Top 20 Films of 2022: #7- Everything Everywhere All At Once

Half a decade prior (a lifetime and a pandemic ago), poor Martin Scorsese gave an opinion that vast swaths of the American geek populace has yet to forgive him for. He remarked upon the shiny emptiness of Marvel and the unrelenting comic book movie culture. His opinion was that super hero movies were not cinema but something closer to rollercoasters. Slick, formulaic rides more concerned with rattling the senses and pleasing expectations than pushing the medium forward. There’s a moment early on in Everything Everywhere All At Once (the Best Picture-winning gem by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, or the Daniels) where the film all but announces itself as a kind of rollercoaster. As Evelyn’s husband Waymond (or more correctly one of his multiverse doppelgangers) explains the wild rules of hopping between this film’s mirror universes to his wife, he is also preparing us for a two-hour blast of zany forward motion. He is laying out the logic and structure of the film for the audience and starting the countdown to blast-off. As he gives his wife the instructions for starting her genre- and reality-hopping action extravaganza, you can almost feel the safety bar settle snugly against your chest. And then, in an unmistakably propulsive instant, Everything Everywhere All At Once hurtles into the sky and doesn’t come down for 120 exhilarating, teary minutes. Everything Everywhere is the exception to Scorsese’s rollercoaster critique that proves the rule of why the old master is right. It’s no sin to build your movie for fun, laughs, and top speed; to make your film a kinetic thrill ride. The only true failing is to do so obligatorily, uninterestingly, uncinematically. Like a great many vibrant 2022 blockbusters (Nope, The Woman King, Avatar: The Way of Water), the Daniels’ singular film was a call to arms for making popular entertainments with passion, character and thematic vision. Everything Everywhere All At Once was the year’s unforeseeable blockbuster Cinderella story. Movies should be more than just lucrative rides, but cinema itself should essentially act like rollercoasters for our minds and spirits.

I have no interest in using this review to kick Marvel Studios whil they are stumbling. What I am interested in is how films like Everything Everywhere All At Once seized on certain comic-friendly ideas and gave master clinics on how to do execute those ideas better. The Daniels (whose last film was the wonderfully insane Swiss Army Man) debuted their gonzo action dramedy in the unassuming 2022 Spring, four years after Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers: Endgame made the public go crazy for multiverses (parallel realms where the same characters live in tweaked realities) and delieverd a delirious primer on how much potential the multiverse concept holds. Everything Everywhere‘s lovably complex heroine is Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, majestic and ass-kicking), a harried laundromat owner at the end of her emotional rope. On the single day when the film takes place, she is juggling a struggling business, house painting, a dinner with her stern Chinese father (national character actor treasure James Hong), the impending collapse of her marriage to the sweetly meek Waymond (a magnificent comeback turn from former child star Ke Huy Quan), miscommunication with her lesbian daughter (a strong debut by Stephanie Hsu) and a tax audit (overseen by a fat-suited Jamie Lee Curtis). This is all laid out before an inter-dimensional superspy version of her husband reveals that the universe is about to end and Evelyn is the one Neo-like figure capable of stopping the apocalypse. The bringer of doom is a young woman driven by zealous nihilism. And defeating her followers will require the bitter, defeated Evelyn to pick herself up and quickly learn a new talent: traveling seamlessly between multiverses. The means for doing so involves tricking tim itselby by behaving gizarrely and erratically. In short, zany invention and unbridled absurdism are baked into the very DNA of the Daniels’ gleefully weird, almost confoundingly moving tale of family, choices, hope and the trials of being a small business owner. It’s a film that finds room for cross-dressing cops, waves of giggly sexual innuendo, and tear-jerking reconciliations. It’s a film that runs around you in Daffy Duck circles without ever losing its emotional through-line. For all its flights of fancy (Everything Everywhere is basically made of flights of fancy), it has a throbbing heart that allows it to connect with eve the most avant garde-resistant viewer. It’s downright weird how accessible its weirdness is.

If anyone predicted 2022 having two great action films about the complex bond and friction between mothers and daughters (see also The Woman King; seriously, see it), I’m very impressed. If anyone predicted that one of them would boldly fly the flag of traditional blockbusting while the  other would embrace relentlessly caffeinated surrealism, I’m even more impressed. And, for as distinct as Everything Everywhere All At Once is in form compared to a film like The Woman King, both are unmistakably crowd-pleasers. Just as Woman King‘s mainstream exo-skeleton doesn’t make its look at the mother-daughter bond any less potent, Everything Everywhere‘s dizzy dadaism does nothing to weaken its cathartic ideas about parents and their children. There’s a kindred principle between the realms of music and film  that says if the artist can put a germ of something simply pleasurable and beautiful at the center of an artwork, they can give themselves more license for absurdism, experimentation and general weirdness. The Daniels dare themselves to be as sugar-high and frenetic and daffy as possible, but they know the glue that holds it all together is the universal catharsis and weepy reconciliation on the other side of the melee. The little bit of simple syrup at the bottom of the whiskey cocktail. Everything Everywhere All At Once can often feel like Daffy Duck’s unhinged “woo hoo!” distilled into cinematic form, but it crescendos in a handful of the year’s most unambiguously emotional scenes. Scenes where kinetic action falls away and dialogue and mutual understanding take the spotlight. It’s a testament to the power and diversity of 2022 cinema that two films multiverses apart in style, tone and setting managed to dovetail where it mattered. Calling your mother more often is the right thing to do in every universe.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a film that leaves you with plenty to reflect on but a lot of its appeal is also very simple and immediate. In a year that saw the action movie go to deliriously inventive heights, the Daniels’ wacky action tearjerker feels like the proof of concept, the platonic ideal for all the fantastic places action movies went in 2022. All year long, it felt like the festive trumpet blast that summoned a merry cavalcade of bold action bonanzas. None of those other films were anything like Everything Everywhere, and that is as it should be. It’s less the kind of movie to inspire imitators than a call to dream big. It should inspire movies on the whole to be flamboyantly, defiantly themselves. Its ethos is about the staggering array of possibility we find in art and in life and how exciting that is. Saying a movie is about everything is so often a red flag or a cop-out, but this is the rare movie to be about everything in a cohesive way. This also makes the movie’s choice of antagonist (effectively an avatar of nihilism and nothingness) a rich one. Everything Everywhere All At Once is about tapping into our galaxy brains and hoisting our freak flags. And, as action cinema, it moves with its own free-wheeling sense of momentum. Whether you’re seeing a glamorously psychotic teenager pile drive a Carmen Miranda-clad cop or watching a diminutive Vietnamese man turn himself into Jason Bourne by eating a Chapstick, the film twirls and zooms and somersaults with maniacal conviction. Silliness may be the only thing that can save us. It’s the reason so many  were happy to see it take home Best Picture, even if there were still-greater films in the hunt. Because Everything Everywhere All At Once is not only great but great in a way that feels representative of what made 2022 remarkable. Emotionally cathartic and personal stories told with singular vision. Touching tales of communication between parents. The action film daring every other genre to keep up with it in terms of sheer scale, of cinematic invention, and of narrative richness.

The feat of Everything Everywhere is not just marrying gorgeous pathos to the action film in a way seldom done. It also manages to tell one of 2022’s most progressively empowering stories. It is a story with a resonant sense of what it is to be an immigrant in America, and an Asian-American in particular. It is evident not only in the intimate authenticity the Daniels bring to these characters (Daniel Kwan is the son of Chinese-American immigrants) but a lived-in familiarity, from the pressures of making parents proud to the struggles of carving out some version of success in a new land. Even the locations, the laundromat and that cozily cluttered apartment, feel tangible and real, tributes to real spaces where real people have lived and dreamed and fought for their happiness. It would be a wonderful thing to even have a standard immigrant drama or dramedy with this much insight and sweet soul. But again, we were privileged to watch it in 2022, when the parameters of genre and tradition were powerless to hem great filmmakers in. So now we have a wise tearjerker your grandmother could watch fused with a wacky action comedy to delight stoners and avant garde cineastes for decades to come. The sense of invention also feels thematically of a piece for a film that is partly about questioning suffocating convention and thinking creatively about how we find ourselves. Welcome to American cinema circa 2022. Where we’re going, we won’t need genres.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is so rich and colorful and full of warmth, I hate to waste any space discussing something as trivial as box office. Its very creation and the volumes of ingenuity and heart that went into that is what really matters. But, for a film that so openly invites its audience to tap into their emotions, creativity and silliness, it actually means a lot that such a wide audience found it and connected to it. It means a lot to the brilliant, undervalued Asian cast that anchors it. It means a lot to a mainstream film landscape that has often felt like it was languishing or going through the motions It means a lot to audiences seeking bold, original works to have their faith rewarded. The Daniels’ funky little hit isn’t going to save the theatrical experience all by itself, but it should be a reminder that revitalizing theater-going won’t be accomplished by Top Gun: Mavericks alone. The success of Everything Everywhere All At Once tells us that people want action but not only action. They want to meet interesting new characters and fall in love with them. They want to cry and laugh and even think. They want a little bit of everything and they deserve it. A Little more than a year later, a sorrowful visionary biopic about the invention of the atomic bomb is close to making Titanic money and it feels very much like a vindication of Everything Everywhere All At Once‘s spark of genius. The two films aren’t remotely alike and yet they both should encourage studios to take chances and not assume people just want more of the same. Maybe we’re ready to to rip up the rule books again and start making the kinds of movies with one foot in the subconscious. It’s time for directors to bring their wildest dreams to the screen, with a renewed faith in audiences  to meet them halfway. Give people a ride for their senses and their spirits and the tickets will sell themselves.

Top 20 Films of 2022: #8- Saint Omer

Great art has a way of making one think about other great art. In the case of French director Alice Diop’s transcendent courtroom masterpiece Saint Omer, an early moment made me reflect on cinematographer-turned-documentarian Kristen Johnson’s 2016 opus Cameraperson. There’s a gripping montage in that movie where Johnston briefly shows places where atrocities have happened: an old hotel where Bosniean refugees were tortured, a pickup truck that was used to carry out a brutal hate-crime. There is no talk; just background noise and informational titles to let us know what transpired there. What Johnson is doing, fittingly for a craftsperson who spends so much time thinking about where to shoot, is wrestling with the hypnotic power of space and place. Without saying a word, she is showing us how a mere building or room or site can take on a haunting reverie, as if some trace of the violence that took place there remains, like an eternal echo of the past. Diop’s cracklingly cerebral Saint Omer unfolds almost entirely in a French courtroom (in the northern French commune of Saint Omer) where a desperate young Senegalese woman has been accused of drowning her infant child in the nearby sea. Another black French woman, a novelist and college professor, has chosen to travel to watch the trial and possibly make it the subject of her next work. As the trial audience takes their seats, the regular players of any trial file in and we watch them go about their routines. Lawyers from each side shuffle their papers. Magistrates dutifully take their seats on the bench. A reporter takes photographs of the half-full courtroom before being sent out by the judge. And finally, a young black woman is led in handcuffs to the stand. What stood out to me was something uneasy and electric under the procedural banality. The camera was shifting and hovering about the room to take in the various people, swiveling back and forth to look around. But, to me, the gaze felt less interested in these bureaucrats than in the wood-paneled space of the court itself. I sensed it was taking in this space; a space of great power where countless lives had been ended or forevered altered. In a film about gazes and observation, Diop was first showing me how this unassuming room holds these people and how it will hold some trace of them after they leave. Just as it holds traces of the people who have come before them. As Diop unveils overlapping frames of perception over the course of two hypnotizing hours, the static, unconscious space where her story unfolds almost seems to have a point of view all its own.

One of 2022’s primary virtues was a kind of fountain of youth quality, where everything old felt new again. Prestigey war epics had a touch of the subversive and personal (when they weren’t All Quiet On the Western Front), director autobiographies dodged cloying preciousness and bristled with potent honesty. Action cinema announced it could be anything it wanted to be. And, in the case of Saint Omer, we got a courtroom drama (that most reliably staid of genres) with a haunting ambience and an understatedly radical sense of cinematic bravado. Taking place in recent times and inspired by a real French infanticide trial, Saint Omer is about two French Senegalese women living in France. The first is Rama, a media professor and respected writer who travels to the seaside community of Saint Omer to view the subject of her next book: the trial of a woman who left her 15-month old baby to drown on a moonlit beach in Northern France. The second lead is the accused, an elegantly poised and regally tragic young Senegalese immigrant named Laurence who came to France to become a student and slowly lost touch with her family and the outside world as her circumstances, financial and social, worsened. At the time Laurrence killed her infant, (a flatly admitted fact in a movie about how few stone cold facts can be found in our world), she had been living in the flat of her callous boyfriend, a much older man with a wife and grown child, who kept her a secret from everyone he knew. He left her there alone for long stretches of time as he left town to attend to matters of his real life. He was surprised (appalled, the way Laurence puts it) to return to the flat one day and find Laurence in bed nursing an infant child; their infant child. Mental illness, the slow death of her professional dreams (she aspired to become an educated philosopher) and the total decay of her entire social support net all played some role in driving her to the terrible decision she is now standing trial for. There are no flashbacks whatsoever in Saint Omer. Instead, like our surrogate viewer Rama, we are made to bear witness to a staggering tragedy told almost entirely through the words of an adjudged, publicly demonized woman. The magic trick that turns a subdued French courtroom into a the scene of a drama rich enough for Sophocles requires only one doomed immigrant woman’s words and an audience to witness her speaking them.

Saint Omer is a film about paying attention to voices society has a habit of shutting out. Immigrants, people of color, women and specifically mothers. Like last year’s superb The Lost Daughter, Alice Diop’s stunner is a film about the complicated nature of motherhood. Both films choose to focus on people we could glibly write off as unfit mothers, but the struggles and maternal limits of these women are actually a testament and a show of empathy to anyone who has ever borne children. As Rama prepares to travel to the trial in Saint Omer, she attends a birthday luncheon for her own mother, a quiet, pained woman who does not utter a word to her successful daughter. We pick up traces of a fraught history between mother and daughter and we sense Rama’s mother struggles with a mental illness that kept her from being an ideal parent. We sense pages of painful history in her stoic, haunted expression. Rama clearly fears becoming her mother. We subtly glean that she is also about to have a child of her own. Her husband tries to assuage her anxieties. She is not doomed to retrace her mother’s steps. The woman who raised her is miserable and broken, where Rama is secure and loved. But that easy dismissal, however well-intentioned on her husband’s part, is the very kind of judgment Saint Omer resists. Rama has gone to the trial not just for research but as an attempt to understand. As Rama watches a forsaken mother bear her soul and contemplate the atrocity she has committed, she feels the life growing inside of her. And in that moment, the differences between this mother and that, this daughter and that, fall away. There is just Motherhood, a state that binds and connects countless women across space and time. We can make judgments and proclamations about unfit mothers and wronged children, but it feels too easy, especially for those who have not stood in that position. That judgment may be deserved, but Diop and her observing protagonist find no insight in it; no empathy or humanity. Judgment feels obligatory and inevitable, and also just a bit hollow and obvious. Saint Omer is not so much decrying that laying of blame as suspending it in amber. It’s setting it aside to examine more complex questions. Before we get to assignments of a guilt (a guilt the accused herself all but confesses to in the trial’s first minutes), is there a time to reflect and feel sympathy? Diop’s radically humane notion is that every mother, no matter how monstrous, is owed a scintilla of our empathy. We cannot hate them until we have at least heard them. If they must be judged, then we must witness them.

Coming out of law school, I wanted to be a Public Defender. Family members were concerned for me, unsure of why I’d put myself through such a grueling, low-paying emotional wringer just to defend the guilty. Leaving aside my belief in the rule of law and the fact that the innocent do get accused of crimes, I was moved by the idea that even those who have committed despicable acts are owed some kind of consideration. They are owed a moment of our attention before we lock them away for years or forever. It is not much but, before they are deprived of almost everything (and sometimes everything), I feel strongly they are owed a moment. A simple gesture of humanity; an attempt to hear them and understand them on some level. That notion is the thematic core of Saint Omer. It’s the reason the plain facts of this terrible infanticide are immediately laid bare and never disputed. The facts are not the point here. The question of guilt or innocence is purely decorative. The real question posed to the audience is, “Doesn’t every person deserve to have their story heard?” No matter what sin a human being commits, should they not at least be given what Rama describes to her grad students as “a moment of grace”? Saint Omer is a mesmerizing morality play where a guilty woman gets to briefly command the attention of a society that debased and degrade her when it bothered to regard her at all. It falls under the court procedural genre but its nature is profoundly spiritual. Its emotional tone is curious and probing. It cruises right pas the idea of factual innocence to contemplate deeper ideas of vice and virtue. It is about the soul and a kernel of worth and human dignity that not even the vilest murderer can have stripped away from them. It asks why we would want anyone to have these essential things stripped away from them. Saint Omer is so very much more than a courtroom drama. But also, in the way it grapples with the essential nature of criminality and redemption, it may just be the courtroom drama. It pulses under the surface with ideas about what justice is and what it should be. It grasps the value of seeking justice and it also knows how two-dimensional and unsatisfying that justice often is, even when it reaches the technically correct outcome. Asking if a person is guilty or innocent is just a fact of life, the way our world works. That said, it may be the least interesting question we can ask.

Film connoisseurs love to talk about lenses: perspectives that is, not camera glass. Whose lens are we seeing the film through? Who is telling this story? Can their perspective be trusted or they an unreliable narrator? Saint Omer is a film very interested in lenses of perception because it is a film about the nature of truth and seeing. It is a film about seeing things through the eyes of people who often go unseen themselves, in much the way that the accused Laurence talks of being tucked away from sight by her absent boyfriend. Saint Omer presents lens inside of other lenses and it is about the tricky matter of finding truth among so many subjective perspectives. While it is largely the story of a bright, misunderstood, tragically neglected young black immigrant, it is also about the brilliant black scholar watching her. Rama is the successful intellectual that Laurence so fervently aspired to be. In a way, Rama is taking a three-day hiatus from her role as professor to take what you could call a class. She is becoming the student of Laurence, a fellow black intellectual whose own dreams of academia have been cut short. And it is, of course, about a pregnant mother listening to the words of a failed mother, hoping to understand what it even is to be maternal. Rama sees a parallel to her own strained relationship with her mother in the gulf between the accused and the mother who never figured out how to be there for her. Rama’s gaze repeatedly moves over to the older black woman watching her daughter with weary, regretful eyes, and we momentarily remember there are even more lenses we could be observing this trial through. Saint Omer is a story about seeing and being seen. It is about wanting to be seen and going unseen. It is less about a specific crime than it is about the entire struggle to understand what is true. And it is richly about the hated defendant, Laurence, getting one last unexpected chance to display her unseen multitudes; her sharp insights and her philosophical depths. And, when all these lenses and conceptions of individualized truth are laid atop one another like transparencies at a lecture, you get a luminously devastating prayer to black womanhood and womankind as a whole. Saint Omer‘s refractions of female identity are so poignant, interesting and stubbornly unresolved, it deserves to be maybe the first cinematic text referenced when the subjects of feminism and intersectionality are discussed.

It’s actually difficult to sell myself on the idea that Saint Omer is only 2022’s eighth best film. I watch it and instantly recognize it as a titanic treatise on nothing less than knowledge itself. It feels like that annual masterpiece that is not only destined to rise in my rankings, but is rising at this very moment. If there are seven better films, I don’t know that any of them (not even the boldly cerebral TAR) is as self-evidently a work of genius, a thing of real challenging, scholarly beauty. It is abut the aspiration to beautify and sharpen our minds. As a means of bettering ourselves, as a means of lighting up our own worlds, even when they are impossibly dreary. While the crowds picketing outside the court see Laurence only as a loathsome monster, Rama sees an irrepressible life force. A monster, yes, but one with a striving mind and a complex heart. I think the entire top twenty of this phenomenal year is going to age like fine wine, but Saint Omer is one of the handful I can already guarantee will mature into a timeless classic. Because perception, morality, and the nature of truth and knowledge are as eternal now as they were in Hellenic Greece. This is the kind of film that is so hauntingly self-assured, so scintillating and sorrowful, I don’t believe its potency will  dim. It’s a work of art destined for the Criterion Collection and the Sight and Sound poll. As I gush about it, I have the feeling this won’t be the last time I breathlessly try to wrap my mind around it. It’s humbling to watch a film that speaks so potently to its moment while already belonging to the ages.