Monday, January 16, 2023

Best of 2022: Top 10 Films of the Year

With a whole new slate of films already unspooling before us, it's time for me to close the book on 2022. And what a great year it was, with Hollywood filmmaking making a roaring comeback post-COVID lockdowns while international auteurs gave us new ways to see the world. If there's one thing I'll remember about the year's best films, it's the prevailing commentary on the patriarchy and it's ruinous effect on families, friendships and individuals. The films forced us to reflect on our societies and how we can be better, and for that I am grateful. Here now, are my Top 10 Films of 2022:

Honorable Mention: Cha Cha Real Smooth

Best of 2022: Top 20 Acting Performances

As the young'uns would say these days, "She's so mother!" If there was a recurring theme among this year's best performances on film, then it would definitely be the challenges and triumphs of motherhood. Indeed, no less than 8 roles in my list explored the complexities of being a mother through a myriad of feelings surrounding grief, estrangement and love. These actresses were truly an indelible part of the film year, standing tall alongside many other superlative performances. Whittled down from a personal longlist of 51 candidates, here are my Top 20 Acting Performances of 2022:

REVIEW: Bones and All

On the surface, Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) seems like your average teenager, living with her dad Frank (André Holland) in 1980s Virginia. It's the latest in a series of relocations for the duo and she just wants to fit in with the crowd at her new high school. But Maren has a secret that reveals the reason behind their nomadic lifestyle and prevents her from truly being a normal girl. While enjoying a casual sleepover with friends, she submits to a compulsive urge she's had all her life - a cannibalistic desire to consume human flesh.

And with a swift devouring of a friend's finger, the plot of Luca Guadagnino's "Bones and All" kicks into motion. As they've done numerous times before, Maren and her dad activate their escape plan. But this time is different, as Frank decides to abandon her to fend for herself, leaving a tape detailing their lifelong struggle and his reason for leaving. In it, he speaks of her mother's similar affliction, which prompts Maren to embark on a cross-country mission to find her and get some answers.

As Maren makes her way across middle America, she meets several other "eaters" on the open road. Among them is an obsessive older man named Sully (a suitably creepy Mark Rylance) and a young man named Lee (Timothy Chalamet). When she meets the latter, the pair strike up a deep connection that sustains them through their struggles to survive and control their urges.

Despite their best efforts, however, the duo are unable to resist both their cannibalistic nature and the violence they attract. And in depicting this, Guadagnino deftly uses visual and aural storytelling, through explicit scenes of gory violence and vivid descriptions of the same by various characters. Meanwhile, the sparse score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross further adds to the brooding atmosphere.

As gruesome as the film is though, it's also disarmingly romantic, with the tone and dialogue becoming positively poetic during its intimate moments. Indeed, despite their faults, Maren and Lee are empathetic characters, due in no small part to the compelling performances from Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet. They bring a tenderness and vulnerability as the plot effectively explores the tensions between nature vs nurture.

Ultimately, "Bones and All" achieves an impressive balancing act between terrifying audiences and enchanting them. In fact, it sometimes accomplishes both simultaneously. It's truly a remarkable feat, resulting in one of the year's most stunning pieces of filmmaking.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

REVIEW: The Fabelmans

When we think of Steven Spielberg, we often exclusively associate him with blockbuster spectacles like "Jaws", "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" and "Jurassic Park". But some of his best work has come from more grounded efforts like "Lincoln" and "Munich". And after many decades in the business, the 76-year old icon has delivered his most personal work yet in the autobiographical and altogether wonderful drama "The Fabelmans".

Spielberg uses "The Fabelmans" to tell the origin story of his illustrious career through the eyes of his surrogate Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle). We meet him in the year 1952, as his close-knit Jewish family is enjoying a night at the movies to watch "The Greatest Show on Earth". At once traumatized and mesmerized by its train crash scene, the experience has a profound effect on the 6-year old. With the seed planted for his newfound obsession, we then follow Sammy as he hones his skills into early adulthood, while dealing with the tensions afflicting his nomadic family and the pains of growing up.

On the surface, "The Fabelmans" seems like a simple coming of ager - or more reductively, an ode to cinema. But in the Spielberg's hands, this is a tale filled with as much movie magic as his more heightened genre films. Throughout the relatively mundane slices of life, his visual language conveys the awe-inspiring wonder of everyday American life. From the kinetic thrill of chasing tornadoes, to the theatre of dinner table conversations, to a particularly memorable fireside dance, Spielberg's once again proves his directorial brilliance. Furthermore, he makes the central tensions like the death of a relative and infidelity feel just as earth-shattering as the doomsday scenarios of his epics.

Indeed, Spielberg's trademark artistry is on full display here. But what further makes "The Fabelmans" so successful is another hallmark of Spielberg's work - its beating heart. Through the humanist screenplay and a brilliant ensemble, the film is tremendously moving. Gabriel LaBelle shows immense promise in the lead role, holding his own alongside a captivating Michelle Williams in a wide-eyed, Judy Garland-esque performance as his mother, who shares his artistic inclinations. And LaBelle shares a different but equally sincere chemistry with Paul Dano in the father role, whose pragmatic engineering interests clash with the mother-son pair. And among the other supporting roles, Judd Hirsch is the epitome of a scene-stealer as Sammy's granduncle.

For any other filmmaker, "The Fabelmans" would serve as a magnum opus to their career. It's a testament to Spielberg's excellence that this is just another masterful addition to his filmography. But it's film that encompasses what makes all of his films so special. As we witness Sammy Fabelman's filmmaking journey, it emphatically reminds us of the joy of making and watching movies. 

REVIEW: Top Gun: Maverick

There's no denying we're in a nostalgic era in Hollywood, with sequels and remakes galore flooding the multiplexes. Nowhere is that more evident than the extraordinary box office success of "Top Gun: Maverick". Following thirty years from the original "Top Gun", this sequel unabashedly pays homage to its distinctly 1980s aesthetics and attitude. And in this modern update, director Joseph Kosinski has transformed this new franchise that many would have deemed a "guilty pleasure" into a impressive and rousing cinematic achievement.

"Top Gun: Maverick" reintroduces us to several characters from its predecessor, most notably Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (played with typical confidence by Tom Cruise), a celebrated fighter pilot who is now tasked with testing new aircraft. Though he has never risen up in the ranks due to his insubordination, he is in the twilight of his career, further emphasized by the imminent closure of his current Mach 9 programme in exchange for drones. Determined to prove his worth, Maverick boldly decides to test the limits of himself and his aircraft one more time with a Mach 10 test flight. When the test pushes past Mach 10 and the aircraft is destroyed, Maverick is slated for disciplinary action. But in a twist, he is instead recruited to train the next generation of fighter pilots for a daring mission to destroy an unsanctioned uranium plant on foreign soil.

With vague references to a NATO threat in the mission briefing, the training begins to prepare for the covert attack. Though they aren't nearly as memorable as Cruise's Maverick, the cadre of diverse supporting characters bring a lively dynamic to the film, including the tough, lone woman "Phoenix" (Monica Barbaro), the cocksure "Hangman" (Glen Powell) and the unassuming "Bob" (Lewis Pullman). Most importantly, we also "Rooster", the bitter son of Maverick's late friend "Goose", who brings a emotional connection to the original film and propulsive tension between him and Maverick.

As the film proceeds through the typical banter, training montages and subsequent flight sequences, it borrows liberally from the original, with the familiar strains of the 80s rock score, flashback scenes and photos and yet another gratuitous sequence of playful seaside bonding (this time using football instead of volleyball). But although the screenplay won't win any praise for originality, the filmmaking elevates the basic premise with superlative craftmanship and richer themes. Indeed, the sound design and cinematography - this time taking advantage of IMAX-certified cameras - create a visceral adrenaline rush.

But most significantly, the presence of Tom Cruise himself and his character development adds an extra layer of gravitas. His indefatigable spirit is awe-inspiring and his character's ethos - bringing the team home safely is just as crucial as completing the mission - instills a poignant undercurrent to the juvenile brouhaha of hypermasculinity. Additionally, there's a romance subplot involving the luminous Jennifer Connolly that's at once moving in its maturity and downright cool in its motorbike-riding and sailboating swagger. All of these elements combine to result in the ultimate triumph of "Top Gun: Maverick" - it's so damn fun to watch.

REVIEW: Joyland

The 2022 film year delivered numerous discoveries from across the world. One of the most exciting new filmmakers came not from the global north, however, but the burgeoning film industry of Pakistan. In his feature debut, Saim Sadiq delivers a true gem with "Joyland", a powerful story about family, identity and sexuality within the confines of a conservative society.

We enter this world through the eyes of Haider (Ali Junejo), a humble young man living in an extended household that includes his wife, brother, sister-in-law and their four granddaughters. Presiding over the family is his disapproving father, who pressures Haider to have his own child and exert his masculinity by finding a job. Though Haider and Mumtaz are comfortable in their arrangement - he takes care of the domestic chores while she works in a salon - their situation will soon change when Haider finds work as a backup dancer in an erotic dance theater. Though he is no natural dancer, he is determined to succeed, motivated by his attraction to one of the main performers - a transgender woman named Biba (Alina Khan).

Soon a love triangle forms between the three central characters, causing expected tensions in Haider's marriage. But far from the melodrama this promises, Sadiq uses the conflict to explore each character's inner life and the nature of their relationships with each other. Junejo carries the film brilliantly on his slight shoulders, conveying his gentle arc of self-discovery and self actualization. Meanwhile, Farooq is a marvel as Mumtaz, delivering a performance of incredible nuance as her character becomes increasingly disillusioned with the trajectory of her life. And Khan also shines in her role, showcasing versatility through her vivacious dance scenes and more tender private moments. Altogether, their chemistry with each other feels effortlessly sincere, conveying intimacy not through sex and physical touch but honest dialogue and vulnerability.

Indeed, thanks to the rich screenplay and the terrific performances, each character feels fully developed and realized. Even a few minor characters are gifted revelatory scenes that add further layers to the story. Furthermore, Sadiq proves to be a talented visual storyteller too, with abundant metaphors both obvious (e.g. a larger-than-life cutout of Biba that disrupts a drab city) and subtle (e.g. framing actors in windows, mirrors and doors to suggest a sense of captivity).

As the film lays its characters bare and exposes the ills of a transphobic and patriarchal society, "Joyland" resonates with its empathetic humanism. This confident and accomplished debut deserves to be seen by wider audiences. And I can't wait to see what Saim Sadiq does next.

REVIEW: Everything Everywhere All At Once

In 2016, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (also known as the Daniels) emerged on the film scene with their bizarre farting corpse comedy "Swiss Army Man". Earning a Best Director award - and numerous other awards in the year to come - after their Sundance premiere, the duo instantly announced themselves as directors to watch. But I'm sure I speak for many of us when I say nothing could have prepared us for what they delivered next. With their sophomore effort "Everything Everywhere All At Once" they have solidified their trademark absurdist style while crafting an epic fantasy tale that is at once deliriously entertaining and emotionally stirring.

"Everything Elsewhere All At Once" stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant living in the United States, where she runs a laundromat with her meek husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). After a largely unsatisfying life together, their marriage is on the rocks, exacerbated by the threat of losing their business following an imminent meeting with an IRS agent (played with reckless abandon by Jamie Lee Curtis). Meanwhile, their lesbian daughter desperately seeks the approval of her mother and her equally uptight grandfather, who is due to arrive for his birthday party. Naturally, the entire family is on edge, but their anxieties pale in comparison to the apocalyptic whirlwind to come, as Evelyn is sucked into an elaborate multiverse by an alternate version of Waymond who recruits her to stop an all-powerful villain embodied by her own daughter.

The subsequent adventure is a thrilling tour de force of bravura acting and inspired filmmaking. You can't take your eyes off the central trio portraying the Wang family, who are equally brilliant in conveying multiple personalities. Stephanie Hsu showcases vulnerability and swagger, while Ke Huy Quan brings both unassuming charm and frenetic energy to his alter egos. And at the center is a superlative Michelle Yeoh, who summons all her grace, athleticism, vulnerability and charisma as she reinvents the trope of "The One" who is destined to save the world. It's truly a remarkable performance that she never overplays, effortlessly showing her movie star chops while acting as an audience surrogate through Evelyn's constant befuddlement.

Indeed, audiences who attempt to fully analyze the labyrinthine - and times, downright silly - plot will be equally confused. The Daniels throw everything on the table, as if this is the last movie they'll ever make. There's romance, kung fu action, family drama and myriad outrageous plot points like pensive rocks and hot dog fingers that virtually beg you to abandon all reason. 

But through all the madness is a potent through-line that is threaded throughout. At its core, "Everything Elsewhere All At Once" is a poignant tale of a woman who finds purpose and fulfillment in her life, while she and her family learn to take responsibility for how their actions affect each other. In the end, all the chaos coalesces into a beautiful message of kindness, expressed in an utterly original and unforgettable package.

REVIEW: Nelly & Nadine

There are many who may claim that the Holocaust is an exhausted topic. But sometimes, a new film comes along that brings to light a new perspective that feels essential to our understanding of this horrifying era. One such film is Margus Gertten's "Nelly and Nadine", which uncovers an extraordinary love story kindled in the hellish setting of the concentration camps. 

The film opens with footage from 1945, panning over a mass of faces who have been recently saved from the camps and are arriving on more welcoming shores. Select individuals are indentified by the narrator, with one sullen face in particular drawing the most attention. Her name is Nadine Hwang and "Nelly and Nadine" tells her story about the unlikely romance she kindled with a woman named Nelly. Decades later, this film explores their lesbian relationship with the assistance of Nelly's granddaughter and the wealth of documented memories they left behind.

Following the pristinely preserved opening black and white images, "Nelly and Nadine" shifts to the present day to introduce us to that granddaughter. Initially, she is hesitant to examine her grandmother's belongings and the painful memories. But she turns out to be the perfect guide for this journey, as we are able to experience the emotions of new discoveries with her while she undergoes this personal reckoning.

That journey begins with the haunting, evocative words from Nelly's diary which paint a picture of her experiences through her remarkably detailed observations. Indeed, the film would be effective on the basis of this narration alone. But Gertten digs further into the couple's personal archives to find photos, music recordings (Nelly was a talented singer), home videos, as well as revelatory discussions with family friends and historians. Complemented by expertly chosen stock images and videos of city streets, rugged concentration camps and open fields, it makes for a transporting viewing experience.

What results is a bittersweet, globe-trotting journey that encompasses an indefatigable love, as well as the broad tentacles of the monstrous Holocaust. Indeed, one of the most fascinating trails of this extensive narrative is the exploration of Nadine's background and how she became embroiled in the Holocaust as a Chinese woman. 

As is stated in the film, "nothing is real until it's expressed." And in our "post-truth" era, "Nelly and Nadine" thus serves as a vivid remembrance of Nazi terror and marginalized love. One can't help but be deeply moved by it.

REVIEW: Women Talking

The Christian film genre has gained traction over the years with numerous entries finding success with their typically propagandist slant. But when you venture away from explicitly faith-based films, some of the most honest and profound explorations of Christianity have come from more "secular" offerings. Indeed, while Sarah Polley would perhaps scoff at the classification, her new film "Women Talking" is in my view, one of the most important Christian films of the year.

Based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, "Women Talking" depicts a pivotal moment in the lives of a Mennonite colony. The year is 2010 and the women of the community have assembled in a barn to address a shared trauma. Over the years, each one has been the victim of violent sexual abuse from the men, who have all used various excuses to protect themselves. Following an accusation that takes the male population to the nearby town to post bail, this opportunity to determine a collective response arises. In a society where forgiveness is demanded and escape threatens eternal damnation, they are forced to agree on the most difficult decision of their lives - stay and fight, or leave?

And so begins a fervent debate, as the women discuss the pros and cons of either choice. Played by a powerhouse ensemble of actresses - and a perfectly vulnerable form Ben Whishaw as the minute-taker -  the film is a dazzling showcase of diverse acting styles. From the demure and optimistic Ona played by Rooney Mara, to the equally fiery Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley on either side of the ideological divide, it's nearly impossible to single out the best performance. 

Those amazing performances are bolstered by the film's brilliant screenplay, which delivers endless food for thought. While the characters' profundity and eloquence sometimes strains belief - they constantly acknowledge the women's lack of basic education - the exchanges between the women are riveting to watch. Furthermore, we are charmed by their surprising sense of humor. 

Indeed, despite the grim premise and deceptively constrained setting, "Women Talking" is far from a cold film. The score's simple melodies support the emotions without overpowering the dialogue. Meanwhile, the dynamic camera emulates Terrence Malick-like wonderment, swirling through fields and homes to showcase a bucolic environment and its child-filled innocence.

The innocence of young boys becomes a particular source of major contention, as the women discuss the possibilities of eliminating patriarchal violence and oppression in future generations. As such, the film resonates on a broader scale, embedding itself within larger discussions of feminism. And such universal relevance is key to the film's power, as its intellectual discourse lays bare the challenges of democracy, the perils of blind faith and the dangers of patriarchy for both women and men alike. On the surface, this seemingly modest film is simply "Women Talking" indeed. But through their passionate words, it leaves you with much to ponder about religion, gender dynamics and the world at large.