The beginning of the new year brings out all the lists for “best movies” of the previous year. I am no exception. One thing you will definitely notice is that so many of the “best movies” appeared in theaters beginning in late September. Awards season voters have short memories, so studios tend to release their best adult fare toward the end of the year. This year was no exception.
As a disclaimer, I did not see two of the highest-grossing films of the year, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: the Way of Water.” Will I see them in the future? Perhaps. I’m a story and character development person. The former fits, the latter doesn’t particularly. Besides story and character development, what I look for in a “best” movie would definitely be how the film captured my attention, my emotions, my interest. With that in mind, here’s my list, in no particular order.
“Lost Illusions,” written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, was nominated for 15 César Awards (the French Oscar), winning seven, including Best Film. It is a truly sumptuous adaptation of an early 19th century novel by Honoré de Balzac that is remarkably modern in its dissection of society, corruption, tabloid journalism, and the increasing gulf between rich and poor that only continued to rise after the revolution. Lucien, a gifted writer and the hero of this saga, is left penniless in Paris by his former patroness. He makes his way with his pen for hire, often dipped in poison. It is an era ruled by the reinstated aristocracy and the all-powerful newspapers whose articles are purchased by the highest bidder. Their motto is, print rumors and then denials and you get two for the price of one. William Randolph Hearst built his newspaper empire on just such a platform. Beautifully written, well directed, acted beautifully, “Lost Illusions” rings as true today as it did then. I was misleading when I said the films were in no particular order because this was my favorite film of the year. Available on MUBI. Review available on my Rotten Tomatoes page.
“The Banshees of Inisherin,” written and directed by Martin McDonough,
reunited the dream team of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, bearing no similarity to “In Bruges,” other than the brilliant writing and acting. A deceptively simple story of a friendship that was and is no longer. Padraic (Farrell), a simple man, is devoted to his friend Colm (Gleeson) and their daily visit to the pub. Then one day, out of the blue, Colm unceremoniously announces that he no longer wishes to be friends. This simple statement, action really, upends Padraic’s life of constancy and necessary predictability. Colm, a self-described intellectual in what he views as a land of simpletons, would now prefer to spend his days in contemplation, composing music on his fiddle. Padraic’s sin? He’s nice but dull. As his world collapses around him, he wonders why “nice” isn’t enough. Colm would rather cut off his fingers than subject himself to what he considers mindless drivel. His self-mutilation is a metaphor for the Irish civil war being waged at that time, one hand destroying the other. Available on HBO Max. Reviewed in the Courier’s Oct. 22 issue.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the psychedelic, hallucinogenic adventure of Evelyn Wang, a middle-aged mother (Michelle Yeoh) swept into alternative universes by Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the man she thinks is her husband. It is all precipitated by a visit to the IRS for an audit by a “by the books” functionary, Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) who may or may not be a time-shifting mistress of evil ready to capture and kill Evelyn, proprietress of a laundromat who had the temerity to try deducting a karaoke machine as a business expense. Worse yet, it is entirely possible that her gay daughter Joy, whose only desire in life is to be acknowledged for who she is, may actually be Jobu Tupaki, the arch-villain of the alternate universe. This breathless, exciting, otherworldly adventure, directed and written by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, is impossible to describe. The acting is as otherworldly as the plot, with Michelle Yeoh slyly playing on her Chinese action persona from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and Jamie Lee Curtis, hilarious, as you’ve never seen or even imagined her. Don’t try to follow the threads; just hold your breath and go with it. Available on Showtime.
“The Fabelmans” is ostensibly Steven Spielberg’s origin story but it is so much more than that. Certainly it’s “coming of age,” not just of young Sammy (Spielberg’s alter ego) but of his parents as well. Always looking through the lens of a camera, life is seen clearly and obtusely at the same time. The camera may not lie, but it can be made to see through the perspective of its owner, in this case Sammy, who watches his family collapse and his classmates persecute him and yet finds, within these episodes, a different story to tell, much like those films the future Steven Spielberg would create. As John Ford, the director, tells Sammy, “Horizon on the bottom, interesting. Horizon on the top, interesting. Horizon in the middle, boring.” Directed by Spielberg and written with Tony Kushner, the engaging and thoughtful story is propelled further by the actors, with Gabriel LaBelle as the teenage Sammy; Paul Dano as his father Burt; Seth Rogen as “Uncle” Benny, the catalyst to the upended marriage; and the ethereal Michelle Williams as Mitzi, Sammy’s beautiful, narcissistic mother. Reviewed in the Courier’s Nov. 25 issue. Available On Demand.
“Top Gun: Maverick” is a good old-fashioned Hollywood saga chock full of action, incredible cinematography, and a genuine movie star for a lead. The highest-grossing film of 2022, and rightfully so, the story is good, the production values are extraordinary, the characters actually develop, the conflicts are realistic, the dangers are heart stopping and the acting is engaging. This is Tom Cruise at his very best. Joseph Kosinski’s direction is streamlined and forceful; the screenplay by Peter Craig and Justin Marks successfully integrates the memories of characters from the original film while incorporating a whole new group of arrogant, charismatic, and flawed young pilots to create something new and even better. I’ve always had a soft spot for the original. Living in San Diego at the time, my son’s soccer coach was one of the original aerial consultants, the father of another friend was the admiral in charge of Miramar, the Top Gun base of operations, and later, I was hired by the chairman of the USC film writing program, Jack Epps, co-writer of the original screenplay. How could I not be hooked? Luckily, “Top Gun: Maverick” did not disappoint. Available on Paramount +.
“Tár” is that rare bird that is ostensibly about the rarified atmosphere of art, music, and the aspirations of the intellectually elite. Centered in the world of classical music, exploring the inner life of the leading female conductor, Lydia Tár, we are given an up close and personal look at how she thinks, works, and lives. Charismatic and demanding, she is followed as she conducts, auditions new musicians, lectures, discusses her world views on international talk shows, and leads a life of apparent domestic tranquility with her wife, the concertmaster of Lydia’s orchestra, and young daughter. But all the excellence we see on the surface disguises Lydia’s insecurities. Trailed by her assistant, Francesca, who aspires to become Lydia’s assistant conductor, it is she who is witness to the abuses and excesses that will be Lydia’s undoing. Cate Blanchett has rightfully garnered the buzz as the leading contender for best actor. Her performance is compelling to the point of mesmerizing and even frightening. Todd Field, writer and director, has immersed himself so thoroughly in the world of classical music that one could easily believe he lives in it. But his mastery is that this film isn’t about music at all. It is a dive into the world of power politics and the consequences of behaving as though rules no longer apply. I have always admired his past work, “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” but here, he has surpassed himself, and possibly everyone else. Available On Demand.
“Living,” based on Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Ikiru,” is an ode to living your best life, no matter when you start. Mr. Williams (played by Bill Nighy in what may be a career high) is a civil servant whose only accomplishment is that he has accomplished nothing, an admirable goal as far as his superiors are concerned. Diagnosed with a terminal illness and spurred on by a simple admonishment by a former employee, he sets out to consummate one act build a playground on a tract of land bombed out a decade ago during the war. Directed masterfully by Oliver Hermanus and written by Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize winner in literature, the plot may seem slight but the character development is everything. It is an elegy to the human condition. Reviewed in the Dec. 23 issue of the Courier. Now playing in theaters.
“The Menu” is a delicious send up of wealth, pretense, and fine dining. A dark comedy with thrills and chills; it is the ultimate cat and mouse game where the cat traps all the rodents with the exception of the smartest mouse, rewarding her ingenuity with her life. Starring Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy as the aforementioned cat and mouse, we are given an inside look at the rarefied air of the outrageously expensive land of extraordinary restaurants led by superstar chefs. Each puzzle piece, or rather, menu course, fits together to provide a big bang finish. Written knowingly by Seth Reis and Will Tracy, and directed humorously by Mark Mylod, this is a soufflé of equal parts comedy and horror. Reviewed in the Nov. 18 issue of the Courier. Available on HBO Max.
“Hold Me Tight,” written and directed by actor Mathieu Amalric, explores the real and the imagined in an upending event in the life of Clarisse as she lives both the past, present, and future of her family. Packing her belongings and surveying her surroundings for what may be the last time, Clarisse leaves in the family car. As she drives, she inserts a tape of her daughter playing the piano. The look on her face is beatific. Arriving at her destination, a ski lodge, she dines alone. Amalric has deliberately made the time frame unclear, keeping the viewer off center throughout most of the film. Suffice it to say that all is not as it appears and you must brace yourself for the many hairpin turns as melancholy yields to harsh reality. Vicky Krieps, seen most recently in “Corsage,” is the star and nothing short of spectacular, drawing us into her interior life until we are her. Available On Demand. Review available on my Rotten Tomatoes page.
“Official Competition” is a delectable sendup of acting, directing, producing, and pretense starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, hilarious as you’ve never seen them. Cruz stars as Lola Cuevas, terminally hip, the hottest director in the world specializing in obtuse, existential, opaque films that are taken as deep art. Banderas as Felix Rivero, a highly paid action movie star not known for substance, looking to find meaning in his craft. Paired with renowned theater actor and teacher Ivan Torres, played by Argentinian star Oscar Martinez, Cuevas has deliberately set them against one another for effect. That the effect may be deadly is beside the point. This Spanish language film skewers the characters and the public personae of the actors themselves. It is a film that both wallows in subtext and ridicules it at the same time. Available on AMC+ or Prime Video On Demand. Review available on my Rotten Tomatoes page.
“All Quiet on the Western Front,” the German language film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, is the definitive anti-war movie. Tracing the lives of four friends who idealistically enlist in the German army for the glory of the fatherland and the adventure, they are soon disabused of these ideals. It is 1917 and the troops have been unable to gain any ground in France. The death toll is high. The uniforms of the dead are quickly repaired and reassigned to the even younger recruits who are no more than cannon fodder in the field. Soon the four are reduced to one, Paul, doing his best to stay out of the line of fire. The photography is grimly realistic, the explosions are ear-shattering, and the nihilistic approach to the inevitable deaths is paralyzing. The portrayal of the commanding officers and their entitlement born of not having to sacrifice life and limb fuels the cynicism that underpins the film. Available on Netflix.
“The Woman King” is a marvel of story (Maria Bello and Dana Stevens), direction (Gina Prince-Bythewood), acting, music (Terence Blanchard), cinematography (Polly Morgan), and choreography (Jénel Stevens), all coming together seamlessly to produce a film of staggering virtuosity. Inspired by the history of the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) in West Africa, the film tracks the rivalry and war between Dahomey and the Oyo Empire in the early years of the 19th century over the Atlantic slave trade and economic dominance of the region. The righteous nature of Dahomey’s desire to curtail the sale of slaves to European buyers is greatly exaggerated but the depiction of the female warriors, the Agodjie, as courageous and valiant soldiers and bodyguards to the king has the ring of truth to it. Led by Nanisca (a brilliant Viola Davis), the Agodjie train, regroup, and fight off the Oyo. The fight choreography alone is worth the price of admission and this, like “Top Gun: Maverick,” is best seen on a large screen. As the stakes grow ever higher, with life and death in the balance, and vengeance against past wrongs an important element in the outcome, you’ll sit on the edge of your seat rooting for these female soldiers who know no fear. Available On Demand.
Along with this list of feature films, both foreign and domestic, I highly recommend three outstanding documentaries that were released this year. Remarkably, none of the three made the shortlist for the 2022 Academy Awards, confirming what some have referred to as a disconnect between the isolated Documentary committee and the rest of the Academy.
“Viva Maestro,” directed by Ted Braun, is the perfect confluence of music and drama as Gustavo Dudamel is followed around the world, conducting, teaching, and interacting with students and seasoned musicians alike. The Maestro in the title is a reference not just to Dudamel but also to his teacher, mentor, and founder of La Sistema in Venezuela, the late José Antonio Abreu. Any opportunity to see Dudamel in action is not to be missed, and we, in Los Angeles, have been lucky enough to have him lead our own Los Angeles Philharmonic. Available on HBO Max. Review available on my Rotten Tomatoes page.
“Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues,” directed by Sacha Jenkins using a treasure trove of archival films and photos, is an intimate portrait of Louis Armstrong that is as straightforward as it is revealing about the public life he presented and the private life he lived. It is moving and will challenge your preconceived notions of the artist you thought you knew. Available on Apple+.
“Turn Every Page” documents the extraordinary collaboration of Robert Caro, one of the most important historians of the last 50 years, and Robert Gottlieb, his editor, as important in his field as Caro is in his. Reviewed in the Dec. 30 issue of the Courier. In theaters.