Favorite Films of 2022, Part 2

Read part 1 here.

11. After Yang, dir. Kogonada. Set in the near future, After Yang is a patiently minimalist, transcendent film about learning to treasure those moments of mundane beauty that make up our lives. When Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) adopt their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) from China, they purchase a preowned “technosapien,” a humanoid robot, named Yang (Justin H. Ming) to educate her about her cultural roots and to be an older sibling to her. But one day Yang malfunctions and shuts down, and Mika is devastated.

When Yang is opened up at the repair shop to be diagnosed, Jake discovers Yang’s memory bank, where Yang stored all the memories he thought important. He unlocks it. By viewing the world, especially his family life, as processed by Yang, Jake realizes he has failed to engage meaningfully with the small daily gifts he has been given. He also becomes aware of more of Yang’s history—of his previous families and loves.

Streaming on Showtime.

12. Petite Maman, dir. Céline Sciamma. In this poignant French drama, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) accompanies her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) on a trip to clear out her mother’s childhood home following her grandmother’s death. As she explores the nearby woods, she meets a neighbor girl her own age (Gabrielle Sanz), and the two strike up a bond. There’s a fantasy element I won’t reveal—it’s better to let the movie unfold it for you—but suffice it to say, I love the imaginative way that writer-director Céline Sciamma tells this mother-daughter tale of grief and loss.

Streaming on Hulu.

13. The Wonder, dir. Sebastián Lelio. Inspired by the nineteenth-century phenomenon of the “fasting girls” and based on Emma Donoghue’s celebrated novel of the same name, this psychological drama is set in a rural Irish Catholic community in 1862. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy) has allegedly not eaten anything for four months but has been miraculously sustained by “manna from heaven.” As pilgrims begin flocking to witness the miracle and rumors swirl about possible sainthood, a council of local dignitaries initiates an investigation to determine whether Anna’s survival without food is indeed a holy feat, or a hoax perpetrated by Anna and her family.

The council hires Lib Wright (Florence Pugh)—a scientifically minded English nurse—and a nun to independently observe Anna over two weeks in alternating eight-hour shifts and to report back. Lib grows increasingly concerned for Anna’s health and safety, and when Anna reveals to her the reason for her fast, she knows she must act drastically.

Streaming on Netflix.

14. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure, dir. Richard Linklater. Apollo 10½ is writer-director Richard Linklater’s nostalgic homage to growing up in a Houston suburb in the 1960s, the youngest of six. This was during the Space Race, and Linklater uses that context to interweave real childhood memories with his childhood fantasy of being an astronaut. So in a tongue-in-cheek revision of history, he has NASA recruit fourth-grader Stan (Milo Coy) to fly a secret mission to the moon to test out a landing module shortly before Apollo 11 goes up. The film uses an animation technique known as rotoscoping, which layers animation over live performances.

While I can appreciate the blend of dream and reality, I was much more interested in the real-life portions of the movie, which are substantial, than the revisionist space stuff. Playing kickball on the school blacktop, getting disciplined, eating Frito pies at the pool, watching cheesy TV shows with family, listening to the Monkees and the Archies and the 5th Dimension, riding to the beach in the bed of a pickup truck, braving the Black Dragon at AstroWorld, fighting Roman candle wars in the backyard on New Year’s Eve, competing in Little League, stealing plywood from home construction sites with his cheapskate father, listening to Grandma’s conspiracy theories—ordinary memories like these are narrated with such fondness by adult Stan (voiced by Jack Black) and so meticulously rendered, and it’s here where the movie really shines. If you like The Wonder Years, you’ll like this.

Streaming on Netflix.

15. Decision to Leave, dir. Park Chan-wook. A slow-burn crime drama with a heavy dose of romance, this film follows the married police detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who, when investigating the death of a mountain-climber, becomes infatuated with the prime murder suspect, the climber’s widow, Seo-rae (Wei Tang). In an interview, the director said his goal was “to make a love story that does not say the words, ‘I love you.’” The film is all about what’s not said, what’s observed. For much of the movie we question whether Seo-rae is manipulating Hae-joon or is actually falling for him too.

I have to admit, I didn’t like either of the characters; I struggled to understand them or to be invested in their “love” story, which to me seems more like simply lust or intrigue. Seo-rae’s inscrutability is, I think, part of the point; she is a mystery to be solved, as much as the murders happening around her. And attraction is rarely rational, I suppose. (But c’mon, Hae-joon, you’ve got a loving wife back home!) Despite my failure to connect with it on all levels, this is a beautifully shot, craftily edited, engrossing film with a sustained, understated sensuality that is to be commended.

Streaming on MUBI.

16. God’s Creatures, dir. Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Aileen (Emily Watson) works as a shift manager at a seafood processing plant, alongside most of the other local women, in a remote Irish fishing village. When one of her coworkers, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi), files a rape claim against her son, Brian (Paul Mescal), Aileen fabricates an alibi to protect him. Is she incredulous that he could be capable of sexual assault, or is her denial more sinister? Atmospheric and tense, the film centers on Aileen’s psychological grappling with the limits of maternal love and her duty to what’s right and just.

17. Elvis, dir. Baz Luhrmann. Frenetic and flashy, this music biopic traces the meteoric rise and fall of rock and roll’s biggest legend, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler). The story is narrated by Elvis’s exploitative manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), and examines their complex, twenty-plus-year relationship. Butler is amazing in the role, embodying Elvis’s energy and sex appeal while also showing his emotional vulnerability.

I appreciate how the movie shows the influence of Black artists on Elvis’s music, even dispelling the myth that he was the founder of rock and roll—a credit that he himself, in multiple interviews, rejected, instead crediting his Black predecessors. Elvis grew up in a Black neighborhood in Tupelo, Mississippi, and when he moved to Memphis as a teenager, he frequented Beale Street, a hub for African American culture. From these environments he absorbed the sounds of Pentecostal gospel and rhythm and blues.

Elvis features stunning performances by historical Black characters. An early scene intercuts bluesman Arthur Crudup (Gary Clark Jr.) performing his original song “That’s All Right” in a juke joint—which would become Elvis’s first single—with “I’ll Fly Away” sung by a Black congregation at a tent revival; preteen Elvis observes one through a hole in the wall and participates, Spirit-caught, in the other. As a young aspiring recording artist, prior to mounting the Louisiana Hayride stage, his first big premiere, he pumps himself up by singing “I’ll Fly Away.”

Later, Elvis hears Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) perform the raunchy “Hound Dog” (written for her by a Jewish songwriting duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) in a bar on Beale Street, which is then sampled and interpolated in a song by Doja Cat commissioned for the movie. At Club Handy, Elvis hangs out with his friend B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and is blown away by the vitality and genius of the young Little Richard (Alton Mason), who performs his original and then-unknown “Tutti Frutti” for the crowd; the conversation Elvis has about it with King, and what King says and doesn’t say, speaks volumes. As people shuffle out for the night, the pioneering rock singer-guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Yola) sings “Working on the Building” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”

All these and more were part of Elvis’s music education. They came before. His use of Black source material has always been controversial, deemed “cultural appropriation” (i.e., theft) by some. He profited greatly from the creative contributions of Black women and men, many of whom failed to attain proper recognition and compensation for their work. They lacked the platform and the acceptance across racial lines, whereas Elvis’s whiteness opened doors for him. And so he brought rock and roll—developed in Black churches, juke joints, streets, and nightclubs—to the masses. For sure, he added his own stamp, synthesized it with other influences, and was a majorly talented performer in his own right. Elvis celebrates the title character’s inventiveness but also recognizes his indebtedness to Black musicians. It’s not a central concern of the movie, but it is present. More central is, as one might expect of the genre, the toll of fame.

Streaming on HBO Max.

18. Nope, dir. Jordan Peele. In this neo-western sci-fi thriller, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Em (Keke Palmer), own a family ranch in California, where they train and handle horses for television and film productions. But their business is struggling, and to keep it afloat they sell some horses to Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who operates a nearby theme park that capitalizes on his surviving an infamous violent attack on the set of a nineties sitcom. (Best opening scene of the year?) Then their ranch becomes a site of abduction—a UFO takes some of their horses. They attempt to capture video evidence with the help of tech salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). The film’s epigraph is a quotation of Nahum 3:6, a pronouncement of divine judgment: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”

Nope is not as concise as Peele’s other two films, Get Out and Us; I couldn’t follow all the threads. But surely a major thread is an indictment of our voracious need for spectacle. Another is the traumas that the film industry can inflict on people. Another, or maybe a subset of the previous, is the erasure of Black cowboys from our stories of the American West. Nope pokes and prods at these issues and raises questions rather than providing answers. For example, there’s a tension here between the magic of spectacle and its insidiousness. Peele participates in what he condemns. As film critic Thomas Flight articulates, “Nope is a spectacular horror film about the danger of spectacle. It’s a big-budget Hollywood film that critiques the Hollywood industry. It’s not a movie that can draw a clear resolution to those dualities. Instead, it’s a film that explores the queasiness that arises when we’re not sure if something’s good or bad but we find ourselves in the midst of it.”

Entertaining; suspenseful; riveting sound design by Johnnie Burn; and an infectious performance by Palmer as the charismatic Emerald, her live-wire personality a perfect foil to the taciturn OJ’s.

19. Cha Cha Real Smooth, dir. Cooper Raiff. Andrew (Cooper Raiff), a Gen Zer, is a recent college grad who lives with his mom, stepdad, and younger brother and works as a party starter at bar mitzvahs. At one he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), who has autism, and strikes up a friendship. This movie is sweet and maybe slight, and it takes a few missteps, but I enjoyed it a lot.

I find Raiff’s onscreen persona—essentially the same one he adopted in his debut feature, which I also really liked—charming, though I know others find it insufferable! Andrew is vulnerable, quippy, awkward, real. He loves his mom. He cries openly. He lacks direction. He seeks connection. He’s trying to figure life out, and growth comes slowly. He’s someone I recognize and have empathy for.

Streaming on Apple TV+.

20. Causeway, dir. Lila Neugebauer. This quiet drama follows the physical and emotional recovery of Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a US military veteran who returns home to New Orleans after suffering a traumatic brain injury serving in Afghanistan. In the process, she develops a friendship with her auto mechanic, James (Brian Tyree Henry), who bears his own wounds from a tragic event—some visible, some not. The two help each other work through the lingering effects of their traumas and move closer to wholeness. Their gentle, easy vibe with one another is really beautiful to witness.

Streaming on Apple TV+.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Sr.; Hustle; Marcel the Shell with Shoes On; The Sea Beast

Favorite Films of 2022, Part 1

Since 2020, I have been publishing an annual list of my top twenty films of the year, with trailers and microreviews. (See my lists for 2020 and 2021.) I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the coming together of so many talents—writing, acting, directing, shooting, editing, set design, costume design, etc.—to tell a story through moving images. Movies are actually my favorite mode of storytelling. It’s a shame that in some circles they’re denigrated as inferior to novels, less worthy of our time. That’s absolutely not true!

Moviegoing can be transformative. Like other art forms, movies reflect back to us the many aspects of the human (and in the case of my #5, animal!) experience, and can demand something of us.

Here are the first ten of my twenty recommendations for films to see that were released in the United States (though several were made internationally) in 2022, ranked in order of preference. Please be aware that many of these have R ratings and that you can consult content advisories if that concerns you.

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once, dir. Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). Bighearted and bizarre, this comedy sci-fi action adventure is about a first-generation Chinese American woman, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who’s trying to hold it all together as her laundromat business is failing and her relationships are fraying, especially with her twenty-something daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), whom she just doesn’t “get.” Then one day, out of nowhere, Evelyn is enlisted by a version of her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), to stop the evil Jobu Tupaki, a version of Joy, from destroying the multiverse. As Evelyn travels to alternate universes, she’s able to access skills and emotions her alt-selves possess and bring them back with her to help her fight.

Absurdity ensues. In one universe, Evelyn has hotdogs for fingers, and so becomes adept at using her feet; in one she’s a rock overlooking a canyon; in another, a teppanyaki chef whose colleague is controlled by a raccoon under his hat; in yet another, she’s a martial arts–trained movie star who never left China. She “verse jumps” from one to the other seeking to save her daughter from the vortex of despair into which she’s trying to suck everyone and everything, and all the while Joy is trying to find a version of her mother whom she can connect with, who can understand the emptiness in her.

The directors said the film is about a family trying to find each other through the chaos. At its core, it’s a family drama—one that explodes across the multiverse. It’s also about choosing kindness and joy (symbolized by a googly eye) and moving toward one another in empathy. It’s much louder and more outrageous than all my other picks, and I could have done without the scatological humor, but I found myself enthralled by the wild, disorienting ride that lands at a really tender place. Michelle Yeoh proves her versatility as an actor, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays IRS inspector Deirdre Beaubeirdra, is hilarious.

Streaming on Showtime.

2. The Banshees of Inisherin, dir. Martin McDonagh. Set in 1923 during the Irish Civil War on a fictional island off Ireland’s west coast, this dark comedy begins when Colm (Brendan Gleeson) tells his lifelong bestie, Pádraic (Colin Farrell), that he no longer wants to be friends. Colm is a fiddler and composer who wants to establish a legacy, a musical output that will live on—a goal that Pádraic is impeding by distracting him with daily hours of dull conversation, he says—whereas Pádraic says he merely wants to be known for “being nice.” Baffled by his friend’s abrupt severing of their relationship, Pádraic repeatedly pursues understanding and restoration, escalating the tension toward acts of violence. Male friendship and loneliness, melancholy, and mortality are key themes in this artful buddy-breakup movie that had me laughing out loud as well as tearing up.

Streaming on HBO Max.

3. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, dir. Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson. Light overcomes the darkness in this stop-motion animated musical adaptation of the classic Italian children’s novel from 1883. It was written and codirected by Guillermo del Toro, a master of magical realism, and has been in development since 2008. When his young son dies, the carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) carves a boy puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), to fill the hole left by this profound loss. In an act of compassion, the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) brings Pinocchio to life and commissions Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan MacGregor), an itinerant writer, to look out for him. Curious and unruly, Pinocchio ends up trapped in a circus by an abusive showman. He and his father spend much of the film trying to reunite, to be family to each other.  

These story points will sound familiar to most, but del Toro cleverly adapts them and adds new ones, setting the story in a Tuscan village during the rise of Mussolini in the 1930s, with one of the main villains being a Fascist podestà who’s trying to recruit Pinocchio into the army. It turns out it is the villagers who blindly subscribe to Il Duce’s propaganda who are the puppets, whereas Pinocchio, with his irrepressibility, is decidedly unpuppetlike. Thus the film explores contexts in which disobedience can be a virtue. Del Toro also places more emphasis on Geppetto’s growth than Pinocchio’s, making the story about Geppetto becoming a real father—learning to accept Pinocchio with all his quirks and difference, not making his love contingent on Pinocchio fulfilling his image of the perfect son—rather than Pinocchio becoming a real boy.

The artistry of this film is dazzling! I was blown away by the production design by Guy Davis and Curt Enderle (they designed the locations and characters and established the whole visual style), especially the evocation of interwar Italian life and culture, with the centrality of the church. I’m also dazzled by the puppets—shout-out to Georgina Haynes, the director of character fabrication—because remember, with stop-motion animation, all the characters are handmade, physical creations existing in three-dimensional space, not computer-made or drawn on a page; all but the “wooden” Pinocchio (made from 3D-printed hard plastic) consist of a manipulable silicone skin sitting over a mechanized system.

Streaming on Netflix.

4. Aftersun, dir. Charlotte Wells. Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on vacation with her single dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), in Turkey. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he’s trying to create a memorable holiday for her. And despite its mundanity, it is memorable—the frame story is adult Sophie replaying its moments on tape and in her mind. Aftersun is a very personal project for first-time writer-director Charlotte Wells, who draws on her own history and relationship with her father; she says she wants people to be able to feel the warmth of these memories, even though they’re tinged with sadness. Though it’s never spelled out, it appears that Calum suffers from depression, and we gradually see more and more of his pain. The lack of exposition enables us to make our own inferences about it and about the ending. The “Under Pressure” dance sequence, which intercuts a frantic, stroboscopic nightclub scene where adult Sophie searches the floor for Calum with one of young Sophie and Calum dancing lovingly outside the hotel, safe in each other’s arms, is a contender for scene of the year—a metaphoric conveyance of mental health decline, of holding on and letting go.

5. EO, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski. Who would have thought a donkey’s inner life could be so captivating to watch onscreen? His memories, his imagination, his hopes, his fears, the affection he feels and longs for, his joys and sorrows. EO follows the life journey of the titular donkey as he passes from owner to owner, some of them kind, others cruel. He starts out at a circus in Poland, where he’s tenderly cared for by the young performer Magda (Sandra Drzymalska). But he’s seized by animal rights activists and ends up at a horse sanctuary, and from there he moves to a petting farm for children with disabilities. He escapes, looking for Magda, and spends a harrowing night alone in the forest. Chancing upon a soccer game the next day, he becomes a mascot for a time, a figure of great adulation but also vitriol by the opposing team. His next job is as a beast of burden at a fur farm, where he’s made to carry fox pelts, and then he’s acquired by an Italian priest.

There’s very little dialogue in the film, and there are no voiceovers to convey EO’s thoughts or emotions, which we infer by context. The cinematography, from close-up shots of EO’s dark, expressive eyes to wide shots of varied landscapes, is gorgeous—visual poetry. EO is an indictment of human violence and a call to empathy for animals. Dare I say I liked it better than the Bresson classic (Au hasard Balthazar) that inspired it? Unlike its predecessor, it stays entirely focused on the donkey’s perspective, with humans relegated to the periphery.

6. Hit the Road, dir. Panah Panahi. A road-trip dramedy from Iran, this debut feature by Panah Panahi follows a family of four as they drive across the Iranian countryside under the pretext of a wedding. Dad (Mohammad Hassan Madjooni), who wears a leg cast, sits in the back with the young, ball-of-fire son (Rayan Sarlak) and sick dog, while Mom (Pantea Panahiha) and the quiet older son (Amin Simiar) take turns at the wheel, sometimes evincing their worry. There’s something clandestine about this journey, and over the course of the film we learn more but not much. But even with the imminent separation hanging like a cloud, there’s a lightness and a sweetness that’s so endearing as we watch the characters bicker and goof around and connect with one another. Films that can hold together the weighty and the comical, like this one, tend to be the ones I enjoy most.

Streaming on Showtime.

7. TÁR, dir. Todd Field. Set in the classical music world, this drama explores the corrupting nature of power through the (fictional) character of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), an award-winning conductor, composer, educator, and author. It’s an intense and brilliant performance of a complex character who is amazing at her craft but who also uses her status to manipulate others, including the young female cellist who has just joined her orchestra, the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic. The tension rachets up as they prepare to perform Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and rumors about Lydia’s connection to the death of one of her former protégés threaten to undo her.

8. Broker, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda. Found families is a key theme in the oeuvre of the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Shoplifters (2019) is one of my all-time favorite films. His latest, Broker, is set in South Korea. Seeking to place her newborn son, Woo-sung, in the care of a family better equipped to raise him, the young single mom So-young (Ji-eun Lee) leaves him outside a church, where he is intercepted by Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang), who attempt to sell him on the adoption black market. The next day she returns with doubts and demands to be included in the process of finding a home for Woo-sung. So she follows the two brokers in responding to the calls of prospective buyers, and along the way they pick up a stowaway from an orphanage, the ebullient Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im), the character that really brought it all together for me.

As they drive from city to city, the five travelers bond with one another, each of them carrying their own forms of rejection trauma and seeking love and belonging. The last night they spend together . . . wow! Koreeda is a deft handler of sentiment, never maudlin but rather inserting understated emotional moments in all the right places (another example: the flower on the wet car window scene). He tackles heavy subject matter and complex social issues with heart, always keeping his characters at the center and allowing for reprieves of warmth and brightness. He avoids simplistic endings but also unnecessarily bleak ones, taking a vantage point of hope.

9. The Fabelmans, dir. Steven Spielberg. This coming-of-age drama is a fictionalized telling of Steven Spielberg’s upbringing in a midcentury Jewish American household and, since seeing his first movie in a theater at age six, his developing passion for cinema. Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle). In many ways The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s love letter to his artistic and free-spirited mother, named Mitzi in the movie and played by Michelle Williams, who from the get-go fully supports Sammy’s dream to become a filmmaker, unlike his much more practical father, Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, who doesn’t initially see filmmaking as a worthy pursuit.

I wondered if The Fabelmans was going to be a self-indulgent homage to Spielberg’s successful career, full of Easter eggs to his other films, but it wasn’t that at all. The story stands on its own apart from its basis in the particularities of Spielberg’s life. It’s about vocation and family and the power of films to help us see the truth. That it’s also a semiautobiographical portrait of a director whose films I grew up on (E.T., Jaws, Jurassic Park) and continue to admire is an added bonus!

10. Nanny, dir. Nikyatu Jusu. Marked by menace and mystery, this psychological horror-drama centers on Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese immigrant to New York City hired by an affluent couple to care for their daughter. Aisha is haunted by the absence of her six-year-old son, whom she left under the care of a cousin in Senegal so that she could earn money to bring him to the US. But that goal becomes difficult when her employers start withholding her wages. As she navigates the oppressive situation she finds herself in, she is visited by figures from West African folklore: Mami Wata (a mermaid-like water spirit) and Anansi (a trickster spider). They seem like malevolent forces, but her boyfriend’s grandmother encourages her to reframe her thinking and to ask what the spirits want not from her but for her. Could they be haunting her to help guide her toward a new and better life?

The film deals with class, race, exploitation, resistance, survival, motherhood, and guilt—all parts of Aisha’s immigrant experience. Despite the too-quick resolution that follows, the scene at the end of Aisha being reborn out of chaos is visually and emotionally compelling. I appreciate how writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, born in the US to Sierra Leonean parents, uses supernatural horror tropes in unique and subversive ways.

Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Read part 2.