The Tragedy of Macbeth
Director: Joel Coen
Genre: Historical Drama
Country: United States
Review: I was excited to see Denzel Washington play Macbeth, and he certainly delivered on my excitement with an amazing performance, but overall this film was something I admired more than I enjoyed. Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I like it because it’s tense, thrilling, and bloody. However, this version dulls those qualities in favor of a more introspective approach. I think this is all to do with the way it’s shot; there are few medium or long shots containing multiple people, and so you don’t get as much interplay between the characters. Most of the movie’s frames have one character at a time, and you don’t get the reactions to what they’re saying or doing. It feels a lot like a sequence of disconnected soliloquies, with few scenes showing us two (or more) characters having a back-and-forth. It’s a shame because the cast is incredible, and Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and Brendan Gleeson all do an amazing job. I thought that the film was very interesting on a technical and aesthetic level though. I liked the way the sets were unnatural and expressionist, giving the film’s scenes a dreamlike quality. The interpretation of the three witches was also very interesting. They’re all played by Kathryn Hunter in this uncanny, acrobatic physical performance where she seems to be mimicking the movements of a crow with her body. I also really liked the way they shot the fight with Macduff at the end. This film is definitely worth a watch for its eerie, unique interpretation of a classic story, but it just misses out on my Top 10 for not being as engaging as I felt it could have been.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Country: United States/United Kingdom
Review: This was the last movie I watched in 2022. Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play a wealthy couple who travel to Morocco to attend a lavish party hosted by one of their friends, played by Matt Smith. The party is held at this opulent, remote villa in the desert. While driving through the desert at night on their way to the party, Fiennes and Chastain have a fateful, tragic encounter on the road that changes their lives. I won’t say more than that! This was an entertaining, well-executed thriller, but not necessarily a film I think I will remember for a long time or rush to rewatch. I was engaged the whole way through, and found the neocolonial themes interesting if unoriginal. Other than Fiennes, the privileged and insufferable gobshites at the party don’t really undergo much character development. I was hoping for more to happen with Chastain’s and Smith’s characters, though the parallel between their journeys and Fiennes’ in the wake of the desert encounter was interesting. I just wanted their side to match up with his a little bit more. Overall, a very solid drama about reckless privilege, with some intelligent writing and some particularly stellar performances from Ralph Fiennes and Ismael Kanater.
Director: Jordan Peele
Genre: Science Fiction/Horror/Western
Country: United States
Review: This is a film that, for me at least, is better to talk about than to watch. Like Get Out and Us, NOPE has lots of super-interesting stuff to unpack, but unlike those films I didn’t find it that entertaining. I didn’t feel like we got to know any of the characters that well, and it just seemed clunkily-executed in terms of its pacing, dialogue, character development, and moment-to-moment watchability. I wish we could have seen more of Steven Yuen’s character, because the subplot of his ranch and the backstory with the bloodthirsty chimp was really intriguing. I wanted to rate this film higher on the list, but I realized that I liked it more in retrospect, as something to dissect, than I did actually watching it.
10. Sing 2
Director: Garth Jennings
Genre: Musical Comedy
Country: United States
Review: First up, we have Sing 2, an animated musical comedy from writer-director Garth Jennings. I loved the first one for its quirky characters and funny set pieces, and the sequel delivers those things with the same quality. Matthew McConaughey is reliable as ever as Buster Moon, the cheeky theatre producer with big dreams, and I really loved the new characters Jimmy Crystal and Clay Calloway, played by Bobby Cannavale and Bono respectively. I also enjoyed the physical comedy of Miss Crawly as this kind of pitiful, grotesque figure probably yearning for the sweet release of death. This film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and a lotta heartwarming ones too. The plot doesn’t feel like a rehash of the previous one, yet still follows the effective structure of building up to this big theatrical performance at the end. I also liked that the characters had fresh arcs, neither retreading the same ground nor seeming “finished”. In the wake of their character development in the previous movie, they now move on to new struggles in their present circumstances. The only real negative I have for this movie is that I didn’t enjoy the music as much as the first one. There’s nothing quite so brilliant as the swine popping out of the tumble-dryer during “Shake It Off” this time, more’s the pity, but despite not being quite so memorable as its predecessor, Sing 2 is nonetheless one of the most enjoyable movies of the year for me.
9. The Lost Daughter
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Genre: Psychological Drama
Country: United States
Review: This was the first film I watched in 2022, and one that I had been eagerly anticipating for a while, having read the book in 2018. Elena Ferrante is my favorite modern writer, and this adaptation very much captures the spirit of both the novel and her body of work as a whole. Ferrante has a very distinctive tone, so I was very curious to see how it would translate to film. It’s a tone that’s dark, introspective, and, above all, unsentimental. She goes to the most uncomfortable parts of the human psyche, asking difficult questions of her readers, but refusing to give them any answers. How you answer Ferrante’s questions is up to you, supposing there’s an answer at all. I was curious how that would go down with modern cinema audiences; we live in a chronically-online, polarized world with discourse often dominated by impassioned hot-takes, and Ferrante’s refusal to moralize seems antithetical to that. She unapologetically rejects absolutes, something which was nicely encapsulated by director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s reaction to the book:
“I have never heard these things articulated before. There was one point where I was like, ‘This woman is so fucked up’, and then I was like, I totally relate to her.”
What’s great about Gyllenhaal’s adaptation is that it elicits this same reaction. And that’s the most important thing about adaptations in my opinion. Some superficial details and plot events are changed, but fundamentally it tells the same story and uses the particulars of its own medium to give the audience the same feeling. I don’t think a Ferrante adaptation for the big screen could honestly be any better than this. In short, it’s about a middle-aged woman who goes on a vacation by herself to the Mediterranean and encounters a young mother that reminds her of herself and the struggles she had raising her own children. It’s a bleak, intense film and I can’t help but feel like any viewers in their twenties might be put off the idea of having kids after watching it. I still prefer the book, but if reading isn’t your thing, then I highly recommend this film if you like psychological dramas, unhinged protagonists, or nuanced commentaries on motherhood.
8. Paris, 13th District
Director: Jacques Audiard
Review: I’ve always had a thing for films divided into semi-independent parts (think: A Place Beyond the Pines, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Pulp Fiction, etc), and Paris 13th District definitely scratches that particular itch. Shot in black-and-white and based on several American comics, this film follows the emotional lives of three protagonists- Émilie, Camille, and Nora- in the residential tower blocks of Les Olympiades. I’m not sure I have too much to say about it, or how much there is to unpack, in all honesty- all I can say is that I really liked it. I’ve heard it described as a “millennial love story” and there definitely seems to be a focus on intimacy as it exists in today’s digital world. In that way it reminds me a little bit of a Sally Rooney novel- we’re just following the day-to-day lives of these ordinary people, and it’s fascinating. They’re lonely, insecure, and restless. They’re quirky in the way that real people are quirky. Above all, they just want to be loved, and I was heavily invested in seeing them find it.
7. The Banshees of Inisherin
Director: Martin McDonagh
Genre: Black Comedy
Review: Even though I was fully aware of this film’s reputation for a long while as one of the best of the year, I didn’t end up watching it until the night of Christmas Eve. I think I had the wrong impression of it. I thought it was a straight-up comedy and that’s just not what I’m drawn to. I like humor to be mixed into the movies and TV shows I watch, but I tend not to go for pure comedies. My impression was that the selling point of the film was simply Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson trading offbeat wit, but I’ll admit that I was wrong. What we get is actually this dark, elegiac folktale about the dissolution of a friendship on a remote island off the western coast of Ireland. It’s the early 1920s, and on the mainland, the Irish Civil War is raging. The islanders receive news of the conflict, and occasionally observe it from across the water, but the war doesn’t affect them and life continues the way it always had. The locals tend to their animals, chat at the pub, and play the fiddle. Every day follows the same pattern- until one day, Pádraic (played by Farrell) is informed bluntly by his best friend, Colm (Gleeson), that he doesn’t want to be friends with him anymore. It’s such an interesting inciting incident, and right from the beginning you really feel for Pádraic. Colm’s simple request that they no longer speak to each other utterly shatters Pádraic’s world, and you get a strong sense of how small his world is in this unchanging, isolated rural community without his best friend. Also, Colm’s request not to be spoken to extends only to him, so whenever Pádraic goes for a pint at the one pub in their village, he has to watch Colm chatting heartily away with other people. I won’t say what happens, but I was absolutely engrossed from start to finish, and the film does a great job of gradually escalating the tension. What I liked so much about The Banshees of Inisherin is that it’s both fun to watch and fun to discuss. There’s so much to dissect, from the nuanced side characters to the cute farmyard animals, the dichotomy of the protagonists’ worldviews to the commentary on mortality, the symbolism behind the recurring motifs of music, fingers, the Irish Civil War, and the Japanese oni masks, and so on. It’s a fascinating study of loneliness, friendship, art, and mortality, as well as simply being a very entertaining, well-executed movie.
6. The Falls
Director: Chung Mong-hong
Genre: Psychological Drama
Review: Set in Taipei at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Falls follows the difficult relationship between a teenage girl and her single mother as they isolate in their apartment. What I love so much about this film is that it’s as much a coming-of-age film as it is psychological drama. After being informed she was in contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19, Wang Jing (played by Gingle Wang) has to stay home in quarantine for a period of time. This also results in her workaholic mother, Lo Pin-wen (Alyssa Chia) being asked to do the same thing. As they isolate together in their little apartment, tensions run high. Neither Jing nor her mom end up contracting the virus, and after thinking that the film was going to be about this emotionally-absent career woman having to take care of her kid, the roles are suddenly reversed. The mom suffers a devastating mental breakdown and the narrative then follows Jing’s efforts to take care of her. I love the way they trade places, and it’s fascinating watching Jing having to be the adult of the house. You really feel the claustrophobia of this gloomy apartment bathed in blue light from the construction tarp on the building, and how these interior scenes contrast with vibrant, sun-dappled exteriors. The performances of the two lead actresses are fantastic and the story is a pure rollercoaster of emotions. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in films about mother-daughter relationships, coming-of-age, mental health, or the COVID-19 pandemic.
Director: Jeremiah Zagar
Genre: Sports Drama
Country: United States
Review: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a sports movie quite so good as this. When I found out about Hustle and the universal critical acclaim it was receiving, I was hyped to see it (basketball is definitively my favorite sport for a sports movie) and the film actually exceeded my high expectations. Adam Sandler plays Stanley, a troubled NBA scout working for the Philadelphia 76ers, specifically to secure talent from Europe, and so spends a lot of time away from his family. After several unsuccessful scouting trips, he stumbles across a pick-up game in Spain where he discovers local hustler Bo Cruz. Cruz has immense natural talent and athletic ability, but he’s raw, unrefined, and emotionally volatile. Like Stanley, he has a past that haunts him. But Stanley is determined to bring him to the NBA, and the film is all about his journey to do so. I won’t say more than that, but I can assure you that the film is excellent on every level. Like any good sports drama it’s got plenty of heart, but avoids cliché with its superb writing. The dialogue is sharp, Sandler’s performance is top-notch, and the film as a whole is beautifully shot. The creative camerawork really gives the basketball scenes this sense of pulse-pounding intensity, and this is exemplified by what I’d say is easily Hustle’s best moment, which is the slickly-edited training montage in the middle of the film.
4. Parallel Mothers
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Review: Parallel Mothers is a reliably excellent melodrama from Pedro Almodóvar about the relationship between two single mothers, Janis and Ana, who strike up a bond as they go into labor and are placed in the same hospital room. Janis is a middle-aged woman who works as a photographer and Ana is a teenager from a rich but emotionally-absent home. This is very much my kind of movie, full of heart, interpersonal drama, emotionally-charged performances, and an excellent script. I liked the way that points of tension and intrigue were set up, then satisfactorily paid off with powerful revelations down the line. I can’t decide if I like this more than Pain and Glory, which appeared in my 2019 power rankings, but I’m leaning towards yes.
3. The Northman
Director: Robert Eggers
Genre: Historical Drama
Country: United States
Review: I had been anticipating this film for a while, because as far as I could tell it was loaded with green flags. A true auteur in Robert Eggers, a script written by a well-regarded novelist, a great cast, and a beautiful setting in medieval Iceland. Oh, and it’s a reimagining of the legend that served as the basis for my favorite Shakespeare play. Sick. I went to see this at The Rotunda Odeon in Kingston with some of my publishing friends, among them my Icelandic friend Sigrún. After we left the theater, I asked her if she thought it was an accurate portrayal of her ancestors and she said “Oh, 10/10 for historical accuracy”. Even though I don’t have the required knowledge of medieval Iceland to verify the film’s authenticity, I definitely felt immersed in its world when I watched it. It was obvious that a painstaking effort had been made to imbue every shot with as many intricate details as possible. I later watched a YouTube video where a historian outlined all of the many elements- hairstyles, jewelry, tools, clothing- that made The Northman, in his opinion, the most accurate on-screen representation of Vikings by a country mile. It’s these intricate details, in conjunction with the moody soundtrack and striking cinematography, that make watching this film such a visceral experience. While it definitely hits the beats of a classic tragedy, there’s a subtle tonal shift in the film’s midsection where it starts to feel like a horror, with the scale contracting from what appeared to be a grandiose saga into a tense, claustrophobic nightmare at an isolated homestead. However, despite how dark The Northman is tonally, I was surprised at how restrained it was in terms of explicit content. This isn’t a criticism, just something that caught my attention. In terms of graphic content (I’m referring here to gore and nudity) it’s about the same as The Lord of the Rings, and yet The Northman feels so different. It’s gritty, but it’s never shocking. You expect it to be shocking, because of the unsentimental plot, the chilling musical score, the characters screaming until they’re blue in the face, and certain features of the mise-en-scène (all the mud, dirt, smoke, shadows, etc), but there’s nothing in this film that will make you evacuate your bowels. The acting and the script are incredible, and every frame in this movie feels like it could be a painting. Like The Banshees of Inisherin, it’s also a great film to talk about. What struck me most of all was the film’s interesting commentary on masculinity and gender roles, from Amleth’s indoctrination into the patriarchal cycle to the fascinating scene with the He-Witch, a man wearing women’s clothing and practicing seiðr (which was viewed as a feminine art). Director Robert Eggers was initially reluctant to make a film about Vikings due to the way they’re misappropriated by the right wing and associated with this twisted machismo ideal, but changed his mind after visiting Iceland and learning more about the complexity of the Norse sagas. Some critics have accused The Northman of glorifying toxic masculinity and even white supremacy, which is both stupid and lazy. The film offers a nuanced treatment of masculinity that, while brutal, is never titillating or idealized. It’s not there for its own sake- it’s purposeful. And while the alt-right, ethnonationalists, neo-nazis, incels, and the like will probably celebrate this movie for its brutality, it’s not Robert Eggers’ fault that they can’t consume media beyond a superficial level. Amleth is a tragic figure- and toxic masculinity is inextricably linked to his character arc. It was something that I was actively thinking about as I watched it- and that only enhanced my enjoyment of the film.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Country: South Korea
Review: Hirokazu Kore-eda is far and away my favorite filmmaker of all time, so any year he has a new movie coming out I’m pumped. Broker is definitely up there with the likes of Still Walking as one of the best Kore-eda dramas, and one I can’t wait to rewatch. It’s familiar in its theme of found families, but with an added freshness lent from the South Korean setting. In short, it’s about a crazy road trip that ensues when a young mother joins with two guys who sell babies on the adoption black market in their search to find a suitable buyer for her child. All the while, they are being tailed by a couple of detectives. The detectives need them to actually sell the baby so that they can make an arrest, but they won’t sell it to just anyone. This is a film with a lot of humor and exceptional dialogue, all the while shot in Kore-eda’s naturalistic style. The performances are all brilliant, but just like everything he’s in, it’s Song Kang-ho that steals the show. I went back and forth on whether to give this film the number one spot, because it’s definitely worthy of it, and on a different day it might have been my film of the year.
- Decision to Leave
Director: Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea
Review: Alas! The 2022 TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award goes to none other than Decision to Leave. I watched this stylish, South Korean neo-noir on my 30th birthday with my roommate Minako and had a strong feeling that it was going to finish top of my list. But just to be sure that my opinion wasn’t being unfairly colored by the sentiment of that happy memory (in contrast, I watched Broker online by myself), I decided to watch it again and showed it to my family on Christmas Day. They all loved the film, and by the end I was even more convinced that Decision to Leave was my film of the year. It follows an insomniac homicide detective in Busan, Hae-jun, and the relationship he develops with an enigmatic widow, Seo-rae, whose husband is found dead at the foot of a mountain. These two characters are played by Tang Wei and Park Hae-il, and both of them do an incredible job. Tang is breathtaking as the troubled, beautiful femme fatale whose next move you can never predict, and Hae-il gives such a nuanced portrait of the tortured detective whose inner conflict is slowly but surely causing him to come apart at the seams. I loved the magnetism she seems to have over him, and their performances made it so believable. The side characters are also really memorable and well-portrayed, especially Jung-an (the eccentric wife always recalling statistics), Soo-wan (the brash and clumsy partner), Hae-dong (the “Monday granny”), and Yeon-su (the small-town cop). They’re all hilarious, which makes them nice foils for the more serious leading duo of Hae-jun and Seo-rae. It’s hard to think of something that this movie doesn’t absolutely nail. The cinematography, music, dialogue, and plot are all excellent. It gripped me on a moment-to-moment basis more than any other film this year. And like the best movies, it’s as much fun to dissect afterwards as it is entertaining in the moment. It also feels very distinctive, particularly in its theming and its camerawork, and yet it also reminded me a lot of Hitchcock. So it’s hard to say “if you like ___, then watch this,” because the film really does feel like the product of a singular, unique vision. But I’ll recommend it to anyone regardless of their tastes, because of how funny, thrilling, and nuanced it is. I can’t wait to see what Park Chan-wook comes up with next. I liked this more than his superb 2016 film The Handmaiden, so whatever his next project is, it has some dang big boots to fill!