For those of you who haven’t checked them out yet, the rest of the Awards Radar staff writers have unveiled their own top ten films of last year. Unlike the more eclectic lists of 2021, several common favorites popped up at or near the very top this time around: RRR, The Fabelmans, and Everything Everywhere All At Once were the clear favorites among most of us. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s unexpected smash hit, in fact, appeared somewhere in all but two top ten lists among the staff. One thing especially strikes me about my own top ten, and my attitude about the movie landscape in general over the last twelve months…
S. S. Rajamouli has been open about how the historical fan fiction of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds inspired him to make RRR, and Cate Blanchett has made no secret of her being drawn to TÁR because of her jealousy at men getting the lion’s share of disturbing dramas about the psychological descent of thrillingly villainous central characters (think Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood). Happening is certainly not the first movie to intimately chronicle the nightmare of living in a country that offers no reproductive rights, and Great Freedom isn’t the first straightforward queer prison drama to have made a splash in international cinema.
At first glance, EO is very nearly a straight-up remake of Au Hasard Balthazar and the premise of Decision to Leave is arguably the most well-trodden in film noirs from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Armageddon Time and Aftersun are just two of many directors’ childhood roman à clefs we’ve seen in recent years (including Shane and Joey’s favorite film of the year). The Menu borrows a lot of tropes and thematic ideas from Pig, Ratatouille, Chef, and Big Night. Even Everything Everywhere All At Once, by far the “weirdest” movie on my list as well as Myles Hughes, Miles Foster, and Max Joseph’s favorite movie of 2022, probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground at all had Marvel not started betting on the “multiverse” concept right around the time the movie was greenlit (oh hey the Russo Brothers are two of the credited producers what a coincidence!).
So why was I so bowled over by them? Beyond just being great movies in their own right, I think, when taking them all in together, there’s something especially… profound, about how these filmmakers demonstrated the power of proven filmmaking best practices and storytelling fundamentals over gimmickry in a movie-making ecosystem that has lost its way over the past several years.
Awards Radar has a strict editorial mandate to not go out of its way to dump on bad movies with any fervor unless they’re particularly aesthetically or morally offensive, and I have no intention of challenging that edict. Making movies, even bad ones, is an incredibly difficult undertaking even under the best of circumstances. However, without “calling out” anyone specific, it is worth observing how many disappointments this year were works that tried to play five-dimensional chess to “get ahead” of storytelling conventions that no one but overly-pedantic YouTube critics pick apart in bad faith. Or they set themselves out to clumsily capture the socio-political zeitgeist in some “definitive” way that ends up coming off more like an overlong TED Talk than an even halfway-believable human drama.
I sympathize, to an extent. American culture is in a weird place right now, and Kids These Days™ aren’t paying attention to the staples of entertainment that have defined the touchstones of every previous postwar generation. To take just one example, Fox News has been gloating lately over how their painfully unfunny and out-of-touch “comedy” show Gutfeld! has been handily beating other late-night talk shows in the Nielsen ratings, which is technically true, with the caveat that late-night talk shows in general have all cratered in viewership. Most people under the age of 60 just go to TikTok or YouTube now for short, pithy little jokes about the news of the day, and podcasts provide far more insight on their favorite celebrities and politicians than ten-minute softball interviews from Seth Meyers. A standard model of late-night television entertainment for decades is becoming… irrelevant, and a lot of networks clearly don’t know how to fill the looming void.
The entire movie business has been reaping the whirlwind of their desperate trend-chasing and “content”-churning to an even greater degree, but even reducing this to the individual artist level… it’s been mostly bleak. If I squint, I can maybe give a half-hearted kudos to the ambitious-but-unwieldy horror movies that have tried to be A Commentary On Something while stumbling on the basics of character and plot. The bad habit of teasing out tantalizing plot coupons and mystery boxes that lead to lousy, meaningless payoffs reached new lows in 2022, with a tragic number of major releases trying to outsmart or impress their audiences via characters we don’t care about trudging through bloated or needlessly murky stories we’re barely invested in to strike out with Major Reveals that mean nothing.
“Oh, Robert, this is just you projecting your own bugbears onto the rest of the moviegoing public! Not everyone feels the same way as you do!” Okay, put my own preferences aside for a minute and look at the two most financially successful movies of last year: Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick. Both of their producers took on additional production costs and release delays out of faith that old-school theatrical Hollywood spectacle that jettisons gimmicks and cross-promotional add-ons in favor of rock-solid populist craftsmanship would win over audiences, and both of them were vindicated in a big way. I wasn’t nearly as hot on them as most of you (and the Producers Guild of America, apparently) were, but I cannot deny that they both work, on a fundamental level, and were a welcome respite from the depressing norm of Shiny New Fad American blockbusters over the last several years.
The irony being that, by hewing to the now too-often neglected marks of storytelling and cinematic functionality, the filmmakers who knocked it out of the park enjoyed plenty of creative room to still astound audiences in novel ways. Sure, Alfred Hitchcock’s done the “detective falls in love with a dangerous woman” plenty of times before, but he never had Park Chan-wook’s strange sense of humor, sexual frankness, and idiosyncratic pacing. From the familiar canvas of a father-daughter relationship, Charlotte Wells deployed some of the most complex subjectivity I’ve seen in many years to lock us into her feelings of grief and ambivalence over it, with emotionally devastating results. James Gray did not try to reinvent the straightforward arc of the childhood “loss of innocence” story, but within that tried-and-true narrative made the remarkably bold decision of writing his own childhood stand-in as lazy and obnoxious while confronting our maddeningly deceptive nostalgia over the 1980’s. Annie Ernaux’s all-too-common-at-the-time abortion story was from an era most of us had mistakenly assumed was long behind us, so who better than an exciting new filmmaker half her age to have translated that seriously-way-too-familiar-to-so-many-women-what-is-wrong-with-us memoir into a different medium with a sense of renewed vitality and immediacy? The journey of Jerzy Skolimowski’s eponymous donkey expanded beyond the exclusively ecumenical framing of Robert Bresson’s classic into unexpectedly postmodern, absurdist, gnostic, and Hobbesian allegories. Being the most expensive Indian film ever made would have meant nothing if it didn’t get its audience to care about the earnest central friendship anchoring the eye-popping fight scenes, vistas, and dance numbers. If you ask its biggest fans what Everything Everywhere All At Once’s most poignant scene was, they’ll usually pass over its most bizarre interdimensional digressions and outrageous humor and instead bring up this scene of pure, simple, earned emotional sincerity between two people:
In a year when too many filmmakers were trying to ostentatiously reinvent the wheels on an entertainment industry train that’s going off the track of functional narrative art, the filmmakers who succeeded the most were the ones who reclaimed the importance of just knuckling down and making the best damn wheel they could. With narratively proficient stories untethered to tedious franchise world-building. With characters who go through meaningful arcs. With earned emotional payoffs.
There’s a lesson in that.