OKAY, as Tuco once put it “when you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”
THE GOOD17. Barbarian — Zach Cregger puts it best: he didn’t like the way the film was going — predictably — so he threw in a sudden left turn. It works; the pic is worth a look mainly for the suspense set pieces and for Justin Long’s hilariously toxic take on the entitled man-child, who talks a good game and acts like an aspiring Survivor contestant.
16. Three Thousand Years of Longing — George Miller’s latest delivers on the sumptuous cornucopia of visual delights in the manner of A Thousand and One Nights, beguiling us the way Scheherazade did her king — and then what? What’s left for a woman who’s heard it all and a Djinn who’s seen even more? The answer may either intrigue or disappoint you, but has some kind of crazed integrity.
15. Halloween Ends — easily the most perverse of David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy, and a capstone to the overextended life of Michael Myers. Ends addresses not just the mortal chill in Laurie’s bones but everyone’s in Haddonfield, and ours too. Myers is just a man, after all; Green’s thesis is that his evil isn’t so much supernatural as it is social, mutating and going viral in an all-too-familiar way in this hate-filled hair-trigger world.
14. Inu-Oh — Maasaki Yuasa’s latest is a musical thin on plotline but thick on beyond-gorgeous animated art, not to mention an ingenious working-out of the question “what if modern rock stagecraft was developed in 12th century Japan?” Call it a laser glamrock concert with a quietly piercing ending.
13. Pearl — Ti West’s prequel to X feels less like a slasher flick than a character study, his visual style — Douglas Sirk on steroids — underlining the story’s melodramatic roots. Mia Goth, who stars and co-writes, gives the film her all, including a final few minutes of agonizing intensity.
12. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once — For the record, the Daniels’ debut feature is a tad too earnest, serving up all that fun and ingenuity to hand us some moral and spiritual uplift, like a limp fortune cookie delivered at the end of a sumptuous Chinese feast. That said, this is a feast, some of the funniest, most eyepopping action sequences this side of the younger Jackie Chan or Michelle Yeoh, and by gum that is Michelle Yeoh at the eye of this particular storm. Done for a mere fraction of Dr. Strange’s catering budget (see below).
11. Leonor Will Never Die— Martika Ramirez Escobar’s debut feature took eight years to write and three years to release and is worth the long wait: the eponymous Leonor is a former famed filmmaker hoping to make a comeback with her long-cherished script; the result bounces between fantasy and reality and meta-reality with the freewheeling spirit of Everything Everywhere only without the heavy-handed “uplift” and at a fraction of Everything’s already minuscule budget (which in turn makes Dr. Strange’s hundred million dollar production look even more embarrassing).
10. The Fabelmans — Spielberg’s most overtly personal work (he’s been covertly personal for most of his career), with some of his best filmmaking poured into sequences of — surprise surprise — a young man filmmaking. That and David Lynch as John Ford; what’s not to like?
9. Mad God — What if Blade Runner had been animated by Ray Harryhausen channeling David Cronenberg? Phil Tippet takes some 30 years to respond to the challenge, and the results are by turns confusing, fascinating, disgusting, awe-inspiring.
8. Blonde— if you ignore the fact that Andrew Dominik’s “fictionalized history” is loosely based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and inflicts on her more suffering than the real star likely experienced in her lifetime (with maybe half the spirit) — you might like the film. As is, I consider it the best horror of the year, with the caveat that it’s a little too relentless — when interrogating a client, you want to allow her some breathing room to recover, so you can continue the session.
7. Crimes of the Future— maybe not major David Cronenberg but sexy Cronenberg, perhaps his funniest in years. Sketches the outlines to a future that seems ominously plausible even inevitable, and poses this knotty question: when pain is no longer felt, are emotional stakes or drama still possible? Is even humanity possible?
6. 12 Weeks — Anna Isabelle Matutina’s debut feature tells of a woman whose life is turned upside-down when she suddenly learns she’s pregnant — at the age of 40, in a country where abortions are still illegal. Matutina doesn’t judge, presents her story as plainly as possible, but the fact that the woman doesn’t have a choice in the matter says something.
5. When the Waves are Gone — And then there’s Lav Diaz who among Filipino filmmakers seems like the only one that gives a damn about our six years under a near-dictator, the six more promised under the son of a former dictator. Waves is his stripped-down noir, about the Philippines’ greatest police investigator, Lieutenant Hermes Papauran, being stalked by his former mentor, Primo Macabantay. As the former, John Lloyd Cruz shuffles forth in the world like a classic Diaz protagonist, with his conscience and the troubles of the world dragging him down; as the latter, Ronnie Lazaro is imp and jester, judge and executioner, offsetting Cruz’s gravid presence with his own explosive lunacy.
4. Pinocchio — Guillermo del Toro treats the eponymous character not like a cute boy with token wooden joints but like one of his own creatures — frightening, fearless, not entirely without soul. In many ways darker and more subversive than the 1940s Disney classic or even the Collodi original.
3. Armageddon Time — the third filmmaker’s autobiography to come out this year is the smallest-scaled and most understated, and, in my book, the most powerful. James Gray takes a plainspoken approach to recognizing everyone’s special qualities, sparing none of their flaws; he touches on the uneasy truce Jewish immigrants have struck with the upper class, the fragile yet persistent nature of adolescent friendship, and the utter powerlessness of a youth.
2. Decision to Leave — I’ve seen serial killer scenarios wielded as thrillers, as comedies, as ravishingly embroidered menus, as pseudo-profound philosophical stances — but as a seduction tactic? Park Chan-wook’s latest does exactly that, weaving a web of mystery and sensuality around its detective that leaves him off-balanced and confused till the cord tightens round his neck. One thinks of Deliverance, Dressed to Kill, Out of the Past, and even Vertigo watching this film, not without cause; to Park’s credit, he invites such outlandish comparisons and still manages to be his own perversely persistent creature.
1. A Tale of Filipino Violence — Again Lav Diaz, who just can’t leave a good thing alone. His adaptation of Ricky Lee’s classic story “Servando Magdamag” is a three-pronged attack on the Marcos regime — its roots in the colonialist past, its chokehold on the immediate present (actually 1970s Philippines), its dark reach into the near future.
THE MIDDLING15. Don’t Worry Darling— Olivia Wilde’s stylish mashup of The Prisoner with The Stepford Wives ultimately feels unsatisfying, but getting there’s more than half (actually all) the fun.
14. RRR — SS Rajamouli’s action epic is watchably inventive for maybe the first half-hour; the variety is sustained in the remaining two and a half hours — somewhat — but the intensity does wear you down, not to mention the relentless flag-waving. Prefer his far more inventive Eeaga, where the rivalry (man vs. fly) is more lopsided, the comedy more pointed.
13. Babylon — Damien Chazelle’s unauthorized and unacknowledged adaptation of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon is enjoyable, just don’t take it seriously as history. No, seriously — don’t.
12. Thor: Love and Thunder — Don’t see this so much as a Marvel sequel as it is Taika Waititi doubling down on his obsessions and just for that if not much else, I concede respect.
11. Kimi — Steven Soderbergh’s chamber thriller has Zoe Kravitz evoking everything from Repulsion to Rear Window. Not substantial but cleverly done.
10. X — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Debbie Does Dallas. Ti West succeeds where the Saw remake fails: taking the tired formula of city slickers invading the countryside and breathing sneaky comic life into the landscape. Mia Goth makes for an engaging porn star, an even more engaging creepy grandma (their scene in bed together is for the ages). Recommend pairing with its superior prequel, Pearl.
9. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood — the forgotten filmmaker’s autobiography. Richard Linklater, unlike Spielberg or Gray, doesn’t seem to have anything more serious in mind than evoking a childhood growing up in space-crazed Houston; paradoxically this frees him up to be more freewheeling and imaginative — and funnier — than either of his more highly regarded colleagues.
8. The Bob’s Burgers Movie — Loren Bouchard and Bernard Derriman’s blown-up, stretched-out version of the cult food porn animated series puts out a few songs, but don’t let that fool you; this is a nicely wayward nicely eccentric trip down some kind of lane — exactly what I can’t tell you, but it’s something.
7. Amsterdam — is terrific for maybe the first hour and 50 minutes, a funny, witty, scary evocation of the Nazi conspiracy that almost took over America. Scariest of all: it almost happened again last Jan. 6, 2020. The final 20 minutes is David O. Russell trying his level best to convince you the quality of the previous 110 minutes never existed — but no. It’s really good. The rest — well, that previous 110 minutes was really good.
6. All Quiet on the Western Front — more explicitly realistic than the 1930 adaptation — naturally — it commits two mistakes: 1.) substituting Paul’s furlough with a subplot tracing the various political maneuverings that end the war, and, 2.) giving Paul an extended, considerably more heroic fate. I understand introducing 1.) because it adds an element of suspense (can the war end before Paul does?) but the point of the book as I understood it was that the war was Sisyphean, wearing Paul’s spirit down to nothing. And I appreciate the elaborate staging and intensity of 2.) but that finale can’t even touch the brief poetry of Lewis Milestone’s butterfly version.
5. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — Not sure how Raimi managed to hoodwink Disney and Marvel into financing his biggest-budgeted, most visually ambitious installment of the Evil Dead franchise but he did, and included Elizabeth Olsen’s most scarily authoritative performance yet in the bargain. A major accomplishment, if it wasn’t for — (see above).
4. Nope— Jordan Peele’s least evocative feature to date, and, yes, I do hear what it has to say about showbiz and the public’s insatiable appetite for scandal and spectacle. That said, nice use of the valley’s arena-like space (you know where you are at any point throughout the film) and the “Gordy’s Home” birthday episode feels like a nightmare excerpt from another far more disturbing film.
3. Tar — Subtly elegantly crafted. Amazing Cate Blanchett, especially how half her performance is in her hands, which keep fluttering and flitting through the air like a pair of wings, the way you imagine a conductor’s does. The rest of Todd Field’s film feels like both an argument for artists to continue being artists — flawed human beings with irreplaceable talent — and an indictment of people who defend such celebrities. You like or loathe it depending on how you fall on the issue; personally, I empathize with the former, feel oddly cool towards the film overall.
2. Triangle of Sadness — the first act could have been cut entirely, the second act is something Monty Python did funnier faster, the third act features Dolly de Leon — easily the best thing in the picture, though Woody Harrelson as a socialist ship’s captain and Harris Dickinson as a by turns oversensitive by turns opportunistic male model have their moments. Much prefer this when it was Joey Gosiengfiao’s Temptation Island.
1. The Banshees of Inisherin — Martin McDonagh’s claustrophobically insular work feels like Soderbergh’s Kimi turned inside out, with the inmates screaming at bleak landscapes instead of apartment walls, but the emotional terrain is basically the same: they have little else to face but themselves, and will do anything but that. One particularly twisted bit of subplot involving fingers feels less than persuasive — okay, I think it’s a dealbreaker, didn’t buy it when I first heard it, and by film’s end McDonagh fails to sell it to me. Better than his previous widely hailed masterwork, but still not to my taste.
THE UGLY4. Texas Chainsaw Massacre — Watched David Blue Garcia’s sophomore feature because it came highly recommended on Twitter (catch me doing that again!). Starts off promisingly enough — Alice Krige plays an ambiguously senile matriarch, and Olwen Fouere replaces the late Marilyn Burns as Sally from the original 1974 Saw — then devolves into A Series of Unlikely Coincidences. Not recommended.
3. The Batman — Matt Reeves’ three-hour ultra-dark ultra-gritty take on the Cape Crusader borders on the autistic; there’s not much to see here (literally; did someone forget to pay the light bill?) and not much to chew on if you did (the best ideas were recycled from Se7ven, The French Connection, All The President’s Men, and Chinatown). As Catwoman, Zoe Kravitz — so engaging in Kimi — feels anemic when compared to Michelle Pfeiffer’s incomparable take on the character in the Tim Burton film.
2. Elvis — Baz Luhrmann doing Vegas for three straight hours. Oh the migraine.
1. Avatar: Way of Water — Sky people seek living space, burn thousands of square miles of good forest land, shoot thousands more blue folks. Jake’s kids are captured and escape, captured and escape; rinse and repeat till you have three hours’ worth of monotonous monochrome blue.