Category Archives: Film and Media Blog

Top 20 Films of 2022: #11- All the Beauty and the Bloodshed


What is the Best Grade for Replica Watches?

Watches have always been a symbol of status, style, and functionality. For many, owning a luxury watch is a dream come true. However, the price tags attached to these timepieces can be exorbitant, making them inaccessible to most people. This is where replica watches come into play, offering an affordable alternative. But what is the best grade for replica watches? In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the various grades of replica watches and help you make an informed decision.

The Appeal of Replica Watches
Replica watches are designed to replicate the aesthetics and functions of high-end luxury watches. They have gained popularity due to their affordability and resemblance to their genuine counterparts. While some may frown upon replica watches, others appreciate them for allowing a broader audience to enjoy the beauty of fine timepieces.

Grades and Quality Standards
Understanding Replica Watch Grades
Replica watches come in several grades, each representing a different level of quality and attention to detail. Let’s delve into the various grades to understand what sets them apart.

Grade A
Grade A replica watches are the most basic and affordable. They may resemble luxury watches at a glance, but closer inspection reveals noticeable differences in craftsmanship and materials. These watches are ideal for those who want a stylish accessory without breaking the bank.

Grade AA
Grade AA watches are a step up from Grade A. They boast improved quality and attention to detail, making them closer in appearance and functionality to genuine watches. While they may not be perfect replicas, they are a decent option for those on a budget.

Grade AAA
Grade AAA watches are known for their impressive resemblance to authentic luxury watches. They are crafted with precision and often feature automatic movements. These watches are a popular choice among replica watch enthusiasts who desire a high degree of authenticity.

Grade 1:1
Grade 1:1 watches are the closest you can get to owning a genuine luxury timepiece without the hefty price tag. They are meticulously crafted to match the original in every aspect, from design to movement. This grade is the best choice for those seeking an almost identical replica watch.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Replica Watch Grade
When deciding on the best grade for a replica watch, several factors come into play. These include your budget, the level of authenticity you desire, and the purpose of the watch. If you want a stylish accessory without investing too much, Grade AA or AAA may suffice. However, for those who want a near-perfect replica, Grade 1:1 is the way to go.

While they are very different films, Poitras’ documentary could have also been titled Everything Everywhere All At Once. It is a film about connections and interconnectedness; between artistic scenes and eras, between art and life, and between the past and the present. Life experiences of years gone by echo in the present. Old friends return when we need them most, and our relationships see their meanings change and deepen as the story goes on. Life gives us material to make art and people learn that, through making art, they have been giving themselves valuable strategies for surviving. My favorite single scene in the film comes when Goldin and her PAIN colleagues organize a publicity event at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. The jaw-dropping visual conceit is to have people in the upper decks of the gallery drop down pamphlets full of chilling opioid statistics onto the museum floor, all done up to look like prescription slips. The moving image Goldin creates of hundreds of pamphlets falling down like snow from fifty feet above us is as dynamic and cinematically overwhelming as just about any sequence in 2022 cinema. Nan Goldin’s technical talent (for photographic image-making) is beyond doubt, but what strikes you is her conceptual brilliance. The ability to think of the world in pictures, movement and ideas is what true artists have. For all the Sacklers’ pretentions as art patrons, Nan Goldin lays waste to the lie that they have any actual art in their souls. Their crimes against thousands are despicable enough but Goldin is repulsed at the perversion of art the Sackler name represents. Art is an illuminating fire of righteous truth. Nan weaponizes real art to turn it back on these frauds with all  the furious indignation of a person who’s spent years staring down abusers and hypocrites. Six decades into a brilliant career, we have the joy of watching Nan Goldin fully metamorphize into an avenging super hero. Watching that blizzard of damning leaflets flutter down on a crowd of art lovers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Goldin would probably make a hell of a filmmaker if she ever tired her hand at it. Like I say, she’s got everything she needs.



Top 20 Films of 2022: #12- Hit the Road!

Benefits of Ozempic for Weight Loss

The weight loss benefits of Ozempic are not fully understood, but several factors contribute to its effectiveness. By reducing appetite and increasing feelings of fullness, it helps individuals consume fewer calories. Moreover, Ozempic’s effect on blood sugar control indirectly influences weight loss, as better blood sugar management can reduce sugar cravings and overeating visit

Ozempic and Blood Sugar Control
For those with type 2 diabetes, Ozempic offers dual benefits of blood sugar control and weight loss. It helps maintain stable blood sugar levels by stimulating insulin release when needed and suppressing glucagon, a hormone that raises blood sugar levels.

Using Ozempic for Weight Loss
To use Ozempic for weight loss, it is essential to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations carefully. The medication is typically administered once a week via a subcutaneous injection. Your healthcare professional will determine the appropriate dosage for you.

Side Effects and Precautions
Like any medication, Ozempic can have side effects. Common side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it may cause serious side effects, so it’s crucial to report any unusual symptoms to your healthcare provider promptly. Ozempic may not be suitable for everyone, so a thorough discussion with your doctor is necessary.

Ozempic vs. Other Weight Loss Medications
Ozempic is just one of several weight loss medications available. It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine which option is best for you. The choice may depend on your medical history, preferences, and individual goals.


If I could designate each film year its own piece of internet speak then 2022’s would absolutely be “get you someone who can do both.” It was a year where a vast majority of the cinema’s heights came from films with a varied skillset. A ticklish Waking Ned Devine-style Irish tourism comedy keened with despair. A Jaws-esque survival thriller was packed with ideas about exploitation and racism in the entertainment industry. A zany multiverse action film had audiences sobbing buckets and calling their mothers. The year’s box office success story was how a sequel to a ridiculous 80s action movie best known for being a homoerotic military recruitment tool managed to be a sumptuously entertaining and well-acted drama (and maybe also a homoerotic military recruitment tool). The films of 2022 contained multitudes that would have made Walt Whitman blush. TO wit, I had one of my heartiest laughs of the past film year while watching a scene suffused with loss and unspeakable longing. In a late scene from Panah Panahi’s astonishingly confident debut Hit the Road, a father lays by a campfire close to the border of Iran and Turkey. His 7-year old son lies on top of his chest and his wife sits of a ways by herself staring off in tearful silence. The family has just had to pay a wrenching farewell to someone close to them and they do not know when they will see their loved one again. The weary father lists, eyes half closed, as his motormouthed child goes on about Batman and his famous Batmobile. He asks his child how much he figures the extravagant vehicle costs and the child has an answer at the ready: six-hundred million dollars. This leads the father to propose a hypothetical anecdote about “the poor orphan Batman” and his precious car that had me literally crying with laughter. And laid over this funny exchange is also one of the most heartrending, emotionally observant scenes of 2022 with all the sensitive direction and softly twinkling music one would expect from a tragedy. Because Panahi’s masterful scene really is a slice of tragedy. It’s a tragedy and it happens to be one of the most ticklish scenes of the year. And if that sounds like a perplexing balance, the most puzzling thing of all is how perfectly harmonious the poignance and daffy humor are in the moment. It surprised me on a first viewing. On a second viewing, I realized with astonishment that this first-time Persian director had actually been holding that delicate balance between the gently gutting and the sublimely funny for the entire film. Hit the Road spends 93 perfect minutes on standing on a pinhead between a bell laugh and a choked sob. Iran’s already-vibrant cinema scene just got itself someone who can do both.

Hit the Road opens to the sounds of plaintive piano keys and the white noise whoosh of speeding cares. A car sits parked on the shoulder of an Iranian highway and its passengers, an older man and woman, their two sons (one in his twenties and one seven) are all lying still inside with eyes closed. After what feels like a minute, the small Batmobile-admiring child stirs and the other occupants all rouse from their slumber. But the hyperactively eccentric child (is there any other kind?) asks a question that might have occurred to the audience already: “Are we dead?” They are not in fact dead, but something does feel instantly woozy and off about Panah Panahi’s superb road trip dramedy. A sense of ennui and tension hangs in the air, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Hit the Road retains the breathlessly antic humor that is the road trip comedy’s stock in trade. The comedy (sometimes high energy and sometimes drolly understated) throws the spectre of unspoken sorrow into sharp relief. We gradually come to learn that, unlike most films about family car trips, this one will not feature a journey home. It will not feature one because there is no home to return to. The family has pooled all their money, sold their house and car (their soft-spoken, visibly devastated eldest child drives them in a rental) all to get their grown son to the Turkish border and to book the services of someone who can help him safely cross over. There is no talk of return and they will not be going with him. There is no talk about what comes next. The eldest is driving toward a new life and will not see his loved one again for a very long time, if ever. And the rest of his family are, as the Talking Heads say, on a road to nowhere. This looming sadness does not negate the fact that Hit the Road still has many of the warm signifiers of its genre. The family bickers comically, have some spirited hijinks, meet colorful strangers and generally bond. The tropes of the road trip comedy are all present and accounted for, but they coexist in uneasy harmony with the mournful realities and anxious uncertainties of this family’s unfortunate situation. Panahi patiently and empathetically lets rich humor and tearful pathos commingle until you no longer know if your eyes are moist from laughter or heartbreak (this was a major contender for Carnivorous Studios’ fifth annual Damp Face Award). Hit the Road takes the expression “permanent vacation” and mines it for its most unexpectedly bleak implications.

Hit the Road is an achingly lovely, humane film. Like Life and Nothing More, the late Iranian maestro’s Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece about a town recovering from a deadly earthquake, this film loves people and it believes in the average person’s desire to be good and helpful to their fellow man. Its sense of sweet humanity is so winning that it may take you some minutes to register that it is a deeply pissed off piece of work. Hit the Road is a furiously critical and deeply political work of art. It’s angry in a way that compassionate people pushed too far by abuse are angry, which sums up my experience with Persian art very succinctly. A great many Persians wish simply to dance sing and love on their own terms, but they have had to contend for decades with dogmatic rulers who demonize sexuality, oppress women and silence their greatest philosophers and artists (we’ll talk about Panah’s long-persecuted filmmaker father in a short while). Hit the Road is one of the most righteously enraged kiss-offs to a country that you will ever see, made all the more rich by how conflicted it feels about the idea of severing ties with home. It rages quietly and with the patient wisdom of a martyr. It holds onto its humanity because that is what any virtuous, unjustly trampled upon person does, but it is not satisfied with moral victories. At the end of the day, however true and rights its position is, righteousness and decency and moral virtue isn’t going to do one solitary thing to keep this poor family together or give them a future. Goodness is an intrinsically valuable thing but it does not give this family what it truly needs: answers. What comes next? Where do the people of Iran go from here? If great art raises questions rather than giving easy, pat solutions, Hit the Road is an unqualified triumph. Panah Panahi’s soulfully wronged meditation on the idea of home is one of the greatest films of the nascent 2020s and one of the most subtle and powerfully realized directorial debuts in cinema history.

While it regards its characters with an unflaggingly sympathetic grace, Hit the Road is gently but firmly critical about denial. In a smart bit of metaphor, the parents are hiding two important truths from their youngest child. They do not let on that he will be losing his brother, possibly for good. They also do not tell him that the family dog, along for the open-ended ride, is dying. The essence of Hit the Road is pure punk rock in the way it damns the hypocrisy and cruelty of Iran’s policies, particularly those armed at gays and women. The parents’ struggle to tell their child the hard truths is like a projection of their nation’s abuse and what Papnahi is asking of his fellow Iranians is a shattering of that perverted, dysfunctional cycle of lies. It is an angry punk song set to a sweetly meandering melody. It recalls the special blend of love, bruised hope and anguish that made Spike Lee’s ending to The 25th Hour so powerful. As the film stares down the road at painful change and separation, the feeling of impending loss also speaks to the beauty of connection and family. In overwhelming grief, it finds occasion to think about love and community; to offer up a smile of gratitude for the very thing that is being taken away. It presents those things with overflowing heart and humor and it saves all its bitter anger for the powerful unseen targets who deserve it. The genius of letting Hit the Road function as a funny, vibrant, emptionally satisfying road trip movie is how that calls attention back to the sorrow at the films heart. In other words, this should be an uproarious story of love and familial bonding on the road and nothing else. That’s why that simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking Batmobile monologue the father gives isn’t merely impressively multi-dimensional but essential to the film. It is Panahi’s entire thesis in miniature because this family should be able to have that laughter and joy without the heartache and loss. And they can not. They feel so close to being on the kind of vivacious, fun and life-affirming vacation that make up most road trip films, but that is a trick of the light. In reality, they might as well be light years away: from normalcy, from stability, from an empathetic government, and, before long, from their beloved child. They have miles and miles and miles to go before they can even imagine anything feeling right again. If that happy ending exists somewhere down this family’s long, bumpy road, it is not to be found in this film.

And yet, in spite of its unwavering honesty, Hit the Road does find a way to hold on to some open-ended note of hope for the future. I’ll be damned if I can describe what that hope specifically is or what it even might look like. It feels more like the kind of hope that the faithful hold for the afterlife; a vague and stubborn resolve that one day in the future will be the day that things start looking a little better. Partly, that’s a product of the film’s warmth and infectious good humor. It may partly be there to throw the sadness into sharper relief, but it also makes it hard for me to not see Panahi’s film as a work of optimism on some level. It gets back to that punk rebel sensibility that is so impervious to defeatism. The hope isn’t that this mortifying state of affairs is going to turn around, but hope for its own sake. It’s not a hope for Iran’s callous government or really a hope for anything. It’s hope because what else are you going to do? Hope, unrealistic or not, is its own intrinsic good and you hold to it because not holding onto it means losing everything. Hit the Road may carry a lot of pain and disappointment, but it carries it with a resolute heart. Its pain is also its unbowed strength; its will to persevere even when the situation seems so desire that it’s nigh impossible to determine what perseverance is even for. There is also just the matter of Panahi’s elegant, eloquent and unpretentiously literate script, so full of wry comedy and honest wisdom. It’s the kind of perfectly poetic screenplay that manages to feel both grounded and transcendent. At one moment, a farmer sees the father’s arm in a cast and asks how it happened. “I fell” the uber-dad deadpans. The farmer asks where he fell. “From grace,” the father sardonically adds. The film is full of sharp, potent lines like that. It is utterly profound and transporting in its writerly flourishes. And yet, at no point does the heady rhetoric threaten the realness of these characters. They are compelling flesh and blood people and the understated confidence of their dialogue works to increase our love for them and draw us further into their lives. The dialogue, like the humor and the gorgeous scenery, is all there to help them and help us find some small bit of peace and relief. It’s not just false hope to help bitter medicine go down, but a reminder of what makes life beautiful and worth living. Laughing and loving in the face of systemic barbarism and apathy is the most rebellious thing we can do. And, after just one feature, Panah Panahi already has enough rebel clout to make him a luminary on the subject.

Panah has stouthearted defiance in his blood. His father is the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who spent the last two decades being harassed, threatend, jailed and censored by his own government. In 2010, he was arrested for trying to make art that criticized the legitimacy of the Ahmdinejad regime and was sentenced to six years under house arrest and, most cruelly, a 20-year ban on making his art. Only a year later, Jafar let Iran know what he thought of their policies by making the brilliant documentary This Is Not A Film, which not only documented his house arrest but insightfully tackled the question of how one makes art under censorship. The full answer to that question can be best understood by  watching the film, but the short answer is you do it by any means necessary and without fear or reprisal. This Is Not A Film was smuggled out of Iran inside of a birthday cake and took the film world by storm. Since then, Panahi the elder has made five more acclaimed films that he was technically forbidden from making at all, including the thoughtful 2022 gem No Bears. Like Hit the Road, all of Jafar Panahi’s recent films thumb their noses at Iran’s tyranny. Panahi plays a gleefully defiant Robin Hood to his government’s craven Prince John, stealing despotic undies and running them up the flag pole. But sobering news came in mid-2022 when Jafar Panahi was thrown into a notorious prison for the crime of coming to the defense of another persecuted Persian director. There were accounts of physical abuse and with them a sinking feeling that Jafar had pushed these cruel authoritarians as far as he could. He had been living out something like his own personal Cool Hand Luke for many years now and that story, as thrillingly subversive and rebellious as it is, ends in tragedy. Maybe this time, the Iranian government would shut Jafar away for good or do something worse. After almost seven months of imprisonment, Jafar Panahi gave his government an ultimatum. He started a hunger strike and gave Iran two options: his own death or his absolute liberation from the prison. Film fans braced for a noble but gutting conclusion to this rebel story. Hit the Road takes up Jafar Panahi’s torch. It poses the question of how you create hope out of nothing at all, out of hope’s very absence. The son in the film has a late moment of peace and love in a road side chat with his mother. He talks of his admiration for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the third act of that film, an astronaut journeys into a terrifying void, but that is not the end of the story. Its enigmatic final shot suggests the possibility of, well, possibilities; of new life and something hopeful beyond the abyss. Even if he does not know what it will be, Panah Panahi stalwartly believes in love, solidarity and hope beyond Iran’s political abyss. On February 3rd of 2023, two days after beginning his hunger strike, Panah’s father was released from prison and went home to his family.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #13- All That Breathes


Like a great many documentary-loving cinema buffs, I’m frequently critical of the “talking head” format. That would be your standard news interview format of sitting some people down in chairs and filming their informative faces as they go on at length and impart facts to the audience. I don’t mean to lay into the entire idea of filming an interviewee talking. For one  thing, there’s always the case of an astonishing film like Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War”, where just watching a human being react, emote, think out loud and speak is the whole appeal. And even a more boundary-breaking documentary like John Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” makes brilliant use of talking heads elements to supplement its more formally dynamic parts. I come not to bury talking heads but maybe to continue my push for limiting them. For making them more spice than steak. Some of the most astonishing documentaries from the last decade have been purely experiential (“Leviathan”, “Manakamana”), eschewing interviews and explanations entirely. “Now, now,” the talking head devil’s advocate on my left shoulder cautions. “Those films were designed to be immediate and sensory. A documentary aiming to shed light on a little-known subject in an
educational way is naturally going to need more learned, professorial figures explaining things to you. The little imp has a point. And yet, the question should always be how we can make films better. And on that note, I am proud to introduce Shaunek Sen’s “All That Breathes”, a film chock full experts with factoids to unload about nature and pollution and modern-day India that nonetheless manages to inform while always feeling like a cinematic experience. It takes the building blocks of a talking head documentary and alchemizes them into visual poetry. Here is a film that absolutely could have consisted largely of its main subjects (three altruistic brothers in Delhi who run a makeshift hospital for injured birds of prey) sitting in front of a camera and telling us their story. And the miraculous thing is that they do tell us their story and they do sometimes directly address the audience. And yet, the film nevewr breaks its enchanting, wondrously visual spell. Here is the surest proof yet that, while the talking head format may always have some role to play, we’re never had less need of its conventions. The documentary is officially free to spread its wings and fly.

“All That Breathes” cues us in early that it will be as much a film about reflecting on the wonder of nature as it will be an essay on present-day threats to the natural world. Whole minutes before we first hear the voices of our lovable bird saviors, we hear the sounds of a field somewhere amid the filthy streets of the Indian city of Delhi. There is the thick rustle of scavenging rodents, the drone of hovering insects and the barking of stray dogs. Cats mewl from the alleys. Sen’s brilliant cinematographers Ben Bernhard, Ritu Das and Saumyanada narrow in on a gathering of rats in a grassy lot. The ever-present Delhi traffic is out of focus, an afterthought. We will soon meet the brothers Mohmmad Saud and Nadeem Shenzad, and their soft-spoken friend Salik Rehman. We will see the inner workings of their makeshift miracle, a soap dispenser manufactury whose true purpose is the rescue, treatment and release of black kites, gorgeous, falcon-like birds of prey that are a beloved fixture
of Delhi’s skies. High pollution levels and other environmental challenges mean that more and more of these beautiful birds are plummeting from the sky and ending up in cardboard boxes in these men’s warehouse-cum-hospital. Like Oskar Schindler with his factory, the men use their soap dispenser business only for the unrelated good it can help them afford to do. The work is painstaking and sometimes heartbreaking but their renown in the community and the room full of rehabilitated birds waiting to soar again testifies to the noble value of their Sisyphean battle against climate change. At one point, as many as 28 injured black kites await medical treatment, and if that didn’t sound insurmountable enough, one brother explains, “The baby season hasn’t even started yet.” Sometimes this little family even puts itself at peril for their good work, as when two of the brothers ford a chilly river at dusk to bring a kite back from the precipice of death. In return, the kites not only spiritually enrich Delhi’s soul (caring for one is said to earn you goodwill from the gods) but serve a vital ecolofical function for the city. As Reza tells us, a single black kite can devour and erase an astounding five to six tons of waste in the span of ten months. The story of the rescuers’ evolution from aspiring bodybuilders (their interest in musculature aided their education as veterinarians) is moving and compelling enough on its own, but Sen and his team’s sense of keen observation and poetic tone makes “All That Breathes” nothing short of spell-binding. It feels like a stunning illuminated ode to making the world better. It’s by no means a tearjerker, but a fine, life-affirming mistiness hangs over the whole thing. This informational documentary about environmental healers has its own powerful, palpably therapeutic air.

We live in a world on the brink of some potentially disastrous changes, both on a natural and a societal scale, and “All That Breathes” never sells that fact short. It would have been easy for it to become a harrowing bearing of witness to environmental disaster, occassionally leavened by sweetness and human decency. The film also never ignores the futile frustration and fatigue that besets our heroes on a daily basis. But, with all that emotional exhaustion being something of the critical point of the film, “All That Breathes” still may be on of the least jaded or defeated movies I have ever seen. Much like its fellow 2022 documentary masterpiece
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”, “All That Breathes” is a tough, clear-eyed film buoyed by the contagious satisfaction of doing small acts of good in a weary world. With all of the year’s great writerly bits of dialogue, one of the most poignant and prescient moments consists of two simple words one man repeatedly says to another in that bird hospital. “Next bird.” As we stare down wrongdoing and loss, those two words better capture the joyous tenacity of carrying on than any I can think of. Good is done one step, one person, one bird at a time, and whether your last attempt to make life nicer on this planet succeeded or failed, your next move always boils down to just keeping the good work up. “All That Breathes” doesn’t pretend that we will just fix the environmental mess in front of us. It just sees
damage has been done and knows that the only wrong course is outright inaction and despondency. That won’t help. Like the kites chipping away at Delhi’s ne er-ending mountains of garbage. It’s there in the film’s care for the little representatives of nature. The way young Reza cares for a tiny squirrel he keeps in his shirt pocket. The way the film patiently watches a family of small monkeys cross a scaffolding on its way home. The documentary finds an endlessly soothing spring of calm because it reminds us how important and virtuous love and attention to the little things can be. Call it idealistic if you will, but the film’s belief that we will only win this survival game one selfless act and one individual at a time touched me greatly. If that tack feels simplistic in the face of rampant pollution, massive greed and unchecked selfishness, I cannot be too hard on this film for that. The value of small, simple goodness is the very lifeblood of “All That Breathes”.

Sen has made a great film about the impact of climate change because it is as informative on the subject as it needs to be and the rest is pure, voluptuous visual poetry. The shots of animals trying to habitate in one of Earth’s dirtiest, most populated cities speak volumes even devoid of the beautiful, thoughtful narration that accompanies them. There is something so stirring about how this isn’t just a tale of human expansion versus wild nature, but of human nature and wild nature juxtaposed. It is the story of nature adapting to a manmade world it never could have anticipated. As presented here, there is something simultaneously awe-inspiring and profoundly disquieting in its shots of graceful kites perched atop literal skyscrapers of human rubbish, or long-legged herons wading through streets flooded with soapy run-off. The situation that the natural world must negotiate because of human action and inaction is deeply unfortunate, but seeing how nature prevails in that struggle is stirring and visually breathtaking. Climate change is the most important and impactful issue of our day, and we need more films unpacking what it all means and how we can check its effects. But I will remember “All That Breathes” when a hundred climate change documentaries have come and gone because, in addition to being rigorous and eye-opening, it is just a transcendent, beautiful piece of cinematic art. It radiates poetry and takes inspiration from its protagonists’ contagious love of their work. It succeeds through jaw-dropping shots of man’s pollution and sprawl, and it also thrills with shots that luxuriate in the beauty and endless resilience of nature. It deserves to stand as a blueprint for how you tell stories about the climate crisis in fundamentally cinematic ways. “All That Breathes” is deeply rooted in the same Earth that it is advocating for. If the message of your movie is love of nature and stewardship of our planet, the first and best idea for making sure that message resonates is showing us a new view of that planet. If your film and its subjects are driven by love for the Earth, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that your camera must make us fall in love with the Earth. This wondrous documentary also has a beautiful, detailed specificity to it. The climate crisis is vast and far from monolithic. It is happening in a hundred small, seismic ways, and these birds are just one of myriad portholes into this pressing issue. They are, in effect, the kite in the coal mine.

Visual imagination really makes all the difference in “All That Breathes”. I’ve well noted that. The overriding thesis of this whole review might as well be how the great documentaries do more than just function as information delivery systems. People need to do more than just learn and know. They need to remember, and they will remember if they are moved. I think we need to keep talking about the visual art of this film. Let me drive it home and say that “All That Breathes” has the best cinematography of 2022. In a year where Cinema went big and bold, where we plunged into sapphire fantasy oceans and leviathan jellyfish prowled the wide open skies; in a year where Steven Spielberg and Park-chan Wook made great new films; in such a year, this humane, whispered prayer of a documentary managed to give us more profoundly moving and lusciously composed shots than any other. Like another cinematography all-timer from 2022, Jerzy Skolimowski’s “EO” (which narrowly missed our top 20), Sen is subtly capturing animals in a strange way that feels utterly new to me. These shots of fauna feel intimate, confessional, almost invasive if it weren’t being done with such overflowing reverence. It somehow just sees animals in their singular, very immediate way. They are all completely themselves, which is to say, after centuries of anthropomorphism (can we admit that “March of the Penguins” is bad yet?), that animals are not us. We are us and the animals are what the animals are, and there is something poignant and environmentally wise in that truth and in that divide. The ravishing visual poetry of “All That Breathes” seems built around one humbling, powerful thesis: we have become distinct and different from the natural world and yet, we have never been above it or truly apart from it. At most, we forget that world, always at our own peril. In one ravishing shot, a group of activists protesting for Muslim tolerance gradually blurs into the background as we focus on a snail crawling along a twig in the foreground. “All That Breathes” sees a host of global struggles and it sees the space that separates them and the spiritual threads that invisibly bind them. As we fight vital battles for dignity and personhood, the natural struggle pushes forward as it has for millennia. “One shouldn’t differentiate between all that breathes,” one brother says in the line that gives this film its title. Sen’s masterful filmmaking team not only lucidly paints the world of this kite rescue operation, but vividly puts it into a language of magnetic images that take in all of nature. All struggles come down to the protection of lives. And “All That Breathes” renders each life onscreen with equal, even handed empathy.

Let me try briefly to come at the film from a very self-interested angle. All That Breathes is about finding the work that really defines you. These men may operate a soap dispensary business to fund their avian hospital, but what they’re really doing is earning for themselves the right to be thought of, first and foremost, as kite veterinarians. To see themselves and to be seen by their community as the thing they love doing. It’s a notion that speaks to this avocational, if not yet vocational, critic very deeply. When the eldest brother finds the financial freedom to receive a university education in the States, he does not go to learn better manufacturing practices nor to improve his business acumen. He goes to further his art, the thing he does that actually puts a piece of himself into the world.  I am not being so bold as to suggest that me writing this glowing review of this wonderful movie is remotely as noble as what the kite rescuers are doing. But I like All That Breathes’ recognition, as the Mountain Goats’ great John Darnielle once sang, that “some things you do for money, and some you do for love, love, love.” It’s just another example of All That Breathes’ argument that the greater good is best served by what we do out of love and conviction. Maybe that’s naive but Sen is making a spiritual argument and the idea of belief in small, selfless changes feels spiritually true to his film. I’ve seen documentaries about conservation in exotic locales that mostly feel like excuses to satisfy the viewer with a nice human interest story (there was at least one such film in at least one of this Oscar’s documentary categories). But All That Breathes never feels like pat, self-satisfied progressive tourism. To me, it really does feel holy, which is just how these men see their work. It is an earnest call to conservation and a soaringly poetic ode to people doing good in the world and a most bewitchingly composed snapshot of the climate crisis. In a great film year full of rather unusual riches, just look at this empathetic little wonder. Behold: a documentary with the craft and passion to talk with more than just its head.


Top 20 Films of 2022: #14- Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey


I’m a little leery about calling certain films minor to a director’s filmography. For one thing, it tends to feel too relative. A minor film from Kubrick, Coen, Altman, Rohmer, the Andersons (P.T. or Wes) and others dwarfs the best films of your average director. A so-called minor Scorsese film (let’s say Hugo) still tops almost the best films Robert Redford, Stephen Daldty or Tom Hooper have ever made and nobody goes around calling Quiz Show (an extremely fine film) minor. So I don’t want to start my review calling Richard Linklater’s wonderful, effervescent Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey minor just because it happens to only be the eighth or ninth best film of the laconic dreamer’s sterling career. It is far too strong and personal a work to be slighted like that. But I do find it interesting, with directors who have a substantial body of freat work, to look at the films that fall somewhere below their masterpiece colleciton. I find that the films just outside of that realm often have a way of enriching the films just above them and sometimes give us a lot of fascinating insights into the directors themselves. Think of the 2022 films from James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, which may fall just outside of their most perfect opuses but also act like beautiful prisms playfully reflecting some of the ideas and themes those auteurs have spent their careers exploring. The ways films like these, and like Apollo 10 1/2, play within their directors’ filmographies is fun, rewarding and infinitely more interesting than the question of whether those films will be admitted to the elite canon of their very best work. Besides, while he has made no less than five perfect films by my count (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, with Waking Life not far behind), I can’t imagine Richard Linklater, the good-natured stoner bro of filmdom, loses a lot of sleep over words like “perfection”. His ace in the hole has always been his meandering, ramshackle nature; the way he arrives at beautiful and deep revelations with all the unhurried nonchalance of a day drinker finding a cool tidepool at a beach party. He is a practiced expert at a very rich and warm sort of aimlessness and he has found perfect material in the halcyon glow of his own childhood in 1960’s Houston. Not unlike fellow longhorn Terrence Malick, he finds deceptively heady ideas about life in the humidly carefree atmosphere of a Space Age Texas suburb. I see Apollo 10 1/2 as The Tree of Life‘s charmingly low stakes little brother, albeit set in a place where trees of any kind are scarce to be found.


Richard Linklater rarely misses a chance to wax poetic on the nature of time, memory and consciousness. In his rotoscoped philosophy gem Waking Life, he appears as himself to muse about the nebulous border between dreams and death, the present moment and all the moments that have passed. A few years later, he had Ethan Hawkes’ character in Before Sunset put it succinctly: time is a lie. Maybe every moment is a dream of past, present and future all laid like transparencies on top of one another. Apollo 10 1/2 has that dreamlike quality that makes time feel slippery and illusory. Specifically, it feels like a youthful daydream. It presents itself initially as a bit of historical fantasy in which a young Linklater is asked (for the most adorably cockamamie of reasons) to secretly pilot the Apollo 11 module to the moon weeks before the real mission will be televised. But that imaginative boys adventure merely ends up being the film’s bookends. The meat of Linklater’s animated slice of autobiographical life is about the present adult Richard Linklater (given voice by three-time Linklater muse Jack Black) reminiscing about his carefree days in 1960’s Houston at the dawn of the Space Age. We learn of his father’s work for NASA (purely administrative to his children’s eternal disappointment) and what it felt like to live on the periphery of humanity’s most daring technological achievement. But what we really get the most of aren’t observations about space travel but seemingly trivial details of that time and place.  The music and movies and campy classic television shows (Dark Shadows is just as gripping to the Linklater children as updates from NASA and both jockey for screen time on the old TV set) of the day. The neighborhood faces and the rambunctious, occasionally hazardous ways adolescent Houstonians passed the time. Shot through with Linklater’s inimitable sense of childlike enthusiasm, Apollo 10 1/2 might be cinema’s greatest feature-length tangent. The transcendent art of the decade and the sprawling banality of the expanding Houston suburbs all swirl together into a bewitching, winningly observant act of remembering, which (in true Linklater fashion) becomes a meditation on what defines the times and what we choose to recall. The Linklater patriarch may grumble when his four children flip over from discussion of the Moon landing to a cheesy science fiction program, but both pieces of media were formative for the director telling this story. In the end, we reconstruct a story of the past with all the details we have and it’s no great matter if one memory is a watershed event and another one is just Herman Munster’s face. There are no minor works in the category of one’s memories. Reminiscing is not only a personal act, but a creative one as well. Memory is not bound by strict parameters of social importance. As Apollo 10 1/2‘s fictitious bookends demonstrate, it is not really even bound by strict parameters of fact and fiction.

Apollo 10 1/2: A Childhood Odyssey is doing a lot of heady philosophizing in that sweetly shambling Linklater way, but those shy about intimidatingly cerebral films will find as much to love here as those hoping to get a heady intellectual contact high. With this director, an amiable, buzzed vibe is just as important to his sensibilities as literary references and tingly thought experiments. The head and the heart are always in touch with each other in a Linklater film. He makes movies for art-loving romantics everywhere. It has also long been my feeling that he is maybe just a bit underappreciated as a visual and tonal stylist. Like his French New Wave influence Eric Rohmer, Linklater is drawn to the pleasure in words and talk, which sometimes gets him labeled as talky and downplays what a distinct and flavorful cinematic language he has honed. Long before he made Waking Life (one of his three singular animated marvels alongside Apollo and A Scanner Darkly), he hit big with the one-two punch of Slacker and Dazed and Confused, films that seemed to have one foot in bucolic Texas and one foot in some dream realm. In Apollo 10 1/2, he captures the languid sprawl of an endless Houston summer partly because he is trying to evoke the reality of his suburban origins. But the aimless, humid rhythms and heat waves of Texas also feel a lot like the haze of memory itself and the way that aesthetic fits both the terrestrial and the subconscious is about as purely Linklater as it gets. The underrated quality of Richard Linklater the visual storyteller is how he subtly captures something that feels like nostalgia’s essence; a sweet, smoky buzz like the first beer with friends on a porch as the heat starts to dissipate. What makes Apollo 10 1/2 feel so substantial, in spite of its breezy tone, is that it is positively pickled in that woozy sensibility. it has the kind of scruffy warmth that is not only characteristic of 1960’s home videos but also somehow seems to bottle up every other adorably shambolic thing Linklater ever experienced, from the soft scratch of Herb Alpert LPs to those cartoon shorts MTV aired between commercial breaks. The primordial stew that birthed his gentle but endearingly rambunctious aesthetic smells like cheap weed, french fries and gasoline. Linklater announces this is to be a film about the Moon landing and then lets every other pop culture touchstone wash over the lens. As the semicolon in the title implies, it’s as much about childhood’s inner space as it is about things floating outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

With Linklater, small details are given equal and sometimes greater importance than the weightier matters. His beautiful, impossibly romantic Before Sunrise (and its arguably even richer sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) depict an organically unfolding conversation between two people who are falling in love with each other. The film finds room for philosophical musings on love, faith and death, but also plenty of time for art, beer, food and pinball. In Linklater’s oeuvre, the small grace notes of what we enjoy and do for fun are essential parts of what makes life rich and interesting. They are not less important than the big cosmic questions, nor are they more so. In Linklater’s gorgeous and goofy imagination, the cosmos and your favorite movie are all connected in one life-affirming link. This idea was given its most cohesively powerful expression in Boyhood, where major life events like graduations and birthdays were deliberately left out to make room for baseball games and digressive conversations; things that a lesser filmmaker might have left off for being inessential. The Linklater school of thought tells us that the mundane and the trivial and the purely fun experiences we have are actually the most essential in defining our lives. Most people go to school or get a first job or have major rites of passage, but those smaller specificities are what help make our lives singular. They are what make our lives our own. Apollo 10 1/2 is, above all, a superb little coda to Boyhood; a winsome exploration of how the little things stick with us and shape our stories. Linklater teasingly starts Apollo 10 1/2 with his surrogate self asked to embark on a nationally vital space mission, a Marvel-level astronaut adventure. And then he tables all of that before it can even get started so that a charmingly enthusiastic Jack Black can gush about all the cool games, music, shows and places that made up life down on 1960’s Earth. Linklater will send us off to the stars in good time (but not a long time, as one Linklater character once said) but only after he tells us about how much he loved The Twilight Zone and his favorite jazz record and the treasured Texas tradition of pouring a ladle full of hot chili into a fun-sized bag of Frito Lays. This is why Apollo 10 1/2 couldn’t possibly be minor Linklater. Minor films don’t typically have the DNA of a director’s entire personality inside them. Richard Linklater knows about films what great travel writers know about cities. You’re never going to experience as much joyous, spontaneous life if you only stick to the gift shop maps and the big tourist sites. He lovingly takes the audience around his Houston just as Slacker took us around his Austin. And that means he’d much rather take us to Houston’s adorably scruffy Disneyland simulacrum, Astro World than to the major museums and historical sites. The most enchanting sights to see are little oddities and they can only be found off the main drag and down the back alleys of Richard Linklater’s memory.

Anyone who knows me well knows that Richard Linklater is one of my favorite living filmmakers. More than a favorite, he happens to be a director who taps into some essential part of my core. I think he is objectively a genius in terms of how he writes and how he crafts his scenes but he’s also my ur-example of a director who is just completely for me. I’m an empathy-loving, pop culture-fixated intellectual humanist romantic through and through. I love a whole host of directors with a diverse array of perspectives (I think Michael Haneke’s great and am also proud to say that I don’t think like him) but if I’m being honest, I probably am Richard Linklater. He stands with the great empathetic directors like Ang Lee, the late Jonathan Demme, Greta Gerwig and, most notable, the visionary Eric Rohmer. Whatever subject he lights on, he renders it with a palpable love for people. I leave each of his films with my intellectual curiosity recharged and my appreciation of humanity restored. He’s a surprisingly ideal fit to tell the story of one of Earth’s most purely optimistic moments. He comes at it from his own charmingly low key angle. His focus on tiny details of 1960s life cohesively ties into the idea that the Moon landing itself was the result of thousands of lesser known people. Apollo 10 1/2 is Linklater’s invitation to see the Apollo 11 mission just a little differently; to zoom in and take in the little granules of cultural context surrounding it. Just as he shows us his personal experience of the culture through all the pop culture ephemera he absorbed as a kid, he makes one of the most public, well-documented moments in human civilization feel intimate. He asks us to consider people like his father, working with spreadsheets and purchase orders far from the launch pad and the flash bulbs. In a moving moment following the landing, Linklater’s father marvels that the astronauts and flight control pulled it off. His wife tenderly reminds him to include himself in the victory, saying, “We all did.” In a film whose default tone is sweetly breezy, Richard Linklater remembers to show us how moving the Apollo 11 mission was for all the many souls who contributed to it. And he follows it up with another moment that touched me to no end. When the night’s groundbreaking broadcast is done and the stations sign off (as they did back in the early days of television), the Linklaters end their unforgettable night in the same way they end every night. They turn off the set, exchange “good nights” and “I love yous” and slip of to bed. Historical milestones are a great change of pace, but there’s just something about the reliable rituals that are waiting for us each and every day.

When I heard Richard Linklater was going to make his first new animated film since the 2000s, I said to myself, “It’s about time!” It was both an exclamation of excitement and a safe prediction about the contents of the film itself. It’s almost always about time with this filmmaker. How it passes, how it lingers, how we mark it. How maybe it’s a lie but also how very real the waking dream of time feels. Apollo 10 1/2 is also a sly film about nostalgia. a word that I don’t always associate with positive connotations. A long soak in a bath of nostalgia can be bewitching and intoxicating, but it also has a pesky way of making our brains waterlogged. It can cloud the senses and distort our memory of the times we are nostalgic for. It can cause people to get too bogged down in the moments of their own coming of age to the point they become oblivious to the beauty of the present moment. I have rolled my eyes repeatedly at members of older generations who claim that they just don’t make art and pop culture the way they used to. I assure them that, if they paid more attention, they would see that they very much do. More recently, I’ve grown to watch members of my own 90s-kid generation fall prey to the same habit. And I have to remind them that the present has art to rival the time of their childhoods. As has every year between their childhoods and now. Apollo 10 1/2 quietly critiques nostalgia by noting how little the Moon landing did to alleviate the many systemic evils of that time. But at the same time, it pulls us into an irresistible nostalgic reverie so powerful that we spend a hundred minutes helplessly pulled along in its current. Linklater isn’t really a lecturer. He’s not actually out to give us a polemic on the scary grip of looking backwards. His way is just to show us the hypnotic eddy of nostalgia and to ask with his characteristic stoner bemusement, “Ain’t that something else?” It’s for us to decide how much the nostalgic free associations of Apollo 10 1/2 are fun and sugar rush pleasurable and how much this exact kind of breathless idealizing of the past presents uneasy implications about memory’s power to gloss over harder truths. Linklater? He’s just out looking for pockets of wonder and weirdness and beauty in the most unassuming places. He’s just wandering the beach at dusk in search of tidepools. And this latest little pool looks like it has a whole universe inside of it.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #16- Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Unlike my review last year for Peter Jackson’s Get Back, it  would not be quite right to say that lovable Mexican cinema demigod Guillermo del Toto (the same man Peter Jackson replaced on those unfortunate Hobbit films) “came back” in 2022. For one thing, the man is only five years removed from his Best Picture and Director Oscars for Shape of Water, an admirably spirited and well-made film. Some of his other work over the last fifteen years may have fallen short of unqualified home run status and into the realm of beautifully crafted curios (Nightmare Alley, Crimson Peak), but let’s just be clear that those funky little baubles still display a sense of love and imagination that put ninety-nine percent of cinema’s visual stylists to shame. So no, Guillermo del Toro hasn’t been lost in the woods the way Peter Jackson had been until recently. At worst, he’s just been over there in the next room, always following his muse and pouring his jolly film nerd soul into whatever struck his fancy (when he’s not generously and vociferously shouting out his fellow filmmakers). Let’s be frank. If I’ve had slight hesitations about del Toro’s 2010’s and early 2020’s output, it’s only been because I’ve seen him strike genius before. In 2006, I went to a theater in Los Angeles with my law school roommates to watch Pan’s Labyrinth, his ravishing Spanish fairytale about fascism, rebellion and imagination. My first viewing was a top twenty theatrical experience, a crowd oscillating in unison between tearful hush, enchanted delight and audible tension. I’ve been to a lot of down-the-middle crowdpleasers, but I may never hear a crowd erupt more cathartically than the moment Maribel Verdu’s courageous housekeeper narrowly escapes torture at the hands of Sergi Lopez’s vile Captain Vidal, using her switchblade to carve a permanent sneer into his hateful face. And one should not not hold a director’s masterpiece against their other very good works. But, in truth, I have waited for Guillermo del Toro to make something like that again; that soulfully coherent and powerful. My wait came to an end in 2022 in the unlikely form of the man’s first animated film (along with his animator co-director Mark Gustafson), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. His now-Oscar-winning stop motion marvel finds the humble, spirited creative clearing his throat and drawing in his breath to bellow out another classic. With his sweet bookworm demeanor and giddy enthusiasm for movie-watching, del Toro is always a delight to hear from and read about. But this latest gem feels fiery and personal in a way that even Shape of Water‘s most impassioned harangues against conformist bigotry didn’t for me. The gothic maestro is at the height of his powers again and ready to hold us rapt with attention once more.


The original seed for Pinocchio is not an old fairytale but an 1880s Italian novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi. Its most famous (and still best by my estimation) screen treatment is Walt Disney’s surprisingly unnerving and painterly animated masterpiece from 1940. In spite of its bracing darkness, the Disney version does not match the sheer Grimms Brothers-evoking macabreness of the novel, if only because Disney’s Pinocchio never bites a cartoon cat’s paw off nor later has that same cat try to hang him to death. It’s a high, fucked-up bar. Guillermo del Toro’s superb new spin on the tale as seen through the lens of 1930s fascist Italy is also a little less grisly than Collodi’s text though arguably no less morbid. The man who made fairy tale magic so spooky and tragic in Pan’s Labyrinth has made another tale suffused with death and tormented by human cruelty. Death strikes no more than fifteen minutes in when kindly village woodcarver Geppetto (a truly special voice performance by British national treasure David Bradley) loses his beloved 8-year old son Carlo (I choose to see this as Del Toro literally killing the story’s author) to an accidentally-dropped bomb. The devastated old man spends years in a spiral of grief. The crucifix he was carving in the local church hangs unfinished, a reminder to the whole village of his absence. The village buzzes with judgmental gossip. Geppetto falls into a drunken haze. One night, in the throes of a debilitating bender, he chops down a pine tree (one that Carlo had planted prior to his death) and crudely carves the titular puppet out of it. This display of anguish earns the attention of a cricket named Sebastian, who has just moved into  a hole in the tree’s trunk when it is suddenly, rudely chopped down. Geppetto’s loud sobs also earn the sympathy of some forest spirits, who take a peculiar kind of pity on the bereaved father by bringing his alarmingly rough, alcohol-inspired artwork to life. Unlike Disney’s Geppetto, this version doesn’t wake up grateful and moved to find a son he never had. This one awakens mortified to find a piney abomination clumsily breaking objects, singing loudly and calling him Papa. “I’m not your Papa!,” the old man yells with revulsion. The villagers are even more up in arms when the unruly, possessed plaything claiming to be a young boy storms into the church, causes a supernatural commotion and tries to pose like the wooden colleague on the cross above him. 2022 was a great year for wild plot twists and Geppetto’s initial gobsmacked reluctance to having a relationship with his ersatz son is only the beginning of the twists del Toro applies to this oft-told tale. The local fascists, notably the village priest and the leader of the local fascist party (voiced by del Toro regular Ron Perlman) quickly abandon the idea of drumming Pinocchio out of town and instead try to rein him into conformity with their own norms and plans. Pinocchio is ordered to attend school and become an upstanding citizen. And when, as in the Disney version, he is lured into a seedy life of show business by a traveling puppeteer (an effective Christoph Waltz, though I think Paul Giamatti  would have eaten this role alive), the next course proposed is that he join Mussolini’s youth army (certainly not in the Disney version or in Colucci’s novel). This idea becomes especially intriguing to the local fascist hood when Pinocchio is run over by a truck and comes back to life no more than an hour later. If there’s one thing a Nazi loves more than a naive young mind, it’s a naive young mind that is impervious to death. It’s so nice to have Guillermo del Toro back in anti-fascist fairy tale mode. It’s a micro-genre that has sorely missed him while he was away.


On the strength of Pinocchio and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s understanding of fascism could not be more sharp and multi-hued. It is not merely the violence and debasement at its core that he grasps. He is not simply out to snipe at its oppressive vileness. As brilliant an avatar of spiteful evil as Captain Vidal was in Pan’s Labyrinth, he was only authoritarianism’s most dominant face. One of the ingenious twists of that film was how its heroine had to do more than thwart this obviously fascistic villain. When the seemingly benevolent Faun whose instructions she has been dutifully obeying (in the name of disobeying an evil man of course) asks for a drop of her infant brother’s blood as the final step in her quest, she realizes she cannot heed this demand, even if it is nominally in pursuit of a virtuous goal. She must see at last that fascism wears many masks, with the Captain being just one among them Fascism is not simply a barking demon. It can also take the form of arrogant buffoons, ineffectual stooges and even a friend who pressures us to turn a deaf ear to our own consciences. It can even take the form of a family member. The fascism of Pinocchio’s village is only partially a militaristic kind. It is just as much comprised of fearful citizens, dogmatic priests, judgmental bureaucrats and even disappointed fathers. There are systems of control that have no need for barbed wire and boots. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the lovable auteur wrestles with the burden of both being a father and having a father, with the voice in our heads that whispers there are some people we should obey reflexively. Maybe that voice comes from a good place and maybe we’re right to listen to it, but what about when the voice is wrong? Del Toro leaves the issue of how much obedience a child owes their parent bracingly unresolved. He simply observes that there is something very scoldingly parental in the nature of fascism. Fascist governments are like toxically stern parents who reduce their subjects to the status of perpetually grounded children. A fascist nation abuses its people and then metes out guilt-ridden punishment if they dare to question that abuse. Mussolini and Hitler did not refer to their kingdoms as Fatherlands for nothing.

The middle sections of this Pinocchio are about the young puppet learning the right kind of loyalty, the right kind of selflessness. Not the sort rigidly demanded of us by some authority figure but the kind our consciences (which are sometimes harried, aspiring novelist crickets) compel us towards. The beginning and conclusion of del Toro’s film are lovely, wise bookends about grief and mortality. The prologue that leads up to Pinocchio’s grief-addled creation was not part of Collodi’s novel. Geppetto’ s tragic loss is a conceit added whole cloth by Guillermo del Toro and it considerably deepens this story of a being that can only dream of being a flesh and blood human being. This version of the story posits dying (read: staying dead) as the most human thing of all. Before he becomes an anti-fascist icon, we first meet Pinocchio as a hysterically unholy torment to his creator. A motormouthed mockery of an old man’s grief and a cutting reminder of the folly of trying to outmaneuver death. In that sense, this Pinocchio’s off-putting roughness is both wryly funny and poignant. As if to remind Geppetto how very much this is not his dead son, Pinocchio looks less like a wooden little boy and more like something you would see in a child-friendly version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Pinocchio’s entrance and early scenes are so sharply discomfiting that I momentarily questioned if this version of the character would even have any kind of redemptive or life-affirming arc.  For a matter of minutes, Guillermo del Toro feints toward this being a story about how alcohol and the spirit world conspire to rub the inevitability and permanence of loss in a kindly woodcarver’s face. Those early scenes of Pinocchio as an uncomprehending little terror are also hands down the funniest that del Toro has ever written. And while this epilogue and coda may seem mostly separate from the film’s ruminations on fascism, I think all of these themes speak to our messy humanity. How our fear and our ignorance and our sadness and our powerlessness over death are all primal forces that we are swept along by. They are the things that lead us by the nose more often than not and that is a very relatably human thing. I don’t think Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio offers a bright line moral here, so much as it offers a prayer for our emotional endurance. A hope that, while we cannot be free of that complicated, vulnerable swirl inside of us, we can find a way to be more than the unthinking product of it. From time to time at least. Finding your courage and yourself in the maelstrom is what makes you a real boy or girl.

With all there is to love about del Toro’s remarkable first foray into animation (from the stunning detail of its stop motion work to its potent voice performances), I’m maybe most impressed by what a singular and personal work of adaptation it is. If the directors of 2022 were contestants on an old season of American Idol, Guillermo del Toro would be the director most likely to have Paula Abdul gushing, “You made it your own!” There’s nothing wrong with adapting a source material faithfully and subtly, but del Toro’s dramatic deviations are almost all perfectly judged (I don’t know that this absolutely needed to be a musical but I think most of its songs are perfectly good). The airlift form the 1880’s to 1930’s Italy sets up its fascist themes and gives the animators a wealth of beautiful period detail to play with. The addition of Carlo and his tragic death gives a broad children’s fable character dpeth and specificity in a way that never interferes with the story’s fairy tale tone. And the details involving Pinocchio’s multiple not-quite-deaths and his repeated journeys through a hilariously bureaucratic underworld (del Toro bemusedly suggests that maybe humans don’t have a copyright on tedious protocol) are delightfully sardonic. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is what happens when a creator is inspired by a work of art but not bound to it. It’s a testament to the value of not simply memorizing your source but really understanding it. Guillermo del Toro sees what has made Pinocchio endure and then, like any great artist taking a crack at a frequently covered chestnut, he offers some insights of his own that you might not have considered before. Sometimes he plays along with Collodi’s already-eccentric story and sometimes he runs away from it and around it in circles like a giggly schoolboy. IN a film about defiance as the very best human trait, del Toro leads by example. He clearly has the greatest of respect and affection for the old tale he is adapting. But he loves it because of what it makes him think of, and he’s too vivacious and uninhibited a filmmaker to stay in its shadow. To truly honor someone you respect, be it a father or a fellow artist, you need to have the courage to be yourself.

Is Guillermo del Toro funny? I said it before but it bears repeating that his Pinocchio is genuinely a very funny film. I was surprised by its humor, though maybe it was unfair of me to assume that it wouldn’t have that. Guillermo del Toro does have the two Hellboy films, which rely a lot on jokes. Then again, I found Shape of Water‘s attempts at being funny to be somewhat off. Not in an entirely ineffectualy way, but clumsy enough to make me wonder why this movie was trying to make me laugh. Whimsy fit Shape of Water very well, as it fits del Toro himself, but the jokes (about weird repressed 1950’s sex and Chiclets and generals yelling “unfuck this mess”) felt more shoehorned in. But I laughed heartily at Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, enough so that I feel I owe the ticklishly sweet man more credit as a humorist. Jokes may not be what I come to his films for, but what I do come for is to bear witness to his exuberant id. and if Guillermo del Toro needs some jokes to really put the finishing touches on his latest Chex mix of eeriness, sentiment, rebel attitude and note-perfect effects, then that’s what he needs. Artists as wildly imaginative as him are always going to be given to wild indulgences and it’s a given that not all of them will connect with me. But Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a blessed reminder of why the man is such an undeniable force for good in filmdom. Because, when all of his flourishes and flights of fancy lock into place, there’s just nobody on the planet (don’t you even think about saying Tim Burton to me) like him. And when not everything is gelling seamlessly, there’s still nobody on the planet like him (not even Tim Burton). He’s a man so endearingly, irrepressibly himself that his film about fish sex and red scare politics cruised to Oscar glory and just about everyone was tickled to watch it happen. So not, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Guillermo del Toro came back in 2022. If anything, I came back to him. Like a prodigal son coming home to cinema’s most gregarious, free-wheeling and generous father.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #17- Armageddon Time

James Gray is a director of eclectic sensibilities. So even though his latest gem is set in the 1980s and mostly makes use of golden age hip hop and Clash-style punk for its soundtrack, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me busting out a little 90’s skate punk as a jumping off point for digging into his film. I enjoy the band NOFX quite a bit, in all their goofy, major chord glory. I am particularly fond of their 23-minute opus “The Decline”, a fiery, tonally diverse suite song that calls out the evils of everything from gun violence to anti-intellectualism to draconian marijuana laws. But its central thesis critiques a certain kind of myopic selfishness that feeds on fear. It’s the kind of frightened covetousness that turns garden variety self-interest into an all-consuming blaze of egomaniacal survivalism. One which transforms “my family comes first” into “my family comes only”. The idea that we only have the resources to care for our own, regardless of the consequences of that mindset. In the song’s rousingly cynical closing act, the learned emeritus Fat Mike roars out, “Fellow members, Club We’ve Got Ours. I’d like to introduce you to our host. He’s got his. And I’ve got mine. Meet the Decline.” This sprawling punk anthem came back to me as I watched James Gray’s autobiographical account of liberal New York Jewish family negotiating and painfully compromising their principles at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s first term. Gray’s story is one of 2022’s most intellectually rigorous and deeply disquieting films because the people it most strongly takes to task are basically decent. The powerful advocates of classism and racism are mostly tucked away in the shadows and unseen. Gray alludes to the unscrupulous and the powerful intermittently (particularly by using the 1980 Presidential election as a loose framing device), but Armageddon Time is really the story of people who want to do the right thing. It is about people who want to be seen as compassionate but find themselves tripped up by the hurdles of prejudice, opportunism, generational trauma and moral cowardice. It is a potent and dismaying look at how American society prioritizes some people while stigmatizing others, and how even the well-meaning can be separated from their morals by the strong paternal hand of that society.

It’s the autumn of 1980 in New York City and a good-hearted but headstrong young Jewish boy named Paul Graff has just begun the sixth grade. Paul dreams of being an artist but his talent gets him sent to the blackboard on the first day when he draws a (quite good) rendering of his balding teacher. He doesn’t have to suffer his punishment alone for long, however, because another student all but volunteers to be punished with him. The teacher calls out the name of a young black boy, Johnny Davis. “The name’s Bond. James Bond”, the charismatic youngster suavely replies. They win their classmates’ laughter together and lose the right to participate in gym exercises for the day. Paul walks Johnny to his bus (Johnny lives in a poor neighborhood with only his grandmother) and they chat. They talk about Johnny’s dream of being an astronaut and the upcoming class trip to the Guggenheim Museum. Paul promises to pinch a 20-dollar bill from his mother’s purse so Johnny can afford to go on the outing. Paul lives a comfortable life, though his father (Jeremy Strong, strong) labors as a working class repairman. His maternal grandparents are wealthy enough to help the family. His older brother attends a rich private school downtown. His mother (Anne Hathaway, as great as I’ve seen her in quite some time) is a driven woman with plans to run for head of the District School Board. They live in a well-kept townhouse. Paul is especially close with his British-Ukrainian grandfather on his mother’s side, Aaron (an endearing and superb Anthony Hopkins giving one of the year’s truly great supporting performances). Aaron is a noble and doting man, always giving the Graff sons gifts and encouragement. He represents the very best angels of the Graff family, but even he has a somewhat stifling sense of familial tightness. He has known scarcity and hardship and a certain greedy fearfulness vibrates just below his genteel surface. His own Ukrainian mother saw her parents murdered by anti-Semitic hooligans. That was when she moved the family away from the Ukraine to Liverpool and from there across the ocean to New York City. The Graffs have had to fight prejudice and hate to become the modestly successful American family they are and they live with the uneasy feeling that it all could be taken away from them in an instant. That is why, when Paul’s blossoming friendship with Johnny lands him a suspension (they are both caught smoking pot in the stalls), even kindly Aaron supports the decision to pull him out of public school and send him to the lofty, elite school his older brother attends. Paul is being pulled in two directions by his close bond with a nice, misunderstood black boy and by the many forces that want to groom him into the thing that Johnny will never be allowed to be: a powerful, accepted cog in society’s upper echelons. The private school does not settle the war for Paul’s soul, it only starts it. It does not conclude the matter of Paul’s affluent future as his family hopes. Instead, the whole ordeal and especially his painful separation form Johnny opens Paul’s eyes to ugly and systemically violent truths about the American Dream and which people are handpicked to take part in it. Moreover, it sets in motion a tragedy that irrevocably changes these characters and alters the destiny of the man directing this film.

James Gray is much too eclectic of an auteur to be hemmed in by the kinds of stories he tells. He’s one of the last directors you could ever pigeonhole. He has been back to the turn of the century (The Immigrant and his masterpiece The Lost City of Z), into the future (Ad Astra) and occasionally to the present (Little Odessa and Two Lovers). His films have gone to Edwardian England, the remote Amazon, the far reaches of outer space and frequently returned home to his native New York City. If there’s a germ of a consistent theme to be found in his work, I think it’s the heavy yoke of family and expectations. In Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s astronaut sets out to find a father whose approval he has always craved, while that same father has suddenly cast off a lifetime of societal expectations by going rogue. The Lost City of Z‘s Percy Fawcett starts as a social striver trying to clear his tainted family name before a chance to make good by mapping the Amazon points him down a path that is his alone. But while he loses himself in his beloved rainforest, the question that looms is whether he is doing right by his family back in England. Family and society are primal forces to either surrender to or rebel against but, no matter what, you can never entirely get away from them. Not even light years away from Earth. They are fundamental fields of gravity that govern life as James Gray sees it and all of us define ourselves, rebel and conformist alike, by how we respond to them. In Armageddon Time, Gray renders the vision of his own family with fairness and empathy but also with merciless honesty. Family can be an unflattering thing; poison and antidote in one bottle. He shows the Graffs’ fearful selfishness, their blind entitlement, their internalized racism, their years of suffering anti-Jewish bigotry now unthinkingly projected out at the next marginalized group. He captures a brutal beating at the hands of his stern, emotionally repressed father. If Avatar: The Way of Water posits that family is a fortress, Armageddon Time adds that it can be a fortress under siege with us trapped inside of it. Family can protect us but it also has the power to suffocate and drive us mad. The entire institution of family carries with it the uncomfortable notion that our empathy is already partly spoken for, that we reserve a larger portion of our kindness and care for this one group of people that shares our genes. Armageddon Time is James Gray’s gently harrowing account of learning that opportunity and dignity are not apportioned equally in America. The brilliance of Gray’s film is in how he sees family as a snapshot of that harsh societal truth in miniature.

Armageddon Time is about as insightful a film about white privilege as I have ever laid eyes on. What makes it so biting is how it sees racism and privilege as the result of both deliberate cruelty and unconscious self-obsession. I was reminded of something Brad Dourif’s doctor from Deadwood says: “I see as much misery out of them moving to justify their selves as them that set out to do harm.” A society of racial injustice and unequal opportunity is built a brick at a time by the justifications of individuals afraid for their own position; by those who fear that they only have enough capacity (of money, of time, of emotional energy) to see to themselves and their own circle. The gravitational pull of self-interest is hard to resist. Fat Mike has it right. He’s got his and I’ve got mine. The Graffs are basically well-meaning people. They do not espouse hateful rhetoric, even if they do fall right into prejudiced line the second one black boy’s existence poses some vague threat to their child’s future. There is an unspoken theme in Armageddon Time about how people act out their own past oppression against other exploited groups, passing their victimization along like a hot potato. The Graff family is vocally against Ronald Reagan but they are blithe participants in the society that is about to welcome Reaganism’s self-serving myopia with open arms. They may be registered as Democrats but they eagerly push Paul into a school and career track populated by the sons of the greedy, powerful and unprincipled. Many, this critic included, are perfectly willing to attack a system solely interested in securing prosperity and safety for a privileged handful of whites, but it takes a different sort of courage to disavow the benefits we receive from that system. To refuse what you are given and let your advantage go unused. Armageddon Time understands how hard it is for ostensibly progressive white people to refuse the money, so to speak, even when we know it has been stolen from the disadvantaged. We can critique the unjust enrichment of white over black all day long, but there is a tendency to do so in a very generalized way; a way that leaves our own selves out of the problem. The Graffs know things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they also feel they could really use any leg up that America is offering them. Even the noble and tolerant grandfather Aaron won’t say no to this arbitrary fortune. He accepts special treatment and remembers how recently the shoe was on the other foot. How not very long ago it would have been a Cossack’s boot breaking down their door. “The system is rigged and unfair,” we cry out and then discreetly drop the tainted coins into our pockets.

Armageddon Time is an intimately observed coming of age story for James Gray but it also has the foreboding of a slowly unfurling horror movie. The slasher waiting in the bushes is nothing less than the American 80s, and nobody’s ideals or best liberal intentions are safe. Gray’s wise, sober little tale has the clammy panic of a waking nightmare. The more Paul watches all of society degrade and devalue Johnny (from uncaring teachers who write him off to the police to even other black adolescents), the more incensed Paul becomes. That’s when the world starts to take on truly chilling undertones. Because he learns that all his righteous indignation, disgust and sorrow can’t give him the courage to really do anything about this injustice. The Armageddon in question is the total paralysis of human empathy and social action; the failure of our own convictions when we have to make a choice that might threaten our own interests. Meanwhile, Johnny Davis knows where his story is headed from the beginning. His resigned, worn out face tells us everything we need to know. He is heartbreakingly aware that no future has been set aside for him. When Paul worries about his teacher punishing them for ditching a field trip, Johnny chuckles knowingly and says, “Nothing’s gonna happen to you, man.” Johnny has Paul’s back with a tender ferocity. He doesn’t have a chance against this depraved system, but it hurts him to see it grind down his friend. Paul sadly finds himself tongue-tied when two rich classmates at his new school ask him if he ever went to school with blacks (but of course they don’t use the word “blacks”). The Graffs watch a Reagan interview where the incoming President warns that this generation might be the one to usher in Armageddon. His Armageddon is a rhetorical weapon, a fear cudgel that he will soon use to help herd America into a notoriously conformist chapter of its history. The true Armageddon isn’t what Reagan says it is but, in getting the American populace to buy into the idea, it does become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The real cataclysm is the wilting of the American soul in the face of manufactured fear. The compromising of Americans’ principles as more of them prioritize their financial security and make peace with the limits of their power to help the stigmatized, brutalized and neglected.  Sometimes that racist abuse takes the form of plain old neglect. When Paul is sent to the principal’s office, the principal doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him right back to class. The message is actually crueler than mere punishment. Society has repeatedly let Paul know that it doesn’t much care where he goes or what happens to him, just that there’s no real place for him. He simply doesn’t matter. I have heard and digested the criticisms of Armageddon Time as being just another exercise in white guilt. But I find James Gray’s self-immolating autobiography so clear-eyed and scorching that it avoids navel-gazing. It never feels like an act of indulgent self-flagellation or pat forgiveness. Certainly not forgiveness of any kind. It sees the human beings at the center of this story in all their dimensions, but it never lets a one of them off the hook. Under its muted, autumnal visual palette, Armageddon Time breathes a rebuking fire that consumes Gray’s loved ones and himself.

The problem Armageddon Time sees is how the future is forever being held back by the past. The way that, even if you were to assemble enough people who genuinely want to create a more equal and equitable world, they would need to sacrifice personally.  They would need to agree to break with traditions that have protected and enriched them. Real justice would require drastic change, and whoever created the system as it currently stands was cunning enough to entangle a lot of white Americans in it; to make sure that each of them has enough of a piddling token stake in the status quo that they feel they would suffer some detriment from altering it. In the way it sees the morass of self-interest and complacency as the enemy of progress, Armageddon Time reminded me of The Wire, David Simon’s revelatory show about law, crime and city politics in Baltimore. Various characters in that show envision and try to implement better, fairer ways of governing and policing. Better ways of being as a society. And the stark brick wall reality that they always butt up against is that it’s very difficult to get people to change an unjust system that they own shares in. If only half the people in that system didn’t want to be judges and higher-ups, The Wire‘s unorthodox Detective McNulty laments. “But no, everybody stays friends. Everybody gets paid. And everybody has a fucking future.” It’s just what Paul Graff’s family is doing when they place him in that private academy full of future judges, politicians and CEOs. They are buying him into that safe future that is so very beholden to the craven past. In what could have been too on the nose, the first person Paul runs into on his first day at rich school is Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump. He is there with his daughter Maryanne Trump Barry, an Assistant United States Attorney. She has come to the school’s assembly to tell this auditorium full of privileged white boys the unvarnished truth. The future has been prepared specially in advance for them. It has been paid for and gift wrapped to be given to them on a day not so far from today, in a year not so distant from 1980. It is of course expected that they will one day reciprocate for their own kind, ensuring that the right to peace and prosperity is handed down to the chosen people who will gather in this same stately hall decades from now. Armageddon Time does not actually get its title from that Reagan interview. It’s instead a reference to “Armagideon Time”, a 1970s reggae song by a black Jamaican named Willie Williams. It was later covered by a white British band  called The Clash. The song is about poverty and inequality and fighting back against systemic evils. There is not much hope in Armageddon Time outside of a small moment of symbolic victory for Paul. But there may be a nugget of hope in the lyrics of “Armagideon Time”, a reminder of what needs to be done. “A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” Williams sings. “Remember to kick it over.”

Top 20 Films of 2022: #15- Avatar: The Way of Water

The major reason Ratatouille‘s Anton Ego is so many critics’ favorite depiction of a critic (other than the dream of having a velvety Peter O’Toole voice) is that he shows how much we all want to love the things we take in. Beneath his imposing veneer lies the soft heart of a man who wants to be completely bowled over by a piece of art. It may not always work out that way, but no self-respecting critic wants to find a piece of art mediocre or bad. Lovers of art want to have a reason to love even more art and, even if we feel reasonably certain that a given film is going to disappoint us, we still hold to the hope that maybe it won’t. True film critics start every film hoping, praying to be surprised. And when that happens, there are precious few experiences more rejuvenating and magical. I never disliked James Cameron’s 2009 world-beater Avatar. Not by a long shot. I always though it was pretty good and I still basically feel that way. Its environmentalist message is definitely earnest and cheesy (even if pitched entirely to my viewpoint), but earnestness has never been the Cameron trait that bothers me. Obviously the visuals were and are staggering. But the visionary director’s nakedly sentimental action extravaganza never hit me with the emotional intensity of Cameron masterworks like Terminator 2: Judgement DayAliens or Titanic. It wasn’t that Avatar was dopey, because of course it was. It’s not like Cameron has ever been particularly script-focused to begin with. His plots and characters deserve a lot of praise, but he’s the furthest thing from writerly or subtle. Maybe it was just that the 2009 Avatar‘s New-Agey ideas felt too borrowed and obvious, even for someone as broad as Cameron. It was as if he had just registered for Facebook and stumbled on a cache of well-meaning but hackneyed climate change memes that he couldn’t wait to share. Avatar was far too committed and sincere for me to ever call it phoned in. It clearly came from a place of great conviction on Cameron’s part. But maybe its ham-handed message and those well-worn tropes so many made fun of it for (the comparisons to Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas) pointed toward something just a little less personal about it. Even True Lies feels more suffused with Big Jim Cameron’s heart and personality, what with its goofy divorced guy energy. I like Avatar fine in a way where I was content to never talk about it or even watch it again. Unlike so much of the movie-watching world, I did not have a pressing need to “return to Pandora”. So. all of that to say, Avatar: The Way of Water being even pretty good would have been a splendid surprise for this one-time Navi agnostic. But what I ended up getting from the second Avatar was well above and beyond anything I could have hoped for. And I could break it all down into a numerical grade and put caveats and qualifiers on my praise but, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel like it. A film as elating as this leaves a critic too satisfied for hedging or hair-splitting. After a three-hour bath in Cameron’s aquamarine wonderland, quibbling is the furthest thing from my mind. I am surprised and delighted to tell you that I unabashedly loved Avatar: The Way of Water.


Avatar: The Way of Water picks up some 16 years after the first one. After fending off his own military from decimating the forests of Pandora for precious metals, former paraplegic Earth Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, shaking off the stiffness of his first outing with Cameron and giving what I can happily call a tremendously good performance) is now living in domestic bliss with his Navi warrior wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, as reliably strong here as she always is) and their four children. This includes their two teenaged songs, responsible eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and their second eldest, the more impetuous and eager Loak (Britain Dalton). They also have an adopted teenage daughter named Kiri. Kiri (marvelously played with a Winona Ryder-like blend of quirky innocence and rebelliousness by 71-year James Cameron muse Sigourney Weaver) was birthed by Earth scientist Grace (played briefly by Weaver without the use of mo-cap technology), who fell into a coma after one of the first movie’s battles. Kiri’s father remains unknown, though giddy speculation runs high among her siblings. The youngest Sully child is their 7-year old daughter Tuk (Trinity Bliss, adorable). The loving Sully clan has been enjoying a relatively uneventful decade-plus. Their season in the Sun ends when Earth ships suddenly arrive in a fiery blast, carrying a new wave of Sky People, as the Navi term the Earth interlopers. Cameron cuts to a year later with Jake, Neytiri and the rest of the Navi (including the Sully sons) fighting to stop the Earth forces from encroaching into their sacred forest. They are doing quite a good job of it too, which is why the military presence on Pandora has called for an upgrade to their forces. In an effort to help neutralize chosen warrior Jake Sully, the corporate and military interests of Earth have essentially brought back the first film’s villain, Colonel Quaritch (a very strong Steven Lang), nothwithstanding the fact that he expired with two arrows through the chest at the conclusion of the first Avatar. The film repeatedly reminds us, however, that this is not actually the same Colonel Quaritch but a kind of copy containing all of his data. In other words, Quaritch’s superiors shrewdly preserved his memories on a zip drive and have uploaded them into a nine-foot tall Navi body. The new Quaritch wants a chance for revenge against the turncoat Jake and against the Navi woman who violently dispatched the human Quaritch. The Earth forces on Pandora hope this personal vendetta (and the aid of Quaritch’s elite team of Marines, also brought back to life in avatar form) will turn the tides in their favor and give them the added push they need to neutralize the Forest Navi resistance. And, in the jam-packed first thirty minutes of Cameron’s three-hour epic, Quaritch and his grunts come close to succeeding, after they catch the Sully children snooping around the site of the first film’s final battle. Jake and Neytiri arrive just in time to rescue their kids and the whole Sully family escapes by the blue skin of their teeth. But Quaritch does take one prisoner: his own 16-year old son, Spider. Spider was only two at the time the Earthlings retreated all those years ago, and was too much of an infant to travel with them. As a result, he has become close with the Navi and fashioned himself as one of them, much like Jake once did but without being placed into a Navi avatar. The Sullys have all but adopted Spider. He is particularly close with thier actual adopted child Kiri. After their close call, the Sullys know the enemy is building its strength up again and that Jake’s hunted status could put their forest loved ones in mortal danger. Over the tearful protestations of his family, the regimented and disciplined Jake pressures them to leave their home. They must mount their dragon-like Ikran (let’s be honest, they’re dragons in all but name) and fly somewhere where they can hide from their would-be captors. And so ends 2022’s most gloriously stuffed and thrilling Act One. But the real business of Avatar: The Way of Water truly begins when the Sullys reach the film’s central destination: the turquoise waters of the far-off coastal islands. The lands that are home to an entirely distinct tribe called the Metkayina.


As Jake and his family are reluctantly taken in by the Metkayina leaders, Tonowari (a strong Cliff Curtis) and his pregnant warrior queen Ronal (Kate Winslet, giving just enough to make me excited to see her do more in the franchise’s next entry), something miraculous happens to the film. James Cameron, the dominant elder statesman of blockbusting action, creates something that feels different and new. If you’re coming to this review from my review on The Woman King, you may recognize a trend taking shape for 2022. The streak of unique action hybrids stays alive. Cameron has created what feels like history’s first true action hangout movie, certainly for an action movie of this enormous scope and budget. While the film is packed with some of the most exciting and blisteringly inventive action setpieces this side of Mad Max: Fury Road (or 2022’s own RRR, of course) Cameron also finds room for moments of beatific calm. I love almost every minute of The Way of Water, but my eyes lit up when I realized what its transcendent second act was doing. James Cameron has created an astoundingly beautiful underwater world for us to gaze at in childlike awe, and he’ll be damned if any action movie rules are going to get in the way of us taking it in. “You’ll get to spend the whole last hour with your heart in your trachea,” he says, “But I didn’t transport us all this way to an intergalactic tropical paradise to not have any downtime.” And by taking it all in, I mean really stopping to look at it and see how the characters themselves (especially starry-eyed budding naturalist Kiri) are moved by it. The first Avatar had lovely scenery but Cameron’s superior-on-every-level sequel goes further to give the natural beauty an emotional connection.  It’s a small, perfectly judged decision. There’s an old cineaste’s proverb that says a great film teaches you how to watch it in its first moments. Cameron’s Metkayina villagers teach us how to watch the film roughly an hour in when they teach the Sully children how to hold their breath for longer underwater. “You must slow down your heartbeat,” the tribe leaders’ daughter Tsireya tells Loak. And the same applies to us. Exhilarating and brilliantly blocked scenes of combat and survival are coming soon in Avatar‘s glorious third act, but Cameron also wants his devoted, action-loving viewers to tune into the joys of his slow scenes. Not only because they are fantastic, but because those moments of serenity are going to make those deliriously smart action scenes leap off the screen more vividly when they arrive. The enraptured smiles on Kriki and Tuk’s faces should match our own and we should feel just as blown away by the film’s meditative wonder as by how kinetic it is.  “Your heart is fast,” Tsireya softly admonishes her new pupils. When you allow yourself to experience both the film’s transcendent, gently euphoric lulls and its breathlessly paced, emotionally charged action highs in the way Cameron wants you to, the full experience of Avatar: The Way of Water becomes almost impossibly rich: fun, silly, sincere, empathetic, tense and heart-swelling. James Cameron put my heart and all my brain’s pleasure receptors in a delightful centrifuge and whirled them around until they surrendered to the sheer majestic glee.


Avatar: The Way of Water is also maybe the most thematically potent film James Cameron has made since Terminator 2: Judgement Day some thirty years ago. Like its predecessor, this Avatar is very much about respect for nature and environmental stewardship. Cameron is once again unembarrassed to bare his whole conservationist heart (and, unlike Adam McKay, he has nothing to be embarrassed about). In this film, Earth’s goal is no longer mining for precious metals but turning Pandora into a full-scale replacement Earth. Environmentalism is the core message but the film’s strongest theme is actually the power and complexity of the family unit. “Family is a fortress,” Jake Sully tells his loved ones. It may not outwardly seem like the most complex organizing idea for a film (then again, it is the major theme of Cameron’s two game-changing masterpieces, T2 and Aliens). The weaker Fast & Furious films are a reminder that having a character say the word “family” a lot does not automatically turn your action movie into interesting cinema. But Cameron threads the idea of family through his lushly heartfelt movie with disarming conviction. And with so much to love about the visuals, lovable characters (even agro-heel Quaritch gets a fresh new coat of humanism this time around), patient sense of tone and smart action directing, Cameron’s unfussy use of the family theme becomes one more beautiful, enriching element. It does something I did not expect after the first Avatar. It makes thee big goofy blue alien film feel genuinely sumptuous and even, dare I say, sophisticated. Maybe sophistication isn’t something you need from a blockbuster actioner like this, but it sent my appreciation through the roof and out past the Earth’s atmosphere. As in Titanic (with its themes of classism), Cameron is using theme in a very practical way. The pattern of families and duty to one’s own and how fathers and their children build trust is not deployed for any lofty cerebral purpose but simply to add depth to its characters and its plot stakes.  It’s the way Cameron connects that theme very plainly and directly to every one of these characters, from the Sullys to Quaritch and Spider. It’s even tied to the space whales (I do apologize for taking so long to mention that there are kick-ass, hyper-intelligent whales in this beautiful gem). This is theme done in the unpretentious, no-bullshit James Cameron house style and I was unprepared for just how masterfully it would work on me.

Avatar: The Way of Water can also sit proudly with recent masterpieces like Once Upon A Time In HollywoodThe Fabelmans and The Irishman as films that are in conversation with their director’s soul and body of work. Just as surely as Martin Scorsese is drawn to crime and faith or Quentin Tarantino loves old B-movie theaters, James Cameron loves water. The old joke in the early Aughts was that he loved the sea so damned much we might just lose him to underwater documentaries forever. Water features heavily in Titanic and The Abyss, but even T2 introduces a villain who can essentially liquefy himself. It is that undulating watery power that makes the T1000 so terrifying (okay, he’s also indecently fast) and it is also only through melting that he can eventually be defeated. There’s a sort of impassive quality to water that can be both sword and shield and I think Cameron finds something beautiful and humbling about that. It is both karmic and frighteningly impartial. In Titanic, human greed may take sides but the icy waters of the North Atlantic do not. “Oh sure,” James Cameron might say to all my high-minded theorizing. “That’s partly it. But it also just looks incredible.” And he would be absolutely right on the money (he lives on the money). The third act of Avatar: The Way of Water, involving hostages and a giant whaling vessel, is astonishing and innovative and it is where James Cameron lets the titular H2O of his film fully out of its cage. It is where Cameron’s irresistibly rousing watery id rushes through every nook and cranny of his meticulously designed film. And, for as much as I adore the decision to have a meditative and peaceful second act, this technically more traditional action finale is what makes me fall completely in love with the film. A massive, action-heavy third act may seem more been-there-done-that, but James Cameron action finales are never standard and are never ever phoned in. What makes the film soar from start to finish is its unabashed emotionalism and I cannot name an action finale this side of RRR that feels more tied into emotion and character. I want to go watch that last hour again, this very instant. I hollered, laughed, and felt water welling up behind my eyes. Whatever remaining tolerance I had for the flat, dingy sky battles of so many modern action movies has been entirely rinsed out of my system. James Cameron has flushed them all down the drain in a whitewater torrent of tears and serotonin.

If I haven’t emphasized it properly, James Cameron has also made a very well-acted film here. The first Avatar didn’t attract too many performance hosannas outside of Zoe Saldana’s potent ferocity as Neytiri, but The Way of Water is filled with strong, fully dimensional acting. Sam Worthington’s work as Jake Sully is an extremely pleasant surprise. He has improved dramatically since his agreeably wooden work in the first Avatar (I think the more ensemble-y nature of Way of Water is good for his intermittently frustrating but generally sympathetic character). Saldana continues to be the franchise’s reliable heavyweight, a powder keg of feeling who can lend subtlety to big moments. The Sully sons are completely solid at worst, even if the eldest does verge on being an afterthought. Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet lend gravitas to their Metkayina leaders. I think character actors’ character actor Steven Lang is doing superlative work as the film’s heavy, finding notes of humor, introspection and even self-doubt in the cocksure force of nature that is Quaritch. It’s also just nice to see that character get more to do than bark, seethe and glower. On second viewing, I have firmly decided that I actually like dread-headed white teenager Spider, the film’s most polarizing character for reasons that require no further explanation. But if I have to give out best in show, it absolutely belongs to septuagenarian and longtime Cameron collaborator Sigourney Weaver, whose wonderfully soulful work as the moony teenager Kiri is like some great Winona Ryder character discovered decades later. Cameron and Weaver broke boundaries back in 1988 when her commandingly brilliant work in Aliens became the first action performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar. And here they both are three decades later, still standing at the cutting edge of what action cinema can be. That two titans of the genre are here in this banner year with one of the very best films of the year is fitting and refreshing, if not the least bit surprising. If they do not have the literal best action film of 2022, that’s of no great concern. They are 2022’s action keynote speakers all the same.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #18- The Woman King

Maybe it’s residual annoyance at her Oscar snub but I feel like starting this review with a nice, buttery hot take. I think I just might consider General Nanisca in The Woman King to be EGOT-winner Viola Davis’ best screen performance. Perhaps some Davis performances have loftier literary credentials (DoubtFencesMa Rainey’s Black Bottom). If her trademark volcanic intensity is what does it for you, maybe there have been times where she has quaked with more turmoil, when her hurricane force tears (and other more nasal-adjacent fluids) have rained down with more ferocity. Or times where she’s gotten more creative at applying her versatility to pulpy trash (Suicide Squad or, ahem, The Help). But Viola Davis’ work in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s lusciously mainstream African period piece is the one that I could wolf down a whole bowl of any time. I feel similarly about her work as Nanisca as I do about Russell Crowe’s irresistibly fun work as Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. I feel about Viola Davis the way I feel about my favorite actor Paul Newman in many of his roles. In cases like these, the subtle character actor is unafraid to become a dynamic, show-stopping entertainer, and they manage to do it without sacrificing an ounce of their potent subtlety. It’s fun to watch actors this perfectly dialed in get saucy, fun roles like these because you can trust them to not go too big (a fact that puts this Davis performance full leagues above her work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Performances like this are arguments for how we might build a better star system. I don’t mean to glibly wave away the fears that movie stars are going away; that the nature of mega-stardom is changing or losing some of its draw with audiences. But I just cannot watch any ten minutes of The Woman King and not feel a little puzzled at the idea of the big, dynamic movie star being a dying breed. Here is a 57-year old woman playing a dramatic action role and utterly igniting the screen. While playing a character you have probably never heard of, no less. Yes, the nature of who can anchor a popular blockbuster film may be in flux. But 2022 made one thing abundantly clear to me. Viola Davis is a big old movie star.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #19- Decision To Leave

Rumors of the visual motif’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. If 2022 is anything to go off of, we can hopefully expect to see the explosive resurgence of symbolic visual patterns that bring added meaning to a film’s themes and just give directors more fun imagery to play with. It may be rare that a motif absolutely makes a film but, like extra containers of parmesan and red pepper with your pizza, who would ever claim a film is better off without them? The past year gave us a couple of great visual motifs, both of which made use of elemental imagery. In S.S. Rajamouli’s game-changing RRR, the exciting Indian director used the contrasting elements of fire and water to represent two characters’ opposition and testy bond and, of course, to produce some absolutely astounding cinematic imagery. The year’s other great elemental motif came from South Korean gonzo maestro Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave. The Handmaiden director’s latest stylistically audacious, overwhelmingly romantic extravaganza’s spellbinding denouement features a dazzling and suspenseful motif of earth and water that does everything a visual motif should do. It speaks to the film’s themes. It burrows into the frenzied, lovelorn psyches of its leads. And it gives Park Chan-wook a way of ending on a profoundly unshakable crescendo of pure visual splendor. A poorly thought-out motif can occasionally feel amateurish or like its compensating for a lack of theme (okay, I promise to go a full ten reviews without critiquing The Revenant again), but great motifs take theme and harmonize over it in ineffably stirring ways. They make ideas more cinematic and some would say that is the most important thing a film can do. In the case of Decision To Leave, a film I found not simplistic but ideologically stripped down, the use of a diverse array of visual, elemental signifiers is part of what truly makes the film vibrate on its own singularly powerful wavelength. They should have sent an opera lover to write this review. It’s not that I don’t think Decision To Leave is a gorgeous, juicy piece of writing. It really is. But it’s a film that hits emotional highs and lows that are much better felt and seen than carefully corralled into words. Park Chan-wook’s latest disorienting feast is a deliriously rapturous and pained ode to the kind of love and obsession that turns us into sub-verbal animal versions of ourselves. Its terrific literate murder mystery is really just setting the table for a baser, more elemental mystery about human emotion. It’s a detective story about feelings so deep within our guts that words can’t even hope to reach them.

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Top 20 Films of 2022: #20- Nope



I would like to start my first review of the spellbinding 2022 cinema crop with a very heartfelt apology to estimable octogenarian Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and the six very talented donkeys who starred in his lovely, wise and animal-loving late career triumph EO. I had it sitting at number 20 with my list seemingly finalized. I was eager to watch the film again and offer up my thoughts on that astonishing, relatively wordless gem. But I’m afraid that, at the absolute 11th hour, the fates came sprinting down the hall with a  last minute fax from top brass (quite the lively, Aaron Sorkian office this cinema-addled brain is!). Top 20 placement for EO was to be a reluctant, well, nope. While showing a close friend the latest David Ehrlich film countdown video, we turned to the subject of Jordan Peele’s Nope, which he had recently seen. In explaining why I had increasingly come to love it the more I sat with it, I began going into its teeming ideas and how they all mingled together or maybe didn’t. And as we parsed through them, I had a sudden epiphany about the fearsome sky predator that stalks our main cast throughout the film and how much dread Jordan Peele milks out of its nebulous shape. And that’s before we even see its shape. At first it’s just a blur, obscured by night or by cloud cover. “It’s scary how hard the creature is to pin down and describe,” my friend noted. “Right,” I replied before it suddenly hit me. “But then the Haywood siblings do find a way to describe him. They name him. He’s Jean Jacket.” I realized that, among Peele’s many insights on what scares us, he had subtly made a comment on how giving a name to something that feels beyond description and comprehension helps us reduce our fear of it. Sure, the creature is still an enormously terrifying threat, capable of eating a bleacher’s worth of people in barely an instant. But it also looks a lot like an unfolded denim jacket at one point (when it’s not looking like a big cowboy hat). And we can now laugh at the thing that frightens us. This was the moment I knew Nope had to be included in this countdown. A film so chock full of rich psychological ideas that it was still spitting new ones out at me all these months later just could not be denied. At this point, I’ll assume I’ve barely scratched the surface and that the next time I watch it a few more insights will tumble out of it. Like forgotten quarters out of an old jean jacket.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #1- Drive My Car

If there’s been a message I’ve picked up over the last couple years, it’s been that movies are a life raft in rough seas and that movies are utterly powerless to intercede in concrete matters. In Woody Allen’s masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s character learns that cinema can make a drab life worth living and that art (and, fittingly for a Woody Allen, artists) will not hesitate to let you down. That art can be an emotional balm but that there are limits to its power. If there’s a frustration in treacly love letter to the movies like Empire of LightThe Majestic, and even the very popular Cinema Paradiso, it’s that they do not really see the power of art as being complicated or compromised. Part of paying tribute to the power of art, I think, lies in recognizing the ways it can frustrate us and fall short. 2022’s The Fabelmans (a surefire entry on next year’s list) does well to find the nuance in its assessment of movie-making and how it can bring psychic turmoil as well as joy and relief. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s staggering 2021 gem Drive My Car, has a similarly complicated view of art, namely of the theatre. As its devastated play director marks the second anniversary of his wife’s very untimely death, there’s no sense that the play he is directing will be the thing to help him salvage something out of the tragedy. To paraphrase a lyric from acclaimed alternative band Superchunk, art cannot bring people back to this Earth. Producing a successful play cannot undo this man’s heartbreak. Putting on a show does not hold some miraculous power to banish sorrow and pen a new, happier chapter in his life. And it certainly does not hold any easy answers to his loss and how to cope with it. And yet, the three perfect hours of Drive My Car are marvelously healing in the end. Art does not really save the day in the film and one could argue that the directing of the play adds some strife and stress of its own, as the artistic process can often do. Maybe it’s just simply that grief gets shaped and sanded down by time and creating art is something one can do to fill that time. Art, like so much of what is good in life, cannot erase greif. What it can do is distract us and take our minds elsewhere for intermittent moments. As a character says in “Uncle Vanya”, the classic Chekov play our protagonist is directing, we must endure our share of sorrows and live our lives with the hope that we might one day look back on old pain with something like tenderness. We trudge on to a place where trauma does not go away, but simply hurts less. When I saw Hamaguchi’s film back in early 2022, the film’s notion of wrestling with anguish in a tender, almost optimistic way resonated with me a great deal. 2021 had not been easy, and even the return to my beloved movie palace could only do so much to counter that fact. And now at the end of a blistering 2022, with loved ones lost and new ordeals accumulated, the film’s gently walloping power has grown exponentially.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #2- The Worst Person In the World

Mickey Rooney’s screamingly racist Japanese landlord makes up close to 100% of the flak against the 1961 romcom classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and with entirely good reason. I’m not here to make the hot take that any other element of the Truman Capote-penned, Audrey Hep-burn enshrining charmer is as single-handedly damaging to its legacy. But I’ve long had a grip with the film of a more insidious nature. For as much as the film invites the viewer to be delighted and wholly won over by the idiosyncratic and free-spirited Holly Golightly, there can also be little argument that the film judges its bewitchingly flawed heroine within an inch of her life. For not being tied down yet. For being flighty in matters of love. For having the gall to wait until the film’s last minutes to fall into the arms of George Peppard’s dopey, dull beefcake. It’s Holly’s film and yet the choice to have it be about her long walk to settling down with Peppard kind of turns it into his story. Its climax is a floridly written guilt trip delivered by the Peppard character and it reads like an oddly literate chapter of “The Game”.  The film cannot help but turn into the story of an entitled, enamored man who patiently (and finally impatiently) waits for the liberated woman next to him to surrender to his love and eventually wears her down. How dismaying that a turn of phrase like “wear her down” is still part of our culture’s romantic lexicon. Holly’s untethered spirit is the juice that animates Breakfast At Tiffany’s (a film solely about George Peppard trying to make it in the Big Apple would be insufferable) but the film’s journey is really about the tamping down of the very spirit that makes the movie. Watching an effortlessly charismatic and witty woman live according to her own rules is a giddy thrill, but we cannot countenance too much of that frivolity. She must make her choice at last. A real choice and not simply taking each day as it comes. Her male handlers (her perseverant suitor, her director, and her screenwriter) must corral her toward what constitutes a real life choice. And real life choices for female characters, even iconically self-possessed ones, have a stubborn way of funneling them toward men. By the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s sparkling runtime, there is an obligation to be met. Holly has painted the town red and now there is a moral bar tab to be paid. The woman has the right to chose who she ends up with but she owes someone – some male someone – an answer. I like Breakfast At Tiffany’s a whole lot, but the stifling, entitled inevitability of that ending always feels like it denies something of Holly. As hard as Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” swells like its namesake and for as fervently as Blake Edwards’ direction plucks my heartstrings, it always feels like a bummer. Joachim Trier’s energetic and masterful romantic dramedy The Worst Person In the World is stuffed with a great many interesting ideas, but the most quietly revelatory thing about it might be how it acts as an antidote to so many romantic stories about taming an indecisive woman. In Trier’s beautifully sprawling and digressive gem, the year’s most sharply written female character, Julie, is allowed to be fickle, unsatisfied and unsure without ever being judged or losing the audience’s empathy. Unlike Holly Golightly, Julie’s rainbow’s end stretches on past the borders of the story we are watching. It is an ending beholden to neither a romantic partner nor an audience’s expectations. It belongs to her.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #3- Petite Maman

I’ll never forget seeing Avengers: Endgame in a packed theater and listening to the crowd response. I’m someone who likes the Marvel films perfectly well enough on balance, but I knew that some of the people around me were going through something cinematically evangelical. I was surrounded by people who felt a profound and powerful connection to the saga of these heroes and their final chapter as a whole unit. Some of them felt an almost religious zeal for Tony Stark and his superpowered friends and they were watching the decade-long culmination of their tale with a rapt attention that felt positively electric. It didn’t matter if my very energized enjoyment fell somewhere considerably below theirs. I felt strangely moved to be in its presence all the same. I really appreciated getting to bear witness to it. Everyone should have some piece of art (and hopefully many more than one) that sets their soul alight and makes them sit all the way up in their seat. For some, in fact many, the return of the dead Marvel heroes and Tony Stark’s noble sacrifice at the end of Endgame provided that kind of thrilling, undeniable catharsis that we go to the movies in search of. It’s what I seek in movies too. I’m just built a little differently, so my 2021 version of Endgame was an adorable little French girl who feels sad she didn’t properly say goodbye to her recently departed grandma getting to go back in time and have a more satisfying farewell. You see, American populace? We’re not so different you and I. And I am truly not kidding around here. When Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman finally gave me the tender moment it had set up just forty-five minutes ago, I was that ecstatic Marvel audience contained within the body of one sensitive man. I pumped my fist. I shed happy tears. I shook my spouse by the shoulders, incandescent with joy. Whether it’s twenty heroes you thought were dead walking out of a portal to save the day or a lovable French child walking back in time to help ease her grief, every film-lover deserves the life-affirming pleasure of a perfect payoff moment. This was mine, and it had all been delivered to me in a perfect, unbelievably tight 72-minute package. Tender emotions, love for one’s family, and sweet-natured whimsy. What can I say? This kind of thing never fails to quicken my pulse, awaken my soul, and get me completely fucking amped! “This is why we go to the damn movies!,” I bellow as a sweet French child warmly hugs her mother about the neck.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #4- The Souvenir: Part II

Films, they say, are made in the editing room. With due respect to all the crafts, the editor has the most comprehensively vital and perhaps difficult role of them all. The editor is the shortstop of the cinema world and all of the action has a way of inevitably going right through (and hopefully not past) them. When all the actors and craftspeople and even the director herself have done their jobs, it is the editor who sits in a little room with all the raw material that will become the film and painstakingly trims and assembles it until it is at last a finished motion picture. When they do it well (like pretty much any film edited by Martin Scorsese’s lifelong secret weapon, Thelma Schoonmaker) they can single-handedly make a film work. When they do it badly, you end up with Bohemian Rhapsody. In one scene from Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II, her marvelous sequel to her masterful 2019 addiction drama, she gives a splendid, subtle salute to the value of the editor. Our heroine, Julie, is deeply mired in grief over the recent overdose of her toxic beau and she is just as bogged down in the ordeal of turning that traumatic relationship into a film for her graduate thesis. Things are going far from swimmingly. Her actors find the characters (based on Julie and her late junkie boyfriend Anthony) confusing and psychologically opaque. Her cinematographer keeps taking her to task in front of everyone for not providing a coherent enough shooting schedule. Her professors have little faith in her project and openly express doubts that she will even graduate on time. And then the handsome, suavely modest editor enters the picture and some small bit of gloom (though by no means all of it) dissipates. Enough for Julie to maybe see a path forward. He sweetly gives Julie new confidence in the movie she is making. He raises a beer with her and reminds her that there is something here after all, even if nobody can quite see it yet. The fog of filmmaking may be think but you just have to believe it will all come together. And “It’ll all come together” is engraved somewhere on the crest of every editor ever. Of all the small, two-scene performances in her film, what a sweet stroke of genius for Hogg to make this editor the most soothing, affable presence of all. Because that’s exactly the kind of calming, centering effect a great editor has for a filmmaker (and in this case, a human being in mourning as well). Even when you feel completely lost as a filmmaker and everything feels like it’s bearing down on you, the editor calms your nerves and assures you that it’s all going to be okay in the end. If there’s a film somewhere in all of this footage, they will find it for you. No wonder Julie tries to make a pass at the charismatic bloke. Who doesn’t go a little weak at the knees for an editor? Thelma Swoon-maker, am I right?

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #5- Licorice Pizza

Every now and again, it feels like the critical community will assemble a quorum and make a motion to retire some turn of phrase that has been ground down to the nub. The most recent phrase to become cliched is saying that a film’s place is like an actual character in the film. New York City has been called a character so many times, it’s actually low-key scandalous that all five boroughs have never been nominated for an acting Oscar. I get the need to scale this tired metaphor back due to overuse. It also presents a challenge for me in writing a review of Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film by my count to be immersed in his childhood stomping grounds, the San Fernando Valley. So, true to my word, I will not say that the Valley (Los Angeles’ sprawling, adult film-friendly neighbor to the north) is a character in Anderson’s latest home run. First, because it’s a lazy way of shortcutting what is better to fully describe. The early 1970’s Valley of Licorice Pizza is a richly shot, intricately specific (it feels instantly familiar even for someone like myself who has spent very little time there), entirely lived in part of the world. Its fast food drive ins, sushi bars, grubby convention centers, suburbs, fine dining establishments, high schools, dumpy mattress retailers and municipal golf courses all feel vibrant and down to earth at the same time. They are all the fine-tuned product of an artist who has spent a lifetime feeling both love and boredom for these old places. The Valley is not a character but a place in Licorice Pizza, and Anderson just has the visual flair and conceptual imagination to give that place fundamental importance; to render it like its details matter. Secondly, Licorice Pizza has no need of the Valley as a character because, as with any Anderson film, it is already uncommonly rich with actual characters, from its two fantastic leads down to a murderer’s row of phenomenal one-to-two scene roles. Anderson regular John C. Reilly plays Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne for a literal instant, handily earning himself the honor of 2021’s best 10-second performance. The characters in Licorice Pizza are like characters and the Valley is like (like) a place, and both of those elements have been brought to the screen by one of the seminal talents of the last thirty years. I hope this brief foray into place as character, character as place, and each thing as itself hasn’t been too disorienting. But if it has been, I hope you’ll forgive it in this case, seeing as blissful disorientation is one of Licorice Pizza‘s prominent virtues.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #6- The Beatles: Get Back

Peter Jackson’s three-part, fly on the wall documentary project The Beatles: Get Back (released as a miniseries on Disney+) is a great many things over its more than eight hours. But what it is maybe first and foremost is a loving reclamation project. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be was released to mostly mixed reviews and dismissed as a disjointed muddle brought only occasionally to life by the presence of the band’s music. Its perceived aimlessness (even at a brief 88 minutes) with rehearsal scenes intermittently punctuated with arguments, might have just been confusing and unfulfilling except for one major offscreen development. The Beatles had broken up barely a month before Let It Be‘s release date. And so, understandably, a disjointed hash of a film was seen contextually as the last dismal bit of found footage from the scene of a devastating falling out. A gloomy, incomplete recording of a bruising cultural loss. A scrambled black box that had happened to capture the death of the entire 1960s. Gimme Shelter‘s less coherent, generally mediocre cousin. The complex, 22-day album recording process (during which they wrote most of the songs for their closing masterpieces, Abbey Road and Let It Be) had been condensed into a woefully truncated hour-and-twenty, and I think a lot of people filled all that empty space with their own grim speculation. Chief among them is the old chestnut that John Lennon’s soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono’s presence in the recording studio was a major catalyst in The Beatles disbanding. If nothing else, Hogg’s Let It Be documentary helped turn Ono’s name into a shorthand for meddlesome significant others that muck up a band’s creative process. Never mind the fact that Paul’s own girlfriend was also often present or the fact that Ono is mostly seen quietly watching and drinking tea. Hogg’s film notably omitted the few days when George Harrison prematurely quit the band for reasons having seemingly nothing to do with anybody’s girlfriend and much more to do with feeling creatively neglected by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting juggernaut. Whatever Hogg’s good intentions, 1970’s Let It Be feels a bit like tabloid journalism and it fed shallow, reductive takes about the band’s last days and who was to blame. Peter Jackson’s miraculous and generous document (made from Hogg’s wealth of footage and stunningly restored by Jackson and his team) takes what was a superficial blurb and opens it up into a nuanced, winningly digressive essay. In place of an autopsy of The Beatles, he finds a vibrant, poignant and bittersweet tale of beautiful art and painful personal change. The Beatles: Get Back is a corrective tonic to a saga that was once tinted by acrimony. You will finish the film mystified as to how anyone spent all these years laying the blame on sweet, humble Yoko Ono. As if life and art and interpersonal relationships are ever so simple. You will finish the film with a lot of newfound clarity and empathy for everyone involved in that final month that would be the world’s greatest band’s last hurrah.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #7- The Power of the Dog

I promise to form a few thoughts of my own in this, my review of Jane Campion’s Best Director-winning The Power of the Dog. But has anyone tapped more succinctly and perfectly into the nature of this transfixing slowburn masterpiece than dear old Martin Scorsese? At the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, the invaluable, film-loving genius started his adoring speech with two questions. “What is strength and who is the strongest?” It’s an area Scorsese knows something about. The director of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas has spent a career digging into toxic masculinity, examining men whose tendencies toward violence, abuse and self-serving greed mark them not as the strong alpha males they want to be, but as feeble, stunted and soul-sick. It is not only a perfect starting place for The Power of the Dog, but for Campion’s own rich and enigmatic filmography. Campion details the female journey through worlds overseen and dominated by conceited, insecure and possessive men. Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano is a mute woman sold into an arranged marriage with Sam Neill’s controlling land-owner. She seems to be literally without voice or power and then her petty husband asserts control over her further by refusing to keep her beloved musical instrument (her one real mode of expression) in his house. In Bright Star, Abby Cornish’s Fanny is repeatedly disrespected as a tiresome nuisance by her paramour’s jealous friend. Great New Zealand author Janet Frame loses eight years in the patriarchal maze of the asylums in An Angel At My Table. Campion’s women are among the most complex, human characters put to screen and they are invariably the strongest people in their own stories, despite having to jockey with men who try to break them in like wild colts. Campion’s wild and passionate women are not demure, but they also do not win their freedom and respect by conforming to the aggressive male traits they rebel against. I would call their perseverance feminine, though perhaps Campion would resist gendering it at all. Campion women retain the ineffable, mysterious essence of who they are. But one thing is true of strength in her films. It is a thing kept inside and it is not easily defined or pigeon-holed.


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Top 20 Films of 2021: #8- Bo Burnham: Inside


For longer than I can remember a certain breed of comedian (we’ll just call them Gervaises) has loudly and performatively insisted that comedy is dying on the vine. “Comedy is over” has been the doomsday refrain of a whole host of thin-skinned and overwhelmingly male (give or take a Whitney Cummings) standup comics, beside themselves that audiences are no longer letting homophobia, transphobia and bigotry slide just because the person saying it is at a comedy club. It’s a hysterical bad faith response easily debunked by simply watching or listening to any of the numerous hilarious and empathetic comedic geniuses working today, from Patton Oswalt to Jenny Slate to Nathan Fielder. Proof that comedy is far from over exists right here in the fact that, for the first time in my years writing reviews, a comedy special has ranked as one of my ten best films of the year. Innovative, comedian-turned-exciting-new-director Bo Burnham’s (now two for two after 2018’s humane and deliciously awkward adolescent dramedy Eighth Grade) creatively restless and anxiously topical “special” is a visionary meditation on where this poor world stands, sent out from the lockdown prison  of one 30-year old man’s cramped apartment. In one of Bo Burnham: Inside‘s first songs (oh yes, this is a musical comedy, a term that is ill-equipped to contain the sheer scope of what Burnham is up to), our quarantined funnyman host also asks the question: Is comedy over? He blessedly means it in a very different way than your typical disgruntled male rights activist. What Burnham is bemoaning is no the comic’s sacred right to offend without critique. He is asking the larger question posed by Andrei Tarkovsky’s bleak but life-affirming masterpiece Andrei Rublev. In times of extreme sorrow and strife, does art have any real power? Are literature and music and now comedy nice things that wither in the face of real disaster? As we look out our windows at the rise in ocean levels and in worldwide authoritarianism, is a comedian’s punchline or silly ditty really worth all that much? In that song, simply titled “Comedy”, Burnham asks, “Should I be joking at a time like this?”, as a canned studio audience laugh track plays behind him. He just as quickly puts his own selfish solipsism in the crosshairs by recommitting to “healing the world with comedy”. Like the rest of Inside, the song is musing on the limited power of art while also skewering the vain folly of thinking that our good intentions and kind sentiments can fix what is broken. “If you wake up in a house that’s filled with smoke, “Burnham softly croons over an 80’s synth tone, “Don’t panic. Call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #9- The Green Knight

The Green Knight Movie Poster — Wild Tales Illustration

It seems a little funny that the 2022 Academy Awards went in so rapturously for King Richard, a modern sports film with a title that makes it sound like it could be about a medieval sovereign, yet turned a blind eye to the numerous stories of Old World regal gallantry that 2021 had to offer. It was something of a small boom year for stories from the pre-Middle Ages, between Joel Coen’s stunning and singular expressionist take on Macbeth to Ridley Scott’s trenchant and triumphant late career peak, The Last Duel. Scott’s film felt bracingly modern, while Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth felt brackishly ancient, like a primeval curse dredged out of the depths of a steaming swamp. David Lowery’s The Green Knight, 2021’s high watermark for cinema that could have been adapted from an illuminated manuscript, falls into that ancient, yellowed Macbeth camp. Its greatest aesthetic virtues (it is the kaleidoscopic counterpoint to Tragedy of Macbeth‘s chilly blacks and whites) make us feel a million miles removed from the present day and maybe from any day that ever existed. We feel the chill of the truly strange and inscrutably archaic, the sense that ghosts and lost spirits are lurking not far from us. As with Macbeth, a high and reaspy voice ushers us into the story. It speaks softly at first of King Arthur and we gaze upon a floating crown descending onto the head of some shadowy robed figure in a dimly lit throne room. Then it intones, “But this is not that King,” and the anonymous monarch bursts into a roaring crackle of flames. The voice rises to a Gollum-like bellow as it promises a rousing tale. There is a kind of dissonance at work. The words themselves are not sinister; the speaker is simply promising a rousing story to come. But her voice is beyond disquieting. DIrector David Lowery wants us to feel off balance and just the right amount of menaced. Adventures and wonders lie ahead, but he is also letting us know that his The Green Knight will be tinted with an air of the ominous and unknowable. If we are expecting a swashbuckler, he is preparing us for something with a lot more dread, mystery and danger than we are used to from the average knight’s tale. It’s not uncharacteristic of this relatively young auteur. The man who made A Ghost Story can’t resist imbuing his latest and best film with a touch of the spectral.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #10- Red Rocket

In 2017, Sean Baker made The Florida Project, my favorite film of that year. It would have been my favorite film of a great many years that it might have come out. In it, he directed genius screen actor Willem Dafoe to the best work of his career, gave us one of the best child performances of all time from Brooklynn Prince, and also got stellar work out of a young woman most famous for being an Instagram influencer. And, following up on the talent he showed with his iPhone-shot 2015 gem Tangerine, he created a luscious hardscrabble world populated with non-professional actors and got them all to give lovely, lived-in performances too. So when I saw that Baker’s next film, Red Rocket, would star former MTV VJ-turned-Scary-Movie-franchise player as a shifty porn star, I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders. Nothing about that premise sounded like the stuff masterpieces are made of and I have never once been impressed by Simon Rex. Nonetheless, I smiled to myself and said, “I guess I’ll be raving about Oscar-worthy Simon Rex a year from now.” It has now been more than a year since I made that half-joking prediction, and I am here to say that it has absolutely come true. Simon Baker has directed a retired C-list actor whose most recent brush with fame was as a comedy rapper named Dirt Nasty to what is arguably the best male performance of 2021. Because fucking of course he has. Because, just as a small part of myself made that prediction in jest, a much larger part of myself knows better than to bet against Sean Baker. But the wondrous thing about a Baker film is the potential it makes you see in everyone he works with too, whether it’s Willem Dafoe or someone with no acting on their resume. And here let me stop making this all about Sean Baker, because I am fully done disrespecting Simon Rex in this review or anywhere else in life. Baker may make miracles possible, but the work Simon Rex has pulled off here is a mighty dramatic and comedic accomplishment that should utterly recontextualize how people see him. It was unsurprisingly too much to hope for that the year’s best leading male performance sneak into an Actor lineup that had room for Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos. But I can only hope that this does mean the start of new things for Simon Rex. If nothing else, watching him go for broke (even broker than the character he plays) in Baker’s gonzo neorealist satire of hustlers and hucksterism should show all of Hollywood that he has a potential that very few of us had been able to see.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #11- The Lost Daughter

Over the past decade or so, and for the COVID years especially, I’ve noticed a lot of friends expressing a desire for characters of the sweet and sympathetic sort. Many of them have experienced enough anxiety of late that it’s become difficult to willingly reach out to works of art that deal in strife, misanthropy and bad decisions. As an avid consumer of the humanist works of Richard Linklater, Mike Mills, and Greta Gerwig, it’s a sentiment I fully understand. I’ve taken deep, soul-healing solace from drinking from the fountains of kindness offered by shows like Ted Lasso and Steven Universe, and films like A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and Paddington 2. But like some cinema nutritionist, I feel it is my duty to urge all of you to continue to seek out film experiences, and specifically characters, who are abrasive and unsympathetic. I feel it is deeply healthy to include some unlikeable people and upsetting experiences as part of your cultural diet. Think of it as cinematic roughage, if you will. If art offers us the chance to gaze into a kind of mirror that reflects parts of ourselves while also allowing us to see facets and flaws we would want to avoid, then there’s a huge value in having that mirror be as expansive as possible. It should show us not just our best or most aspirational selves but the darker places human beings can go too. We should not only look into the mirror to see how we should be, but to remind ourselves of the more uncomfortable truths of what we can become at our most selfish, proud, or irrational. There’s also the fact, evidenced by shows like Succession and films like the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, that watching deeply toxic people fuck up and squirm can be a lot of smart fun in the right hands. In those aforementioned art works, watching seedy, short-sighted and greedy fools stumble about can feel like riding a rollercoaster, a vicarious scream through some of the most thrillingly bad decision-making imaginable. But what of those of us who want to get the complex joys of watching not entirely sympathetic characters at a less hectic, punishing pace? What about those of us who just want to spend a relaxing time floating along in the Lazy (or Greedy, or Selfish) River? In 2021, celebrated actress and sterling debut director Maggie Gyllenhall had you covered on that front. Her phenomenal freshmen outing, The Lost Daughter, offered up all the giddy, perverse delights of watching prickly characters flail about, but at a more hypnotic, soulful pace. Gyllenhall’s adaptation of the novel by felt like reading a great book in all the right ways; cinematic but carried along by a sophisticated current of dialogue. Her perceptive, often sorrowful look at a woman who puts herself first and foremost has all the spicy fun of wrestling with an unlikeable (or at the very least frustrating) character, just with its own distinctively literary flavor. To fellow fans of wholesome cinema who want to branch out into something just a bit more acidic, The Lost Daughter is like a bracing shot of very strong limoncello. It should make your lips pucker and make the blood rush to your head, but without leaving you hungover and useless the next day.


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Top 20 Films of 2021: #12- Bad Luck Banging

Romania, we should hang out more often! I mean that personally, as in I should let more of the darkly puckish Eastern European nation’s beautifully bleak and defiantly subversive cinema into my life. And I mean that societally, as in all of the world’s nations, and maybe Americans in particular, would do well to learn from Romania’s struggles for civil rights over the past century and more. To dive deeply into its fight against oppression ranging from press censorship to anti-intellectualism to a woman’s right to freedom over he own body (unforgettably examined in 2007’s masterfully unnerving black market abortion drama 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days). And I don’t just mean that in the dry academic sense of comparing our own recent authoritarian woes with the unthinkable ones they have endured. I mean we owe it to ourselves to draw something emotionally and spiritually from Romania’s experiences. There is something raucously inspiring about the art they make in response to hypocrisy and oppression. There is nothing treacly or even all that optimistic about it, except that it reveals the heart of a population determined to survive. Films like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Radu Jude’s timely cherry bomb Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn aren’t really in the business of looking for silver linings to governmental apathy and national trauma, but they do carry a proud sense of resilience to them. Their power comes from their willingness to pay unvarnished witness to corruption and cruelty and their unwillingness to try to make the best of it. These are things that have happened and, in many cases, are still happening and the only best that can be made of it is to simply tell the truth about it. In a society that has, at various times, tried to silence the artist, imprison its thinkers, and bend reason and science to the whims of the powerful, the Romanians have made cinema that moans as ominously as a death metal song but also holds up a punk rocker’s middle finger to decades and decades of state repression, indifference to poverty, and deeply ingrained misogyny. And I’m not saying that Romania’s history is literally a one-to-one with America (the particularly vicious Ceausescu regime that lasted from 1965 to 1989 started nominally as a socialist state before quickly turning craven, greedy, and despotic) or that our own law enforcement problems are at the same degree as those of the Ceausescu Securitate disappearing and brutalizing dissenters. I’m just saying, when a country has lived through wave after wave of authoritarianism and managed to distill that horrific experience into volumes of aspirationally rebellious, vivaciously angry art, we should consider knocking at their bedroom door (don’t let the Black Flag stickers and the blood red “Go Away” stickers scare you away) and picking their brains. For anyone dealing with their own petty, bullshit demagogues, Romania is plainly a nation worth listening to. They know a thing or two sticking it to cheap, mean-spirited tyrants and they happen to do it in a way that is acidically funny and cool as Hell!

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

My favorite poet is Edward Arlington Robinson. Most of his works, such as “Eros Turranos” and the very famous, Paul Simon-inspiring “Richard Corey” seem to take place in turn-of-the-century (19th that is) smalltown New England, but he has a great one that takes place in actual England. In this poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains A Man From Stratford”, Robinson imagines the titular 16th century playwright and Shakespeare contemporary meeting one of Shakespeare’s hometown friends in a pub and regaling him with musings about the Bard. One line I’ve always loved is when Jonson speaks of Shakespeare’s testy literary relationship with time and its mysterious, nebulous, inexorable passing. He refers to it as “his monster Time” It’s an observation that has always resonated with me. I also have a kind of rambunctious frenemy relationship with the copet. The very idea of Time feels both fascinating and disquieting, inspiring and harrowing. Time is a thing to be wrestled with and reckoned with and many of my favorite artists have been those who have their own Time monsters to spar with. Linklater stretching time out in Boyhood and the Before trilogy while also weighing the idea that everything might be just one simultaneous instant. Brilliant documentaries like Manakamana and Time (go figure) grappling with how Time moves and is experienced. Tarantino chopping up the temporal order of events in Pulp Fiction for maximum emotional and thematic oomph. Some artists regard it with awe and mystery and some just send Marty McFly whizzing back to the 1950s, turn time into a child’s playtoy and leave the metaphysical debates for the philosophers to figure out. After all, nobody ever said you had to take Time seriously. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he prefers the name Joe) is one of those deeply philosophical types, a man who beholds the mysteries of Time with a respectful humbled hush. His films, like his great Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives often exist in a magical realist realm where all things, from ghosts to royal animal spirits to a man who dies every time he goes sleep, feel possible. The nature of existence suddenly unfurls to reveal a world unbeholden to the restraints of our rational senses. His explorations of Time take place in the present moment, from which we observe Time passing, but also hum with the energy of all the Time that passed through this space before we ever got here. In Memoria, we briefly hear a university professor talk about how wood absorbs everything that touches it, and Weerasethakul seems to be positing that maybe all present existence retains the energy of the histories that came before. His latest opus is another bewitching, at times deliberately inexplicable tone poem of history, life, death, sleep and magic.’

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #14- C’mon C’mon

I’ll stand on my soapbox for a minute and say that, as an uncle many times over, I feel that uncles still feel underrepresented in cinema.  It feels particularly tough to find good films about uncles. My people cry out for more stories. I say this as someone who never cared for John Hughes’ comedy Uncle Buck growing up and who had the pleasure of agreeing with his childhood self wholeheartedly after a recent rewatch. And, as I’m one of those snobs who can’t stand Napoleon Dynamite, I have little use for that desperate goofus Uncle Rico as well. I’m very much behind Mary Poppins‘ Uncle Albert and his laughing-on-the-ceiling shenanigans, but that’s a bit role and it’s unclear whose uncle he’s even supposed to be. It’s possible he might just have been bestowed with an honorary Uncle title, which obviously doesn’t really count. We have some very compelling uncles in The Lion King‘s Uncle Scar and Hamlet‘s Uncle Claudius (Scar’s non-lion equivalent), but those are some real unsavory uncles. Certainly not the kind of uncles anyone lucky enough to assume the title of uncle should aspire to become. The same goes for Harry Potter’s miserable Uncle Dursley. And of course, no matter how often he is reincarnated and reimagined, things don’t go ever all that well for Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. That poor man has died a lot. So where does that leave you ifyou’re looking for an uncle in a major role, who isn’t palpably evil, whose film doesn’t suck, and who isn’t frequently dying on a sidewalk in the name of increased pathos? I feel like I’m currently looking at Uncle Fester (who, to be clear, is not dead even if he would love it if you thought of him that way) standing in a room all by himself. And we love Fester, but that is just not a satisfactory state of avuncular affairs for more than a century of cinema. That’s why Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon hit me on such a personal level and filled me with teary joy for all the uncles out there like me. We’ve waited for this, gentlemen! Behold, a great film that not only has a really good, fully realized uncle as a leading character, but is also very much about the joys of having a nephew or niece. An arty, sweet little dedication to the bond between children and their parents’ brothers. It may seem a small thing for a film to be about, but there’s not such thing as a small thing when a filmmaker approaches it with this much clear-eyed thoughtfulness.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #15- West Side Story

I adore Stephen Sondheim and revere him, as one should do with genre-busting, influential creative geniuses. I know his contributions to musical theater and movie musicals over some five decades are immeasurable and that he is probably the overwhelming consensus choice for greatest musical lyricist and composer of the 20th century. One cannot discuss Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story without talking first and foremost about the man integral to building the beautifully sturdy original structure; without looking at Sondheim’s lusly witty book of lyrics, surely among the most staggeringly assured debut works for an artist in any medium. If this is your first time learning that little factoid, take a moment to let it linger. One of the most enduring and brilliant songbooks in history was merely the opening salvo to the man’s long career. And that long career brings us to the problem that I am still utterly unqualified to give you any kind of satisfactory primer on the genius of Stephen Sondheim, short of remarking that his genius is evident in virtually every work of his I’ve seen (a number that is still far too low). It’s a genius evident in the sumptuous and sardonic melancholy of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in the thinking person’s fairtyale puncturing of Into the Woods. Even select pieces I’ve heard divorced from the larger works, such as certain numbers from Company and Merrily We Roll Along, have struck me and have been the centerpieces for great scenes in brilliant films like Ladybird and Marriage Story. The godfather of musical theater passed away just this year and a host of moving essays have been written about the man, all worth reading and all suffused with a lot more lovely context than this relative Sondheim neophyte can provide. The best this review can muster is to send in one uninformed clown to urge you to visit, or revisit, his deep and prolific work. I know that is what I will be doing in the near future. The wild thing about West Side Story isn’t just that it’s Stephen Sondheim’s debut, but that it’s actually him operating at only half of his powers, which is to say only as a lyricist. Sondheim would quickly join Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in the rarefied air of musical theater artists who wrote both their own music and lyrics. For his maiden voyage to the Great White Way, however, Sondheim would write to music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein (soon to be played by Bradley Cooper). Those lyrics are still confoundingly great and are, to my mind, the biggest reason why a fairly faithful remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 masterpiece can still feel revelatory and necessary. From the sardonic teen rebel snark of “Officer Kruepke” to the delicately devastating poignance of “Somewhere” to the still-timely critique of “America”, Sondheim’s words are a thing of piercingly astute Technicolor rapture. Capable of leaping effortlessly from humor to yearning to sorrow (this is the Romeo and Juliet musical after all), Sondheim’s first little masterpiece springs and swoons with a verbal dexterity to match the gymnastic finesse of its dancers. Before Steven Spielberg adds his own vibrant visual brushstrokes to the canvas, it only takes a few lines from “When You’re A Jet” to set aside any misgivings about redundancy. This is Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, one of the most incandescently alive songbooks there is. There is certainly a place for it, for multiple imaginings of it. And it’s going to be great!

Top 20 Films of 2021: #16- Spencer

I try my best to be a purist when it comes to reviewing films and when it comes to choosing the worthy group to make my annual top twenty list. By that I mean, I tend to avoid choosing a film just to be novel or omitting a film just because it’s already been listed by a plethora of other critics. My list is meant to commemorate (for my own forgetful future self as much as anyone) what most impacted me that year and I like it to stand as a reliable barometer of that first and foremost. To be frank, I don’t go out of my way looking for controversy in my choices. I often find myself in line with much of the critical consensus and I’m perfectly okay being in that line as long as it reflects my honest impressions about the film year. That said, left field picks and passion picks do end up on my lists semi-occasionally and I won’t deny that I feel a little swell of pride when they do. It’s nice to stand up for films that deserve more love. Critic or not, having personal choices you can fight for is one of the great joys of being a movie lover. In the case of Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana film Spencer, I may need to walk the word “personal pick” back a bit, for it’s not as if I’m by myself in adoring it. There is a nice, reasonably sized group of us up here on this weird little Kubrickian hilltop. Spencer was by and large a well-reviewed film, even taking home the lion’s share of Best Actress critics prizes for Kristen Stewart. But, despite some good ink, Spencer has still felt like the most unfairly picked on great movie of 2021. General audiences seemed to absolutely loathe it (the same ones that presumably cheered on a dysfunctional carbon copy biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody to earth-shattering box office) and, even among the critical community, it felt just a wee bit polarizing. I am incensed on Spencer‘s behalf that it is not unanimously beloved, but this does give me the thrilling opportunity to defend its honor; to leap onto my white steed and mount a spirited defense on behalf of Pablo Larrain’s inventive, cerebral, and emotional fable (as an opening title informs us) about the late Princess of Wales’ uncomfortable tour of duty as an in-law of England’s Royal Family. It’s a joy to be able to champion its many virtues because a second viewing of Spencer only made it more clear what a special, singular and even playful ode it is to Diana Spencer and what her trials as both a Royal and as arguable the world’s most public figure have to say about modern celebrity worship and how a media-infused society treats the women it purports to idolize.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #17- The Tragedy of Macbeth

Everyone take a bite of your nearest mutton leg (or vegetarian alternative), hoist a pewter mug full of mead, and roar out a mighty toast to the Year of Our Lord 2021, one of the greatest on record for Medieval Cinema! I’ve never been automatically in the tankard for tales of ye olden days, heavy with sword fights and knights and kings. If I’m being honest with myself, most of the Robin Hoods not featuring photogenic foxes or Mel Brooks songs have been non-starters for me and, like many, I had consumed my fill of Game of Thrones years before it ended. But when a good Middle Ages-adjacent tale works it works, and 2021 gave us a few special films to stir up the raucous warrior blood in the Medieval film genre. Ridley Scott gave us a wickedly modern skewering of fragile masculinity in The Last Duel and David Lowery may have made the best Arthurian movie of all time with The Green Knight. And, surprising nobody who has seen the delicious texture and tone he has brought to period pieces like True GritInside Llewyn Davis, Barton FinkO Brother Where Art Thou, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen gave us another grippingly nuanced and inventive look into bygone times with The Tragedy of Macbeth. He has given us a reading of Shakespeare’s violently engaging masterwork that howls and moans with all the maniacally ominous glee of a crackling ghost story. A bloody and foreboding yarn so cynical and bleak that you almost feel elated by its sinister, primeval majesty. Both The Green Knight and Coen’s Macbeth aim to make us feel unsettled from the first seconds and in similar ways; a raspy feminine voice croaks archaic poetry at us from offscreen in a way that both repels us and invites us to lean forward to enjoy the old school pleasure of a dark, dangerous story. Both got right under my skin and made me light up like a little kid huddling by a campfire. Apparently Old World sagas recounted with heaping helpings of uncanny dread is a pleasure center I had forgotten I had, and one I hope to have engaged more in the near future. As I have noted before, 2021 gave a renewed good name to the period piece by taking journeys into history that were both aesthetically engaging and also worked with feverish imagination to connect those stories, costumed in period garb, to the present day. And very few films did a better job tying a centuries-old tale to the here and now than Joe Coen’s masterful voyage into Shakespearean calamity.


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Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

The ascendance of Persian writer-director Asghar Farhadi over the last ten years, from hot upstart to reliable Oscar contender (he has two gold men for Foreign Language Film already) has been so steady that it almost feels like we cinephiles may already take him for granted. By the time he was accepting his second Academy Award for The Salesman in 2016, you could detect a whiff of the inevitable and the unhip to it; the sense that the Oscars were now just fully in the tank for Farhadi. As if he were Ron Howard, as opposed to one of cinema’s most exciting and consistently thoughtful chroniclers of human nature. We have the luxury of living in a world where an Asghar Farhadi film is a presumable Oscar heatseeker and, predictability aside, we’re all much the better for it. And, if there is a reason why a director with the prickly, nuanced humanism of a Persian Kenneth Lonergan has been so readily embraced even by the rarely prickly Oscars, it’s that there is something kind of undeniable about his films. You can feel it when you watch one. There is just something intuitively powerful and right about how candidly and potently he captures living, breathing human beings. Anecdotally, I remember speaking to a handful of friends in 2011, not long after A Separation had come out, and being quietly floored to find that they had sought out the film. None of them were what I’d call ravenous arthouse fans and I was rather surprised that an intricately plotted, densely verbal Iranian divorce drama had found its way to them. Not only had they seen it, they were ecstatic and effusive about it. And when I went to rewatch it, it made sense why they would be. Yes, the film was difficult in its subject matter and the simmering intensity of the characters’ plights, but the stuff of classic, old-school drama was right there on the screen. When you watch an Asghar Farhadi film unfold (and few directors working today are better at painstakingly unfolding a story), you get that know-it-when-you-see-it tingle. They required a modicum of patience, but they reward that patience with stories of human miscommunication and striving and faltering and trying to do better that just connect. They tap into something universal and relatable. I think what is spell-binding is how Asghar Farhadi can take stories happening in the very specific cultural and political environment of modern Iran, posit very pointed insights about Persian society, and also transcend that cultural setting to find themes that are powerful and timeless.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

It’s almost hard to believe that we’re still just a humble seven years into the ascendance of Tessa Thompson. I remember going out on a date with my now-wife in 2014. The screening was at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, and the film was director Justin Simien’s incisively funny debut satire Dear White People. I thought it was very good and my wife just about loved it. The Sundance splash was maybe too shaggy and small-scale to make a dent with many awards bodies, outside of some scattered and deserving Breakthrough and First Feature wins. But, even knowing that it would not come near Oscar, we felt buzzy about it walking out onto the street. What lingered with me was the sheer promise I had seen on screen that night. Justin Simien’s potential as a writer and director, for one. But even more instantly, lightning-in-a-bottle undeniable was the performance by Tessa Thompson. Beyond the dynamite performance, I felt like I had just come face to face with a real presence; a charismatic force. Thompson had been around for five years prior, unbeknownst to me, appearing in some well-regarded indie films and a Tyler Perry movie. But Dear White People was the moment her star arrived fully formed, and the seven-and-change years since then have been all about Tessa Thompson repeating her name ever louder for those in the back. Her impressive body of work already includes a role in acclaimed MLK drama Selma, HBO’s Westworld, and Alex Garland’s excellent science fiction horror tone poem Annihilation. She is subtle and spirited in all of those. Her early splashes with auteurs like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler earned her a high placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as Valkyrie), now a calling card for a great many respected screen actors. Above all that are three soulful, electrifyingly intelligent pieces of Oscar-caliber acting (never mind that the Academy tripped over its pigeon-toed clown feet to not honor any of them), the crown jewels in her tiara. The first two were tremendous supporting turns in Coogler’s Creed and in Boots Riley’s hilariously incendiary capitalism takedown Sorry To Bother You. Thompson is a great supporting player, but her magnificently complex lead work this year in Rebecca Hall’s debut film Passing should be a reminder that she is absolutely made to carry films, and great ones at that. The more succinct way to put it is that Tessa Thompson is a damned star. It takes a special kind of talent to give a performance this full of quiet grace notes while also giving it the potent, Hollywood-ready charge of a true A-lister to be.

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Top 20 Films of 2021: #20- The Rescue

Some time after November 2020 and after the uneasy haze of paranoia and exhausted hope that was December, someone with a Twitter handle felt confident enough to say a few optimistic, forward-looking words. What they said was that, whatever the Biden Administration had in store over the next few years, they were tentatively eager to return to some semblance of competence. That matters would once more be conducted, however soullessly, greedily or bureaucratically, by people who believed in a rule of law and a certain time-tested way of doing things. It might end up being as enjoyable and inspiring as a visit to the DMV, but there was an immediate feeling of relief in even returning to that grinding, hidebound state of affairs. DMV’s may be soul-crushingly clinical, unsympathetic and slow, but they are at least rarely chaotic. One year and change later, there are arguments to be made about how functional and competent the new regime has been and also how much blame is to be apportioned between the slow bureaucrats and the remaining agents of craven chaos that still gleefully tie the bureaucracy’s shoelaces together. But I bring this all up because there is something resonant in the desire to be surrounded by people who are at least trying to get a job done. Who want to be functional at their roles, even if that function can seem limited and indifferent to the bigger picture. It struck me while watching The Rescue, 2021’s best documentary, what a comfort there is to be had in watching smart, capable people come together to do something helpful for the greater good. Chalk it up to four years of obstructionism and sabotage by our own leadership, but I felt a serenity in The Rescue, at the same time that my heart was palpitating with it. The year’s most claustrophobically tense cinematic offering took on the peaceful vibes of a YouTube ASMR video at certain points. What times we live in when a white knuckle disaster film can take on the warm glow of comfort food!


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