Movies made a comeback in 2022, after two years of pandemic suffering. The South by Southwest Film Festival kicked off its in-person event with one of the top movies of the year, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” starring Michelle Yeoh and directed by the duo known as the Daniels.
Then the Austin Film Festival helped close out the year, with the prestige dramas “Armageddon Time,” “The Whale” and “Women Talking.”
In between, Steven Spielberg rolled out his autobiographical drama, “The Fabelmans,” at the Toronto International Film Festival,” while the Cannes Film Festival gave us “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Triangle of Sadness.”
Here’s a look at this year’s movies, by entirely subjective categories. And apologies for any movie that was left out.
The wild and crazy
“Babylon” — The latest from director Damien Chazelle, who brought us “La La Land.” This time, the writer/director takes us to the wild debauchery of 1920s Hollywood, focusing on a young woman, Margot Robbie, who is trying to make her way in the movie business. To get attention, she crashes one of the wildest parties ever, with the help of a Hollywood assistant, a real-life star-making performance by Mexico’s Diego Calva. Inside the party are a bevy of silent movie stars, including one played by Brad Pitt, using his wry persona that he perfected in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The first hour of “Babylon” is one of the craziest of all time, with nudity, drug use, elephant poop, debauchery and a stunning Le Jun Li as a chanteuse. The movie looks like a contender at the Golden Globes and Oscars, despite some highly negative early reviews. The jazzy score by Justin Hurwitz is a knockout.
“Bones and All” — An unlikely cannibal love story from Luca Guadagnino, who brought us “Call Me by Your Name.” The director teams up again with Timothee Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg, and he introduces us to Taylor Russell, who plays a young woman with tendencies to bite people, much to the other person’s alarm. Chalamet gets a lot of close-ups, and Stuhlbarg and co-star Mark Rylance will absolutely creep you out. The Golden Globes snubbed the film, and it remains to be seen whether Oscar voters will do the same.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” — A wild tale of a woman who explores multiple universes that she could have chosen in life, in order to save the world. Michelle Yeoh is a shoo-in for best actress nominations from all the major groups. She’s funny, crazy and entirely believable as an immigrant woman caught up in strange circumstances. Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis give riotous performances in supporting roles.
“Triangle of Sadness” — The tables are turned in this social satire from Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund. The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival starts out with a group of disgustingly rich and clueless folks aboard a luxury yacht where the captain is played by a drunken Woody Harrelson. When an accident leaves some of the rich folks on an island with crew members, the rich suddenly realize that they didn’t get their money through industriousness, but rather through privilege.
“Men” — From director Alex Garland, who gave us “Ex Machina.” Garland gets quite creepy in this story about a young widow played by the phenomenal Jessie Buckley, who goes to a countryside to grieve the loss of her husband, only to meet a series of men who act entirely inappropriately, all of them played by Rory Kinnear. The ending is a total freakout, with the one of the most wincing knife scenes ever filmed.
“Nanny” — From director Nikyatu Jusu, and starring Anna Diop as a nanny from Senegal who goes to work for a Manhattan couple who turn out to be less than generous. Diop’s character is trying to earn enough money to bring her son to America. Jusu is a master of the slow, creeping dread effect.
“Crimes of the Future” — Director David Cronenberg creates a future where humans are mutating or having surgery to adapt to a toxic environment. Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux make the most of the situation by turning their mutations and surgeries into performance art. Kristen Stewart plays a government investigator who’s looking into their actions.
“Nope” — If this movie doesn’t get some love from the Oscars, it will be shameful. The Golden Globes, which have long been tone-deaf to movies by people of color, ignored this latest offering from writer/director Jordan Peele, of “Get Out” fame. It stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as brother and sister who work on a horse-training ranch near Hollywood. Things get weird when alien forces come to town.
Prestige arthouse fare
“The Banshees of Inisherin” — From Irish writer/director Martin McDonagh, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleason, Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, all of whom will probably get Oscar nominations. Farrell gives one of his best performances as a man who suddenly is told by his best friend that they’re no longer friends. This leaves Farrell’s character stunned, and he discusses the heartbreaking matter with his sister and takes comfort in the companionship of his miniature donkey. It’s a darkly humorous Irish tale, with gorgeous scenery, sharp dialogue and memorable people. It’s probably the arthouse movie of the year.
“The Whale” — Brendan Fraser plays a morbidly obese gay English teacher who has lost his partner but is trying to mend fences with his estranged daughter. In the meantime, he is eating himself to death. Fraser is getting all sorts of buzz for this comeback role, which requires the donning of a fat suit. And Hollywood folks tend to reward performances that involve physical transformations. Director Darren Aronofsky, however, has been facing controversy from critics who think his movie is insensitive and exploitative when it comes to being overweight. We’ll see whether awards voters are similarly put off.
“Women Talking” — Canadian director Sarah Polley is one of the most cerebral women working in cinema today. So it’s entirely appropriate that she’s behind the camera in this tale of women in a Mennonite group who discover that they have been drugged by the fellow Mennonite men and then systematically raped over a period of years. Some of them get together in a barn loft to discuss whether to stay in the colony and be quiet, stay in the colony and fight or simply leave with what they can carry. Jessie Buckley of “Men” gives a standout performance, as does Rooney Mara. The Oscars have rarely been kind to women who write and direct. It’s time for a change.
“She Said” — A tale of journalism, in the mode of “All the President’s Men,” this time featuring two women playing New York Times reporters who are investigating the physical assaults by Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan play the reporters who slowly get women to go on the record about what happened to them while working for Weinstein. Ashley Judd, one of the real-life complainants, has a supporting role. It’s one of the top films of the year, and it’s a realistic portrayal of what journalists have to do to get a story.
“Tar” — Cate Blanchett, who is widely considered to be the best actress of our time, stars in this tale of a famous lesbian conductor of a major German orchestra who lets her private life intrude upon her professional one. Some may see this movie as being about cancel culture, but it’s about much more than that. Pride cometh before the fall. Todd Field, who gained a lot of attention for 2001’s “In the Bedroom,” directs. Blanchett is fabulous, as usual.
“The Eternal Daughter” — Tilda Swinton, who can give Blanchett a run for the money when it comes to acting chops, stars in this tender, enigmatic tale of a daughter and her relationship with her mother. It’s written and directed by Joanna Hogg. It has already been ignored by the less-than-honorable Golden Globes. Let’s hope the Oscars have more sense, but don’t hold your breath.
“Empire of Light” — The latest from director Sam Mendes, probably best known for his war film “1917” and his James Bond installment, “Skyfall.” (He’s also married to Kate Winslet and a theater director.) Olivia Colman, who won an Oscar for 2019’s “The Favourite,” plays a mentally troubled worker at an aging theater near the British coast in the 1980s. She takes tickets, and keeps track of the daily box-office revenue for her boss, played by Colin Firth. And if you think Weinstein set a bad workplace example, wait until you see the sexual manipulations of Firth’s character. Michael Ward and Toby Jones have strong supporting roles. The movie also offers a commentary on race in the time of Margaret Thatcher.
“White Noise” — You have to give props to director Noah Baumbach. He dared to try to adapt a Don DeLiillo novel for the big screen. Why, you may ask, is this so daring? Well, “White Noise” is considered one of the most absurd social commentaries you’ll ever encounter, and it has a tone that is undeniably distinct. Adam Driver stars as a noted professor of Hitler studies, even though he doesn’t speak German. Greta Gerwig plays his charmingly disturbed wife. And Don Cheadle’s friendly character offers wry commentary along the way. Grocery aisles play a big part in this satiric tale of what happens to a dysfunctional family during an unexpected toxic air event.
Social consciousness, with prestige
“Armageddon Time” — Director James Gray takes a semi-autobiographical look at a Jewish boy growing up in Queens. Banks Repeta plays the boy, who has a close relationship with his grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway play the parents. The movie is notable for all sorts of reasons, but Gray takes a look at anti-Semitism, especially among a certain Queens clan that goes by the name of Trump, as well as the notion of privilege, especially when it comes to the boy’s best friend, who happens to be Black. Gray wrote the screenplay, and it has an honesty and sophistication that’s rare in Hollywood fare.
“The Fabelmans” — Steven Spielberg, interestingly, also takes a semi-autobiographical look at the life of a Jewish family, through the eyes of a young boy modeled upon himself. Gabrielle LaBelle plays the boy, who discovers the power of film in his adolescence. Interestingly, he figures out how to use the footage that he has filmed to share a profound discovery with his mother, played by Michelle Williams, and to combat anti-Semitism at his high school. The movie won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s quite likely to be a huge Oscar contender. It’s worthy of such attention, especially in its exploration of anti-Semitism at a time when such thinking appears to be making a comeback — not that it ever really went away.
“Till” — In 1955, Emmett Till of Chicago took a summer vacation to Mississippi to visit relatives. HIs mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was worried about the trip but let him go anyway. One day, Till and some friends went to a store in a sleepy hamlet called Money. The storekeeper, Carolyn Bryant, accused Till of being less than deferential, and before the week was over, her husband and brother-in-law had kidnapped Till, tortured him in a barn and shot him in the head before throwing the body, weighted down by a cotton-gin fan, in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s legs popped up above water, and a fisherman called the law. Till’s body was in awfully bad shape. Mrs. Mobley had the body brought back to Chicago — and insisted on having an open-casket funeral. Photos of the funeral were published in Jet magazine, and Mrs. Mobley became an early hero of the civil rights movement when shock over the body spread around the nation. “Till” is essentially the story of a mother who stood up to power after her son was lynched. Chinonye Chukwu directs, and Danielle Deadwyler gives an outstanding performance as the mother.
“The Inspection” — A young Black man is homeless and gay and living in a shelter because his mom hates his homosexuality. He decides to try to make a life for himself by joining the Marines, despite the long odds that he will make it out of boot camp. Elegance Bratton directs this tale of determination, with Jeremy Pope in the starring role. Gabrielle Union plays the mother. Both actors are fierce.
“Good Night Oppy” — A look at NASA’s program to send rovers to Mars. Directed by Ryan White, “Good Night” takes us inside NASA headquarters as scientists design two rovers to explore the Mars surface. Both land successfully and outperform the expectations for a mission designed to last for 90 days — the functional life expectancy for the rovers’ batteries. One of the rovers, named Opportunity, survives for 15 years. And during that time, the folks at NASA grow quite fond of Oppy — despite the challenges of keeping him safe and monitoring his adventure.
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” — Director Laura Poitras looks at the life of internationally renowned artist Nan Goldin, exploring her slideshows, photography and interviews. But the documentary also does something rare — it explores her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis. The movie is a blend of art and activism — and of recovery from addiction.
“Descendant” — Margaret Brown directs this infuriating documentary about a prominent family in Mobile, Al., who still holds sway over the descendants of slaves who were brought to America illegally — as part of a sick bet — and then ended up settling the area near the site where the slave ship Clotilda was sunk to cover up the crime. Brown interviews the descendants of those kidnapped slaves as well as follows a National Geographic expedition to find and raise the sunken ship.
“Moonage Daydream” — If you’re a fan of the late David Bowie, then you’ll probably fall in love with this trippy documentary about his life and art. Director Brett Morgen makes use of never-before-seen footage and takes a kaleidoscopic journey, with narration by Bowie, who sanctioned the film before his death.
”Fire of Love” — Sara Dosa directs this story of Katia and Maurice Kraft, who shared a love of volcano exploration. The daring French couple chased eruptions around the planet, seeking to better understand the fiery phenomena. The film uses lots of archival footage of their expeditions, ending with a disastrous volcanic eruption in 1991.
Everybody who hasn’t lived in hole for the last year already knows about these movies, some of which are sure to be top Oscar nominees. So the descriptions of them will be brief. “Top Gun: Maverick” kicked off the summer season in a big way, with Tom Cruise providing thrills and chills. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is James Cameron’s follow-up to his 2009 blockbuster, and it looks to be a worthy sequel. “The Woman King” stars Viola Davis as the leader of an all-female group of warriors who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” looks at the people of Wakanda who must fight to keep their home safe from a threatening world. Ryan Coogler directs, and Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o star. “Elvis” tracks the career of the king of rock ’n’ roll, with Austin Butler in the starring role and Baz Luhrmann giving the film an appropriate flamboyance. And “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” takes us inside the latest case of world-famous detective Benoit Blanc, played by Daniel Craig.
“EO” — Critics have been raving about this unusual tale that stars a donkey. It’s the official Oscar submission from Poland. It follows the adventures of EO, a donkey who has been taken from a traveling circus after a law is passed banning the use of animals in such shows, mainly because of concerns of abuse. EO escapes the first horse farm where he is sent, in part because he isn’t pleased to be a beast of burden for the showier horses, or at least we assume. He finds a bit of fame when he stumbles onto a soccer match and ruins a penalty kick. He also faces abuse, neglect and general world-weariness. Who’d think that a movie about a donkey, without much dialogue, would work? But it does.
“Bardo” — A filmmaker examines his life and the experiences of being acclaimed in both his home country of Mexico and his adopted home of the United States. It’s a contemplative film from Oscar-winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which the creator describes as “a mosaic made of personal and collective memories of the country and a self that I left behind.” Netflix is the distributor, and so far, “Bardo” has inexplicably not gotten much attention. That probably won’t last.
“Close” — This movie from Belgian screenwriter and director Lukas Dhont is nothing short of haunting. Dhont looks at the close friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Leo and Remi, when tragedy strikes. Both boys are on the cusp of sexual awakening, and their closeness attracts the attention of other schoolchildren, with not-so-subtle taunting about homosexuality.
“Saint Omer” — A young novelist attends the trial of a woman accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning her on a beach in northern France. But the trial turns out to be an emotionally harrowing journey. Alice Diop directs.
“Decision to Leave” — Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director of such classics as “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden,” takes us into the murky life of a detective who begins investigating a man’s death in the mountains — and becomes increasingly involved with the dead man’s mysterious wife. There’s a lot of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in this film, and that’s a high compliment. It should be the front-runner in the Oscar foreign-language category.
Alto notable: “RRR,” “Argentina, 1985” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”
“Pinocchio” — Guillermo del Toro takes on the classic Italian tale of a man who makes a wooden puppet after the death of his son. The animation is brilliant. Del Toro uses part of the film to make an anti-fascist message that wasn’t in the original story, and this has led some critics to pooh-pooh the story. Don’t let them win. Del Toro has a long history of anti-fascism, most notably in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” — Puss figures out that his adventures have used up eight of his nine lives, so he goes on a quest to obtain the mythical last wish, which will grant him a new set of nine lives. Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek voice the main characters.
“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” — This charmingly offbeat tale looks at a mollusk named Marcel and his grandmother, who try to come to terms with the loss of their larger family and are befriended by a documentary filmmaker, who ends up making them famous. Dean Fleischer-Camp directs.
“Turning Red” — This latest offering from Pixar has stirred up debate in some circles. Ostensibly, it focuses on a 13-year-old girl who turns into a red panda when she gets too excited. But that’s a metaphor for getting her period. And that’s where the controversy comes in. Domee Shi directs.
The Texas connection
“There There” — Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski looks at a group of people whose lives are interconnected in interesting ways. Bujalski shot the film during the pandemic, and no two actors ever met, despite onscreen appearances. It’s the magic of editing. The folks are rather dysfunctional, in a funny, mumblecore way. The film stars Lili Taylor, Jon Natchez, Jason Schwartzman, Molly Gordon and Lennie James.
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” — Austin director Richard Linklater grew up in Houston during the early days of NASA, and he has turned that experience into an animated coming-of-age tale. It had its world premiere at South by Southwest. It focuses on 1969, the summer of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“Deep in the Heart: A Texas Wildlife Story” — Matthew McConnaughey narrates this fun documentary about the wonders of Texas wildlife. Ben Masters directs, and the cinematography is fantastic.