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This was incredibly difficult to write. It’s not a good sign if a 2000 word spoiler review for Jurassic World: Dominion can come so easily from one’s mind as if you had already started writing it while watching said film, but a Top 10 list of the best movies of the year, something completely positive and meant to celebrate movies, is difficult. I feel like I’m only writing this because I didn’t get around to writing anything for some truly incredible films of this year, mainly because of my full-time job. This is an excuse more than anything to get words out about how I feel for some excellent pieces of cinema from a year that has so far given us more than enough to discuss. There is always more to see, as I’ve already discovered several more acclaimed movies in research for this piece, but let’s just narrow it down to 10 or so.
The idea of yet another “dark ‘n gritty” Batman movie, after the critical and commercial domination of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder’s even darker but more mixed take on the Caped Crusader in Batman v Superman and his cut of Justice League, felt unnecessary to many. Can yet another “realistic” take on Batman work and capture an audience’s attention? The answer from director and co-writer Matt Reeves is a resounding yes, because of focus. Other Batman films have felt like they shared the spotlight with iconic villains (primarily the Joker), other iconic heroes, or they were excuses for directors to flaunt eccentricities. Matt Reeves’ take on a Batman film is to make it completely focused on the character and his worldview, every scene having either Batman or Bruce Wayne in it, narrating the opening and closing of the story, and timing his introduction and epilogue to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way”, an inward-looking and dark vision of life on the outskirts. The result is a film that feels darker than any cinematic version of the character but one that is instantly rewarding, with Batman having a fully-realised character arc, learning an important lesson about the curse of vengeance. The Batman is rendered with gorgeous detail through its unique setting of a Gotham filmed in Liverpool, colour timing that emphasises bold reds and oranges as well as the deepest blacks, crisp cinematography from Grieg Fraser captured through unique lenses that give a beautiful Boker effect to every frame, and costume and production design that while emphasising practicality also gives us some of the most comic-accurate gadgets, vehicles, and Batsuit. Robert Pattinson makes the role his own, that of a lost and lonely child, hiding from the truth of himself by inflicting pain and self-righteous justice on lawbreakers, his chemistry with the equally brilliant Zöe Kravitz as Catwoman making that often predictable romance believable and worthwhile. Paul Dano is a horror villain with his Riddler, tragic yet unredeemable and totally committed to his own evil nature, and Colin Farrell in obscuring prosthetics gives us our first great Penguin. Reeves’ direction is a perfect mix of his building terror in Let Me In and his eye for spectacle and earned emotion from Dawn and War For the Planet of the Apes into a film that is as epic as it is intimate, a crime-filled detective story by way of David Fincher and Francis Ford Coppola. The Batman is a monumental comic-book film that transcends the catchall “dark ‘n gritty” moniker to become something moving, scary, twisted, explosive, rich, and intensely exciting.
Director: Matt Reeves
Writers: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano
Scott Derrickson’s departure from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems to be a great thing for everyone. On one hand, we ended up getting a fascinating and wacky Doctor Strange sequel made by a visionary in Sam Raimi, and Derrickson is able to go and make The Black Phone because of the free schedule and opportunities afforded by having a previous Marvel movie on your resumé. Better yet, The Black Phone is a fantastic horror movie made by someone who knows what the genre can do best for an audience. It doesn’t have to be the epic spectacle of the two-part It movies, or a reference-heavy legacy sequel-reboot-remake in where Halloween and Texas Chainsaw are finding themselves. It can be an interesting idea centred around unlikely leads of a horror experience that slowly gets under your skin until everything comes together perfectly in a neat package of terror and suspense. An adaptation of Joe Hill’s (Stephen King’s son) short story of the same name, Ethan Hawke is the big name on the poster but the film belongs to Mason Thames playing Finney, a boy kidnapped by Hawke’s serial killer the Grabber, and Madeleine McGraw, Finney’s clairvoyant sister Gwen who guides police in their manhunt. The film so naturally and comfortably shifts from grounded horror about kidnapping into a supernatural thriller that you never question for a second. Finney’s plan to escape is assisted by the voices of the killer’s previous victims that he can hear on the titular phone which seems to be inoperable. Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s screenplay unlocks deeper ideas of faith and torment, how a fractured mind can be more dangerous than any physical act, and becomes a tragic fantasy imagining if the hundreds of thousands of children abducted during the 1970s and 1980s could have made it out safely. It may work itself up slowly, but The Black Phone builds a terrific scale of intensity and emotional weight into a solid horror movie driven by excellent young performances.
With Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant style for going as far as good taste allows and Austin Butler’s full immersion as the most successful solo recording artist of all time, we find in Elvis a flawed yet entertaining and moving gem. Instead of trying to narrow the story down to a more audience-friendly runtime, or sanitise the material until it doesn’t even feel like the truth, Luhrmann and his co-writers show us almost everything without hesitation. Elvis was a sexual awakening to post-war America, an inspiration to remove segregation, the first American icon to translate around the globe, and none of it was intentional. Butler’s Elvis is a lonely and humble kid, guided by his family but wanting to just express himself, which is ultimately exploited by Tom Hanks’ Colonel Tom Parker. Parker is the unreliable narrator of the story, a choice that complicates our perspective and challenges us to make up our own mind about a legendary figure we all might think we know. Austin Butler is an absolute revelation in a career-making performance that not only feels like Elvis but creates a space of its own to exist, towering and deeply personal. The supporting cast fills out nicely, with some familiar Australian faces popping up everywhere and perfect casting of Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King, but the miscasting of Tom Hanks as the infamous Colonel is the movie’s biggest error. Hanks tries his best, but hidden under ugly prosthetics and doing his weak attempt at a Dutch accent distracts more than it disguises. The first hour or so is a feverish rollercoaster, filled with disorienting editing and breakneck pacing, but it smoothens out to become a kind of five-act epic that reminded this critic of JFK, filled with a few baffling decisions but defined by its intensity and ambition to shine as many lights as possible. It feels created by people who listened to every song, read as many books as possible, and studied every TV appearance and movie of Elvis Presley’s life, instead of Bohemian Rhapsody which feels like the writer read one biography and only listened to the Greatest Hits album. This is still a conventional cradle-to-the-grave musician biopic, but just like Rocketman, Elvis delivers stunning musical sequences, direction that unleashes every element of a man’s life, and an instantly unforgettable central performance from Austin Butler.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann (credited twice as duo with Bromell and duo with Pearce), Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, Jeremy Doner (story by Luhrmann and Doner)
Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge
Explain Everything Everywhere All At Once to anyone and you will probably get some puzzled looks with snarled lips and curled eyebrows. Michelle Yeoh is a small business owner who, while struggling through an IRS audit, is called on by her husband, played by a grown-up Short Round from Indiana Jones (Ke Huy Quan), from another universe, to save the entire multiverse from an evil version of their daughter (Stephanie Hsu), who can travel to every universe instantly. Also the entire thing is a metaphor for parentage, depression, and death. Also also Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis are married in one universe where they have sausages for fingers. Despite its absurd premise, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a delirious extravaganza that revels in influences of Hong Kong cinema, superhero comics and their fascination with multiverses, and probably some anime I have never watched. All of this is made by the Daniels, a duo that directed the insane “Turn Down for What” music video and Swiss Army Man which was about Paul Dano using Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse to survive a desert island, so it’s safe to say things will get wild. In their second effort as a duo they find a perfect mix of brain-melting action comedy and deeply moving human drama. Eternal existential questions of love, parenting, time, purpose, regret, and letting go fuel the story, and the Daniels are bold enough to come up with a few answers. Michelle Yeoh has been a legend for 30 years, but she shines brightest in a role that shows off every talent she has (which is saying something). She’s incredibly funny, disarming, dedicated, and ultimately gentle as a mother barely hanging on. Ke Huy Quan makes a glorious return to mainstream cinema showing that he is just as delightful and heartwarming as he was when he was 10 back in the 80s, here dominating the action scenes with envious ease and working hand-in-hand with Yeoh to deliver the heart of the picture. Stephanise Hsu holds her own beautifully against a cast of absolute legends, just as dedicated to the material, and completing a dysfunctional family that anyone can feel represented by, flaws and all. Icons like Jamie Lee Curtis and James Hong make up the remaining cast, showing that anyone in their 70s or their 90s can be as badass as Michelle Yeoh. Larkin Seiple’s neon-soaked aspect ratio-breaking cinematography is a stunning delight, and Paul Rogers’ editing is a masterclass. Everything Everywhere All At Once gets better with viewing, it has anything and everything you could ever want in a film, and is most likely the best of the best of 2022 (so far).
Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Writers: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis
A big hit at Sundance this year, Mimi Cave’s directorial debut Fresh stars Daisy Edgar-Jones as Noa, a woman trying to date in the modern world and not having any luck. One day, completely at random, she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan) in a grocery store, they instantly hit it off, she thinks this might really be something, he takes her up for a romantic weekend at his secluded cabin, and then…he turns out to be a black market dealer for human female meat…and she’s on the next menu. Lauryn Kahn’s screenplay is a fun spin on the horror trope of the secret murderous partner made infamous in a horror film like Audition or some of the setup in Misery. We have seen before a man trapped in a house or in a relationship with a psychopathic killer who just so happens to be a woman, which isn’t itself misogynistic, but a modern take calls for something more palatable. Instead of just being about a serial killer, the spin in Fresh echoes real-world cases of sex trafficking, kidnapping, obsessions with cannibalism from powerful men (i.e. Armie Hammer), and the exploitation of women when trust has been gained. As a director, Mimi Cave also knows when to play with the darkness and not have everything become one-note. This is a dark comedy, with Sebastian Stan’s human meat dealer being an eccentric masochist, comfortable to dance around while preparing and seasoning a leg or an arm. The title card doesn’t appear until 37 minutes in, acting as a punchline to Noa being drugged right when we are nice and comfortable, the comeuppance to Steve is a slice of fist-pumping vengeance, and the final shot is a hilarious callback. Daisy Edgar-Jones is a scream queen powerhouse, echoing the terrific horror debuts of Samara Weaving and Lupita Nyong’o, and her complicated relationship with Sebastian Stan’s character enhanced by his truly unhinged work playing an absolute monster. Fresh is…well…fresh, and fun, thrilling, totally unafraid to push boundaries, and a deliciously twisted delight.
Hustle, at this point so far, might go down as the best movie from Netflix this year (though I’m still holding out hope for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, Glass Onion and Blonde). Stanley Sugarman (Adam Sandler) is a middle-aged NBA scout looking for the next big thing in the game and finds it in Spanish amateur Bo Cruz (Juancho Hermangómez) who has skill but needs training to be the best, while Stanley struggles to stay as on top as he feels he should be. In a similar fashion to Elvis, Hustle could have coasted on the familiarity audiences have with the sports genre, but with the realism of having basketball-playing characters played by actual basketballers, Jeremiah Zagar’s focused and sensitive direction, and Adam Sandler’s unique charm in the lead, Hustle exceeds. Sandler’s Stanley is having opportunities closed off to him from all-around, boxing in who he is as a man and enhancing the regret he already feels having ended his playing career tragically, and sees in amateur Bo Cruz a chance to show that he can still do something good for the sport he loves. It isn’t a selfish action of a man trying to live out glory in someone’s shadow, but instead a father giving someone else opportunities no one could afford him. Sandler gets a few top-notch jokes into an emotionally honest script, bringing his trademark brand of angry humour and mixing it with genuine pathos that echoes the career-defining performance Ben Affleck gave in 2020’s The Way Back. He is just as entertaining as he was in his crowning jewel work from Uncut Gems but adds gravitas by being an actor at his age now, defined by what has come before but not letting the future be set in stone. His dynamic with Queen Latifah playing wife Teresa and with Jordan Hull playing his daughter Alex is some of the movie’s best stuff, as well as the lovely motivation for Hernangómez’ Bo being his young daughter. Highs and lows are abound, several times the characters are at their lowest point, only for the silver lining to appear, and in the end Hustle is an optimistic look at finding self-worth no matter the where you have found yourself in life.
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Writers: Taylor Matterne, Will Fetters
Starring: Adam Sandler, Juancho Hernangómez, Queen Latifah
After the tragic death of Ryan Dunn, very few people though that another Jackass movie would get made. The cast and their insane antics made an era-defining TV series, created a perfect film trilogy that became more successful with each entry, a Bad Grandpa spin-off, 4 subsequent .5 home media releases made from outtakes, and about a dozen more related TV shows featuring various members doing other stupid things. But lo and behold, here we are with Jackass Forever, a legacy sequel that honours Ryan Dunn’s memory, never tries to outdo its predecessors, and has a hell of a time in the process. COVID seriously affected the production, limiting the amount of “man on the street” segments that director Jeff Tremaine and the cast had planned, and the gap in production dates means that Johnny Knoxville’s hair goes from his normal black to grey between scenes. The gang is all back (except for Bam, but oh well); Knoxville seems to throw himself harder in this movie than he’s done since the opening of Number Two, Steve-O having gone completely sober but still just as willing to put hot sauce up his asshole and light a fart underwater, Preston Lacy and Wee-Man are always the dynamic duo, Chris Pontius is just as adventurous in his nudity, Dave Englund has evolved from the most scared of the group to not even flinching when standing next to an angry beehive, and Danger Ehren is the star of the show, becoming fodder for some of the worst things the crew has ever pulled off. New blood is also found in the unholy mix of Preston Lacy and Steve-O with Zach Holmes, essentially a female Knoxville with Rachel Wolfson, Eric Manaka and Jasper Dolphin who are just there for the ride, and the love child of Pontius’ exhibitionism and Englund’s loose colon with Sean “Poopies” McInerney. Special guests like Eric Andre and Tyler the Creator are a glorious delight, and just when you think everyone’s out of ideas, suddenly a paintball tank driven by Wee-Man bursts out of nowhere while everyone is puking coloured milk on a carousel. Jackass Forever is the perfect reintroduction to the crew in today’s age, showing how it was always about having a dumb time with stupid friends for the enjoyment of audiences everywhere. It honours the legacy of those they lost, gives us some of the franchise’s finest moments, and stands on its own as an insane and disgusting joyride.
Whoever’s idea it was to give Robert Eggers, the filmmaker behind The Witch and The Lighthouse, $90 million to make an over-two hour Viking epic that has Alexander Skarsgård shirtless for over half the runtime, Anya Taylor-Joy commanding the goddess of the trees, Ethan Hawke eating like a dog and belching in Wilem Dafoe’s face, Claes Bang screaming and naked covered in virgin blood at a funeral, and Björk as Svetovit, the Seeress of War, all in a story that adapts the legend which inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, should be applauded. We don’t get movies like this with this kind of budget anymore, which is a crime against cinema, so when it does it happen it feels like the second coming. Alexander Skarsgård is Amleth, a Viking prince who swears vengeance against his uncle Fjölir (Bang) after Fjölnir murders his brother and Amleth’s father King Aurvandill (Hawke) and abducted Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). In his quest for vengeance, he is aided by Slavic sorceress Olga (Joy) and guided by Norse gods, goddesses, and spirits to wield a mystical sword, trust in prophetic visions, and achieve a place in Valhalla. The Northman dedicates itself to being as accurate a depiction of Viking lore and people as possible, everything feeling intensely researched and studied, always intentional and uncompromising. Skarsgård is terrifying and terrific as a man driven by pain and anger until he is locked in a fatalistic curse of achieving a pyrrhic victory. The entire cast is completely in this dark and viscious world, and the action choreography and sequences of ritual prayer display proudly the bold talents of Robert Eggers, even if it’s all baffling to behold. Jarin Blaschke’s 35mm cinematography is crisp and detailed and displays natural lighting as well as day-for-night shooting as beautiful paintings, with Louise Ford’s editing making every sequence of might and mystery feel stronger. It might not be the best film of Robert Eggers, but comparing it to instant classics like The Witch and The Lighthouse isn’t fair. The Northman is a strange and bewildering experience, as entertaining as it is confounding, and it is thoroughly the work of a filmmaker with a clear vision, something we need more of.
Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Sjón, Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy
Top Gun: Maverick is really good. That is all. No, seriously, it is such a fun film that has struck a strong chord with audiences everywhere so much that it is STILL, by the time of this writing, playing in cinemas. It came out in May and there are still good session times for it at major cinemas, not relegated to one per day as would be normal for a film this size at this point in its lifetime. Yes, it is incredibly simple in its plotting and characterisations, with Tom Cruise playing Maverick like a Clint Eastwood protagonist, not letting time and authority tell him who he really is and showing that he can do anything. The dialogue can range from genuine connections between characters through emotion and humour to some completely predictable one-liners you’ve heard in every action movie ever. What sets this legacy sequel apart from its predecessor and protects it from the pitfalls of other desperate attempts to make follow-ups to 30+ year old movies is the no-holds barred commitment that everyone displays. Of course, Tom Cruise shows up to fly supersonic jet planes just as well as the professionals, but also seeks to add more to his iconic character, giving him a sense of age and wisdom that only an actor of his history can explore. Director Joseph Kosinski enhances Tony Scott’s original efforts of capturing the aerial action, placing real actors in the cockpits of functional aircraft and, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, shooting everything in unique wide angles that capture as much action while never sacrificing our focus on the human face. The supporting cast went through boot camps and intense training, bonding with each other to give every moment of their characters journeys a vitality and earnestness that makes us care about them. Practical effects artists, production designers, sound teams, score musicians, and VFX artists all working to make this the ultimate throwback blockbuster, one that nails character drama as much as it thrills with high-octane action that succeeds in full-immersion. Top Gun: Maverick knows the iconic nature of what came before, but still carves out its own path of being the kind of crowd-pleasing cut-rate spectacle that you can see a dozen times and always leave with a smile on your face.
And finally, we have a Pixar film in Turning Red that continues the studio’s resumé of brilliantly unique plots: a story of a 13-year-old Asian-Canadian girl who, with her wild group of fangirl friends, is obsessed with pop music and cute boys, but who also can suddenly transform into a giant red panda as a metaphor for menstruation and the freedom to be who one truly is beyond what an overbearing mother might warn against. The film is directed by Domee Shi, who audiences might know as the director behind the confronting short film Bao which played before Incredibles 2 in 2018. The basis of Turning Red is right there in Bao, exploring Asian maternal relationships and the idea of change being a terrifying concept, as well as showing off a unique visual style from Pixar’s in-house style that is down to an art at this point. Domee Shi’s world is rounder, more vibrant and dynamic with its colours, and seeks to tell as particular a story that can still connect on some level with any audience. I have nothing in common with the protagonist Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), and yet I was still delighted by and invested in every crazy step of her journey, laughing with her as she explores overboard crushes on boys she doesn’t know, feeling the crippling panic and awkwardness at her mother’s intrusions on her life, and wanting to see her break free and find out who she really is. Turning Red feels like it was made by people who know how it feels to want to do everything possible to disobey their authority figures, and it gives the whole movie a rebellious and heightened tone and style that embraces chaos and absurdity more than any other Pixar film. Lightyear crashed and burned in theatres, attempting to be Pixar’s grand return to the cinema, but Turning Red deserves that treatment far more as it is rich, detailed, hilarious, moving, and built from places of love and friendship, a work far greater than a relegation to Disney+.
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