10. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
Returning to the world of animation, Richard Linklater looks back at the past by way of a top secret pre-mission to the moon via a recruited shoolboy. Unsurprisingly, the film most soars in the specific details of childhood in the developing Houston suburbs. Paired with an effectively sentimental Jack Black narration, we are asked to confront nostalgia, giving in to the allure that it provides but doing so with a distance and perspective to not shy away from the more troubling aspects of the time. Even with the setup situating the film in the imagination, it maintains an impressive grasp on emotion and humanity.
9. The People's Joker
After a debut at TIFF that saw Vera Drew's comedy pulled from the program, it seemed like this could potentially be buried in a never ending cease and desist battle with Warner Brothers. And, unfortunately, that is still kind of the case despite the popup secret screenings that seem to have happened in a few different cities at this point based on what I've been able to gather. A shame, since, as a comedy, it's more jam packed with jokes than any studio one in longer than I can remember, and one that would definitely reward multiple viewings. But it's not just the success with its laughs that earns a spot among the year's best, the insightful way the film examines identity formation, specifically how Vera Drew explores her own experiences as a trans woman, and also in a more broad context in understanding one's sense of self, finds depth well beyond the jokes.
Continuing on with films that are more rewarding when poking at them a little more than just taking what it delivered on the surface, Todd Field's latest is anchored by Blanchett's work, but finds its strength in the way it delivers surprises. The film demands a tonal control to succeed, and that's maintained throughout with a deft, occasionally humorous, touch. The way traditional beats and structure are played with, not just in the plot but in the actual construction of the film, underscores the character study and themes in a way that remains transfixing throughout.
Another year, another Spielberg and Kushner project making my top ten. Truly never thought that I'd see the day, but such is life. And this film is one that, while focused on a very specific life, reaches for the universal. Like 2021's West Side Story from the two of them, we as viewers are once again looking back to the past, though this time through a not-exactly-but-it-is Spielberg stand-in as he discovers a love for the cinema, navigates family strife, and, perhaps most notably, the relationship between art and artist. There is, as one would expect, a healthy dose of sentimentality, yet it doesn't come close to overdosing on any of that as we never lose sight of the sacrifices so many characters make. Visually, Spielberg continues to operate at a high level, and because of how important film is to the text itself does serve as an effective entry point to engaging with cinema from a formal perspective. The mark of a master of his craft, and with a script that brings out the best from the film.
Animation in the previous year was diverse, and I'm always happy to see more animated films to get more distribution. And very early on in Phil Tippett's mostly silent stop motion heavyweight it's very clear why. From both the visual style to the themes within the narrative, there is such a clearly defined vision that it's hard not to be enraptured. Stop-motion as a form already requires a deft touch even in the most straightforward stories, so to have Tippett aim considerably higher, offering up a meditation on the downfalls of humanity, demands a level of precision that is on full display here.
Perhaps more surprising than a two year in a row appearance from Spielberg on my year end list is a film that prominently features Pete Davidson. Yet here we are with Halina Reijn's English language debut, a neon drenched spectacle that pounds with life from the opening scene until the credits roll. All of the performers at the center of the film turn in great work, the dynamics between characters natural in the moments where the film slows down and tense when the body count starts to rise. This film also delivered what was probably my biggest surprise in a theater last year when the credits did start and I saw this was penned by Sarah DeLappe. Not one to ever miss an opportunity to talk about how great The Wolves is, there's one scene towards the end that has the dialogue firing at the highest level, echoing what made some of the strongest exchanges in that play. I assume, anyway, I've only read it, and sadly have not seen a live performance. It did make sense on the ride home the more I thought about it, as you do notice the 'drama' style throughout in the way characters talk. Truly a marvel.
Pushing from a quasi-comedy, the list now gives way to a full on comedy. Following (kind of) the adventures of the Tobacco Force, Quentin Dupieux gets to play with the Power Rangers-esque world to thread together a collection of absurdist shorts. Because of the form he really gets to run the gamut of humor, packing the lean runtime with a plethora of sight gags, punchlines, and over the top body humor. As expected, it's a blast to watch, and because it is essentially a collection of shorts the pacing means that it never really gets too bogged down. Even as the film cuts back to the Tobacco Force, giving us a view in to who they are behind their costumes, that also delivers a ton of laughs. All culminating in a hysterical conclusion. In terms of having a premise and executing it flawlessly, few films from last year come close to this one.
Pretty early on in 2022 I remember starting to hear rumblings of the theatrical release of S. S. Rajamouli's RRR. While I occasionally will see some films from India, it is a blindspot, and while I know well enough that this is hardly representative of such a diverse country's cinema, it does serve as an entry point (for myself and many others, I'm sure) to a specific sub-genre of what can be offered. A lot of films were brimming with energy last year, and in terms of theatrical bombast there were a good number of big screen offerings, and this one was among the best. The action set pieces, the dance sequence, the pounding score. It all blends together for an awe inspiring cinematic experience.
When the lineup for Cannes 2022 was released, the latest from Cristian Mungiu was basically at the top of my most anticipated. While I was a little cooler on Graduation than his other work, even that had his strong formal construction on display. So I entered this one hopeful, even though I was aware that I'd almost certainly not have a full cultural awareness of every dynamic ingrained in the Transylvanian village where it takes place. But it ended up being alright in that regard, as the film does a great job of setting up the different tensions in the town, and exploring what is behind that. As one may expect, there are many points where things simmer below the surface, moving at a methodical pace (though never at the expense of the humanity in which the film is deeply rooted), but the payoff is stunning to watch unfold. Honestly, even writing about this now I want to watch it again, to poke and pull apart more than it, because it does feel, like when Mungiu was at his best in the past, like this village, which clearly is going to be acting as a microcosm for the country from which the film partially gets its title, gets at the universal.
Arriving at the top slot is Jane Schoenbrun's coming-of-digital-age horror following Casey as she takes part in a viral challenge/ARG that, despite being Very Online, lets the film, and new comer Anna Cobb, really shine. Cobb gets a few bigger scenes, though even in the quieter moments she's more than capable, Schoenbrun also plays with color and lighting in compelling ways, though what works so well in the film is how the character of Casey behind the videos reveals itself, and how the internet is looked at both as an outlet and danger with a modern perspective willing to grapple with the complexity of each aspect. Thus far I've written a lot about endings, I find, and perhaps that's because of how many really wrapped up great in 2022, and this one follows right along, revealing so much towards the end as well as in the coda that the film basically resituates the very type of horror in which it exists. It's a surprisingly layered and complex film, one that I still think about regularly and (while I didn't do a halfway best of films) that essentially ran wire to wire as my favorite of the year.
That'll do it until around this time next year. As usual I will tell myself that I'll try to write more, and perhaps that will come to pass this year. Still shaking off some of the rust, but this was fun to get back to, and, as usual, if you want to check out the full list of what I watched you can do so here, or feel free to chime in down in the comments section. Onward now to 2023.
Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.
Also, I am on the old Twitter thing so I guess you can follow me at twitter.com/r_thor1.
© 2023 Richard James Thorne
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