By John H. Foote
Has 2022 been a great year at the movies? Like most years, we saw a handful of good films, some really great ones, but more bad films than good. Choosing the year’s best films is always a pleasure, but a job I agonize over. My first shortlist included 31 films; paring it down was very tough. It wounded me not to list the action film that towered at the box office Maverick – Top Gun, because it was nearly everything a film should be. But these 10 were better:
1. THE FABELMANS –– Steven Spielberg’s warm, wonderful film about his youth and how he became a renowned director does not shy away from the difficult moments. His mother’s adultery with his father’s best friend is there, the messy divorce, his father dismissing his love of cinema as a “hobby”–all could have been obstacles, but instead, he used them as escapes to make his beloved films. Michelle Williams is luminous as Mitzi, his unique mother, who may have been bipolar, and Paul Dano is superb as his down-to-earth, grounded father who couldn’t keep up with his free-spirited wife. As his arts-loving Uncle Boris, Judd Hirsch is terrific in his eight minutes of screen time. Watch closely, and you will catch several scenes that you will recognize from Spielberg’s work. And that final encounter with legendary John Ford (David Lynch) is breathtaking. The greatest of one generation speaking to a boy setting out to become the greatest of his generation.
2. SHE SAID — Brilliant, authentic look at how the two New York Times writers, Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), exposed the long-rumoured sexual abuse allegations towards Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein. They discovered stories of sexual assaults involving women who feared that resistance would lead to the end of their careers. The two begin slowly with doors closed in their face, facing slammed doors, lies, and threats. But they doggedly keep digging and finally get women to talk and go on the record. Gradually the list builds, and finally, they have him. Through it all, the newspaper stands behind them to bring this monster down. One of the great films about news reporting, She Said stands alongside All the President’s Men(1976), Zodiac (2007), and Spotlight (2015). Beautifully directed by Maria Schrader and acted with sensitive power by the two leads and fine supporting cast, it was a pleasure and privilege to experience. Intelligent, sharp, and brilliant.
3. TAR — In Todd Field’s electrifying first film since Little Children (2006), Cate Blanchett gives a towering performance as famous conductor Lydia Tar. Arrogant, vain, pompous, and sometimes cruel, she is easy to dislike, and many do. But when she stands before an orchestra, she makes magic happen. She is never less than astounding, and Field, realizing he has lightning in a bottle, turns the camera on her and unleashes the force that is Blanchett. It might be the most physical performance the actress has ever given as she throws her entire being into her conducting like a rock star, and her whole heart and soul are on display for all to see. Oscar number 3 is very likely.
4. WOMEN TALKING — Sarah Polley returns to directing and writing after a long absence in which she struggled with a potentially career-ending brain injury. Tenacity and confidence brought her back, and we are the better for it. Polley both directed and wrote this powerful film that speaks directly to the #MeTo movement, the Weinstein scandal, and the role of women in Hollywood. Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia gather in a barn to discuss the abuse they have been enduring for years from men in the village. The men claim the abuse is caused by ghosts or the devil himself. Some women are raging with blind anger, and they begin to discuss the option of leaving. But where would they go? A talky film, Polley focuses on the fine performances of Rooney Mara, Claire Foy (brilliant), Jesse Buckley (even better), and Frances McDormand in a small vital role. Very much an ensemble piece, Women Talking is beautifully acted and directed, and the writing will make you swoon. Sarah, welcome back; we missed you.
5. BABYLON — I defy anyone not to have a helluva time watching it. An electrifying, hugely energetic joy ride through the jazz era of Hollywood when the city was still growing, alcohol flowed liberally, with cocaine piled in mounds for the partygoers, and sex was an entertainment sport. Margot Robbie is Nellie, a star before she becomes a star, a legend in her own mind. Never has Robbie looked so positively carnal as she does here, and she knows it. Brad Pitt is outstanding as a silent screen star about to fade due to sound, and Tobey Maguire is sensationally bizarre as a giggly, twisted, and very dangerous gangster. Babylon is wildly alive and moves like a piece of jazz on speed.
6. AVATAR – THE WAY OF THE WATER — It has been over a decade since audiences first experienced Pandora for the first time, but I am thrilled it is as great as it is. Not good, but great. This might be the greatest of adventure films, a massive, sprawling adventure across the land and beneath the oceans of the planet. Cameron plunges us into Pandora and, once again, the Na’vi are trying to save their beloved planet. The film is remarkable, with stunning visual effects, breathtaking cinematography, and a superb score. As with the original, Cameron’s narrative is weak, but it doesn’t matter; the imagery compensates.
7. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN — In the finest performance of his career, Colin Farrell is superb as a bewildered young man who cannot figure out why his best friend has, literally overnight, turned against him. His old friend explains, “I just don’t like you anymore.” Merging drama with comedy, director-writer Martin McDonough creates a biting human tale of friendship and longing, with moments of deep melancholy. Farrell is superb, as before, but never like this. And the great Brendan Gleason, often forgotten as a fine actor, is his equal throughout the film. Kerry Condon is a wonder here too. Just a superb work
8. EMANCIPATION — Antoine Fuqua directed this searing exploration of slavery in and around the Civil War, bolstered by a stunning, towering performance from Will Smith. He who slapped deserves an Oscar nomination for his extraordinary performance as a slave who escapes through the swamps and backwoods of the Deep South, battling alligators, snakes, filth, and charging dogs on his scent to get to freedom. It is an outstanding physical and emotional performance from the actor. Credit where credit is due, Smith is miraculous in the role, inspired by a famous photograph of a slave named Peter showing his horrific scars left by years of abuse and whipping. Ben Foster is frightening as the man giving chase, horrifying in his belief he has the right and entitlement to do so.
9. BLONDE — Say what you will about Andrew Dominick’s Blonde, it is still the finest exploration into Marilyn Monroe we have on film, and Ana de Armas is spectacular as the star. This is not an imitation but a fusion between actress and character, similar to what Robert De Niro did in Raging Bull (1980). Armas goes so far into the role of Marilyn that we lose the actress. She may have been a victim, but she was wily and knew what to do onscreen to be Marilyn Monroe. De Armas captures the haunting fragility of the woman, the wobbly mental illness, the deep insecurities, the daddy issues, and yet equally the bombshell sex appeal of the actress.
10. EMILY THE CRIMINAL — Aubrey Plaza? Sign me up, I love this woman. Her range is exceptional, and she rises to the occasion when challenged. She played a psychotic hit woman on Criminal Minds a few years back and caught my attention. Emily is out of work, bored out of her mind when she stumbles into a meeting where people claim she can make a lot of money fast. It’s against the law, but she doesn’t care. And she turns out to be really good at it. Emily is confident, even in dangerous situations where she is smacked around. You can see the wheels turning in her head all the time. A brilliant performance from Plaza in a film that might otherwise be forgotten.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.