Harlan Jacobson on the Best of 2022

Unmoored from a robust theatrical release schedule, the professional voyeurs we call film critics spent this third year emerging from Covid looking at character driven films more from the festival circuit, both real time and virtual, and virtually writing off studio “product.” Our film critic, HJ, spent 2022 either going to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, or the New York film festival in body or in virtual spirit, reporting on the films getting their starts in those art venues turned marketing launch pads. What did I like best?

Herewith are films in random order that were pleasurable in the sense of fulfilling their duty to let me into their world as a spy and then conduct themselves in front of me truthfully and even elegantly, if not perfectly.

They include:

Tár, about the downfall of a symphony conductor, a true Valkyrie at the top of her profession played by actress Cate Blanchett very much at the top of hers. With its inspired casting, the film is Todd Field’s first in 16 years, and he’s used the time away to be pretty fearless about who and what he takes down with perfect gallows humor.

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel was first turned into film in 1930 by Lewis Milestone with Lew Ayres. It’s remade here in English at substantial cost for Netflix by Edward Berger, a young German director, with a fine central performance by Felix Kammerer, whose Paul Bäumer was just a schoolboy before the century went so wrong.

The Banshees of Inisherin. One day in a timeless world last century in Inisherin, which suggests Inisheer of the Aran Islands, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decides he doesn’t like his longtime younger pal. Padraic, pronounce Pooric, any more, and will cut off his own fingers one by one if Padraic (Colin Ferrell) won’t leave him alone. In short, Colm gives poor Padraic the finger.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the one truly madcap, adventure film of the year. It’s with Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, whom you may not recognize all grown up from his childhood acting days as the kid in the millennials hits, The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Jamie Lee Curtis in a laundromat tangle with the IRS and the metaverse. Think: Charlie Kaufman, Bruce Lee, and Terry Gilliam. Sit down with it in the dark on the A24 app or Amazon Prime on your smart TV and hang on.

Brendan Fraser was so perfect in The Whale as a 600 lb man, fat with regrets, it overcame my wariness of director Darren Aronofsky. Very much a play filmed in Newburgh NY in the one room dump of a guy who probably never was very good at neat, the film does have that feel of a sheltered workshop for creatives who needed to focus small in order to play big. And that it does. Aronofsky’s operatic hysteria fountain usually rains down over the screen like a car wash (Black Swan, in particular), so I wasn’t expecting too much. Also about this year’s theme, the surprise interpersonal breech, The Whale is about a divorced dad and daughter. At 600 lbs and sinking fast, Brendan Fraser’s Charlie keeps his Zoom screen blacked out for appearances sake before his students. He longs to make amends and say a proper goodbye.

Charlie fell in love with a male student for whom he left his daughter and wife, the latter played by Samantha Morton as a keep-it-at-meat-and-potatoes-partner. Sadie Sink plays the angry daughter. Hong Chau, a nurse at the local hospital who comes in to take Charlie’s blood pressure, a pre-lift off 238/134, has her reasons. From the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, The Whale opened this month as an acknowledgement of sorts that we don’t all live in Norman Rockwell families.

In Living, which Sony Pictures Classics opened Christmas week in New York and LA , Bill Nighy is Mr. Williams, the section chief of the Public Affairs Desk in Her Majesty’s Civil Service. When he learns he’s got six months to live, something shifts inside, he trades his bowler for a fedora and cuts loose.

Williams has been an all too reliable part of an elaborate 1950s bureaucracy dedicated to employing the ambitionless, upper class – the entitled sons of Oxbridge who expertly cycle pieces of paper between departments and make sure that nothing ever gets done. I saw at its world premiere at Sundance in 2022 before it went on to Telluride and Toronto.

The film was set in motion by ace British producer Stephen Woolley -- The Crying Game, CarolThe Company of Wolves -- who hired Oliver Hermanus, a South African director, and Remains of the Day screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguru to remake Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 gem, Ikiru, about a Japanese post-war bureaucrat (available on Criterion.com). Woolley brought on Ishiguru, who’s also the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and a UK citizen since childhood, to coax the Kurosawa estate to give him the rights. This Living does in restraint what Kurosawa’s Ikiru did in outrage. Sure, our understanding of bureaucracy has now flipped maybe to gratitude for what the crazy right calls the Deep State’s subversion of their plans. But Living is not an update on bureaucracy. It’s a classic translation, a quiet, old-school English blow against bureaucracy as the employer of first resort for the upper class. Good show, old man.