NOTE This column also appeared at http://www.midwestfilmjournal.com
Once again, this year, I’m going to go with “satisfying” over “best.”
There are other films I admire, ones I respect, ones that are fun or intriguing most of the way but don’t leave me satisfied. But I’m a third-act kind of guy. I need to feel like all the parts came together — not necessarily in a bow but in a way that felt like all the elements were in place and nothing stood out as wrong (e.g., one scene late in TÁR threw it off the list for me).
Here are the 2022 ones that gave me the most satisfying exhale as the final credits rolled and where you can find them, too.
MATILDA: THE MUSICAL
Just as I was confident that I had my lineup together for this piece, what shows up at the last minute? A remarkable musical that ranks up there with Chicago and In the Heights as one of the best stage-to-screen musical adaptations of the 2000s. Actually, it’s a book-to-screen-to-stage-to-screen adaptation, and those multiple incarnations actually help. It’s still the story of a put-upon, spunky little girl who rebels against oppression both at home and school. But the filmmakers wisely stick to the DNA of previous versions while not being slavish to them. From the stage version, they’ve ditched unnecessary characters (bye bye, dance teacher Rudolpho, the Russian mobsters and Matilda’s older brother), minimized distracting supporting-character songs (see ya, “Telly”) and allowed a woman to play Miss Trunchbull (the stage version went with music-hall drag, inadvertently raising transphobia issues). The tweaks, cuts and additions indicate an understanding that what we care about are Matilda, Miss Honey and the kids. Tim Minchin’s song stack is sometimes lyrically overstuffed, but it contains gems including “When I Grow Up,” which visualizes the song in ways a stage production never could. And down to the supporting kids, the cast is wonderful — with Lashana Lynch embodying the warmth of Miss Honey and Alisha Weir a treasure in the title role. This is a fantasy, of course, and fantasies can be rough. Matilda and her pals go through hell and she’s not afraid to be, as the song goes, “a little bit naughty.” That may be a shocker to uninitiated parents expecting softer stuff. But, for me, the difficulty of Matilda’s journey makes the rewards even more powerful. I’m looking forward to watching this one again. (P.S. I watched it again. Even better the second time.) (Netflix)
Up until Matilda came along, the top of the list for me was S.S. Rajamouli’s gripping, go-for-broke bromance that takes historic characters and super-sizes them with action more gleefully fun and emotionally valid than anything the Marvel Universe team has yet dreamed up. After 20 of the film’s 182 minutes, I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly up the ante any further after offering up a one-versus-many battle that danced back and forth across the absurdity line without ever making me doubt the film’s created reality. But it topped that. Again. And again. And again. A few hours in, I was still with it, buying every dance number, animal fight and gravity-defying moment. And somehow still caring about the characters and what was at stake. RRR is a glorious, incredibly satisfying movie-movie, and I’m glad it’s starting to get some of the recognition it so richly deserves. (Zee5 / Netflix)
Florence Pugh is a wonder. In Midsommar, 2019’s Little Women, 2021’s Black Widow and even the much-maligned but (for me) good-enough Don’t Worry Darling, Pugh has quickly gotten past on-the-rise status to become one of the best actors in the business. It would be easy to suggest The Wonder rests on her shoulders. But while she anchors this story of a British nurse sent to check on a miraculous claim in rural Ireland, she shares the weight with a top-notch script. Early on, I was concerned it might back itself into a secular Song of Bernadette corner but the collaborative efforts of Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the novel on which it’s based), Sebastián Lelio (who also directed) and Alice Birch (who wrote for Pugh in Lady Macbeth) smartly work their way to a dramatic, moving conclusion. (Netflix)
It’s often said that big action films “need” to be seen on the giant screen. Perhaps. But I sometimes think that the isolation of a movie theater may actually be more important to quieter films. At home, it’s easy to glance away from a Terrence Malick pastoral or a low-key, chat-heavy Richard Linklater flick, to check your email or give the “don’t pause it, I’ll be right back” instruction to your viewing partner. In the process, the fragile magic can diminish or disappear. Such is the case with Aftersun, a film that can provide either a powerful, heart-wrenching experience (like I had) or raise “what was that all about?” reactions from the more readily distracted. Charlotte Wells’ directorial debut soft-focuses on a father and his 11-year-old daughter on a brief vacation where the major things that happen are perhaps only hinted at from a distance of years. It’s a memory play with a bit of a Fun Home vibe, and there’s an aching sense of the grown daughter trying to find a key to someone in this long-ago getaway. It’s a film where rhythm feels more important than dialogue and where the father’s inability to fully lose himself in the moment feels both true and original. For me, it was a film about a woman for whom becoming a mother triggers empathy with her own parent and a desire to figure out what he was thinking — and who he was — during shared time gone by. Until I saw Matilda: The Musical, Aftersun was the only film this year that left me openly sobbing. And the one that, as I type, is once again drawing tears. (VOD; coming soon to Blu-ray)
CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH
Up there with TÁR for most marketing-unfriendly title of the year, Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t about a dance competition. It’s about a fast-food worker who finds some satisfaction when hired to liven up bar and bat mitzvah parties. At one of them, he encounters a woman and her autistic daughter, forming a pair of friendships with them that are quirky, sometimes cringy, but remarkably affecting. What makes this entry rise above its brethren in the usually self-indulgent aimless-young-guy-trying-to-find-purpose genre are the details, including moments of painful yearning that brought to mind Once. Writer, director and star Cooper Raiff avoids most of the aren’t-I-sensitive pitfalls and gives his two co-stars, Dakota Johnson and Vanessa Burghardt, both dignity and complexity. There’s an under-the-surface richness to Johnson’s character — uncertain fiancee, committed-but-self-doubting mother, woman with desires but also a guiding head on her shoulders — that is particularly fresh and compelling. I liked being in this messy, recognizable world. (Apple TV+)
THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN
Back in high school, I tried to write a movie script about the breakup of a friendship. There was so much out there about the ending of romantic partnerships, but I didn’t see anything about what happens at the end of a platonic relationship. My undoubtedly terrible script is long lost. And I can mourn it a lot less knowing writer-director Martin McDonagh has made a gloriously goofy, shocking and funny (and shockingly funny) film from that same starting point. The joy of wondering what could possibly happen next permeates this one, not just in the big plot points but in the small gestures and reactions. Without any Three Billboards baggage but with an undercurrent of Irish history, it’s got more surprise turns than any other film I’ve seen this season. Of course, this spot-on cast helps considerably. (In theaters and on HBO Max, VOD and Blu-ray)
I thought I knew the story of Emmett Till. Turns out I only knew part of it. Director / co-writer Chinonye Chukwu’s film offers the story of the young man’s murder but goes much further, making clear the heroic work of his grieving mother (Danielle Deadwyler). Early on it feels like a standard biopic, but sometimes conventional filmmaking is the best way to let the story itself deliver. (VOD; coming soon to Blu-ray)
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (2022)
Another remake? Another “war is hell” story? I figured I’d see it before and didn’t need to go through it again. But apart from an annoying, distracting musical score, this WWI epic justifies the fresh take it’s given by German director Edward Berger. He and his co-writers stray from the original by tracing both the experiences of a 17-year-old at the front and the negotiations for the armistice that would end the massive slaughter for both sides. The changes help justify the relook at the story … even if the situations are, sadly, nothing new. (Netflix)
One of the films on this list you are less likely to have heard of, Broker concerns two would-be do-gooders who, aware of problems in the Korean foster care system, kidnap infants from a church baby box and seek better homes for them. Things get complicated when a young woman returns for her child. What results is a non-traditional family of sorts when the mother joins the duo in screening potential parents. Their journey is funny, sad and perhaps a bit melodramatic, but emotionally resonant and it contains two of my favorite scenes of the year. And I dread a perhaps-inevitable English-language remake. (Limited U.S. theatrical release forthcoming)
Even less likely to be on your cinematic radar is this intense one-person drama featuring David Strathairn. He plays Jan Karski, who, while aiding the Polish underground, brought the first eyewitness reports of the Holocaust to western ears. Using just a table and two chairs as set pieces and often directly addressing the viewer, Strathairn gives virtuosic performance not just as Karski but of those in his orbit. It’s an important story, told in a non-traditional manner — and I believe it more powerfully than if it were packed with period sets and a cast of thousands. (Screened at the 2022 Heartland Film Festival; U.S. release plans are undetermined.)
X / PEARL
I’m not big on horror movies. Even the acclaimed ones such as Halloween Ends usually leave me with a so-what? feeling. That’s what I half-expected from X, a cabin-in-the-woods thriller about a would-be porn shoot gone bad. But smart casting, sharp character-writing and savvy direction convinced me to stick with it. X was strong enough to make me take a look at its same-year-released prequel, Pearl, which not only is a first-rate horror film but elevates X in the process. In different but connected roles in each film, Mia Goth is an acting force to be reckoned with. (X is available on Showtime, FUBO, VOD and Blu-ray; Pearl is available on VOD and Blu-ray)
While those were the most satisfying films of the year for me, there were plenty of others I watched with pleasure. They include the subtly moving After Yang and bold war film The Woman King. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On found a sweet tone for a feature-length take on an unusual character while Strange World showed that being snubbed at the box office (combined with lousy title and marketing) doesn’t mean the film isn’t fun. Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game offered unexpected festival fun — and a 180-degree turn from Mike Faist (of 2021’s West Side Story). I put off Elvis figuring it would tread familiar territory — and because I’m also hot and cold with filmmaker Baz Luhrmann — but I was pleased to find the film actually got me to empathize with the idol. And Women Talking showed the power of words and a talented ensemble to build drama.
Oh, and TÁR was good, too. Except for that scene.
All in all, I’m good with what 2022 brought to the screen