Monday, 6 February 2023

Walter's Top Film of 2022 (and a few more)

Before I saw what would become my favourite movie for 2022 (though technically it was only released in Canada in 2023), I’d already decided that I wouldn’t do a “Top Ten” for 2022. For one thing, I’ve tired of trying to compare apples and oranges, rating vastly different films against each other. Plus, I’ve continued in my cantankerous direction of liking fewer and fewer movies, especially those that are “critically acclaimed.” Hardly any Oscar nominations, for example, are in my collection.

So, I had decided that I would just write about a collection of top recommendations from last year and not rate them against each other at all.

Then I saw Women Talking. I knew relatively early on that this film touched what I look for in a great film in a way that nothing else had come close to this past year. There are reasons why some of this enthusiasm may be unique to me,* but I begin with a few words about this powerful and important film. 

 Women Talking

In many other films that I liked but haven’t loved, it has felt like a director’s decisions have frustrated me. With Women Talking, I am overwhelmed with respect for Sarah Polley’s choices and skill. The decisions to desaturate the film and distance the setting from its (tragically true) historical context in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia allow the film to gain a universality and surreal tone – befitting the “thought experiment” that Miriam Toews and then Polley imagine – while still grounding it in the real experience of specific women.

In spite of the horrific situation, treated with all the gravity it deserves, the film (and novel) manage to
integrate lighter moments. The very human, relational struggles of the women, with their caring and their stubbornness and their pushing through differences in spite of the time pressure were all transformative. Toews and Polley alike portrayed the women’s faith to be a source of strength instead of mockery, which was a crucial decision for the quality of the film. Oh my goodness, so much could be said about the dialogue on power, on hope, on forgiveness, on relationships, and on the difference between the cruelty of individual men versus the deadening violence of systemic patriarchy.

In the back of my mind during any good film is a constant search for a teachable clip, and I stopped counting after about a dozen. This movie is potent. By focusing the enemy as cultural and systemic, it enables any viewer to be caught up in the universal dilemma: when do we stay and when do we leave? Various leavings and stayings in my own life kept swirling in my mind.

So, without question, Women Talking was my top film.

Now the rest. The first cluster I’ll mention includes some of the best films that I saw this year but were late viewings of films that are usually treated as 2021 films. This includes: The Mauritanian, Mass, CODA, Dune and Drive My Car. All of these are highly recommended and all are incredibly different films. But since they’re a bit old now, I won’t say too much about them. 

For pure movie watching entertainment in 2022, I would single out The Duke. Based on a true story of an art heist by a 60 year old taxi driver, this well crafted and well acted film is clever, funny and gives you some valuable things to think about. If you haven’t seen this yet, grab some friends and have a great evening together watching this (on Prime if you have it).

Another fun film is the The Glass Onion. If you’re like me and loved Knives Out, you were probably eagerly awaiting this next Benoit Blanc adventure. I felt this lacked some of the panache of Knives Out; in its exuberance, it overstepped in places and became silly or garish (just too much, intentional or not). But the skewering of the so-called “disruptors” (who are unveiled as those most embedded in all the evils of our present systems) deserved all the pot-shots, and the theme of smashing things felt awkward yet understandable at the same time. So, a notch down in the franchise but still a recommended watch.

Now, mixing the humour with something more serious, we have Vengeance. Like The Glass Onion, a key theme is waking up the pretentions of a contemporary influencer – this time a wannabe top podcaster. Alternately mocking and re-framing perceptions of Texas, this dark comedy-mystery is fascinating and filled with the energy of B. J. Novak. As details unfold, so is your thinking meant to get rearranged, even if you don’t like the way it is rearranging. Great film for discussion. 

Now, we’re into more serious territory. I didn’t see many documentaries this year, but the best of the few I saw was JFK Revisited. It would take a lot of gullibility to believe that the CIA wasn’t involved in the death of JFK, and this doc adds newly available evidence to deepen the case. (My number one rule for assessing conspiracy theories: if the conspiracy involves the CIA defending American corporations or the military-industrial complex, it’s likely to be true since there is such overwhelming evidence that Dulles and crew were involved in so many violent conspiracies.) If you’re a skeptic, you still may not be convinced, but seriously…

The final two cases are ones that were clearly proven in court. First, Argentina, 1985 tells the story of the civilian court that put the military dictators behind the “disappearances” that plagued Argentina in the 70s on trial. It’s an interesting and well made film that tells a story that few of us know well enough, and I recommend it. In a somewhat similar way, She Said tells a more familiar story – in this case that of the journalists (and the victims who felt able to go public) who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and harassments. Both of these last two films give portrayals of what true heroes actually look like in a way so-called superhero movies never can. Part of that heroism is determination and quiet courage that is not flashy on screen – but that is exactly the point. So much of what changes the world is not violent battle or even high drama, but people doing their job for the sake of justice. 

I will follow this up with a post in which I try to get my head (and my words) around why quality films like Tár, Banshees of Inisherin, and Triangle of Sadness do not make it in my collection. Stay tuned.


*I think there are some personal reasons why Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews that I read a couple of years ago, may mean more to me than some viewers. The truly tragic reality (insanely maddening because there are reports of continuing, similar assaults) took place more than ten years ago in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia. This is a community with the same narrow ethnic roots as my own. In fact, Vic and I “did the math” and figured out that we may well have 3rd cousins among the victims or perpetrators. Fortunately, my more recent ancestors did not make the increasingly isolating and fundamentalist decisions that led that particular community to flee worldliness by travelling from Manitoba to Mexico to Bolivia over 3 generations. Anyway, the point is that these are kind of my people – but I’m surely glad I was not born among them. And my point here is – I know my connections with this film may run deeper than others.

Another personal reason for me to love this film is that I’ve always been drawn to dialogue-rich films that are set (like theatre) in very constrained contexts of time and space. The right dialogue draws me in emotionally in ways that visuals (and certainly “action”) do not.

Finally, the day before watching the film was a challenging and emotional day, and that meant I entered the theatre already vulnerable so that the film had me on the verge of tears most of the way through. That teariness was also because I kept seeing the women on screen and feeling very much aware that they represented real women’s recent experiences in Bolivia and, less directly but quite intentionally, all the so, so many women who experience unthinkable assaults and deprivations.This is an important film; I advocate much watching and discussing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Vic's Top 15 Films of 2022

Despite having a very busy year, I managed to watch more films in 2022 than in the previous few years. It wasn’t a particularly good year for film (thus the shorter list again), but it was a great year for women and diversity in the film industry, as reflected in my observations below. As always, some of these films may have been released in the US in 2021 and some may not have been released in Canada until 2023 (some are still awaiting a release), but these are all films I was able to watch between January 2022 and January 2023.

Honourable mentions go to Darren Aronofsky’s brilliant The Whale, which offended fat people in an ill-conceived attempt to do the opposite, and Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, which started extremely well but ended badly. 

Here are a few observations about my list:

  1. Not only were four of my top ten films directed by women, they were directed by Canadian women, two of them Indigenous. This is phenomenal and a sign of major progress in the Canadian film industry (there are three Canadian films in my top ten, all made by women) and in the film industry as a whole.
  2. Six of my top ten films were written or co-written by women.
  3. Seven of my top thirteen films feature a woman protagonist.
  4. Seven of my top ten films, and 11 of my top 15 films, featured people of colour in lead roles. Wow!
  5. Six of my top thirteen films featured LGBTQ+ characters and two of my top seven films had LGBTQ directors.
  6. All but one of the films on my list were at least co-written by the director (most were written by the director alone). I think this might reveal something about the kinds of films that appeal to me.
  7. Colin Farrell appears in an incredible three of my top twelve films (playing the lead role in two of the films). What a year for Colin, who was terrific in all three roles!
  8. Martin McDonagh and James Gray both have their second straight films on my list.
  9. A remarkable number of these films are about people dealing with trauma and loss - a coincidence?

And here’s my list, counting down from 15:

15. Amsterdam - Gareth’s favourite film of 2022 gets a spot on my list because I agree with Gareth that David O. Russell’s film is hugely underrated. This quirky period thriller is almost as wild as my favourite film of the year (and even has the protagonist delivering the line “Everything all at once.”). Amsterdam has wonderful characters, an amazing performance by Christian Bale, gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful score, a clever plot, and much thoughtful and often funny dialogue. What’s not to like? 

14. Armageddon Time - An autobiographical coming-of-age story, like Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. But while The Fabelmans is a stunning film full of that Spielberg magic, it doesn’t come close to touching me the way James Gray’s film does. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong are excellent as the parents, but it’s Anthony Hopkins as Grandpa, and the boys, played by Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb, who steal the show. Growing up in NYC in 1980 - great stuff.

13. Tár - As a psychological drama, Todd Field’s beautiful film about an abusive conductor doesn’t quite work - too many unanswered questions and confusing scenes. But as a ghost-story horror film (who knew?), it works much better. Cate Blanchett’s performance is sublime.

12. The Banshees of Inisherin - Martin McDonagh’s film is so gorgeous to watch and features such extraordinary acting by all concerned (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, to name the primary actors), not to mention the flawless and often funny dialogue, that it could easily be among my top two or three films of the year. But regardless of the allegorical intent, I couldn’t handle the fingers.

11. The Batman - One of the darkest films ever made (literally and figuratively), in which I somehow found repeated glimpses of light that nourished my soul (like Batman’s recognition that violence only begets more violence and that vengeance is not the way to a better world), this gothic superhero film (Batman has always been my favourite superhero) by Matt Reeves features a masterful haunting score, gorgeous cinematography, excellent acting and some spot-on political commentary. 

10. Bones of Crows - The journey of a woman from her childhood in a Canadian residential school to her work as a code talker in the Air Force in WWII is beautifully filmed by Marie Clements. Despite the missing pieces (it’s condensed from an upcoming mini-series), Bones of Crows is a haunting and powerful film which features a great performance by Grace Dove. It’s the kind of story we can’t hear too often and a must-watch for Canadians.

 9. To Leslie - Andrea Riseborough delivers an awesome Oscar-worthy performance as a single mother who becomes an alcoholic after quickly using up her $190,000 lottery winnings. This directorial debut from Michael Morris is a perfect study in empathetic filmmaking. I was engaged from start to finish, thanks in large part to the character of Sweeney (wonderfully played by Marc Maron), who tries so hard give Leslie a chance.

8. The Fallout - Another empathetic directorial debut, this one by Megan Park (a Canadian filmmaker), tells the story of three high school students in the aftermath of a school shooting. Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler and Niles Fitch were all terrific in the lead roles (Ortega was amazing), playing students trying to deal with tragedy and grief. Gut-wrenching. 

7. Rosie - My favourite film at Cinéfest (Sudbury film festival) is yet another directorial debut. Canadian Indigenous actor and filmmaker Gail Maurice (who refused to play Indigenous stereotypes and began writing her own screenplays) has crafted a wonderful heart-warming comedy drama about a six-year-old adopted Indigenous girl in 1984 Montreal who is taken by child services to live with her adopted aunt after her adopted Indigenous mother (Sixties scoop) dies. Doesn’t sound like a comedy, and Maurice was pressured to make it a dark film about being gay and Indigenous in 1984, but she wisely stood her ground. 

6. All Quiet on the Western Front - It’s risky to adapt a novel that was, in 1930, made into one of the greatest films ever made, but Edward Berger succeeds admirably, giving us a more authentic German-language version of the story, with its own unique emphases (which I applaud). Felix Kammerer, who plays our 17/18-year-old protagonist, through whose eyes we see the insanity of WWI, is terrific, as is the cinematography and minimalist score. A film about a war that ended 105 year ago shouldn’t be timely, but it is. 

5. Benediction - Coincidentally we have back-to-back films relating to WWI. This Terence Davies film is based on the life of British poet Siegfried Sassoon, who became a conscientious objector in WWI and then struggled with being a gay man in 1920’s Britain. A gorgeous, profound and moving film with a terrific performance by Jack Lowden as Sassoon. 

4. Cyrano - A marvellous period musical by Joe Wright (music by Aaron and Bryce Dessner) that somehow flew under the radar (i.e. it bombed at the box office and got no attention from critics). A travesty, as the music is divine, the cinematography is sublime and the story is well-told. As for the acting, Peter Dinklage is perfect (Oscar-worthy) as Cyrano, with Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. offering outstanding support as Roxanne and Christian. 

3. Women Talking - Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel is a work of art in every way: the desaturated cinematography is extraordinary, the score is excellent, the ensemble cast (including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, with Ben Whishaw as the only man in the film) is amazing, Polley’s writing and direction are impeccable, and the story of women responding to severe trauma while trying to remain true to their faith is vital and heart-wrenching.

2. After Yang - It’s time to bring out the sci-fi films. Kogonada is an extraordinary filmmaker, with a gift for creating gorgeous films that is second to none. This slow-moving, subtle and poetic story of the not-too-distant future concerns an AI that has stopped functioning, allowing its owner (Colin Farrell in another flawless understated performance) to discover hidden truths about the AI. After Yang asks what it means to be human and to be alive. 

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once - A low-budget Indie blockbuster is rare enough, but this wildly original, and outrageously wild, film about a Chinese family in the US getting caught up in parallel universes is also the favourite film of the year for most critics as well as for me (everyone seems to love this film - except those who hate it). Eighty minutes into my first viewing (I’ve seen it four times now), I was thinking: “Why am I wasting my time watching this mess?” And then came one of the most sublime hours of filmmaking I have ever seen. When followed by a second viewing, the pieces of the first hour fall into place and Everything Everywhere All at Once becomes a masterpiece of madness. Made by the Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert), with wonderful performances by Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu (all deservedly Oscar-nominated), Everything Everywhere All at Once features my favourite character of 2022 (Waymond Wang)  and the timely message that, in a world which doesn’t make sense, we need to fight back with kindness, love and compassion.

Saturday, 24 December 2022

The Muppet Christmas Carol Original Version

While discussing the many film versions of Dickens’s marvellous
A Christmas Carol, my film course students hinted at the possibility that not only is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) the best of these films, it may be the best Christmas film ever made. The thing is, though, that it’s quite likely that none of my students has actually ever seen The Muppet Christmas Carol. The way it was MEANT to be seen, that is. Decades ago (before DVDs and before most of my students were born), my favourite scene (and arguably the most important scene) in The Muppet Christmas Carol was left out of the theatrical and video releases of the film and then lost. I was so upset by this loss that to this day I own a working VCR just so I can watch my old VHS tape of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which still contains that most critical scene (the one where Belle sings to Ebenezer). 

But now a Christmas miracle has occurred! The scene has been recovered and restored in wonderful HD glory and anyone who has Disneyplus can watch it (it’s worth a trial-rental just for this, and no, I am not being paid for this ad). Click on the film, then click on ‘Extras’ and then click on ‘Full-length version’ and there it is (why this wouldn’t be the default version is beyond my understanding, though rumour has it that the scene was originally deleted because it was too depressing for the kids - a travesty). So if you’re still looking for that perfect Christmas film for the whole family to watch this Christmas, here it is, looking and sounding better than ever before. And the more often I watch The Muppet Christmas Carol (I have watched it between 20 and 25 times), the more I am inclined to agree with my students: it doesn’t get much better than this. You’ve got the wonderful songs of Paul Williams, the brilliant performance of Michael Caine as Scrooge (whose vulnerability in this version’s ghost scenes is quite unique), The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens, and of course Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Emily Cratchit (with Robin the Frog as Tiny Tim). “It’s true: Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas”.

Sunday, 4 December 2022

The Wonder

After a very long hiatus, I felt that this was a review that I needed to write since I have such contradictory feelings about the movie. First of all, I had very much appreciated the novel by Emma Donoghue on which it’s based; so that always makes it tricky.

Then the filmmakers make an odd choice to open with a weird bit on a contemporary sound stage. I can accept their gamble that it could have added to the experience (it didn’t), but the only value was drawing unnecessary attention to the role of people’s beliefs in and need for stories – unnecessary because the film accomplished that on its own without distracting choices.  

The cinematography and acting were quite good, though there was something about the inside details of the sets that didn’t seem completely convincing (but that’s just being nitpicky). Far more serious, is that it soon becomes clear that the soundtrack represented an even greater gamble, and in my view it was a complete and utter failure. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it was the most ill-matched soundtrack I’ve ever heard, and it was a huge distraction for me. I found that frustrating because I would love to have overlooked some of the other weaknesses and recommended the film, but I just don’t think I can. If you do watch, I would seriously consider watching with the volume very low and the subtitles on.

There were other weaknesses. The relationship between Lib and Anna and between Anna and Will both contain none of the depth of what was possible in the book. Partly that could be inevitable. There were moments between Lib and Anna that nearly broke through but not quite. I don’t think the screenplay helped. And weirdly played scenes with Lib’s private nightly ritual and Kitty’s half-hearted attempts to break the 4th wall left me feeling like this was simply not the film to hand to a director like Lelio; it was just a poor fit.

The sad thing was that the potential was significant, especially in the last half hour. There we see the danger and the power of narrative – ideas that are very important to me. The night I watched, I nearly wrote off the film because I was disappointed by much and horrified by the soundtrack. But the potency of its understanding of narrative and release and inspiration stuck with me and rebounded with energy the next day. I wonder whether excerpts could have their effect without bothering with the whole film…

In the end, I give it *** with too much that was precious spilled on bad decisions.