I find myself watching movies differently lately. Do you? I’ll peer at backgrounds and settings, I’ll try to remember if this was shot before COVID and delayed, or shot during COVID with protocols, and I’ll wonder how much harder that was. Look at all those extras, I’ll think to myself. They had to test all of them! Probably more than once! And there’s a bunch of masked crew members right outside the frame. What a pain in the ass this thing is.
Time and circumstance have put us into a weird black box of an existence, where horizon lines are unclear and any sense of past and present seems blurred. Did that happen last week? Last month? What day is it, anyway? We’ve fallen into bizarre patterns, a constant cycle of better and worse, crisis and recovery, and we read the analysis from the experts who say, “Well, it’s been bad, but it’ll never get that bad again,” and then two months later, the same experts will say, “We’re not prepared for how bad this is going to be.”
As I write this, the Omicron variant is ripping through my city, and many others, just as a new Spider-Man movie is opening to feverish anticipation – perhaps literally. Maybe the opening weekend’s screenings will be super-spreader events (we’ll know by the time this publishes). Maybe they won’t. Maybe this is just the new normal, adding “risk of viral infection” and “wearing a mask for two-plus hours” to the already lengthy list of elements (ticket cost, food cost, travel cost, a half hour of trailers, annoying neighbors who won’t put away their phones) that are keeping more and more of us from venturing out to the cinema at all.
Anyway. Here are my favorite movies of the year.
10. Old Henry
Tim Blake Nelson is one of the most valuable utility players in all of movies, but he rarely gets a chance to carry one on his own. He gets that chance here, and it absolutely rips. The set-up is your basic Unforgiven riff – he’s a seemingly harmless farmer who finds it necessary to conjure up the ghost of his gunslinging past – but he fits into the role like an old pair of trusty spur, flipping from rube to ruthless with entertaining ease. Even better, Stephen Dorff turns up as the villain, genuinely scary and menacing, which gives the central conflict and the thrilling climax some real juice.
9. Shiva Baby
There aren’t that many new stories to tell, so sometimes a filmmaker who finds a new way to tell one stands out. I’ve never seen a film with a tone quite like Emma Seligman’s debut feature – it’s a comedy of emotional terrorism, unfolding with the precision of a thriller and the discomfort of a Haneke film, but, y’know, funny. Comedian Rachel Sennott is a true discovery in the leading role, with every half-truth and micro-agression registering as a tiny symphony of barely-contained emotions, and Fred Melamed is, as usual, a national treasure.
8. Red Rocket
Sean Baker writes and directs this a portrait of a first-class fuck-up: Mikey (Simon Rex, terrific), an adult film star who oozes oily charm and lies as easily as he breathes. We’re so used to filmmakers encouraging us to root for their underdog heroes that the true insidiousness of who this guy is, and what he’s up to, sneaks up; the character’s charismatic affability gives way to an abhorrent morality and casual cruelty so slowly and subtly that, in its own, brilliant way, Red Rocket becomes a sly indictment of how we watch movies, and who we root for in them.
Robert Greene is one of a handful of great contemporary filmmakers who seems interested in bending the boundaries of documentary cinema – committed not only to presenting some kind of truth, but questioning and reappraising how we arrive at it. Much of that inquiry is pointed inwards, so process is always part of the work, but never more so than in this portrait of a half-dozen Midwestern survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. He collaborates with them for an experiment in dramatic therapy, and the results are almost indescribably powerful – without coming off, for even a moment, as pandering or manipulative.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest was released so quietly – on HBOMax only, after a premiere at a lower-key-than-usual Tribeca Film Festival – that it didn’t really register, and faded fairly quickly from conversation. But it’s one of the best of his recent films, a firecracker of a crime picture that sports an ace ensemble cast (Don Cheadle and Ray Liotta are the standouts, but everyone’s tip-top), a witty screenplay by the great Ed Solomon, and a bit of unexpected but welcome weight in the home stretch. Soderbergh is becoming one of those filmmakers who does what he does so well, and so casually, that we take him for granted, but this is stellar work.
So many movies further the notion that motherhood and parenthood is this transcendent, magical experience – and it’s not, it’s hard. Yet there is no fear that feels as urgent or pressing as the true fear of being a bad parent, and few films have captured that fear (or the difficulties that prompt it) like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley co-star as a mother and intellectual (in her older and younger iterations) whose encounters with a new-ish mother (Dakota Johnson) prompts her to revisit the choices and mistakes she made earlier in her life. Gyllenhaal’s script is masterful and her direction is nerve-racking, and the film takes a narrative turn so sharp and surprising that it ends up playing like a thriller – but an uncommonly intelligent one.
Wes Anderson pays tribute to the New Yorker magazines that lit up his imagination as a Texas youth – and the writers and editors behind them – in this delightful confection of a movie, which unfolds as a single issue of “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.” And yet, charmingly, this film that loves writers is also one of Anderson’s most lavishly directed – which is, I know, saying something. His giddily ornate style is fully in place, but with new flourishes; least surprisingly, considering the time and place, the aesthetic earmarks of the French New Wave are very much accounted for. In terms of sheer laughs-per-minute, this may be Anderson’s funniest film (at the very least, it rivals Rushmore). But it’s not lightweight, and it’s not silly, and there’s a moment of genuine pathos at the end of the third story that’s quite unlike anything Anderson has ever done.
Jane Campion’s been gone too long from feature filmmaking, as evidenced by this handsomely mounted and beautifully rendered adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel. It is, in time and place, a Western – but the way Campion situates her characters, and the way they poke, prod, and stimulate each other, underscores that her thematic preoccupations translate to any period and genre. Benedict Cumberbatch is better than he’s ever been; Kirsten Dunst crafts a portrait of overwhelming sadness that’s also among her best work to date.
It initially seemed (at least to this viewer) peculiar for Joel Coen to choose Shakespeare’s tragedy as his solo filmmaking debut, but it now seems inspired. By using a durable (borderline foolproof) text, he was able discard script concerns and instead focus on style and performance, and both are masterful. Coen seems to have chosen black and white for its starkness – for what it does to his images of dripping blood, or birds circling overhead – and it allows him to paint his settings in darkness, as the uncluttered design sets scenes more with lighting than set dressing. So he ends up with something that is neither merely film nor theater, but a mutation of both, taking advantage of the wide berth of expressionism we allow work on the stage, as well as the tools (visual effects, shock edits, etc.) of the screen. And Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand really deliver in the leading roles; what a thrill it is to discover, this deep into their distinguished careers, that there is still more that they can do.
Comparisons abound between Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Anderson is certainly playing in the same stylistic sandbox as OUATIH – that L.A. vibrancy, industry town feeling, radios blasting, sunlight baking. And its ‘70s Valley setting and coming-of-age arc frequently recalls his own breakthrough film Boogie Nights. But he’s a different filmmaker now, and he’s not playing the hits here; Anderson’s delightful strangeness, the sprung comic sensibility of later works like Inherent Vice, keeps him from veering too far into nostalgia. Yet it also has an openness and vulnerability that’s closer to his early work, specifically to Magnolia, and its willingness to swing for the emotional fences in a way his later films might not. In other words, Licorice Pizza finds Anderson combining the heart of his early films with the form of his latter work. It is, in its way, the best of both worlds.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Days, Drive My Car, Summer of Soul, Flee, The Worst Person in the World, Petite Maman, Together Together, Supernova, Gunda, Nightmare Alley.