Bad Boys for Life turns three this week. While it may seem a little absurd to celebrate the third entry in the Martin Lawrence and Will Smith Miami PD franchise—especially after The Slap and Smith’s limp slavery prestige pic for Apple TV this fall, the surprisingly deft blow ‘em’ up’s $70 million opening over MLK weekend 2020 is really the last time the box office has been normal. Six weeks later, Covid obsession would begin a self-inflicted crisis that still plagues the film industry’s supply chain and economic ecosystem.
To the casual moviegoer, things may seem just fine. Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Spider-Man: No Way Home annihilated long-standing box-office records. Marvel is chugging along with still impressive returns despite a dip in quality as DC occasionally hits with projects like The Batman regardless of its branding issues. Adults came out in droves to see Elvis while Gen Z helped a generic horror movie like Smile cross $100 million. Yet, the past three years have also begat a bottleneck that has interrupted moviegoing’s status as a regular recreational activity.
In comparison, 2021 appeared a bounty with intended 2020 blockbusters from a new Bond to Fast and Furious, A Quiet Place, and Halloween sequels premiering in crowded multiplexes. Then, a glut of delayed projects still in need of completion hit the industry. While VFX workers could weather lockdowns by staring at screens and finishing up the effects for already shot franchise pics like Wonder Woman 1984, three years worth of movies now clogged the pipeline. The result was that after July’s Thor: Love and Thunder, not a single tentpole film appealing to multiple demographics opened last year until DC’s underperformer Black Adam on October 21–nearly four months later. Pre-2020, the wide release of a movie of Black Adam’s size and two to three smaller Hollywood titles were the norm almost every weekend.
Like the culture for which it often serves as a shorthand, Hollywood has seen a near erasure of the middle, its prospects for the modestly budgeted quality films that have defined the best of American cinema since the 70s have shrunk further in this climate. Even the few awards contenders that make it through face audience indifference during their theatrical runs thanks to the industry’s use of them as cannon fodder to gain ground for their streaming platforms. This year’s top Oscar contenders, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, both failed to crack $20 million at the box office and were available for rent on VOD three weeks after they premiered. McDonagh’s last film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, had no trouble topping $50 million during a five-month theatrical run built on its awards buzz in 2017. Spielberg could turn what is essentially a three-hour play about Abraham Lincoln into a $182 million-grossing blockbuster ten years ago. Now he’s dropped down to streaming steerage with everyone else despite that he’s made two of the best movies of his career within the past year.
Granted, many of these prestige films are just insular vanity projects that substitute topical politics for artistry (was anyone surprised the Harvey Weinstein gotcha drama She Said that treated two middling New York Times reporters as if they were Captains America had one of the most disastrous theatrical runs of all time?)
Yet, jaded moviegoers simply building a wall against “woke” studios means a lot of great work that could generate conversation or defuse tribal urges gets left by the wayside. As we discussed last summer, more people saw Dinesh D’Souza’s election fraud documentary 2000 Mules this year than most of what Hollywood had to offer, but pretending that the majority of other content branded conservative has much artistry or anything interesting to say is both ethically dubious and intellectually dishonest.
A film culture with no place for anything but $300 million superhero epics and $1 million PG-13 horror and Red State Meat movies constitutes a fundamental cultural crisis that only benefits cynical distributors. The response from those who abandoned the movies long ago should not be schadenfreude over these setbacks, but a depth of cultural literacy that rises beyond bad tweets and clickbait headlines. The movies are still the populist backbone of our shared culture, a forum that best mirrors what works in this nation. We should keep it that way.
Thankfully, the following films did their best to ask challenging questions and even outright assault the checked-box-obsessed status quo over the past 365 days.
David Cronenberg’s moral treatise by way of body horror probes a near future in which a performance artist (Viggo Mortensen) with a knack for generating and removing new organs in front of a live audience becomes a pawn in a government scheme to maintain its control over the individual when a group of corporate revolutionaries plans to rejigger humanity’s digestive systems. A masterful statement on a biopolitics-obsessed world that shows the pro-life/choice dichotomies as just the latest distraction by those with World Economic Forum gala tickets in hand.
On disc and streaming on Hulu.
After thirteen films and 43 years, slasher icon Michael Myers finally reaches his ultimate showdown with Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode. Not content with just delivering a fitting conclusion to the seminal horror franchise, director David Gordon Green interrogates how American decline and the rise of mob mentalities cultivate a hollow society that compromises humanity and allows those like Myers to fester. We waxed poetic about the film’s cultural commentary at the height of spooky season, but with its singular smalltown Midwest portrait and meditations on the nature of violence, Halloween Ends rivals the depth of anything up for Oscars next month.
On disc and streaming on Peacock.
Jordan Peele finally rises above the obvious race politics of Get Out and the half-baked class allegory of Us for a sci-fi meta-Hollywood western unlike anything put to screen. As a student of film history, Peele situates Hollywood horse trainer O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his side hustling sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) into an industry that—whether engaging in gestures to diversity or ethically employing child stars—is always in the service of the spectacle. The definitive movie about the effect media has both on those in the cheap seats and behind the camera.
On disc and streaming on Peacock.
7) Fire of Love
Sara Dosa’s documentary mines the archives of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft to assemble a portrait of obsession with nature’s devastating power so strong that both its subjects died in a 1991 eruption. Amid the astonishing footage of active volcanoes and humorous asides of the couple’s long love affair that ended decades too soon, Dosa forges connections among academic dedication, devotion, and annihilation in ways cinema has never seen.
Streaming on Disney+.
South Korean cinema royalty Park Chan-wook turns his attention to film noir in his character study of an insomniac ace detective (Park Hae-il) whose domestic and professional lives crumble after meeting the dubious widow (Tang Wei) of an immigration official who fell to his death while mountain climbing. As the soft-boiled hero fixates on the case, his uncompromising work ethic comes into conflict with his admiration for his prime suspect, especially as his suspicions of her guilt grow. Amid the twisty plot and visual splendor, Chan-wook turns a murder mystery into a potent study of South Korea’s urban and rural divide that also interrogates the nation’s precarious relationship with China.
Streaming on Mubi.
The man responsible for a pornographic 3-D Netflix movie and the longest one-take rape scene in film history wasn’t the most likely candidate to craft a profound and tender film about a married couple ravaged by the passing of years. Yet, Gaspar Noé may have made his most iconoclastic work yet with this split-screen portrait of old age. Iconic Italian horror director Dario Argento plays a middling academic who cannot cope with how the memory lapses of his ailing wife (Françoise Lebrun) and the reputation of his drug-addled son (Alex Lutz) undermine what little intellectual status he has left. As time does what it’s supposed to do, Noé dissolves the separation between old and young as he taps directly into our fears that we are all already outmoded and never as important as we think we are.
On disc and streaming on Mubi.
2022 saw the birth of the most leftfield slasher franchise in recent memory thanks to the stylings of indie horror staple Ti West and his new muse Mia Goth’s turn as the octogenarian big bad of X and the star of its prequel origin story. At the dawn of VHS in the 70s, a ragtag group of entrepreneurs hopes to strike it rich by making dirty movies at a Texas farm. But its elderly owners have their number and plan to make the budding porn stars atone for parading around their young bodies. What could have been a solid slasher well aware of its roots ends up a visceral tone poem about fleeting youth and aging in the American South. Not resting on laurels with one masterwork a year, West’s Pearl traces its titular villain's youth through the Spanish Flu pandemic as dueling allegiances to her German immigrant parents and silver screen dreams drive her to insanity. Through it all, Goth gives the performances of a lifetime that should make her a shoo in for every acting award on the circuit.
On disc and available for digital rental. X is streaming on Paramount+/Showtime
3) After Yang
Former Nashvillian Kogonada earned his reputation making video essays for The Criterion Collection on canonical directors like Yasujirō Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Bresson. As a result, he’s developed a restrained style that’s both informed by his predecessors and exhibits a singular amalgamation of magical realism and American indie that is perfectly suited for the follow up to his debut, Columbus (2017). After the A.I. sibling they bought for their adopted Chinese daughter (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) malfunctions, tea shop owner Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife, Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), grapple with the future of their family and their questions about defining Yang (Justin H. Min) as human. In less nuanced hands, Kogonada’s gentle dystopia could have been a Silicon Valley screed, a cautionary tale about privacy rights, or a critique of technology’s potential to snuff out humanity. While the film does touch on these sundry themes, After Yang would rather root its assessment of the current moment in a family’s loss and anxieties over parents’ ability to properly connect with their children. What results is a melding of sci-fi and transcendental melodrama well worth the experience.
On disc and streaming on Paramount+/Showtime.
2) White Noise
Don DeLillo’s 1986 novel about a Hitler Studies professor at a nondescript Midwestern liberal arts college who experiences an “Airborne Toxic Event” with his family was supposed to be unfilmable. But Marriage Story and The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach both captures and expands upon the author’s sterile, fluorescent world thanks in part to Netflix’s generous $100 million budget. Adam Driver as Jack Gladney (or J.A.K. Gladney as he authors the jargony articles that built his academic career) contends with early middle age and comes to terms with physical and intellectual limitations with an astounding lack of care for his own dignity. Greta Gerwig embodies a fear of inadequacy as Jack’s wife, Babette, that perfectly captures the off-campus cultural abyss of college towns. Yes, the movie is currently hovering quite close to a rotten critics’ score. But what would one expect for a film that lampoons academic privilege, pill-popping self-styled headcases who worship at the altar of Big Pharma, and a scared populace hanging on every precaution the media utters to combat a manmade health threat? A competent filmmaker can translate venom to screen. Only someone of Baumbach’s gifts can lace it with such achingly real moments of vulnerability.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Todd Field hadn’t made a film since 2007’s Little Children until this chronicle of the rise and fall of renowned composer Lydia Tár became an early awards contender. All the film had to do to achieve Oscar-bait anointing was rest on the cultural superiority of its immersive setting in the classical music world and highlight Cate Blanchett’s performance enough for critics to label it a tour de force. However, Field opted instead to tackle the idea of the Great Man and #MeToo through the eyes of a self-professed “U-Haul lesbian” whose actions cause allegiances of her audiences—both in her orbit and watching her onscreen—to alternate between awe and disgust. As Tár revels in the mess of genius and pushes back against a world in which “the narcissism of small difference leads to the worst type of conformity,” it never lets Lydia or its viewers forget that much of the art capable of elevating the spirit comes at the cost of its creators’ disregard for small moments of humanity. But what makes it a towering artistic achievement is Field’s refusal to treat Lydia as anything less than human.
Now playing in theaters, on disc, and streaming on Peacock.
Unconscionable Streaming Casualty
Retrograde: Since I saw an early cut of Matthew Heineman’s documentary about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan on the festival circuit last fall, I’ve been unable to think of a comparable moviegoing experience. Heineman set out to profile the efforts of Afghan National Army General Sami Sadat and his lifelong fight against the encroachment of the Taliban. But then the Biden administration made its arbitrary call to withdraw troops—what seems like a cloudy memory from 240 news cycles ago for anyone who didn’t serve.
But not any more thanks to Retrograde. Heineman was there to capture it all: the sepulchers made of billions of dollars worth of perfectly good military equipment; the shocked look on Sadat’s face as the U.S. troops with whom he’s bonded must now just follow orders while the Taliban forces him into exile; the Afghans wading through sewage at the Kabul airport begging the military to at least take one of their children just before suicide bombers added further deaths to two decades of carnage. This is what journalists were supposed to be doing all along. The film’s very existence is a profound indictment of the profession.
Retrograde should be part of this year’s ten best. But, despite its status as the crowning achievement of embedded journalism (not to mention the documentary form in general), National Geographic Films buried it on Disney+ and Hulu with nary an ad campaign as The House of Mouse’s streaming services prime the pump to get subscribers excited for another remake or limp sequel like Cheaper by the Dozen or Hocus Pocus II. Even if it missed out on our top ten on a technicality, it’s the most essential film of not just the year, but the 21st century.
Honorable Mentions Well Worth a Watch
Dog (On disc and steaming on Prime)
Mothering Sunday (On disc and available for digital rental)
Father Stu (On disc and streaming on Netflix)
Babylon (Now playing in theaters)
Holy Spider (Now playing in theatres)
The Fabelmans (Now playing in theatres and available for digital rental)
The Banshees of Inisherin (Now playing in theaters, on disc, and streaming on HBO Max)
RRR (Streaming on Netflix)
Memoria (On tour in theaters)
Amsterdam (On disc and streaming on HBO Max)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Now playing in theaters)
Bodies Bodies Bodies (On disc and available for digital rental)
Petite Maman (Streaming on Hulu)
The Northman (On disc and streaming on Prime)
Elvis (On disc and streaming on HBO Max)
The Forgiven (On disc and streaming on Hulu)
Taurus (On disc and available for digital rental)
Pleasure (On disc and streaming on Paramount+/Showtime)
Top Gun: Maverick (On disc and streaming on Paramount+)
Hit the Road (On disc and streaming on Prime, Hulu, Paramount+/Showtime)
Armageddon Time (On disc and available for digital rental)
Bones and All (Available for digital rental)
The Girl and the Spider (Available for digital rental)
Ambulance (On disc and streaming on Prime)
Aftersun (Available for digital rental)
Women Talking (Now playing at The Belcourt)
Both Sides of the Blade (On disc and streaming on Prime)
Stars at Noon (Streaming on Hulu)
Cow (On disc and streaming on Prime)
Scream (On disc and steaming on Paramount+)
Triangle of Sadness (Available for digital rental)
Montana Story (On disc and streaming on Hulu and Paramount+/Showtime)
Moonage Daydream (On disc and available for digital rental)
Empire of Light (Now playing in theaters)
A Love Song (Streaming on Hulu and Paramount+/Showtime)