Next Door to Prestige 6: Magic of the Movies Edition

Salient question: are we in hell?

I know that the general consensus is that yes, the world as a whole very much is. But if we narrow our perspective from “the world” to “the movies”—it is Oscar night, after all—what’s the prognosis?

That, at least, is what spurred a round of discourse when Quentin Tarantino proposed that our current era is the worst in Hollywood history. It’s an exhaustion, or an anxiety, hardly exclusive to him: the sense that whatever confluence of inspiration and economics kept movies relevant for a century is now stuck in a creatively arid time-loop, with no end in sight. His assessment comes with a few asterisks. Alongside the present, his picks for Hollywood’s nadir were the 1950s and the 1980s, which cocked a few eyebrows. Hollywood in the 50s, after all, had Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Billy Wilder, etc., on golden runs. And it was a decade when such adult-friendly films as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Quiet Man, Some Came Running, and From Here to Eternity stood a chance of placing among the biggest box office hits of the year. As for the 1980s, yes, it was an era where relatively empty-headed spectacles swallowed up the adventurism of the New Hollywood. But I imagine both audiences and critics would be thrilled to get a steady stream of proper 80s blockbusters today. In fact, you don’t need to imagine—you just need to look at the rapturous response to Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick restores your faith in the magic of movies,” trumpeted the advertisements, as the summer’s biggest hit extended its run into the winter. Their marketing team was playing a little fast and loose. The exact quote (from ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer) is that the film “restores a little of your faith in the magic of movies”, which manages expectations but looks worse in a YouTube ad. But I can’t quibble with a marketer’s liberties. In 2022, there wasn’t a greater unifier than Top Gun: Maverick across every conceivable metric in my social circle—gender, age, politics, etc. It’s not expected to pick up many Oscars tonight, so instead I’ll note a curious grand prize it already won: the AARP’s “Movies for Grown Ups” award. Which is notable first because, for children of the 90s, the headline “senior citizens praise Jerry Bruckheimer sequel as a breath of fresh air” sounds insane. And second, because in 2022, it makes perfect sense.

The new Top Gun was not the first post-pandemic movie to do pre-pandemic box office, nor is it remotely alone in revivals of 80s franchises. But rather than hip fan service, it felt like a lost era of classicism—not just in its structure and practical FX, but in its understanding of an audience’s relationship to spectacle, to movie stars, and to an earlier era’s idealism about big screen experiences. And I’m optimistic enough to think that, after two years of topsy-turvy box office, there was enough of a vacuum that if Tom Cruise and company hadn’t come along, someone else would have. That vacuum helps explain why surprisingly large American audiences sought out unironic cinematic excess from two sources known for it: Baz Luhrmann (Elvis) and India (RRR). It explains the Academy’s disproportionate love for the German-language All Quiet on the Western Front, whose nine nominations only remind you that Hollywood used to make this sort of movie itself every Oscar season. And it explains why I spent a few weeks over the winter quietly rooting for Avatar: The Way of Water to hit its insanely risky $2 billion break-even point, as if the 13 years since the first Avatar have turned James Cameron into an underdog. (Yes, it’s a CGI blockbuster, but a CGI blockbuster willed into existence and very much informed by the idiosyncrasies of one man).

So it’s serendipitous that “the magic of the movies” was itself an explicit subject of several films throughout 2022. And what those films had to say was often far from simple pie-eyed nostalgia.

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is the most obvious example, both expectedly joyful and surprisingly uneasy about the effects movies have on their audiences and their creators. It’s too difficult to succinctly pitch The Fabelmans based on what’s exceptional about it—its motherlode of complex meta statements—so the studio instead sold it as simple uplift and then watched it stiff at the box office. Far more successful was Jordan Peele’s sci-fi blockbuster Nope, which is, in a manner of speaking, all about a group of filmmakers trying to nail a single shot. And the dissatisfaction that some Peele fans initially felt with the ending—that it feels like an abdication or even a betrayal of the movie’s subversive attitude—might be chalked up to how, in this industry, people can be far more sympathetic in their struggle than in their success. Meanwhile, Ti West’s X and Pearl explored how the stuff of sleazy movies overlaps with the stuff of life. And on the festival circuit, the year’s most euphoric take on moviemaking was also its smallest: Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film. Barely released in the US yet, it traces a causal chain from sitting alone in a bookstore to having something of your own in a theater. And the source of its happiness is purely in the process itself: creation is its own reward, reception is irrelevant. Even Clerks III, which I expected to find depressing and largely did, has its best moments when Kevin Smith gives a curtain call to the local actors and personal buddies who shared in his DIY original.

“Good luck to you,” a cranky John Ford, played by a cranky David Lynch, advises at the end of The Fabelmans. “And get the fuck out of my office.” And surely the spirit of that valedictory is one reason The Fabelmans is so resonant to its admirers. It is, in the end, a passing-of-the-torch movie. And it comes at a time when I’m honestly not sure who in my generation is there to receive it. In 2022, who was even a contender?

Damien Chazelle? He made his own “magic of the movies” film last year. And although what Babylon has to say could conceivably place it among the year’s most relevant, its tonal mess also magnifies what’s dogged him ever since Whiplash: a gap between precocious aspirations of tough, worldly wisdom and making those tragic lessons actually feel earned.

Robert Eggers? You have to admire anyone who cashes in their chips on an ambitious undertaking like The Northman. But the ambition of his films is physical, not dramatic—it’s difficult to argue that there’s much he wants to say at all.

So what about Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert?

The Daniels (as they prefer to be known) are set to win big at the Oscars tonight for writing and directing Everything Everywhere All at Once. If they take home Best Director, as they’re widely expected to, it’ll be the first time in Academy history that that statue has gone to someone (just barely) younger than I am—and I must confess that there was no movie last year whose popularity made me feel older. True to its title, Everything Everywhere is a lot, so there’s a lot to like: a perfect cast it never underestimates, and an opening act that beautifully establishes a family unit under pressure. But its blockbuster maximalism exhausts me for the same reason it does in far less thoughtful films: this is not a movie that will ever quit a conceit while it’s ahead, or build up to one climax when it could pile on three or four in a row. Which could be over-interpreted as a sign that today’s liberatingly weird youth movies are beholden to an idiom I’d rather they weren’t. Or it could simply mean that the Daniels have the kind of creative union where they crack each other up so much that they’re more than happy to repeat any non sequitur gag far past the point of novelty.

Still, even saying so makes me feel like a grinch—or worse, Bosley Crowther—because the film’s giggly dedication to excess is part of what its fans love about it. And make no mistake, those fans are there. Even if A24 is merchandizing it within an inch of its life, Everything Everywhere qualifies as an authentic audience phenomenon to a degree that most Oscar campaigns can only pretend. And while it would be easy to succumb to cynicism and say that the Academy’s picks fell out of touch with the zeitgeist long ago, such intersections have happened more often, more recently, and with more justification than cynics tend to remember. To find a comparable example, you only need to go back three years: to Parasite, in 2019.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons on this Oscar night to believe we’re not in hell. And one of them is that, for the first time since the pandemic, compiling a list of favorites required some tough decisions and painful cuts. This was a packed year, and even 25 films don’t do justice to the unexpected trends and happy surprises it offered.

Are we in heaven, then? The same way that someone who looks back at the 50s and sees only the conservatism of kitschy Bible epics and family matinees might miss that they’re in a cinematic golden age? Not remotely, not even for a Pollyanna-ish exercise such as this. But if you hold purgatory upside down and shake it, some real gems might fall out.

My 10 favorites of 2022:

10. Pacifiction (Albert Serra, France/Spain)

In far-off Tahiti, a local politician—white suit, white teeth, white skin—moves back and forth between the French authorities and the native population, all while something ominous is brewing. He’s both a glad-hander and a quasi-sympathizer, and the film’s achievement is to give his journey an air of unreality while feeling discomfortingly close to the world of our own. To say that there wasn’t anything else quite like it last year isn’t simply meant as a rave, but a statement of fact; I’ve been wary of the total praise swirling around Albert Serra, but it’s undeniably impressive how much his tone, images, and structural choices defy cliche even while he gives you the hook and payoff of a classic paranoia thriller. The haunted final passage and climactic speech are something chilling.

9. Alcarràs (Carla Simon, Spain)

In a pitch meeting, Carla Simon’s Berlinale hit is nothing we don’t have plenty of already: socially conscious neorealism about ordinary people caught in an economic shift. But all the human behavior, large and small, is gloriously unaffected, and the drama is neither over- nor underwritten—rare virtues. So it’s a beautiful film, not just about change, but about how even close families share space while living in different worlds. I wish we had more like it.

8. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, US)

At a time when so many films feel small even in a theater, this feels big even on a TV. It just about turns movie star hubris into a real elegy. It has all the macho/jingo stuff to let guys pretend it’s not really for big softies. And it hits its nostalgia buttons more in the ways that matter than the ways that don’t. (You can take it as a sign of integrity that it never replays “Take My Breath Away”). The happiest the ghost of Howard Hawks has been in ages.

7. Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, UK/US)

A girl and her divorced dad at a vacation getaway. We see their bond, the worries weighing on him, and how she might notice them too whether she realizes it or not—only she’s also 11, and growing her own way. Aftersun captures this dynamic so beautifully that I spent most of the movie hoping that it wouldn’t feel the need for any more plot than that. It doesn’t. And if it does labor in search of an ending for a story that doesn’t really have or need one, it nonetheless announces Wells as a rising star. It’s the best “Sofia Coppola movie” since Sofia herself made The Virgin Suicides.

6. Happening (Audrey Diwan, France)

Did Texas play a part? In 2021, the Venice jury unanimously awarded Happening the Golden Lion mere days after bombshell news about Texas’s abortion ban. And needless to say, by the time the film landed in America in 2022, things had only gotten worse. The concept—a young woman runs the gauntlet to terminate a pregnancy—is hardly new. But Diwan’s film expands on such previous renditions as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days with a wider context of sexual dynamics, personal relationships, and social stigma. And unlike those two films, it manages to convey urgency and intensity without hitting a sensationalist note.

5. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (Richard Linklater, US)

Linklater’s latest rotoscoped animation anchors a wild flight of fancy in an Amarcord-style memory film with even less plot than usual. Linklater isn’t interested in stories, or even episodes. He’s interested in turning artifacts and fragments into a compendium of boundless charm. In this context, the animation works not just visually but conceptually, to dissolve barriers between the endearingly mundane and the flagrantly impossible. Which a lovely last line about remembering magnificently brings home.

4. The Banshees of Inishiren (Martin McDonagh, Ireland/US)

After the tourist trap of In Bruges and the Anytown USA of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh finds another reason to distrust the picturesque. For him, a village isn’t quaint or charming just because it’s small; in fact, all you need for bad blood to fester is two people. I understand the hesitations about McDonagh the Director, and I even share a few of them. But McDonagh the Writer is at a brilliant peak, and his cast rises to every challenge. An unpredictable, dark, and humane allegory about messy coexistence.

3. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, US)

In Laura Poitras’s documentarty, two tracks run side by side: one is an all-purpose biography of photographer Nan Goldin’s life and art, and the other a present-tense chronicle of her activism against the Sackler family of opioid barons. How do the two movies connect? One answer is simply that Poitras structures the material so well that it toggles back and forth without a hiccup. Another is that the film is about culture vs. counterculture: how society needs outcasts to keep itself honest. And yet another is that it’s all about art: those who create/live it, and the wealthy patrons who merely buy it. The fact that the world of art may be the only one Goldin and Poitras can change has a bittersweet aftertaste. All the more so because the film knows it.

2. Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, Canada/Greece)

Few directors have a body of work as uncompromised as Toronto’s mad scientist. Nearly every Cronenberg film has been, if not necessarily better or worse than the one before it, at least some kind of progression. Cronenberg’s much-hyped return (his first feature in nearly a decade, and his first “body horror” movie since the 90s) is both something old and something new, and unique in the chemistry: it reclaims the genre trappings of his past without ditching the austerity he’s developed since. Indeed, Neon’s marketing campaign—a carefully curated supercut of gross-outs and nightmare fuel—shortchanged how this compelling noir maze is less transgressive than soulful. It is a film about aging, even about love, and an anxious but fully-fleshed theorem of things to come. And that ending? Probably the year’s best, and certainly the one we deserve. Equal parts warning and ecstatic release.

1. The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, US)

If anyone in Hollywood has a right to self-mythologize, Spielberg does, but The Fabelmans is much more. Charges of excess sentimentality have dogged him forever, but if innocence (or naivety) is a narrow approach to art, Spielberg also proven that the desire for innocence/naivety can be a complex subject. And in that regard, The Fabelmans is not just slick, not just entertaining, but fascinating. This is about movie geeks and showmen and how those urges mediate experience: what gets played up, what gets left out, what slips in unconsciously, and what function the final product serves. So while he hasn’t (couldn’t?) make a film that’s raw, even the glossy tidiness of The Fabelmans registers as both face-value and commentary. Its implications keep shifting the more you look at it. Film theorists will be more moved than sentimentalists. But don’t doubt that there’s overlap. Especially now.


The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year:

Armageddon Time (James Gray, US)

Close (Lukas Dhont, Belgium)

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, US)

EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland)

The Girl and the Spider (Ramon & Silvan Zürcher, Switzerland)

Nope (Jordan Peele, US)

The Novelist’s Film (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Pearl (Ti West, US)

Saint Omer (Alice Diop, France)

Stars at Noon (Claire Denis, France)

Tar (Todd Field, US)

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund, Sweden/UK)

Turning Red (Domee Shi, US)

X (Ti West, US)

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