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Films of 2022: Q4

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There were some good films in 2022, but nothing that got me particularly enthused. As an aside, I was interviewed by Russell Hogg, mostly discussing Asian films. Here’s a link to the podcast.

2022:Q4 films

Newer Films:

Decision to Leave  (Korea)  3.7  The Koreans are really good at films that straddle the line between commercial and artistic.  (Recall Parasite.) Not ambitious enough to be a masterpiece, just consistently excellent filmmaking by Park (director of Oldboy). 

Tar  (US)  3.6   The first half of this highly intelligent film is quite entertaining, almost like a documentary on the world of orchestral music.  I have just enough knowledge of classical music to enjoy the dialogue, but not so much knowledge as to find it stilted or artificial. The second half is a standard psychological drama, and it is somewhat less convincing.  It’s a very good film, but with a more talented director this could have been a truly great film.

Vesper  (Lithuania/France)  3.6  Surprisingly well-crafted post apocalyptic vision.

Petite Maman  (France)  3.6   A nice little gem about childhood.

Guest of Honour  (Canada)  3.5  Another excellent film by Atom Egoyan, one of our most intelligent directors.

Goddamned Asura  (Taiwan)  3.4  It’s the acting that carries this film, especially the young actress Wang Yu-xuan.  She’s a name to watch. Otherwise, the film falls well short of its ambition.  But it’s nice to see some ambition!

Belle   (Japan)  3.2  For much of the film, the animation is rather uninspired.  And when it comes to Japanese anime, the visuals are 90% of the film.  (The design of the metaverse is probably inspired by the art of Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami, but seems rather derivative.) In the final few acts, however, there’s just enough oomph to make the film worth watching.

Neptune Frost  (Rwanda)  3.0  Somewhat uneven mix of sci-fi and African politics, but its best scenes were quite good. 

Babylon  (US)  1.5   At one point the Brad Pitt character asks Irving Thalberg if he was being asked to perform in a early sound film in order to bail out a shitty movie.  That might be a case of art imitating life.   Three hours of extremely dumb hysteria amped up to 11.  Really tiresome.

Older films:

Harakiri  (Japan, 1962, CC)  3.9  A classic in every sense of the term.  The trailer for the film doesn’t provide any sense of what it is like to experience the film itself.

Walkabout  (Australia, 1971, CC)  3.8  When I was young, certain films made a deep impression on me.  I still vividly recall seeing Antonioni films like Blow-Up and The Passenger as a teenager.  Walkabout was another such film.  At the time, I had no understanding of the concept “art film”, but I was impressed by both the film’s style and its story (and probably had a crush on the actress.)

Fifty years later, the style seems less impressive, but I still love the story and the lack of histrionics in the acting.  It’s great that Criterion Channel offers me the chance to see it once more, although I can never again see the Walkabout I watched at age 16.   Ironically, the film ends with a voiceover narration of a Housman poem, which captures that sadness:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Now when I watch this sort of film, I try to recall how I felt the first time around.

Walkabout was part of the Australian New Wave, which included Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Mad Max. (Perhaps these titles don’t mean much to younger viewers.) These were the films that made me fall in love with Australia’s outback, where I spent some time in 1991.

Kwaidan  (Japan, 1964, CC)  3.8  Guillermo del Toro loves this film about ghosts, and so do I.  The soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu is excellent but what I really liked was the art design.  The mid-century modern set backdrops would look schlocky if presented as a painting on canvas at a flea market, but somehow worked perfectly in this film.  It was Kobuyashi’s first color film, and it’s clearly a labor of love.  The print was recently restored to its full 183 minute length.

The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice  (Japan, 1952, CC)  3.8  Toward the end of this Ozu film the married couple experiences a sublimely satisfying late night snack.  It’s as if they are out on a first date.

The Earrings of Madame de . . .  (France, 1953, CC)  3.8  A classic in every sense of the word.  I never knew that Vittorio De Sica was also an actor, and a pretty good one.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles  (Belgium, 1975, CC)  3.8  The most boring film ever made?  The greatest film ever made?  Why not both?  Lots of great directors use a very slow style, devoid of action and drama.  But people like Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, and Hou Hsiao Hsien have a stronger visual style.  This film will appeal to people with a more intellectual approach to cinema.  Each scene is an idea.

Why did this film recently top the Sight and Sound critics poll?  I suspect it reflects the fact that an increasing number of film critics are women. Suppose that 40% of critics are women and 60% are men.  Also assume that 20% of female critics named this as the top film, while no film received more than 10% of the votes of male critics.  This would also explain why 2001: A Space Odyssey topped the director’s poll (and is my favorite), as there are far fewer female directors.  Jeanne Deilman is an impressive film, but not among my 100 favorites, as I prefer a less intellectual approach to the visual arts.

Daisies  (Czech, 1966, CC)  3.8  This film is probably rated too high in the top 100 Sight and Sound poll, but it’s anarchic energy wonderfully captures the spirit of 1966.   A reminder that 1966 was a much more innocent time.  We’ve lost so much . . .

At 28 in the S&S poll, it’s one behind Shoah.  Seriously, on what basis could you possibly compare those two films?

Sweet Smell of Success   (US, 1957, CC)  3.8  Like Touch of Evil (made a year later), this film is drenched in corruption.

The Postman Always Rings Twice  (US, 1946, CC)  3.7  The greatness of this noir is due to exactly two factors—a great story from James Cain and the face of Lana Turner.

Vive L’Amour   (Taiwan, 1994, CC)  3.7  The late 20th century was the golden age of Taiwanese films, and Tsai Ming-liang is probably the most difficult of Taiwan’s great directors.  His films are hard to pin down, seeming to meander around aimlessly with little or no drama.  On one level this is a sad story of loneliness.  On another, it’s a sly comedy.  There may be other levels that went right over my head.

Pépé le Moko  (France, 1937, CC)  3.7  This classic film almost perfectly defines the romantic gangster genre.  Wonderful character actors, which remind the viewer of the supporting cast in Casablanca.  Algiers’s Casbah is almost like another character.  Newly restore print.

Meshes of the Afternoon  (US, 1943, CC)  3.7  This was rated 16th in the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, and it’s less than 15 minutes long.  It is certainly quite innovative, but it seems to me that directors like the Quay brothers do this sort of surrealism more effectively.  I suppose the rating would depend on how much weight one puts on getting there first.

The Hero  (India, 1966, CC)  3.7  Sanyajit Ray seems incapable of making anything other than excellent films.  This film’s one drawback is that it’s a bit in the shadow of 8½, a film that it clearly emulates.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life  (US/Iran, 1925, CC)  3.7  There was a tiny sliver of time when the old ways of living persisted in many temperate regions of the world, and yet cinema had already been developed.  The way of living depicted in this film had probably been around for centuries, if not millennia, and almost certainly disappeared soon after the film was made.  These sorts of films are precious documents of a vanished way of life.  It starts a bit slow, but the epic journey of the Bakhtiari tribe becomes increasingly jaw dropping in the second half of the film.  And you think that you have problems!

BTW, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of global geography, and even knew about the high mountain range north of Tehran.  But glaciers in southwestern Iran?  Who knew?

The Last Wave  (Australia, 1977, CC)  3.6  The supernatural elements hold up better than in most films of this period.  But it’s the acting that really stands out, particularly the aboriginal actors (including the star of Walkabout.)

Magnet of Doom   (France/US, 1963, CC)  3.6  Even less plot driven than usual for a Melville film.  It’s interesting to see America in 1962 through the eyes of a French director.

Peppermint Frappe  (Spain, 1967, CC)  3.6  Not directed by Bunuel, but somewhat in his style.

Beau Travail  (France, 1999, CC)  3.6  The film casts a spell from the very beginning, and holds it for the entire 90 minutes.  But it’s not my sort of film, as all its strengths are my weaknesses—appreciation of music, dance, colonial/native cultural differences, etc.  Most critics rate this way higher.

Fountainhead   (Japan, 1956, CC)  3.5   The 1950s were the golden age of Japanese film, with Ozu, Kurozawa, Mizoguchi and Naruse producing one masterpiece after another.  But there were other excellent filmmakers as well, including Masaki Kobayashi.  There’s lots to enjoy in this romantic story, including a rendezvous at what seems to be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (since demolished in an almost unbelievable act of architectural vandalism.)  Ineko Arima’s enigmatic smile hides an intriguing and complex character.  As with many Japanese classics, there are lots of lovely visual images.

The Headless Woman  (Argentina, 2008, CC)  3.5  Many will find this too slow and lacking a strong narrative; but if you get into the rhythm of the film it’s fairly engrossing.  Recommended to fans of Jeanne Dielman.

Performance  (UK, 1970, CC)  3.5   Nicholas Roeg’s stylistic experiments are hit and miss, but there are enough positives to make this an enjoyable film.  It also helps that the underlying premise is pretty interesting.  Mick Jagger plays a rock star that is past his prime.  But the film was made in 1970, when Jagger was right at his peak.  He gives a fine performance (as do the other actors.)  And the film has the most Borges references I’ve ever seen in a movie.

I Love You Again  (US, 1940, CC)  3.4  Another good romantic comedy with William Powell and Myrna Loy.  This one is right up there with the Thin Man films. 

Forty Guns  (US, 1957, CC)  3.4  This over-the-top Sam Fuller film celebrates “the woman with a whip” (Barbara Stanwyck.)  I can only imagine how much fun the writers and director had imagining how much they’d be able to slip past the censors.

Songs for Drella   (US, 1990, CC)  3.4   Lou Reed and John Cale sing songs about Andy Warhol.  Worth checking out of you like the music.

The Blue Dahlia  (US, 1946, CC)  3.3  The pluses include the Raymond Chandler story (and witty dialogue) as well as the tandem of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.  Otherwise it’s a rather conventional, uninspired noir.

This Gun’s for Hire  (US, 1942, CC)  3.3  The dialogue is not as good as in the Blue Dahlia, but the visuals and drama are better.

By the Time It Gets Dark  (Thailand, 2016, CC)  3.3  This one is very hard to rate.  In a technical sense, the film is excellent.  But I didn’t really understand the plot, perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with Thai culture.  Most people would rate this either much higher or much lower.

Whiplash   (US,  1935, CC)  3.3   A hybrid crime film and romantic comedy featuring Myrna Loy and a young Spencer Tracy.  Most of it was just OK, but it ended strongly.

Manhattan Melodrama  (US, 1934, CC)  3.3  If your name is John Dillinger, you may want to miss this movie.  He was gunned down by the police while leaving a theatre showing this film in Chicago.  “Other than that Mr. Dillinger . . . “  For the rest of us, there’s Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.  This “melodrama” is a bit more intelligent than it appears at first glance.  And as is often the case, Gable is irresistible.

The Glass Key  (US, 1942, CC) 3.3  A Dashiell Hammett noir starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.  The two stars are sort of weird in a hard to define way, despite being conventionally attractive.  Watch their eyes and smiles.

The Ring  (UK, 1927, CC)  3.3   In the first half of this early Hitchcock film the director already shows a knack for visual storytelling, but the second half is a rather predicable melodrama.

Dr. No.  (UK, 1962)  3.3  I now believe the first two Bond films were the best, partly because “less is more”, and partly because they starred a younger Sean Connery (who was the Clark Gable of the 1960s).  The climactic fight with Dr. No is mercifully brief, not one of those tiresomely extenuated fight scenes you get in the later Bonds.

The House on Telegraph Hill  (US, 1951, CC)  3.2  A fairly entertaining gothic noir.

Shopping For Fangs  (US, 1997, CC)  3.1    Maybe I’m grading on a scale, but I found this low budget Asian-American film to be surprisingly amusing.

Hail the Conquering Hero (US, 1943, CC)  3.1  Why did the quality of Hollywood films decline so much during WWII?  Does the patriotic spirit somehow inhibit great art?  In any case, this is a subpar film by the standards of Preston Sturges.

August 32nd on Earth  (Canada, 1998, CC)  3.0  Philippe Villeneuve’s debut film.  As usual, he gets good performances from his actors, but doesn’t seem to have a distinctive style.

Les Enfants terrible  (France, 1950, CC)  3.0  I just can’t warm up to films that focus relentlessly on unintelligent, spoiled, obnoxious characters.  Melville directed, so it does have its moments.

Deep Cover  (US, 1992, CC)  3.0  If you ignore the silly screenplay, it’s a fairly entertaining look at America at the peak of the crack cocaine hysteria.

Sunflower  (Italy, 1970, CC) 3.0 Given that the film is directed by De Sica and stars Sophia Loren, I’d call this a disappointment.  Much of the clumsy middle portion of the film takes place in Russia, and Soviet authorities probably interfered with the production.   Mastroianni was miscast as a weak intellectual.

Call Northside 777  (US, 1948, CC)  3.0  The thing I most dislike about Europe is the lack of drinking fountains.  I like to use them frequently, although toward the end of my career at Bentley I noticed that hardly anyone else used them.  It was weird seeing Jimmy Stewart taking a drink from what I grew up calling a “bubbler” (in Wisconsin).  I don’t ever recall seeing that in a film—perhaps because it doesn’t look as cool as sipping a cocktail or smoking a cigarette. 

Anyway, this film is pretty clunky, and only really comes alive during scenes with female characters.  Watching the scene with the lie detector gave me the feeling that the machine was new to film audiences, and needed to be explained in detail.  Even these mediocre noirs are interesting from a sociological perspective.  My understanding of the feel of ordinary working class life in America in the decades before 1960 comes from Hollywood films, mostly noirs.

Fallen Angel  (US, 1945, CC)  2.9  This film sort of wanders around aimlessly.  That’s not always a problem, but in this case the direction and acting is not good enough to overcome a meandering plot.

Better Luck Tomorrow  (US, 2003, CC)  2.9  Justin Lin failed to fulfill the promise shown in his first film (Shopping for Fangs.)  He needed a better screenplay.

Along for the Ride   (US, 2016, CC)  2.8  Dennis Hopper is an extremely interesting character.  Unfortunately, this documentary spends more time with his assistant, who’s an extremely uninteresting character.

Glorious   (Canada, 2008, CC)  2.8  This short Guy Madden film self-consciously tries too hard to be dreamlike, which paradoxically makes it feel less dreamlike.

Wanda   (US, 1970, CC)  2.7  Sight and Sound rates this among the top 50 films ever made, but it’s not even a good film—in any way that I can see.   

The Ghost of Peter Sellers  (US, 2018, CC)  2.7   The director (Peter Medak) is still depressed about the failure of a minor film he directed in the 1970s (starring Peter Sellers), but most viewers simply won’t care.

The Knack . . . And How To Get It  (UK, 1965, CC)  2.5  Movies that rely on novelty tend not to age well.  This Richard Lester film is now politically incorrect, but that’s the least of its problems.  Indeed it ends with an extended running joke on false accusations of rape, which ends up being the most lively part of the film.

The Keep  (US, 1983, CC)  2.5  The screenplay, acting and special effects are not quite bad enough to become a camp classic—just a mediocre Michael Mann movie.

Thirst/Fascination  (Korea (2013) and France (1979), CC)  2.4  I started watching Thirst because I’d seen Park’s new film at the theatre.  It was quite skillfully made, but there were so many repulsive images I give up after an hour and 20 minutes.  Then I switched to an old French vampire film.  It was much less skillfully directed, but not unpleasant to look at.  Unfortunately, Fascination is one of those 1970s soft-core “erotic” vampire films aimed at teenage boys.  (Although God knows what teenage boys watch now, in the age of the internet.)

Prisoner  (US, 2013)  1.5  This Denis Villeneuve film is a big disappointment—mean spirited, bigoted, cliché-ridden, dishonest, poorly acted.  After watching, I felt like I needed to take a shower.  It’s films like this that lead to helicopter parenting.

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