Archive for December 2022

The Year in Review 2022

December 26, 2022

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It wasn’t that long ago — five years ago, okay, an eternity ago — that Tom Cruise’s status as a big movie star was far from assured. The Mission: Impossible movies continued to be a reliable ATM for him, but never bigger than $220 million domestic. Other than that franchise, Cruise spent much of the 2010s either trying other franchises that sputtered out (The Mummy, Jack Reacher) or making big whiffs in relation to cost (example: Oblivion, which made $89 million domestic against a $120 million budget). Then, two years into the pandemic, Cruise released a much-belated (and delayed) sequel to a hit from 36 years ago. Result: biggest hit of the year (unless it gets Avatarred in the weeks to come), fifth biggest domestic hit of all time.

Paramount, which has the next two Mission: Impossible movies (and of course Top Gun: Maverick, the success story noted above), must be breathing easier as we trudge into 2023. And Disney can’t complain — their Marvel shingle gave them three of the year’s top ten domestic hits. Four, if you count Sony’s Spider-Man: Far from Home that debuted in late 2021 and played well into the new year of 2022 — it’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and Disney gets to wet their beak a little for that. The other majors had successes here and there. As usual, though, the ultimate loser was the moviegoer looking for originality and/or smaller films for grown-ups.

As seems to have become the annual reality, every film on the year-end top-ten domestic box office list is … well, I used to say “either a sequel or based on an existing popular IP in another medium,” but this year they’re all sequels* (and some are also adapted from another medium — all those comic-book flicks). You have to move down to #12 for a movie that isn’t a sequel or based on another popular work — and it was Elvis, nobody’s idea of an indie film about an obscure musician. A couple of notches down, at #14, was Jordan Peele’s Nope, which went the distance on the power of Peele’s name and the usual what-is-it-about? marketing. It’s good, I guess, that such an anti-genre movie could make it into the top twenty, and also that the Boomers had a movie they could enjoy in Elvis.

The Oscars this year, as has also become the custom, will be loaded with nominations for movies that used to be good for at least $40 or $50 million but have stalled at below $10 mil. Expect to see things like The Banshees of Inisherin ($8.9m, #83) and Tár ($5.5 mil, #96) among the honorees, but don’t rule out Top Gun, which may get a bunch of nods including Best Picture just to ensure ratings and a rooting interest for the mass audience. Then there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, a sleeper word-of-mouth hit in relation to cost that nonetheless came in at #27, right below Morbius, everyone’s favorite thing to laugh at in 2022. Nominations might goose some or all of these up the chart a little, but only a little, since many of them are already streaming or will be by January 24, when the nominees are announced.

Streaming, Disney will say, killed the box-office prospects of their theatrically-released efforts Lightyear and Strange World. Those movies, other folks said, were the kind of shrugged-at bowls of oatmeal that now go directly to the Disney+ streamer. Increasingly, people just want to stay in and binge-watch things; Netflix’s Wednesday and Disney+’s Andor, to name just two, got the kind of buzz, engagement, and watercooler chat (social-media chat, now) that most new movies can only wish for. The rare event that can bestir the recalcitrant American butt, like Top Gun or, at the other end of the spectrum, Everything Everywhere is to be valued, studied … and feared. Every year we get closer and closer to art in general becoming solely (rather than mostly) a popularity contest, and every year we see fewer and fewer exceptions to that rule. There was a time when Steven Spielberg owned the box office. Now? You couldn’t pay people to get out of the house for West Side Story last year or The Fabelmans this year. But you never know. This time last year, Tom Cruise was sitting pretty, but now he’s sitting pretty on the box-office throne. (Cruise hasn’t been in a #1-of-the-year hit since 1988’s Rain Man, and he wasn’t even the star!) Spielberg might go back there. Or he might not. It’s up to you, isn’t it? 

*Okay, The Batman is a reboot, not a sequel; still, it’s the umpty-umpth goddamn movie featuring Batman, and I think of it as a non-sequel that, in the context of familiar and popular characters that people want to see over and over again, might as well be a sequel.

The Banshees of Inisherin

December 18, 2022


The writer-director Martin McDonagh is now four for four in my book with The Banshees of Inisherin, a melancholy Irish piece about loneliness, grievances, and other depressing things. Take the kids and make it a Christmas outing! But the movie is not nearly as hopelessly grim as it may sound. There are the lovely landscapes (Inishmore and Achill Island stand in for the fictional Inisherin, an isle off the coast of Ireland), the rich-flavored music by Carter Burwell, and the strong performances by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and others in the small cast. The narrative may be a downer, but the work offers pleasure. 

The conflict seems simple. Every day at 2pm, Pádraic (Farrell) meets Colm (Gleeson) at the latter’s house, and they head off to the pub. Except that Colm has decided he’s not up for that anymore. “I just don’t like you no more,” he informs Pádraic, without any particular malice. What he doesn’t like no more, we come to gather, has more to do with what Pádraic represents — sitting around with pints, gabbing about nothing, killing the decreasing hours Colm has left. Colm plays the fiddle, composes songs for it, and would like to leave some sort of legacy to mark his having been here other than being an amiable sounding board for an increasingly drunk Pádraic. Colm raises the stakes: if Pádraic doesn’t leave Colm alone, Colm will take his sheep shears to his own fingers, one by one.

Some will read resonances with the Troubles in these two men’s troubles — the film unfolds in 1923, and the cannonfire and rifle cracks of Ireland’s Civil War carry across the water to Inisherin — but at one point I saw the struggle here as commentary on how artists often feel the need to stand apart, hunker down in solitude and write their songs (or their screenplays), to the chagrin of their social mates — without whom the artist would have less human material as inspiration. Honestly, though, there are too many elements floating around in the narrative to allow us to lock it down to one meaning. For example, Pádraic’s sister Siobhán (Condon) is a sane female presence in this largely male ensemble, calling out foolishness whenever necessary, but Condon scrapes the barnacles of cliché from the character. Siobhán doesn’t really fit with my artist theory, and maybe that’s her whole point as a person, not fitting. The subtle, insistent roles of animals in the film, too, seem to exist on a separate plane while intersecting emotionally with the humans. In general, the actors here burst the barriers of possible stereotype; Farrell and Gleeson invest the blinkered men with layers of feeling, so that we never doubt their actions however wild they get.

Pádraic just can’t leave Colm alone, like a sore tooth he can’t stop tonguing. He wants to return again and again to the source of his rejection. Maybe he doesn’t take Colm’s threats seriously enough to respect his wishes. (If the men were in present-day America, all Pádraic would have to do is call 988 on Colm and the movie would be over in five minutes.) Colm just wants to be left alone, although the priest he visits for confession asks after Colm’s “despair” a couple of times. We start to feel that, despite its pictorial beauty, the place itself has as much to do with this intractable duel of wills as anything else. People are isolated, cut off from where the action (and work) is. They see the same people every day, do and say the same things every day, thirsty for any scrap of scandalous news to introduce some static into the low hum of Inisherin’s energy. 

The Banshees of Inisherin is not a neat work, not an easy thing to resolve one’s feelings about (and will not, as I said, reward efforts to wrestle it to the deck and pin an interpretation on it). It’s sad, it’s sardonic, it’s insightful on the subject of toxic masculinity and how it causes and is caused by the soul-death of depression. The women either keep an eye out for the next departing boat or stay and morph into mordant crones. Men like Pádraic and Colm needed to leave a long time ago, but they settled into their surroundings and their usual hang-outs, and they’re spiritually as well as geographically stuck. We don’t know how their story ends, because neither do they.

The Fabelmans

December 11, 2022

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If you can take a guy who punched you in the nose and make him look like a hero in a movie, the sky’s the limit. That’s the implication of the last act of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which tells a lightly fictionalized version of the story of young Spielberg as he gains a passion for movies — watching them and then making them. Here, Spielberg addresses an event that brought him and his siblings great pain at the time, his parents’ separation when Spielberg was 19, and sees it with enough distance to allow both parents humanity. He has made a memoir filled with compassion for everyone except, maybe, for an antisemitic kid who bullies Spielberg’s young avatar Sam Fabelman.

Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) gets the filmmaking bug when a trainwreck in The Greatest Show on Earth scares him. It’s fair to say Sam chases that emotional dragon — trying to recreate for his audiences that same sense of awe and fear — for the rest of his life; he asks for a train set so he can recreate the train crash and feel some control over it. That’s the diagnosis of his free-spirited mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist. Like Spielberg, Sam partially takes after his mother — the creative part — and partially after his father, Burt (Paul Dano), an engineer — the technical, how-do-things-work part, the nuts and bolts of what gets a film in the can. Mitzi lends Sam his father’s camera so he can film the mini-crash once and just watch it over and over instead of doing it over and over. A director is born.

If Spielberg had attempted to make The Fabelmans at his manipulative-sentimental peak in the ‘80s, it would probably have been disastrous. His parents would still have been alive, and a concern over hurting their feelings held him back for decades. The way Spielberg portrays his parents now is far from unflattering or warts-and-all, but it’s not adulatory either; he gives them their due as human beings trying like hell to be good spouses and parents. There’s nothing like the shrill discord between Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which one parent has to leave the family to follow happiness. But a man in his thirties directed that, and a man in his seventies has directed The Fabelmans, which allows that the frequently suggested path of seeking one’s bliss, whatever that might do to one’s relationships, is not easy.

Spielberg gives us a few fun, amusing montages showing young Sam making westerns or war pictures, but they don’t seem central. The Fabelmans uses the filmmaking sequences to bring out the theme of compassion through one’s art, and that isn’t confined to movies. Spielberg’s handling of the kid who punches Sam is interesting and worth discussing. Filming his senior class’ “ditch day” at the beach, Sam could easily make the kid look foolish, but instead the camera lingers on the kid’s shirtless virtuosity at the volleyball net. After the movie screens for the class, the kid, upset, doesn’t understand why Sam filmed him so iconically. Sam doesn’t either. Sometimes the camera knows what it likes, and sometimes it likes bullies. The script by Spielberg and Tony Kushner has these sorts of ambiguities running all through it.

Spielberg’s direction is clean and free of unnecessary motion. He takes a page from John Ford (wonderfully embodied here by David Lynch), who crustily advises young Sam to pay attention to the horizon in his shots. The horizon’s placement, as the director of The Searchers knew, can lock in a thousand words in one image, and Spielberg does likewise here. In The Searchers, the famous last shot contains John Wayne in a narrow frame formed by a doorway and the horizon, suggesting his character’s ethos is better off boxed up or buried. Spielberg turns the horizon into a quick visual joke that nonetheless tilts up to offer Sam the sky and all its limits. It’s a generous, smoothly rendered work, among Spielberg’s best.

The Sight and Sound Poll, 2022

December 4, 2022


Every ten years since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound has published a list of ten “greatest films of all time.” The polls are answered traditionally by movie critics (not me), and since 1992 a group of film directors has also been asked to join in. For a long time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane topped the list — the directors’ list, too — and the rest of the entries were the usual (albeit usually great) suspects: directed by males, often white, often Baby Boomer-designated masterpieces. This year, though, there were some big changes, sending many commentators to their fainting couches. The poll is dead! The young and “woke” have risen up in their throngs and killed it!

What sparked all the fuss is that for the first time, a woman — a lesbian, to boot — took the top spot. Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is three hours and twenty-one minutes long, is in French, and focuses on the daily chores and activities of a Belgian woman (Delphine Seyrig), sounds almost like a parody of an egghead film-snob darling. (I haven’t yet seen it, but I want to, if only to spite the growling dudes who take its ascension so poorly.) Some rational objectors did say things like “I like Akerman, but this isn’t her best work,” and some of them may even have been sincere. (The extent to which I took gripes about the list seriously depended on the speed with which the griper reached for “woke” as a cudgel to hit the young’uns with. Also, some of the demurrals had the same month-old-Fruit-Stripe flavor as the 2016-era “I’ll vote for a woman for president, just not Hillary.”) The weird thing is, the film gives you what movies are supposed to give. It gives you a story, it gives you (eventually) sex, and it gives you (very eventually) violence. It just does it on a different timetable than usual.

I’m not saying you should see the film; I don’t want death threats. This isn’t about Jeanne Dielman, it’s about the poll and what it tells us about where we are now. For some, it’s an omen of the cultural takeover of the sinister “wokesters” who want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like and who, for the most part, exist only in the febrile imaginations of Fox News talking heads and their ilk. These whippersnappers, the logic goes, are guilty of bad faith in elevating a tedious work by a gay woman because it’s politically correct to do so. For others, it signals a shift in priorities and sensibility, and not necessarily in a bad way. It may also mean nothing more troubling than that, until 2010, when Criterion put it out on DVD, a good many people outside Europe had never had a chance to see it at all. (It wasn’t screened in American theaters until 1983.) Now that it’s also streaming (HBO Max has it, as well as Criterion’s on-demand app), it’s easier than ever to access — though maybe not to sit through.

As far as I could see, none of the grumpy anti-wokesters (asleepsters?) at least cleared their throats, shook off the two-minute hate, and allowed that some stuff on the new list furnished us all anew with the will to live. Nope, nothing but ashes and sackcloths over in Asleepster Village. Me, I’m tickled as hell that David Lynch is in the top ten (Mulholland Drive, #8). Kubrick’s still on there; Hitchcock, Welles, Ozu too. I also don’t believe lists should exist to gatekeep. Since when is there a boss of culture, demanding that no film can ever be greater than Citizen Kane, no album better than Sgt. Pepper, ad nauseum? This list in particular gives us some stuff to chew on, some gaps to fill. A long-gone co-worker and friend used to say “Oh, you have a treat in store” if you said you hadn’t yet read or seen something. The list this time offers some potential treats aside from the usual stale Necco wafers of Film 101 vintage. (The directors’ list puts Akerman in fourth place, tied with Tokyo Story.)

Also as far as I can see, Citizen Kane hasn’t been eradicated by the state or vanished from everyone’s shelf. It’s still there. So are all the earlier lists where it’s #1 or #2. (For the record, it didn’t make the first Sight and Sound list in 1952. The king then was Bicycle Thieves.) Jeanne Dielman may only top the list this one time, and be supplanted in 2032 by, I don’t know, Caddyshack or something. And then the usual complainers will complain, and some will say “Hmm. That certainly is a list,” and look into whatever new top-tenners sound interesting. I’ll probably stream Jeanne Dielman somewhere down the line, but I wish it were shorter. If they wanted to pick an arrogantly static French art film directed by a woman, couldn’t they have gone with Marguerite Duras’ The Truck? It’s peak French art-film — a conversation about a nonexistent movie — but it’s only 80 minutes long. The length, mentioned by every review good or bad, is what makes Jeanne Dielman seem like a Mount Everest to be scaled and mastered, not simply to watch and listen to. Maybe people should just pretend they’re binging a three-episode Netflix series.