Japan – High and Low – One of Akira Kurosawa’s best films, this is an early police procedural that might as well be the textbook for more modern examples (even if a surprising number of these imitations screw up the details). It’s almost like three movies in one. First, there’s a tale of corporate intrigue, with a rich businessman seeking to take over a shoe company from greedy cheapskates that want to run it into the ground. Second, there’s a kidnapping that’s intended to target the businessman’s son, but mistakenly nabs the man’s driver’s son (the two children were out playing, and the kidnappers got confused). And third, the police procedural as the inspectors assigned to the case attempt to hunt down the perpetrators.
Toshiro Mifune plays the businessman, and he’s obviously the big name in the cast (and a famous collaborator with Kurosawa), but the film really belongs to the police officers, especially Tatsuya Nakadai and Kenjiro Ishiyama. All put in great performances, and the script does an excellent job laying out the stakes, interweaving the various elements, and dropping twists and turns in for flavor. The kidnapping plot is simple but cleverly conceived, and the kidnappers are able to keep the ball rolling even when it’s revealed that they have the wrong kid. The subsequent investigation is also the sort of thing we’ve seen many times before, but that’s to be expected for an early example of the genre; it’s methodical and detailed and everyone involved displays admirable competence, such that it’s never boring, even if you might have some inkling as to where it’s headed. The ultimate motivation does perhaps leave a bit to be desired, but it also fits well with the overall themes of the film.
Kurosawa fully commands the screen with visuals that echo the story. For instance, the businessman lives in a large home at the top of a hill, as if he thinks he’s better than the rabble below him, and the story leverages that fact in several ways. It’s top notch stuff and highly recommended. Watched on HBO Max (but there’s a handsome Criterion disc out there that I may need to invest in during the next sale). ****
South Korea – Decision to Leave – I watched this very early on this year because I was trying to catch up on 2022 releases. This movie wound up making my honorable mentions for the year, and on another day, could very well have made the top 10. As such, I’ve already written a short blurb about this one:
Park Chan Wook takes bits and pieces from Basic Instinct and Vertigo, tosses them in a blender with Korean culture, and you wind up with this pulpy detective story featuring some bittersweet romance and a confounding ending that will leave you reeling. A bit too long with a flashback structure that doesn’t always work (though it’s in line with his previous work), this nonetheless manages to keep things intriguing enough throughout the runtime and it’s visually impressive as well.
I don’t have much to add, except to say that the film has aged well in my head, though I’d probably still rank it on the bottom half of the top 10 or as an honorable mention. Watched on Mubi (though it looks like it’s now available to rent elsewhere) ***
Taiwan – Incantation – Found Footage flick about a mother trying to protect her child from a curse of some kind. Pretty standard and only modestly successful attempts to address the “Why are they still filming?” issue endemic to found footage movies, but it’s at least not super-shaky. The narrative does include lengthy flashback sequences that provide depth to the current day story, but the “rules” of the curse are left annoyingly vague. That said, they do manage to craft several spooky setpieces, a few solid scares, and even work a little body horror into the mix. Clocking in at 111 minutes, it’s a little too long for the story it’s trying to tell, which tends to remind you of lots of other movies. It’s not especially original, but it is well crafted and spooky enough if you’re in the mood for some found footage. Watched on Netflix. **1/2
Vietnam – Furies – Veronica Ngo is a Vietnamese actress who made a name for herself in various action flicks and started to dip her toes into the Hollywood waters with bit parts in The Last Jedi, Da 5 Bloods, and The Old Guard. I have to wonder if the pandemic put the brakes on that progression, but I think there’s a chance she could breakout at some point.
Here, she stars and also directs a pretty standard girl-power actioner about a young woman taken in by a group of misfits training to take on the local sex trafficking gang. Said gang is brutal, so you’re immediately onboard with the vengeance being dealt out here (and devastated when the inevitable tragedy strikes our heroines), and there are several sturdy action sequences sprinkled throughout the film.
However, the relationship between the girls is a little forced and cringe at times, and there is one action sequence that is laughably bad. Look, I get that this is a low budget flick and vehicle stunts are expensive, but that motorcycle chase is just awful. I guess there’s something to be said for trying to find a creative low-fi solution to the issue, but it didn’t really play out well. Ultimately, this is a decent action programmer that doesn’t really stand out from the pack, except perhaps for the female-led cast. I’m still looking forward to see Veronica Ngo’s career progress though, and I hope she gets bigger budgets to work with in the future too. Watched on Netflix. **1/2
I’ll leave it there for now. I’m still 10 movies behind, but we’ll be able to catch up soon enough…
Just the usual link dump of interesting stuff from the depths of ye olde internets:
TV’s Streaming Bubble Has Burst, a Writers Strike Looms, and “Everybody Is Freaking Out” – A pretty accurate sentiment, as I do think we’re about to see some consolidation in the streaming space (after an absurd push for streaming that was never really supported by reality – though I guess the pandemic threw a major curve into the mix), and we’re definitely seeing a return to theatrical releases, but then all of it could be derailed by the writers’ strike (and, to be clear, I’m on the writers’ side on this one – their asks are eminently reasonable and it feels like studios have already lost more money than they would have if they just paid their writers. I seriously don’t understand Hollywood’s outright hostility to writers.)
Netflix’s DVD End Is a Warning Sign for Film Lovers – Of course, streaming isn’t going away… and this is a sad milestone, but one I think we could all see coming. For the record, I did have a DVD subscription because they actually had a deeper library than streaming does (though in recent years, it was thinning out).
Hollywood’s Coming “OS Wars” – This article proposes an interesting idea about the future of streaming: that the real competition will be on home screen aggregators like Roku or Fire. I’m not entirely convinced, but any improvements in aggregation, navigation, curation, and discoverability on streaming can only be a good thing.
Trafficking the News – This review of Ben Smith’s book “Traffic” signals a potential end for online journalism’s absurd push for traffic for traffic’s sake.
Having now worked in journalism for almost 20 years (he typed, arthritically, bones turning to dust at the mere thought of it) and having lived through various cycles of how journalism pays for and propagates itself, I’ve never been more sure of anything than the idea that chasing traffic for traffic’s sake has been disastrous and that cultivating a base of subscribers is the only way forward. But there are dangers there as well.
Star Wars by Wes Anderson – I keep seeing AI generated videos and they’re almost always filled with horrifying grotesques, but this one is almost pitch perfect. It turns out that the approach was to use AI to generate still images in a proposed style, then add some minor motion and sound to them, and stitch them together (at least, I think that’s what they did). It turned out pretty great, though it’s also obviously patterned after the SNL parody from a few years ago. Anyway, the Owen Wilson as Darth Vador “Wow” moment is pitch perfect.
Into Thin AirPods – Have you ever lost an Apple product and wanted to use the Find My app to mete out vigilante justice? A bit anticlimactic, but it’s a fun read.
This is the part where I say I’m aware that everyone—Apple, law enforcement, any friends with good judgment within earshot—strenuously discourages ever, under any circumstances, trying to do vigilante justice with the Find My app. If you so much as mention the possibility, like four people will jump out of the woodwork with stories about someone they knew who was shot or assaulted trying to confront a thief in the act. I’d like to emphasize that I’m firmly on the side of reason, and a steadfast believer that having crime done to me is not an occasion to show off how brave I am.
I bought the paperback edition of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash sometime around 1993-1994. Near as I can tell, this was the first edition of the mass market paperback (Bantam paperback edition / May 1993). Obviously, I enjoyed it quite a bit at the time, and it’s become one of the few books I’ve reread multiple times. As a book of dense ideas, it’s natural that new things strike me with each subsequent reread. People like to dismiss rereading/rewatching because the book hasn’t changed, but that doesn’t take into account that you’ve changed (and the world has changed… not to mention that the book actually might have been changed without notice for dubious reasons).
My first read of Snow Crash struck me as a fun Science Fiction action story about a samurai sword-wielding pizza delivery boy saving the world from a computer virus that originated in Sumerian myth. Lots of interesting ideas and weird tonal stuff went over my head. Subsequent rereadings happened after I’d sampled more of the cyberpunk canon (thus better recognizing the more parodic elements of Snow Crash for what they were) and learned more about linquistics and so on, all of which gave the book enough new context that it felt fresh. Such is the power of a dense book of ideas.
Anyway, 2022 was the 30th anniversary of Snow Crash, and seeing as though my paperback was basically falling apart, I splurged on a new anniversary edition of the book, complete with new, “never-seen-before material” and pages that aren’t falling out of the book. It’s been approximately a decade since I’d last reread it, and a few things struck me about it.
It’s always been hailed as a sorta prescient book, for obvious reasons. Stephenson was clearly ahead of the curve when it came to the internet, computers, and hacking, not to mention popularizing the notion of “avatars” and other stuff like VR and AR and so on. But the thing that struck me this time around was that the Metaverse, as portrayed in the book, is essentially a social network, and Stephenson clearly saw the potential drawbacks. Early in the book, our Hiro Protagonist meets up with an old friend named Juanita. In the world of the novel, they both worked on the early Metaverse infrastructure, but Juanita had pulled back somewhat of late, because:
… she has also decided that the whole thing is bogus. That no matter how good it is, the Metaverse is distorting the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships.
Snow Crash, Page 74
It’s a perfectly concise and trenchant critique of social networks (that is implicitly elaborated on throughout the book). I mean, it’s not like we haven’t all been drowning in this realization for the past decade, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that we saw it coming a few decades ago… and yet, still fall into the trap all the time.
It’s also worth noting that people have been trying (and failing) to implement the virtual reality Metaverse since the book came out. Right now, Mark Zuckerberg is literally dumping billions into his conception of the Metaverse… and no one is biting. It’s funny to read, though, that even Stephenson recognized the limitations of the VR approach:
And when hackers are hacking, they don’t mess around with the superficial world of Metaverses and avatars. They descend below this surface layer and into the netherworld of code and tangled nam-shubs that supports it, where everything that you see in the metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three-dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic page.
Snow Crash, Page 401
I have not really played around with VR much, but the notion of bulky goggles is enough to make me think it won’t find much of a mass audience until we get less obtrusive methods of connecting and viewing a VR space. And, like, they have their own drawbacks. The notion of plugging something directly into your eyeballs or jacking the eye’s connection to the brain somehow seems… inadvisable. I dunno, maybe contact lenses might work?
So not everything has aged quite as well (there’s a whole subplot about an infection that is spread through vaccines, which is a conspiracy theory that is obviously a more touchy subject these days). Anywho, it’s still a great book, and worth revisiting if you haven’t read it in a while. The “never-seen-before material” at the end of the book comes in screenplay form, and provides a bit of background for the character of Lagos, who people mostly just talk about in the rest of the novel. It’s a nice treat for Stephenson obsessives like myself, but mostly unnecessary.
Last week, I introduced 50 From 50, a resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies). Now I need to catch up with the movies I’ve already watched this year that qualify. Fair warning, I watched most of these a while ago, so recollections may be a bit sparser than normal. Alright, let’s get to it:
Argentina – Argentina, 1985 – Oscar-nominated courtroom drama about a team of lawyers tasked with prosecuting the heads of Argentina’s former military dictatorship. Sturdy, well crafted drama here that doesn’t play up legal tricks or clever redirects, instead relying on truly devastating testimony from a wide range of victims. There are obviously politics at play outside the courtroom, and the movie does make some overtures towards suspense with threats against the lawyers, but it’s clear that this movie’s heart is with the testimony.
I’m not an expert in Argentina’s politics or history, but the ideas at the movie’s core are pretty universal and the aforementioned testimony would be effective against even the most cynical audiences, even if some of the intrigue and machinations outside the courtroom are a bit overheated. I can see why this was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar (and I liked this better than the eventual winner, All Quiet on the Western Front). Available on Amazon Prime. ***
Germany – Nekromantik – This is one of those movies that would qualify for a Weird Movie of the Week treatment. This was part of Joe Bob’s Vicious Vegas Valentine, and the plot is a doozy: “A street sweeper who cleans up after grisly accidents brings home a full corpse for him and his wife to enjoy sexually, but is dismayed to see that his wife prefers the corpse over him.” A notorious and transgressive film that offers little more than shock value. There is something admirable about the film’s scuzzy dedication to its notoriety and this is the sort of thing that only horror movies try to confront… but none of that makes the experience of watching it any better. Even at just 71 minutes, this feels excruciating. Available on Shudder. *
Hong Kong – Throw Down – Johnny To’s elegiac drama about the unlikely friendship that develops between a former Judo champion, an up and coming Judo competitor, and an aspiring singer. I guess you could technically call this a martial arts movie, and there are several formal and informal Judo fights strewn throughout the movie, but it’s the drama, perseverance, and friendship between three unlikely people that provides the true backbone. It’s a story about getting thrown down, but getting back up again. Both literally, in the case of Judo competitors, and metaphorically, in the case of a singer facing a string of rejections.
To’s more dramatic features often feature this sort of elliptical storytelling method of repeating motifs throughout the film, and it’s deployed quite well here. A trick he no doubt learned from watching Akira Kurosawa movies – Throw Down is dedicated to Kurosawa, and prominently features several references to Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa’s directorial debut, also about a Judo fighter). Funnily enough, the dedication is at the end of the movie “Dedicated to Akira Kurosawa, The Greatest Filmmaker” and is immediately followed by an advertisement for Gillette (who I guess helped finance the movie). As an action filmmaker, To has always seemed more like a chess player (as opposed to the more typical ballet that typically populates Hong Kong action), and he uses that sort of framing and blocking about midway through the film when all of the people who want things (mostly debts) from our three protagonists all converge at a nightclub and lay out their complaints simultaneously. It’s all a bit much, but it’s that sort of giddy filmmaking exercise that makes the movie worthwhile.
I don’t know that it’s To’s best, but it’s definitely one of his more interesting features and the recent Criterion release looks great. It’s the most interesting movie in this post, and worth checking out, even if you’re not into Judo or martial arts movies. Available on Criterion. ***
Italy – 1990: The Bronx Warriors – Enzo Castellari’s “homage” to Escape from New York and The Warriors is a pretty typical example of Italian exploitation schlock. There’s nothing particularly original here, and while it looks decent enough, it’s clearly got a lower production value and worse acting than the films it steals from. I guess the Vic Morrow performance as the world’s most deadly mailman is notable, and there’s a compulsive watchability to the whole exercise that is hard to deny, even if it shouldn’t strictly be called “good”. Not sure I enjoyed it enough to seek out the sequels, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to watching them either. Available on Amazon Prime. **
Russia – Major Grom: Plague Doctor – Russian comic book adaptation about a police officer named Igor Grom. A loose cannon that doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but his own (and sometimes not even those), he’s on the trail of a vigilante dressed up in a Plague Doctor costume who is murdering corrupt bureaucrats and greedy businessfolk in spectacular, wrist-mounted flame-thrower fashion. There’s an energy to the proceedings and it’s a pretty easy-going watch but the film is definitely too long and the twists are a little underwhelming. It’s diverting and entertaining enough, but it’s not really breaking any new ground or executing better than tons of other movies that do the same sort of thing. Available on Netflix. **
Stay tuned, for I’ve been making some good progress on the challenge (I’m now at 13 movies from 13 different countries) and am almost caught up to where I should be at this time of year. More reviews incoming!
This year, I will watch 50 movies from 50 different countries. From time to time, I’ve done movie-based resolutions like this in the past (like the 1978 Project or the similarly titled 50 Under 50), and I’ve found it to be an edifying experience. Since it’s already March and since this particular resolution is perhaps a little more complicated than the previous two, I figure some guidelines are in order:
I have to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries, and I’m going to exclude the Anglosphere countries like USA, UK, Canada, etc…
Despite the Anglosphere exclusion, the language of the movie can still be English (though I expect most will not be)
All movies must be new-to-me
Movies from multiple origin countries can get tricky, but those movies can only count towards one primary country (i.e. 1 of the 50), otherwise I could just watch Samsara and get 15 countries under my belt.
A lot of movies are co-financed by the USA despite being made elsewhere, and for the most part, they won’t count due to the exclusion mentioned above. So Knock at the Cabin is clearly a US movie, despite countries of origin being USA, China, and Japan.
I toyed with the idea that I should include countries from every continent, but obviously Antarctica is out, Australia is already excluded, and I’ve already covered every continent except Africa… so let’s just say that I should include an African country/film on the list.
I should watch at least 20 movies from at least 1 of the countries on the list. Potential candidates include Hong Kong, Italy, France, Japan, and Korea, but we’ll have to see how this shakes out.
This will be retroactive and start from the beginning of this year.
One reason I’ve tried to add these rules is that almost every year, I probably do watch 50 movies from 50 different countries just in the random course of movie watching (or perhaps due to the vagaries of multiple origin countries). So excluding the US stuff cuts down on a lot of that, and ensuring I watch 20 (or more) movies from a single country also adds some more complexity to the challenge.
I will try to keep this post updated with a running list of the 50 films (eventually with links to reviews, etc…)
There are a couple of movies that are hard to classify (i.e. is Speak No Evil Denmark or The Netherlands?), but even with those, I’m a few movies behind on this resolution… but that’s not half bad considering I’m only starting now. The current map provided by Letterboxd stats is perhaps a bit misleading due to the prevalence of multiple countries of origin and US productions including other countries, but it will be interesting to see how the map looks at the end of the year…
So there you have it. Reviews for the above mentioned movies are incoming, and we’re off!
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we learned that smoking causes coughing. This time, we, uh, get stuck in a porta potty. So there’s this low-budget gimmick that some movies try where the grand majority of the action takes place in a single, confined location. Think movies like Buried, Locke, or Phone Booth. Well, Holy Shit! joins their ranks with a decidedly more scatalogical premise:
An architect regains consciousness in a locked portaloo – known in German vernacular by the ‘Dixi’ brand name – on a building site where a detonation is being prepared. As he desperately tries to find ways of escaping this ‘prison’ before potentially being blown to smithereens, he realizes who has put him into this predicament. Now he has to do everything in his power to get out alive…
I guess it’s a good thing smell-o-vision never caught on. Holy Shit! is currently an exclusive release on Screambox, a horror-themed streaming service that isn’t Shudder, so I probably won’t be able to get to this for a while… but it sounds gross and fun.
Just the usual collection of links dumped from the depths of ye olde internets:
It can be annoying to be online – Bijan Stephen responds to a viral article declaring that “We are a generation of adult babies,” which is, of course, based mostly on what people do online (and, more specifically, on social media). Which, as those of us who’ve been on the internets for a while know, is not the same thing as real life.
The thing about this that I really don’t like, other than its childish universalizing, is that it doesn’t actually describe offline behavior. The internet is a place where people post things — and, crucially at this juncture, where people know what it means to post things. In other words: at this point, posting is performance. You do it with an awareness that other people can see what you’re doing; everyone knows that anything posted online can go viral and change the poster’s life. …
A better piece might have asked: why do the algorithms that govern online popularity incentivize people posting infantile sensory content? For my own part I’d guess the answer is some combination of “it’s inoffensive and therefore appealing to many different kinds of people” and “people have very strong reactions to it” — which is a different way of saying that it boosts engagement and therefore increases a site’s all-important growth metrics.
Astronomers still scratching their heads over population of ocean-world exoplanets – The notion that earth-like water worlds might be rare is certainly a valid conjecture, but there’s nothing head-scratching about this. As per usual, the details of exoplanet detection are the confounding factor, not the results. Still, the idea that water worlds are rare could represent a great filter would be good news, I guess. If we could ever confirm it (which would be difficult).
The Stunt Awards – I meant to mention this last week: After decades of fruitless lobbying to the Academy Awards, which still doesn’t have a Best Stunt Oscar, Vulture writers (led by Bilge Ebiri and Brandon Streussnig) decided to just do their own. And it’s good! Folks like Scott Adkins and Albert Pyun garnered awards, which is fantastic (and exactly the sort of thing the Oscars might get some mileage out of if they ever get their act together).
It’s Evil and Someone is Going to Make It – March is rife with jokey March Madness style brackets for goofy stuff, but I do kinda love this one, which is about fictional companies with evil products. OCP, Cyberdyne Systems, etc… Fun!
Bad Projection Is Ruining the Movie Theater Experience – If streaming isn’t doing so great… well, neither are theaters. I’m lucky in that my local suburban cadre of Regal theaters seem to be pretty well run (in that I don’t get a lot of the issues described in this article), but if theaters can get their act together, maybe they can scrape back some share from the streamers (so far, so good this year, at least).
Roundball Rock – It’s always funny when you see an old SNL sketch and you suddenly recognize Tim Robinson (who clearly had a hand writing this sketch).
Is 2023 the year the Oscars turn things around? Whatever hot takes you have about The Slap*, I’m guessing at least some folks will tune in to see if something crazy happens again. Also of note: an actual host (rather than the non-host platoon they’ve been relying on) who seems like he might actually just make fun of the movies again (Kimmel’s Oscars Trailer was fantastic and a solid lampoon of Top Gun: Maverick). Also: movies people actually watched are nominated (in addition to a bunch of stuff no one’s heard of, but still). Finally, I’m pretty sure they reversed course from last year’s weird “we’re not actually going to present important awards” strategy that was clearly dumb.
So it’s also time for the annual reminder that the Oscars broadcast is the biggest source of income for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is actually a very useful organization. As Steven Soderberg noted a few years ago, what the Academy does for film archiving and preservation alone should be praised, and it’s all paid for by the broadcast. We all have our complaints about the Oscars, but actually putting on the show is difficult and it does have a lot of benefits for the industry and cinema as a whole. Anyway, let’s look at the categories and make some predictions:
2023 Oscars Predictions
Best Picture:Everything Everywhere All at Once. This film has all the momentum and precursor awards, but there are two potential spoiling factors. One is that this is not a movie that does well with the olds, and older people are still a big proportion of the Academy (perhaps recent diversity pushes have younged things up a bit though). Second is that Best Picture is a ranked vote, meaning that divisive movies tend to not do as well, and there’s a certain proportion of the Academy here that just doesn’t get EEAAO. All that being said, I think it’s still going to take home the Oscar. All Quiet on the Western Front has also been doing well and it does have some standard Oscar traits (i.e. epic war movie, etc…), but I don’t think it will get Best Picture because it will win other awards and most voters will think that’s enough (also: not sure how the Netflix association impacts things. Dark Horse chance for Top Gun: Maverick (the movie that saved Hollywood!) but I ultimately think that EEAAO will take it.
Best Director: Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Ever since they expanded the Best Picture field to include up to 10 nominees, the Best Director award has diverged from Picture. I’m betting that this trend will reverse for this year, but there’s still a decent enough chance that Steven Spielberg will get this just because everyone likes him and The Fabelmans is semi-autobiographical, etc… Very Dark Horse chance for Todd Field and Tár (that movie still seems to be the critical favorite, the one people who do “Should Win” picks are choosing, and so on…)
Best Actress: Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once. This one is not certain, and Cate Blanchett in Tár has a lot of buzz too (as much as I love Michelle Yeoh, I personally think Blanchett’s performance is really next level stuff). Still, I’m betting on an EEAAO kinda night. Funniest possible win: Ana De Armas for Blonde. That will not happen, but if it did: just scortching, nuclear hot takes on Twitter.
Best Actor: Brendan Fraser in The Whale. He’s won some precursors, but again, not a lock here. But the Oscars loves a comeback story, and everyone loves Fraser. Austin Butler in Elvis is certainly quite possible though. The Academy loves biopics and actors who portray real people. Basically, whoever wins this award got it because they wore a fat suit. Dark Horse is Colin Farrell in The Banshees of Inisherin (who is probably the critical consensus pick).
Best Supporting Actress: Jamie Lee Curtis in Everything Everywhere All at Once. This is not a lock, but Curtis has a lot of momentum and goodwill coming to her (this is one of those Lifetime Achievement awards). Of course, so does Angela Bassett and she’s also got a Lifetime Achievement thing, but I’m betting Black Panther: Wakanda Forever doesn’t have enough heat to get her the award (and EEAAO has tons of buzz and momentum).
Best Adapted Screenplay: Women Talking. This movie has the buzz and the Academy will want to make the statement that yes, women are talking and men are listening. Or something. But seriously, I think there’s some desire to reward this movie and writer/director Sarah Polley, and this is the best place to put it.
And those are the categories I pick every year. Why don’t I pick the others? It’s a mystery! Anywho, if you’re a weirdo and want to plumb the depths of the Kaedrin archives for old Oscars commentary (if you go far back enough, you can even read what used to be called “liveblogging” of the event, which is what we did before Twitter), all my previous entries are here: [2022 | 2019]   | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004] (I took a couple of years off there for various reasons). If you are watching and on Twitter, I’m @mciocco (and when the musical performances start, I’ll be posting alcohol @kaedrinbeer). I don’t usually post much, but I’ll be around and obsessively reading Film twitter’s commentary/jokes. I may post a dumb “who should host the Oscars” poll, like I did last year…
* My Biggest hot take about “The Slap” is that it’s a terrible shame this event has overshadowed the television series of the same name about the slap that rocked a community, but that’s just me. Also because “The Pursuit of Slappyness” was right there.
Just a series of quick hits and tasting notes on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:
Poker Face – This Rian Johnson led Natasha Lyonne starring mystery of the week TV series is great. Really enjoyable stuff, and while there’s some sort of overarching storyline, the episodes are mostly standalone mysteries. The Columbo-esque formula is also quite effective, with the first 10-20 minutes of each episode being about the crime, then flashing back to how Lyonne gets involved and investigates.
The “bullshit” conceit is a bit silly, but they don’t overdo it, and the mysteries are all well thought out and twisty in the best way (the one with the stage play was great, and when you find out about the cool old folks’ misdeeds, I laughed out loud). Since Lyonne is not playing a cop, the comeuppance is not always perfect (the race car one, in particular), but you still get the thrill of the solve (more of a howdunnit than a whodunnit, but still). Worth seeking out!
Andor – I don’t get it. Everyone says this is the best Star Wars stuff since the originals, but after slogging through 3 episodes that should have been about one single hour of story, I don’t get it. The third episode was markedly better than the first two, and everyone is telling me that it continues to get better as the series progresses, but I’m still annoyed at the first three episodes.
The Last of Us – The fungal zombie apocalypse gets a prestige TV treatment, to mostly good effect. It still feels a little like “prestige Walking Dead” and I was never a big fan of that show, but boiling it down to a mostly two character odd-couple buddy travelogue works reasonably well. It occasionally veers into the typical, bog standard zombie notes of “well, the fungus zombie just murdered my girlfriend, but the real monster is other human beings!” and it doesn’t have the gore quotient of Walking Dead, but it works well enough for what it is. I can see maybe one more season of this before it gets really grating. For now it’s enjoyable enough.
Knock at the Cabin – M. Night Shyamalan provides sturdy, tense craft behind a somewhat unsatisfying story that nonetheless has some thematic heft around the nature of sacrifice that’s worth exploring. Dave Bautista does exceptional work, and the rest of the cast is pretty good too.
The twist is that there is no twist, and the ending tries to split the difference between the book’s rather bleak ending (probably a no go for any actual filmic adaptation) and a truly happy ending, leaving us with a sorta bittersweet thing that works ok, but isn’t super satisfying. Again, lots of thematic stuff to chew on and Shyamalan provides the visually compelling craft, so this isn’t just a rote thriller, but it’s not exactly perfect either.
Infinity Pool – Brandon Cronenberg continues to follow in his father’s footsteps, adding a little more stylistic artifice to the body horror and weirdly new arenas of science that seem to populate these movies. I think this is perhaps a little more successful and approachable than Possessor, but they’re both of a piece.
There’s again some thematic heft here around doubles and existential crises and so on, but if you can get past some of the weird hedonistic parties and violence, it’s hard not to appreciate Mia Goth’s unhinged performance. Interesting stuff and Cronenberg is one to keep an eye on, but he hasn’t hit anything out of the park just yet.
All Quiet on the Western Front (2022 and 1930) – I watched both of these because the latter one was nominated for Best Picture. Short story is that the original covers more ground and makes better anti-war points than the remake, which is a technical marvel, to be sure, but somehow covers much less ground in around the same runtime. Some of the really effective points in the original are contained off the battlefield, which the remake tends to downplay (while playing up the diplomatic stuff). It’s all still effective and it’s the sort of thing that the Academy Awards loves, so it’s not surprising or completely unwarranted, but I prefer the original. For some reason, the musical score in the remake seems to be getting a lot of buzz, which confounds me – the whole electronic nah nuh nuh thing took me out of the movie every damn time, it felt anachronistic and too slight. If you’re going to do that sort of thing, lean into it. Anyway, interesting movie, but certainly not the best of the year.
My Dinner with Andre – Literally two people sitting at a table in a restaurant having a conversation for two-ish hours. More interesting than that sounds, but some of the conversation also goes a bit too far up its own arse. But the saving grace is that towards the end, Wallace Shawn gets to push back on Andre Gregory’s wanking, and basically says something to the effect of “I don’t know what the hell you’re even talking about anymore!?” Both the characters contradict themselves throughout the conversation, which I think is part of the point. Anyway, more interesting than I feared, but not exactly a barn burner either. Glad I finally caught up with it.
The Wind and the Lion – John Milius wrote and directed this historical… adventure? It’s hard to peg this thing down. Sean Connery plays a Berber chieftain, which is a bit of a stretch, but then his starpower might carry the day. Brian Keith does interesting work as Theodore Roosevelt. Candice Bergen has good chemistry with Connery. The whole thing has a bit of an exaggerated air, a little hammy at times, but Milius’ trademark tough guy dialogue shows up here and there. An interesting, weird little movie.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie – Between last year’s spate of murder mystery movies and Poker Face, I’ve been getting into the mystery genre a bit and decided to start at the beginning of Christie’s Poirot series. This first Poirot book comports itself well enough, though obviously some of the twists and turns are not as surprising as they perhaps once were. That said, it holds up remarkably well for a 100 year old mystery novel. I also read The Murder on the Links (the second novel in the series) and Poirot Investigates (a short story collection with a bunch of great, simpler stories). A few themes have emerged, Poirot’s catchphrases of “little grey cells”, “a man of method”, and his habit of referring to himself as “Papa Poirot” are all pretty funny. Also, Captain Hastings is such a moron, it’s hilarious how often Poirot (or Christie) takes to humiliating him in an absolutely merciless fashion. Anyway, these are fun, I will be reading more of them (and probably branch out to Miss Marple or whatever)
Tales of the Black Widowers, by Isaac Asimov – When Asimov took a break from Science Fiction for a few decades, he did still write fiction, and this collection of short stories is actually pretty fun. These are also mysteries, but they distinguish themselves by being mostly about trivialities, rather than murder (though there was one involving a death). Asimov’s mysteries tend to revolve more around wordplay than anything else, but that’s an interesting contrast to Agatha Christie. So far, these short stories are all pretty fun, though I suspect things might get a bit repetitive over time. Still, as a short collection, it’s great stuff.
Earthblood and Other Stories, by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown – Started this in January as part of Vintage SF Month, but it turned out to be something of a slog. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff buried here about a long-lost Earth and legends of humans, but it’s caught up in an episodic narrative with poorly drawn action. Normally a galactic travelogue with carnies, pirates, and military intrigue would sound like a lot of fun, but none of it really panned out here. Every episode seemed simultaneously boring and slow but also truncated and the shifts happen suddenly. I just was not able to get on its wavelength, I guess. The “other stories” are marginally better, but despite some of them ostensibly happening in the same universe involving the same aliens, they are all completely disconnected and even conflicting in nature. Not especially recommended.
Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, by Sarah Parcak – A look into the young field of satellite archaeology, this unfortunately doesn’t spend that much time on the space-bound nature of the exploration, and most of the book is about how satellites guide traditional, boots-on-the-ground archaeology. Which, when you think about it, makes a whole lot of sense, but the premise feels like it promised more than what we get. Interesting enough for what it is, but not exactly a must-read.
We’re also about to embark on the annual beer slowdown, so I’ve got a few non-beer things lined up, including a local distillery’s 6 year old Rye. I was thinking of dipping my toes into the brandy world this year as well. Time will tell. Recommendations welcome!
That about does it for this round of tasting notes, stay tuned for moar!
So we conclude our recap of last year’s movies with a traditional top 10 list of my favorite movies of 2022, only a month and a half (or so) late! This marks the seventeenth year in a row that I’ve posted a top 10. For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
From an industry perspective, theatrical moviegoing had a couple of big wins this year, while streaming venues are fraying. We still have not returned to pre-pandemic norms and fears about theatrical business are still warranted, but there does seem to be an acknowledgement that streaming can’t be the end-all-be-all delivery of movies.
On a more personal note, this year’s list is much lighter in tone than last year, which tended towards dark, dreary tales. That’s not to say that it’s all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, there are a couple of harrowing experiences in the list, but it’s a little more balanced this year. I don’t explicitly try to balance these top 10 lists, but it is neat when you get a good variety in the mix (this year, we’ve got a documentary, an animated feature, a couple of foreign flicks, etc..) Perhaps this speaks to broad interests, but on the other hand, there are two murder mysteries on the list, so perhaps I’m making too much of the mix.
As of this writing, this top 10 list is pulling from a total of 104 movies I’ve seen that could be considered a 2022 release. This is less than your usual critic, but probably more than your typical moviegoer. Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s always worth noting that due to release schedules (especially in these plague years), some movies from 2021 that didn’t become available until 2022 qualify for this list. Alrighty then, I think we’ve covered all our bases, so let’s get to the feature presentation:
Top Ten Movies of 2022
* In roughly reverse order
Confess, Fletch – Criminally underseen reboot of a franchise that was perhaps too reliant on its original star’s smarm. Jon Hamm’s Fletch certainly retains the acidic snark, dry delivery, and insouciance of the character, while toning down the costumes and seemingly improvised dialogue. There’s a great supporting cast as well, and in the end, it’s just a great, breezy little flick that slipped through the cracks this year (but is already starting to gain a following as it continues to be discovered by audiences)
See How They Run – Another breezy murder mystery, this one a period piece with Agatha Christie flavor. The story is all well and good, but it’s the comedic performance of Saoirse Ronan as Constable Stalker that steals the show. A good supporting cast and enough dry wit to carry the day, this is a smart, self-aware spin on the genre that doesn’t stray too far or feel smug or self-satisified.
Everything Everywhere All at Once – Maximalist, hyper-kinetic tale that boils down to a rather simple story, it manages to combine a moving, sentimental family drama with silly bombast. Bold, adventurous filmmaking at its best. Like The Matrix before it, the only real drawback to the movie is some of its dumber fans (i.e. nothing to do with the movie itself).
Jackass Forever – It’s tempting to see this as nothing more than a feature length version of the “Man Getting Hit by Football” gag from the Simpsons, but I dare say that there is something more poignant going on here. This series has been going for decades now, and there’s something interesting about the aging cast and infusion of new talent, and the way human beings bond and react to stimuli (i.e. most of us generally try to avoid the situations these folks seek out). Anyway, there’s a whole sequence where a guy gets punched in the nuts by a UFC champion, so on this list it goes.
Athena – This French movie about an uprising in a poor neighborhood, sparked by a video of police beating a child to death, is comprised mostly of virtuosic long-takes. Bold, immersive filmmaking with astonishing set-pieces and a conscience too. The ending is almost comically provocative and presumably divisive, and the whole exercise could seem showy, but… I like that sort of thing, so here we are.
Three Thousand Years of Longing – George Miller’s follow up to Mad Max: Fury Road was not what anyone expected, and honestly, it’s not really what it seems either. I mean, it is mostly about two people talking, but Miller can’t help but inject energy and action and visual lushness into almost every frame of this story about stories. There’s a lot to chew on here, and some exceptional performances from the two leads. One of the biggest surprises of the year for me.
A Hero – There are a lot of great filmmakers in the world, but Asghar Farhadi may be the best at crafting dramas. This one centers around small decisions that snowball into giant avalanches of consequence. It has a lot to say about the ways in which communities perceive actions and the way small mistakes or misstatements can spiral out of hand very quickly. It’s a keenly observed bit of drama that doesn’t feel the need to take sides, and increasingly relevant in these times that are so mediated by outraged social media.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood – Richard Linklater has this superpower of being able to evoke nostalgia for a time when you were not alive. In this case, we get a look at 1969 Houston through the eyes of a 10 year old. Simple family interactions and nostalgia mixed with a more fantastical take on a secret NASA trip to the moon, all done through Linklater’s preferred (and rather handsome) rotoscoped animation style.
Nope – It’s messier than Jordan Peele’s previous efforts, but I can’t help but admire the ambition and weirdness on display here. There’s a lot to chew on with regards to narratives, spectacle, and what it takes to create something for audiences and how audiences are in thrall to that spectacle. But Peele doesn’t forget to make it entertaining either, which is a neat trick if you can pull it off. It won’t work for everyone, but it did for me…
Top Gun: Maverick – Pure action spectacle and the best big screen experience of the year, bar none. There are so many things about this movie that shouldn’t work, that I normally hate in a movie, but perhaps through Tom Cruise’s pure force of will, somehow become endearing and breathlessly entertaining. Just pure entertainment, an adrenaline shot to the theatrical experience. I don’t understand how any of this is possible, but I’m glad it is.
Ambulance – Michael Bay’s latest didn’t do very well at the box office and it is perhaps a tad overlong, but it’s still quite the action picture. Bay makes great use of drones and location shooting (which is a breath of fresh air in these days of bland green screen actioners) and while it does feature some of his trademark juvenile schtick, it’s a schtick that works well here. Very nearly made the top 10…
Babylon – Damien Chazelle’s ode to the decadence and depravity of early Hollywood has some crackerjack sequences and some wonderful performances, but is far too long and indulgent. Still, despite all its excesses and coke-fueled hijinks, there’s some depth and thematic heft about art and movies and those that make them that rings true.
Barbarian – Writer/director Zach Cregger’s debut is a fun ride with an unconventional structure and some well balanced tonal shifts between humor and horror that are pulled off with flare and style. It’s one of those movies that’s perhaps best seen when you know as little as possible going in, so that you’ll be suitably surprised when the narrative shifts one way or the other. Another one I genuinely considered for the top 10 but just fell a tad short…
Crimes of the Future – David Cronenberg returns to the pulsating, fleshy world of body horror and while it doesn’t quite connect the way his earlier work does, it does feel like a more mature effort (as befits his stature). Featuring some deeply weird performances, especially from Kristen Stewart, and yet another story about art, this time a rather unconventional, fleshy sort of art, but art nonetheless. If this winds up being Cronenberg’s last film, it would make for an interesting capper (though I suspect we’ll be seeing more from him soon enough).
Decision to Leave – Park Chan Wook takes bits and pieces from Basic Instinct and Vertigo, tosses them in a blender with Korean culture, and you wind up with this pulpy detective story featuring some bittersweet romance and a confounding ending that will leave you reeling. A bit too long with a flashback structure that doesn’t always work (though it’s in line with his previous work), this nonetheless manages to keep things intriguing enough throughout the runtime and it’s visually impressive as well. Certainly worth a look…
The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical coming of age drama is at its best when it focuses on the filmmaking aspects of the story. The messy family drama is perhaps less cohesive, though it still rings true, and when it intersects with the filmmaking, as in the sequence where Sammy Fabelman edits home movies from the family’s recent vacation and makes a shocking discovery (a sequence that recalls Blow Up and Blow Out without feeling derivative at all), it becomes gold. We take late-stage Spielberg for granted, I think, but I’ll always be in line to see what he has cooking…
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Rian Johnson’s much anticipated follow-up to Knives Out (a movie I love) manages to recapture a certain element of humor and pure entertainment, but can’t quite reach the heights of the first film. I think the key reason can by summed up by paraphrasing some dialog from the movie: the mystery’s solution is dumb. So dumb it’s brilliant? No! It’s just dumb. Which is kinda the point, so it’s hard to harp too much on it, but it just doesn’t hang together as well as the first film. It’s still quite well done though and there’s lots to like about it.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – Gorgeously appointed stop motion version of the classic story, with some of Guillermo del Toro’s distinct interests thrown into the mix. A bit darker than your usually take on Pinocchio, with some heavier themes in terms of fascism and obedience, which make the movie a tad too long and messy, but it tugs at the right heartstrings and deserves a bigger audience.
Kimi – Steven Soderbergh has made a habit of delivering zippy, taut little thrillers of late, and this most recent example is one of the few to directly acknowledge the pandemic, amongst other relevant topics, in a tense, entertaining way. This is the sort of mid-budget flick that so many of us crave, and yet I suspect it was underseen (in part due to its direct-to-streaming release). Almost made the top 10, and well worth seeking out.
The Menu – What seemed like it would be a rote, quasi-high concept thriller turned out to have a little more on its mind than I thought. Interesting commentary on art, consumers, the service industry, and so on, with a few great performances and some clever conceits that I was simply not expecting. Much better than the trailers/previews would have you believe.
The Northman – Robert Eggers continues his interesting arthouse takes on pulpy material, but despite some pacing issues in the middle, this is probably his most accessible film to date. Plenty of gory violence and action, but gorgeous and filled with Eggers’ trademark verisimilitude (though it’s obviously more stylized here).
RRR – High octane Indian action bromance flick that is the rare 3 hour movie that earns its runtime (though it flags a bit after intermission, but that’s kinda the point of an intermission). Excellent dance battle, with several notable action set pieces that are completely absurd but joyously entertaining. It’s got some martial arts panache mixed with big budget (but still obvious) CG action that somehow feels fresh. There’s a lot of hyperbole out there about this, and some mixed political reads, but hey, there’s a scene where one guy fights another guy by throwing a tiger at him.
Tár – The critical consensus pick of the year and for good reason. A rise and (mostly) fall drama touching on #MeToo and cancel culture and a bunch of other modern obsessions, with a towering performance from Cate Blanchett at it’s core. Well observed, supple filmmaking at its best.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story – This pitch perfect parody of music biopics perhaps treads similar ground as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but given the subject, it’s a fitting approach. Certainly one of the funniest movies of the year and criminally underseen due to, once again, a bizarre direct-to-streaming release strategy (it’s free, but you need to sign up for Roku.) Indeed, this was another one that was on the bubble for inclusion in the top 10.
X – Ti West brings visual flare and thematic heft to a trashy quasi-slasher story. The mix of sex and violence and taboo on display here represents a particular strain of horror film that just feels dirty and transgressive and uncomfortable. Good performances, well executed slasher violence, but also some simple, disquieting sequences that are subtle but very effective. I liked this a bit better than the surprise prequel Pearl that came out a few months after, but I’m obviously excited to see the forthcoming sequel, MaXXine.
Despite having watched over a hundred movies made in 2022, there are plenty that I probably should have caught up with. Sometimes they weren’t readily available, sometimes I couldn’t muster up the will to get to the theater, sometimes I just didn’t wanna watch (because reasons, that’s why). I will almost certainly end up seeing some of these and loving them, which is why the Kaedrin Movie Awards always has a category about the previous year’s movie…