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My Top 10 of 2022

It’s been a strange year at the movies as reflected in my 2022 top ten which is populated with way less arty-farty films than previous years. Is it me? Is it the movie industry? No idea. Anyway, here goes …

Number 10: Men. While not as brilliant and complete as Ex Machina or Annihilation, Alex Garland’s third film still packs a number of unforgettable scenes. As the phrase goes “the parts don’t equate to a whole” and that certainly rings true here, but wow … those scenes. Oh, and Jesse Buckley is, as usual, excellent. This won’t be for everyone though.

Number 9: Don’t Worry Darling. Yep, that’s right. Most critics (except Josh Larsen because he’s awesome) seemed to hate this. But I loved it. Sure the ideas aren’t fresh, but it was well structured, thoroughly entertaining, and Florence Pugh was superb. Still reckon that the very controversial LaBeouf would’ve made a better hubby than Styles, though.

Number 8: Three Thousand Years of Longing. Magical, visually brilliant, well acted … and totally ignored by the public. Shame, because this reexamination of the genie-in-a-lamp story from George Miller (of Mad Max fame) is a really great film. Tilda Swinton is at her artful best … hmm, I’m starting to see a trend of female leads going on in this list.

Number 7: Bones and All (review here). Luca Guadagnino’s (Call me by Your Name, Suspiria) love story about a couple of young cannibals is a bit icky in parts. But it’s certainly unique and Guadagnino’s intoxicating style is a total stone-cold winner. Chalamet plays second fiddle to brill new-comer Taylor Russell. Yes, another female lead.

Number 6: Top Gun. America f*ck yeah! Brash, bold and everything the tin’s label promised. Total nostalgic entertainment done right. What? A male lead? Nope. Cruise is a reptilian-shape-shifting-alien on account of his inability to age as normal humans do.

Number 5. The Worst Person in the World. Examines a young woman’s passage through turbulent relationships and everything else life throws at her. Hilarious in parts and devilishly clever but also sublimely insightful. Female lead, check!

Number 4. Everything Everywhere all at Once. Biggest surprise of the year. A total energy-bomb of a film that seems to throw the laws of Hollywood casting (and physics) in the bin. A blockbuster-styled flick but with normal looking people … and bagels. Yeah bagels. Loved it. Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Stephanie Hsu … female leads check, check, check.

Number 3 The Batman. More grimy cop thriller than superhero film. In fact entirely grimy cop thriller. Why is Batman even here?! Excellent film from start to the bit just before it ends. I didn’t like that bit. But otherwise, a flawless film. Collin Farrell (what can’t that guy do?!) as The Penguin is a genuine highlight.

Number 2. The Banshees of Inisherin (review here). Ain’t no female leads here. Gleeson and Farrell shine in this film about the implosion of a friendship. Fiddle dee dee, potatoes. I fecken looved it.

Number 1. Nope (review here). I reviewed this for the NZ Herald a few months back and gave it only 3.5 stars. I was wrong. Jordan Peel’s (Get Out, Us) best so far. Must be seen on the big screen or a decent home cinema set up. You will never look at clouds the same again.

That’s all folks. Hope you have a Happy New Year!

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The Banshees of Inisherin

Verdict: Fiddle-de-dee potatoes, ‘tus a feckin great film.

It would be too dismissive to call The Banshees of Inisherin—writer/director Martin McDonagh’s distilled period piece set on the fictional Irish isle of Inisherin—a simple blend of In Bruges and Waking Ned Devine. I’m sure some might see it that way, but Banshees’ craft registers more strongly than either of those films.

McDonagh’s In Bruges, my favourite of his films (at least, it was before this), also stars Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. But where that film was populated with more complex characters and a curlier plot, Banshees sings a different tune. Certainly, the opening act will have you thinking it a lightweight Irish jig of a film. Don’t be fooled. Beneath the jolly exterior is a film that crawls into some fairly deep recesses as it sets about building a rich and pointed fable.

Farrell, whose expressive eyebrows deserve their own casting credits, plays Pádraic, a young, easy-going farmer who lives a simple life with his sister. Dark clouds begin to form when his best friend, Colm (Gleeson), out of nowhere, declares that he no longer wants Pádraic to talk to him. “He’s dull and I have no more time for it”, Colm says in a post-epiphanic moment of clarity. And that’s it—the simple beginnings of a comical but ultimately deep soul search.

Banshees slowly ushers in the island’s other inhabitants including the brilliant Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as the village idiot, but it never loses its focus on Pádraic and Colm’s fast-developing feud. About halfway through, despondency begins to creep into the film’s edges, shifting gears from a comedy to something far heavier as it explores how one man’s cynicism can curdle another’s “niceness”.

McDonagh displays a firm command of his craft here, choosing not to lean too hard on the film’s tonal shift. But it’s Farrell who truly makes Banshees sing, delivering McDonagh’s witty dialogue with comical buoyancy and then, later, bringing a quiet sadness to his performance.

At one point Pádraic’s sister points out that the book she is reading is a sad story, to which he responds with childlike simplicity “perhaps a sad book will make you sad”. Pádraic’s desperate battle to keep hold of his “niceness” (as he puts it) makes this bitter-sweet tale one of the most fulfilling films I’ve seen this year. McDonagh has delivered an utter delight.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Bones and All

Verdict: Om nom nom.

A film about cannibalism mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but before you dismiss this as a schlocky gore fest think again. In the same way Tomas Alfredson ushered a vampire story into our contemporary world with his perfectly balanced Let the Right One In, Bones and All confidently walks the fine line between fantasy, horror, and the real world.

Yes, Bones and All is many things: a road film, a horror film, a family drama, but most of all it’s a love story about a couple of disenfranchised youths who find each other at the limits of American marginalised life. At its heart is Maren (played by relative newcomer Taylor Russell), a teenage girl with an unfortunate compulsion to gnaw on human flesh. It’s a disorder that doesn’t pair well with teenage sleepovers and popsicle-flavoured fingers. What follows is a finger-licking good (but grizzly) scene that proves to be one incident too much for her distressed father who casts her out onto the street.

Enter fellow cannibal Sully (the reliable Mark Rylance), who slithers into her orbit as a surrogate father figure and introduces her to the underground laws of cannibalism. Misunderstood but creepy, he is one of many untrustworthy characters who populate this increasingly sinister world. Thankfully, respite comes in the form of Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a free-spirited scruff with who Maren finds affinity.

Director Luca Guadagnino’s partnership with screenwriter David Kajganich brings to this film much of the moody intensity and inventive cinematic flourishes they developed in their underrated reinvention of Dario Argento’s original Suspiria. It’s heady stuff and undoubtedly where this film operates best.

But the story’s real meat lies with Maren and Lee’s relationship. Guadagnino is no stranger to love stories, having successfully helmed Call Me By Your Name (which also stars Chalamet) to critical success. Bones and All somehow manages to sit between the two, weaving a love story into a body horror. It’s an uneasy mix that’ll have your mind scrambling for allegories buried beneath its skin—or at the least, a redemptive reason for watching a film about human flesh consumption. I’m not sure there is one. But that didn’t matter to me, because while its subject matter made me lose my appetite, I still enjoyed gobbling this film up.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Bros

Verdict: A conventional rom-com that also bucks the genre.

Near the beginning of Bros, co-writer, actor, and comedian Billy Eichner (Bob’s Burgers) lays bare the film’s underbelly and invites you to consider if Bros is a a gay rom-com or a conventional rom-com about a gay couple. “Love is love is love?” he questions in response to a movie exec’s all-encompassing notion of romance. “Not it’s not!” Eichner answers, further explaining that gay friendships are different and so are gay sex lives. What proceeds is a contentious (and also funny) verbal unpacking of stereotypes through the lens of Eichner paired with the mainstream conventionality of a romcom (Judd Apatow co-produced, what’s more).

The narrative arc is familiar—set in New York, a successful podcaster, Bobby (Eichner), falls for the frustratingly aloof but handsome Aaron (Luke Macfarlane). The couple treads an uneven path of harmony and discord as their divergent personalities merge. They bicker, break up, get back together, and traverse the kind of bumpy road to coupledom that will ring true to a wide audience.

Eichner’s quick-witted and often hilarious observations (brace yourself because they arrive like an avalanche) are swift to point out LGBTQ+’s many injustices at the hands of popular-culture, such as how morose films about gay life are never cast by a gay actors (he notes Power of the Dog). Indeed, Bros spends a bit too much time satirically joking about the hypocrisies of diversity, often to the detriment of plot progression, but does so with the kind of laser-sharp satire that’s hard to ignore.

And although Bros risks embodying the same problems of hypocrisy by gambling on conventional romcom tropes to tell a “different” kind of love story, the result is cheekily subversive. It’s a Trojan horse of a film slipping a gay romance past the lofty walls of rom-com conventions to deliver its message.

Undoubtedly, there will be a rainbow of opinions here; some will see Bros as a preachy and self-conscious over correction, while others will consider it a sanitised rom-com package that puts gay life back in the closet—but hopefully, most will find a few laughs. As sheer entertainment it sits in the middle of the pack of the Apatow-produced comedies, but as a film that normalises gay life, Bros is a triumph.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

DC League of Super-Pets

Verdict: A cheerful super-doggy flick that hasn’t learnt any new tricks.

Watching Superman take his dog for a walk seems as absurd as The Flash running on a hamster wheel. But that’s what you get from the nutty mind of writer/director Jared Stern (of The Lego Batman Movie fame).

DC League of Super-Pets peeks into the multiverse and imagines a superhero world where the Man of Steel has a pet dog named Krypto. The film begins by explaining how puppy Krypto snuck his way onto baby Superman’s escape pod just before the destruction of Krypton. Fast forward to today and we have the domesticated bliss of man and dog fighting crime in between playing fetch in the park with “squeezy Bruce” the Batman throw-toy.

However, as the pluralisation suggests Super-Pets isn’t just a story about Krypto. Rather, it’s also an origin story for a posse of other pets, all of who have been imbued with superpowers via a misplaced shard of anti-kryptonite (which giveth superpower rather than taketh). Along with Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), there’s Ace the invulnerable dog (Kevin Hart—yes, there’s plenty of Hollywood cross-pollination going on here), a multi-sizing pig (Vanessa Bayer), a lightning-handed squirrel (Diego Luna), and a super-speed tortoise (Natasha Lyonne). Even Keanu Reeves chimes in to voice the caped crusader.

No Superhero flick would exist without its baddie. Enter Lulu the Guinea “never call me a hamster” Pig (deliciously voiced by Kate McKinnon), a lackey of Lex Luther who manages to capture the human superheroes for nefarious reasons—of course. So, off trot the super-pets to be good pets and save the day.

As expected Super-Pets relies heavily on humour to carry its audience along—crucially so, because stripping Stern’s script back reveals a predictable story plump with overused superhero tropes and some fairly mundane animation. But what exists outside the doggy-poo-bag are Stern’s quick witticisms which keep things lively and make the most of its impressive cast.

No, it doesn’t have the teary depth of Inside Out, or the brilliant inventiveness of Spiderverse. Not even close. But sometimes a straightforward and cheerful family flick is enough to fill your bowl with doggy treats and this one will at least have the kid’s tails wagging. Who’s a good film then? Yessh yooou aaaare…

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Ticket to Paradise

Verdict: More like a ticket to the Gold Coast than the Maldives.

Writer/director Ol Parker, known for syrupy treats such as Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has now mixed a new cocktail of colourful delights: one part Kaitlyn Dever, one part tropical setting, and a generous twist of Julia Roberts liberally drizzled over a very dishy George Clooney. Parker certainly knows his romcom ingredients and with Ticket to Paradise, he’s perfected the recipe for mass consumption … perhaps too much, as this film occasionally tastes like a premixed RTD.

Set almost entirely in Indonesia (Bali to be specific), bickering divorcées David and Georgia (Clooney and Roberts) begrudgingly team up to chase after their daughter, Lily (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, unfortunately on autopilot) who has seemingly rushed into an engagement with a local seaweed farmer (Maxime Bouttier). Their attempts to derail the marriage lead to a number of farcical events that ultimately force them to re-evaluate their own lives and, unsurprisingly, their past relationship.

A few side characters chime in, most notably Georgia’s toy-boyfriend, a cloyingly handsome but clueless French pilot (Lucas Bravo) and Lily’s bestie, Wren (another Booksmart alumni, Billie Lourd) provide further comic relief and plot filler. But it’s Clooney and Roberts who do most of this film’s heavy lifting and offer a number of laugh-out-loud moments as they serve and volley salvos of shrewd semantics at each other. And although their squabbling does begin to feel like a vehicle solely for comedy rather than shifting along the narrative and character development it is their acting chops that elevate this film above the uneven tropical water.

Sure, Ticket to Paradise is about as predictable as a happy-hour piña colada from the Tiki Bar, but really, does anyone go into a romcom expecting a reinvention of the recipe?! This movie is a calculable beachside cocktail—a reliably formulaic, frothy, romantic sugar rush that’ll evaporate soon after leaving the theatre. Just don’t go in expecting anything fresh or nutritional and you’ll be fine.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Railway Children Return

Verdict: An old-fashioned romp that doesn’t quite leave the station.

Britain’s wartime children being squirrelled out of harm’s way from Hitler’s bombs seems, on the surface, a quaint notion—one that this film awkwardly stows among its more pointed subject matter. Director Morgan Matthews’ (X+Y) latest film, which is a sequel to Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 original The Railway Children, is an Enid Blytonesque adventurous romp through wartime Briton where we are to forage among the lashings of larks and giggles to find a worthy wartime message.

Set in 1944 (some decades after when Nesbit’s original The Railway Children book is set) the film follows a group of children who have been evacuated to rural Yorkshire. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of nostalgic nods, most notably Jenny Agutter, who played Bobby in the original film, reprises her role, now as a grandmother. There under her watchful eye the children squabble, have food fights, play in the mud, and other boisterous hijinks. When they skip away over the lush green fields towards a train yard the story finds its narrative purpose as they cross paths with Abe (Kenneth Aikens), an injured Black American GI hiding in an abandoned railway carriage.

While the screenplay is in tonal lockstep (superficially, at least) with the original, it seems clear that writers, Daniel Brocklehurst and Jemma Rodgers (both who write mainly for the small-screen) want this story to break free from the original’s naive charm. And although they do their best to make this story current, their over-pandering to contemporary mores feels shoe-horned and strangely anachronistic.

Among this awkward mix of buoyant charms and earnest weight is Morgan Matthews’ relatively uninspiring direction which is, thankfully, rescued by an enthusiastic young cast along with stalwarts Jenny Agutter and Tom Courtenay (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) who briefly deliver some worthy table-side soliloquies. Certainly, at surface level The Railway Children Return will delight fans of the original and if you can stomach the misplaced virtues that billow from this fluffy period piece, then all aboard.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

House of the Dragon

A Timeout (special issue) essay

A little over a decade ago I was broadsided by a new series. It was a mythology of biblical proportions accessibly presented as popcorn tv with a blend of high-fantasy, gritty realism, and deeply dramatic cinematography. It was bloody, brutal, and the onslaught was undeniably thrilling. Yes, Game of Thrones was born and it operated as the small-screen diatribe of our time.

Early in the series, you were told, quite unequivocally, not to warm to your favourite character. Stupidly, I snuggled into Ned Starc (played by Sean Bean). He was compassionate and quietly assured—an easy character to side with. But his fatherly morals and warm authority were cruelly ripped from me. I should’ve known better—Sean Bean rarely plays characters who live. But Ned Starc’s death felt worse than most. In “that scene” where the boy-king Joffrey gleefully danced around Ned with giddy delight, ordering his beheading, I sat watching in disbelief. It was my Lady Di moment—a “where were you when Ned lost his Head” event.

And so with every new character that I invested myself in—and their subsequent death—it felt like the warm veneer of fantasy was crumbling away and exposing the cruel reality of the world around me. How could I feel this way? These were fictional characters. The water-cooler talk soon revealed that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and it became apparent that despite its fantasy setting Game of Thrones was holding a mirror to society. Sure, there were other shows that made their viewership question the world they live in, some more insightful even, but none of them had this much universal clout. Game of Thrones was a cultural phenomenon—an immensely popular show screaming to its audience that the world you live in is not all peachy. It told us that people are flawed, often given to cruelty, power-hungry and with little moral compass.

Such was the modus operandi of Game of Thrones. It was merciless yet honest, and I along with my water-cooler buddies were dragged through the muck and diseased-ridden scapes populated by notorious leaders and duplicitous people. Media commentator Matt Zoller Seitz once described Game of Thrones as the last water-cooler TV show. It was the last bastion of appointed television. He was right. We aren’t discussing other television at the same depth anymore, because we are all on a different page watching different shows within our fractured mediascape. Instead of Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, or the Battle of the Bastards we are now discussing something more complex and in some cases worse—the real world.

The correlation is clear to see. Where Game of Thrones gave us political back-stabbing, violence to women, and disease, the real world gave us Trump, racism, the #metoo movement, and covid. It’s a confusing time to be alive and there are plenty of labyrinthine issues to navigate.

It’s been over a decade since Game of Thrones’s initial release and a lot of cultural sewerage has flowed since. Now, as I write this from inside the burned-out carcass of our post-Trump, post-Charlottesville, post-Weinstein and post(ish)-covid world, we are left with the desolate scorched reality of what to do with ourselves. How do we, as a society, pick ourselves up? What direction do we go? Will we bury our heads in our current “binge and purge” media consumption culture or will we find solace next to the water-cooler again?

House of the Dragon suggests we head back in time to find answers. Perhaps from there we can garner an understanding of how it all went so wrong—Examine the story that formed the Iron Throne, like an Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments. House of the Dragon, a more parred down story than its predecessor, might indeed give us a series to rally around, bring us back to the church of the water-cooler to discuss, rather than binge and purge in our siloed pods.

Stylistically, the Thrones DNA is still there with many key players from the original series still behind the camera. And certainly, if the first episode is any indication, the signature violence and bare-asses haven’t been scrubbed away either. But it’s what you do with your ass that counts and there are a few indicators that suggest House of the Dragon will be a significant production of our time. From its inclusive casting of non-white and non-binary actors to the recurring thematic struggle against misogyny, the important question is if these are box-ticking exercises by the producers, or as I would like to believe, simply a reflection of the time we live in.

Indeed, the relevance of House of the Dragon in today’s society is wholly apparent and may very well return us to Shakespearean-styled appointment tv where a grandiose subject is made fit for a common schlub like me. I really hope so, because it seems to have plenty of things to say about our world. Like a prophet of doom, House of the Dragon may hold a mirror to our face once more, but once bitten twice shy, I certainly will be wary of investing myself too much into any one character for fear of another beheading. Maybe I’ll just side with one of the dragons instead.

Nope

Verdict: An entertaining head-scratcher that sometimes over-extends its reach.

Writer/director, Jordan Peele, has once again created a provocative filmgoing experience from a seemingly random set of cultural commodities. He’s a filmmaker not afraid to throw a lot at the screen. Some of it sticks, but the stuff that doesn’t never feels wasted, although often requires stepping back for better perspective. With Nope, his third feature, Peele has expanded his canvas, both metaphorically and literally. Where his first film, Get Out, was modest in reach, his second, Us, widened its scope and went bonkers across America. Now with Nope, he has gone otherworldly and stitched together a curious mix of pop-culture artefacts into a chilling sci-fi thriller western. Yes, it’s a bunch of things.

Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s Get Out star, returns as OJ Haywood, who along with his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) run a California ranch where the horses are trained to work in nearby Hollywood. Early in the film, Emerald says to a film crew “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.”—referencing the Black rider atop the horse of Edward Muybridge’s famous 1878 photography experiment, considered the first motion picture ever made. This racially-charged comment hits on one of the many themes that this film appears to push.

But the themes that follow are more esoteric and murky in their delivery. When OJ hears the howling wind in the sky above and the sound of terrified screams that spook the horses, he heads across the valley to investigate. There he finds the Western-themed tourist trap, run by Jupe (Minari’s Steven Yeun) and a horrific aftermath that shifts the film from straight-up sci-fi thriller into something deeper and more abstract.

While the plot is relatively straightforward, Nope’s meaning becomes increasingly muddled. It’s wholly apparent that Peele is trying to tell us something—but what exactly, remains cloudy and tantalisingly beyond reach. Commodification, exploitation, viewing and consumption are all themes explored by this film, but to what end, it’s difficult to tell given the vagueries laid down by Peele.

What is clear though is that Nope is an ambitious, vibrant, mix of genres and influences which, for the most part, is thrilling to experience even when it doesn’t hit the mark. But there is a heady, unquantifiable message buried deep within Nope’s dusty scape that renders it a chin-scratcher and might frustrate some viewers.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Phantom of the Open

Verdict: Scores below par…which is a good thing.

Golf has never been my thing. The concept is simple but, as many know, in practice it’s a painfully frustrating game. Thankfully, the cinematic version is far more agreeable and The Phantom of the Open returns a solid scorecard.

Transferring his talents from the felt-hatted Paddington to the flannel-floppied golfer Maurice Flitcroft, screenwriter Simon Farnaby has teamed up with director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) to tell the true story of Flitcroft who stunned the golfing world with the worst round in British Open history.

The perfectly cast Mark Rylance (Don’t Look Up, Dunkirk) tees off as Maurice Flitcroft, an amiable, quietly spoken, crane operator from the Northern English port town of Barrow-in-Furness. After taking a shine to golf (despite never having never before held a club) the determined and extremely naive Maurice finds himself fortuitously entered into the prestigious British Open.

Flitcroft sees the positive in every situation and despite his atrociously bad golf game he always manages to find the silver lining, telling anyone who will listen that he is improving with every stroke. And although he feverishly practices, his misplaced optimism becomes a runaway train heading for a washed-out bridge.

Also perfectly cast is Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, The Shape of Water), who gives a heartwarming turn as Maurice’s long-suffering but very supportive wife, Jean, who despite limited screen time, offers some of the film’s best moments.

Of course, this rags-to-rags folk-hero story is hardly breaking fresh cinematic territory— Eddie the Eagle and Cool Runnings are obvious examples of films that amusingly tell stories of sporting misfits who push back against the odds. But Phantom often breaks from that template with brief moments of magical realism that plug directly into Flitcroft’s MO as a dreamer. There is a fairytale-like quality to Robert’s direction, who keeps things inventive and manages to avoid cinema’s cliched water features and bunkers.

The result is a delightful film that is joyously warm and most definitely has its heart in the right place. Much like my golf game, Phantom will make you laugh … and unlike my golf game, Phantom easily makes par.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.