“But You Liked Me Yesterday”: 22 from 2022
The first time I said it, or felt it, it was probably around June. Forgivable, although a little premature. Then again in late September. Then again a week or so later, as the New York Film Festival was closing. Then again and again and again. But as the year started to come to a close with its conversely timed aggressive release schedule littering the calendar and conversations with must sees and essential viewing, the solitary nature of my feelings soon became a little more populated by friends and peers who, if they didn’t feel the exact same way, at least knew what I was talking about. That feeling of sitting in the dark, looking at the screen, waiting to be transported or shaken or awed and instead being left to shrug one’s shoulders and confess: “Well, that was fine.”
For one reason or another, 2022 was the year of “fine”, cinema that’s competently made, adequately acted, capably directed. Movies are in their “fine” era. But, you know, not much more than that. B’s and B+’s all around. From weird quasi-art house movies that got meme’d to death on the internet to years in the making behemoth blockbusters, most of these had, for me, a whiff of the stale, the dull, and the vacant. Was it something in the flat lighting? The uncannily fastidious framing? The weird Indigenous-face? The limp attempts at transgression? The flaccid swings at impressing both the internet addled and the luddite inclined? To use the common parlance of our times, if you know, you know.
True, having conversations about the lack of deep pleasure I was finding at new releases was hard to articulate if I wasn’t talking to someone who already got it, who already had a similar sense, or ability to detect, a bizarre lackluster quality to what was being brandished as the next great piece of film. A part of the issue felt ineffable.
And, to do my due diligence here, I recognize that part (if not all) of the problem lies with my own curatorial and consumptive habits. I did not see Jackass Forever, or Neptune Frost, or The Cathedral, or AmbuLAnce, or No Bears, either because they didn’t interest me, I missed them in theaters, I was lazy, I was tired, or I was living my life. Nor can I really blame this listlessness I feel in the movies I’ve seen completely on all the movies; it can be a combination of my own tastes and sensibilities, the film industry, and other factors. I think I’ve learned, over the last several years of living in New York, that I love going to the movies as a pedestrian as much, if not more, than as a “professional”. There’s something deeply unappealing about how forced a take can be, when it was crafted while I was watching a movie on a shitty screener on my laptop, compared to the (sorta?) organic feeling of being awed by something in the theatre and the thoughts and ideas flooding without control or premature necessity. (The minute it turns to work, it’s exactly that: work.)
Was it a problem of expectation? There were enough movies that seemed, without even reading too much about them or being too swept up in festival obsession, tailor made for me that fell flat. Park Chan-wook’s latest Decision to Leave was not especially perverse or all that moving, but it certainly was one of the slickest Apple commercials I’ve ever seen. Deep Water, too, was supposed to announce the second coming of the erotic thriller, but then just turned out to be not that sexy or sadistic either. Even the return of my high school problematic fave, Lars von Trier, revealed that the provocateur was game for fun, but not really much more than that in The Kingdom: Exodus. I saw eleven (11) films at NYFF this year and came away only being profoundly struck by two of them, and only one got distributed in 2022: Laura Poitras and Nan Goldin’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, one of the best films to examine the ties between art, community, and politics in recent memory.
But I do know it’s not (solely) depression, it’s not merely the ways in which my life has changed, or my tastes have evolved. All said and done, my 2023 was pretty good, more adventurous than normal, with a dash of the raucous and rambunctious, and with the space to deepen the relationships I have in my life. It meant that I did prioritize those things a little more than movies, but I still got to see a lot of movies. I even got to write a book about them! But I am relatively confident that my life is not some Spielbergian/Kushneresque portrait of a changing life at the movies that coincides with the lurching evolution of the life itself, at least not that dramatically. My breakup wasn’t going to change whether I liked TÁR or not. And my writer’s block wasn’t necessarily going to influence my indifference about Nope. (Or was it!)
Walking through the rain with one of my best friends on the way to see Avatar: The Way of Water the night it opened, the two of us inadvertently hanging many of our hopes on the future of cinema on the evening, I sloppily expressed my frustrations with not being especially excited or moved by many movies in 2022. I’ve known Joe since high school, and our paths have been amusingly parallel in a way: he works in the camera department on film sets and I’ve been working as a freelance film critic, and what I’ve really come to appreciate over the years is the way our perspectives complement one another. He has a deep technical knowledge of filmmaking, while mine is more theoretical and historical. He sympathized with my misgivings: it appears to be a combination of changing technology and a risk-averse industry. To briefly summarize his talking points (or what I can remember of them, as we were both fueled by a pre-roll): things look flatter because industry-standard equipment includes digital cameras and LED lights, which look fundamentally different than tungsten lights; and execs have found a way to measure the most minute thing in a movie, or an audience’s proclivities, so that little is spontaneous and everything is a statistic, even in art. Well, the last thing I could have told you, but the combination of ugly lights (whose directors and cinematographers don’t bother trying to make them emulate something more textural) and playing everything safe has made so much look zombie-like to me.
It’s all so bizarre to me because, as usual, I spent as much time watching older movies and repertory selections as I did newer releases. Actually, more time. And even if the movie was kind of bad, or awful, at least there was a tactility to it. For instance, Tim Burton’s mediocre Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, released in 2007, is certainly beset by bad choices and an overreliance on CGI. Yet the grime of derelict London still stinks, the expressionist light bending around it. Say what you will about the movie, but those Tunick orchestrations, that ghostly Victorian doll faces, the ruby rivulets of blood. Or, I watched The Devil is a Woman, the last collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, with a friend, and despite its limp pacing, Dietrich doesn’t just sparkle on screen, she sets the film aflame. Monty Clift, Jane Fonda, Lena Horne. They don’t make ’em like they used to. And so on, and so on.
The last film that felt more than plastic was, a little ironically, going through and embodied that same kind of existential crisis I’ve been milling through this blog post about. It was divisive, understandably, but at least it crackled. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is bathed in golden light that dances across its cast’s skin, there’s a halo of light around its stars, and the portions which emulate nitrate are steeped in the tangible graininess of film. Say what you will about Chazelle’s self-consciously vulgar and goofy eulogy to Hollywood and the movies, but he knows what they should look and feel like: a drug. And I missed being intoxicated this year.
So, this year, for my best of list (I wasn’t invited to contribute to other lists, despite having written for several publications that published them this year, and yes I am kind of annoyed!!!), since I had a much better time at the rep theater (barring the weird trend of people treating them like the circus in New York and laughing throughout), I decided that if there was a rep screening I went to that I liked better than a 2022 film, that would be on the list. Life’s too short to include a new release I was at best meh about for the sake of meeting an arbitrary quota.
Without further ado, 22 from 2022.
22. Marry Me // Directed by Kat Coiro
21. Kimi // Directed by Steven Soderbergh
20. Halloween Ends // Directed by David Gordon Green + Resurrection // Directed by Andrew Semans
19. Barbarian // Directed by Zach Cregger
18. The Woman King // Directed by Gina Prince Bythewood
17. The Lost City // Directed by Adam and Aaron Nee
16. Chip ’N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers // Directed by Akiva Schaffer + Glass Onion // Directed by Rian Johnson
15. Turning Red // Directed by Domee Shi
14. Three Thousand Years of Longing // Directed by George Miller + A Hollywood Christmas // Directed by Alex Ranarivelo
13. The Devils (1971) // Directed by Ken Russell + Fire Island // Directed by Andrew Ahn
12. Show Me Love (1998) // Directed by Lukas Moodysson + Shortbus (2006) // Directed by John Cameron Mitchell + Southern Comfort (2001) // Directed by Kate Davis
11. All That Breathes // Directed by Shaunak Sen
10. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris // Directed by Anthony Fabian + Veronika Voss (1982) // Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder + Dressed in Blue (1983) // Directed by Antonio Giménez Rico
9. Saint Jack (1979) // Directed by Peter Bogdonavich + Nashville (1975) // Directed by Robert Altman + Red River (1948) // Directed by Howard Hawks
8. Gypsy (1962) // Directed by Mervyn LeRoy + Girls of the NIght (1961) // Directed by Kinuyo Tanaka + Emily the Criminal // Directed by John Patton Ford
7. Stormy Weather (1943) // Directed by Andrew L. Stone + Bamboozled (2000) // Directed by Spike Lee
6. Confess, Fletch // Directed by Greg Motolla
5. X // Directed by Ti West + Please Baby Please // Directed by Amanda Kramer + Lust, Caution (2007) // Directed by Ang Lee
3. The Fabelmans // Directed by Steven Spielberg + Babylon // Directed by Damien Chazelle + Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) // Directed by William Greaves
2. The Banshees of Inisherin // Directed by Martin McDonagh + After Yang // Directed by Kogonada + Return to Seoul // Directed by Davy Chou
- All the Beauty and the Bloodshed // Directed by Laura Poitras
Happy New Year, everyone!