)
4) Elvis (Luhrmann)
3) Dark Glasses (Argento)
2) Top Gun: Maverick (Kosinksi)
1) The Fabelmans (Spielberg)