The reports of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Sure, COVID’s initial lockdowns and restrictions took a big bite out of attendance, and many moviegoers still haven’t returned (and may never). Theatrical features face ever-growing competition from straight-to-streaming movies. Local theaters continue to close, and multiplexes give over more and more of their screens to the latest superhero flicks.
But look a little harder.
Drawing up my annual Top 10 list, I was reminded again of all the good times I had at theaters. There was “Living,” with the elegantly understated Bill Nighy, and “She Said,” with its top-tier ensemble of female performers. There was an explosion of smart genre films, like the gritty neo-noir “Emily the Criminal.” And although, in the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome their movies’ flaws, I doubt there were better performances this year than Brendan Fraser in “The Whale” or Olivia Colman in “Empire of Light.”
All are still worth watching. These 10 films, though (listed in alphabetical order), are worth quite a bit more.
ARMAGEDDON TIME. Director James Gray’s portrait-of-the-young-man-as-an-artist had some similarities with Steven Spielberg’s buzzier “The Fabelmans” — East Coast Jewish family, colorful older relative, precocious child with artistic ambitions. But Gray’s film pushed deeper, and wasn’t afraid to explore his onscreen alter ego’s flaws and frailties. A movie whose memories were never blurred by nostalgia, and whose portraits of its characters emphasized understanding over fond forgiveness.
BABYLON. A divisive movie that some critics have seen as an ignorant rewriting of Hollywood history — and if I thought director Damien Chazelle was making a film about history, I’d agree. But what he’s more interested in, I think, is a film about the very idea of Hollywood — its excesses, its delights, its power, its sins. Vulgar, violent and always at high volume, this is a movie that starts over-the-top and just keeps going — but if you can surrender to it, its pleasures, like the films it celebrates, can be truly epic.
THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN. Ireland is a place where grudges can be nursed as tenderly as a fine whiskey, but filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s story is a trip deep into truly bleak Samuel Beckett territory — a place where silence is a weapon, and “cut off your nose to spite your face” can take on a horrible, literal meaning. Anchored by fine performances from a sweetly dim Colin Farrell and a stubbornly terse Brendan Gleeson, it’s half despairing drama, half absurdist comedy, and fully unforgettable.
DECISION TO LEAVE. Part “Vertigo,” part “Basic Instinct” and all Park Chan-wook, this murder mystery about a compromised detective and a very suspicious widow plays to all of the South Korean auteur’s strengths — terrific storytelling, enigmatic characters and a slowly deepening sense of dread. Yet while it doesn’t quite hit the heights (or depths) of his “Oldboy” and “Thirst,” there is something else here — a feeling of powerlessness, a sense of inescapable defeat, a despairing acknowledgement of fate.
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE. If Marvel movies with multiple parallel timelines turn you off the whole idea of “the metaverse,” I don’t blame you. But if you can put that aside and embrace this sci-fi extravaganza, you’ll find something far more rewarding — an adult fantasy in which the glum, middle-aged owner of a coin laundry gets to see, and experience, all the amazing alternative lives she could have had. Endlessly entertaining, and an about-time showcase for the iconic Michelle Yeoh.
GOOD NIGHT OPPY. Technology has occasionally brought me to tears in the past — I’m looking at you, laptop — but not in the way Ryan White’s documentary about a couple of Martian land rovers did. The photography is wonderful, the score is stirring, and the wildly diverse band of geeks who put this interplanetary project together are hugely engaging. But it’s the machines themselves that are the most inspiring — and, ultimately, perhaps the most human — as they simply, uncomplainingly, persevere.
HAPPENING. It is based on a novel and set in ’60s France, yet Audrey Diwan’s brutally calm drama couldn’t be more relevant to America right now — an autobiographical story about a young, unhappily pregnant woman, living in an era when getting an abortion would send her directly to prison. When the film starts, the clock is already ticking — and her desperation mounting — as we follow her on an awful, unlawful, possibly lethal journey. Warning: Some scenes are very hard to watch. (P.S. They should be).
TÁR. Todd Field has only made three films in the last 21 years — “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children” were his first two — and this is his best and most ambitious yet, a character study of a conductor who is what the French call a monstre sacré — a public figure whose genius is rivaled only by her unforgivable behavior. Nothing is quite what it seems in this movie (beginning with “Lydia Tár,” who turns out to be plain old “Linda Tarr” from Staten Island) and star Cate Blanchett brings every ambiguity to life.
TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Cinema contains multitudes, and “Best of …” lists should make room for different kinds of art, too — for spectacle, for genre, for something beyond merely sad little dramas with downbeat endings. So I have no guilt about saving space here for Joseph Kosinski’s military blockbuster, a movie that knew what it wanted to do and did it — giving us thrilling action, some satisfying tropes, a big movie-star performance by Tom Cruise and proof that “popular” doesn’t have to mean “puerile.”
WATCHER. It’s no secret that some of the most inventive filmmaking is happening in horror — especially in a year that saw films like “Barbarian,” “X,” “Smile” and “Pearl.“ This debut from Chloe Okuno, though, took things even further, with its moody story of a young American transplant stalked in Bucharest. Full of New World optimism, Old World decadence and lurking fear, it played like early Polanski, but its message — why don’t men ever listen to women? — was absolutely, maddeningly au courant.
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