Tuesday, January 31, 2023

‘To Leslie’ applauds recovery and redemption

“To Leslie” (2022). Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Owen Teague, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, James Landry Hébert, Catfish Jean, Matt Laurian, Mac Brandt, Tom Virtue, Lauren Letherer, Kourtney Amanda, Arabella Grant, Sewell Whitney, Drew Youngblood. Director: Michael Morris. Screenplay: Ryan Binaco. Web site. Trailer.

Getting back on one’s feet after a hard fall can be unbearably difficult. In addition to the strength and stamina required to stand back up, there are those poised to keep the downtrodden on the ground, their boots firmly and mercilessly planted on those making the valiant effort to lift themselves up. But recovery and redemption are possible with the right mix of affirmed beliefs and concerted followup actions, an outcome explored in the gripping new fact-based drama, “To Leslie.”

There was a time when everybody thought Leslie Rowlands (Andrea Riseborough) was on top of the world. When she hauled in a windfall from a Texas lottery win, she became a local celebrity and was seen as having enough money to make her and her young son, James (Drew Youngblood), happy and contented for a long time, if not for the rest of their lives. If only things had turned out that way.

Years later, Leslie is penniless and without a home. She’s lost everything, including not only her winnings, but also her possessions, friends and family, as well as whatever reliability and credibility she may have had. Her now-older son (Owen Teague) left town some time ago to go out and make it on his own. And, with no hopeful prospects of her own in sight, Leslie is at her wit’s end. Of course, that can happen when one crawls into a bottle and stays there until all of one’s funds are used up, which, unfortunately, is precisely what happened to her.

Now older (but not necessarily wiser), Leslie looks for a fresh start. She asks James if she can come stay with him while she gets her act together, a plan that, at his insistence, includes getting sober. However, despite her assurances to the contrary, she’s soon up to her old tricks – sneaking drinks, stealing money from her son and one of his friends, and partying with the neighbors – essentially going back on all the promises she made. It’s not long before she hits the road to return to her old hometown in west Texas, all in hopes that she’ll find some sympathy to her plight, despite the many bridges she burned before leaving there.

Texas lottery winner Leslie Rowlands (Andrea Riseborough) may seem to have it made with her unexpected windfall, but a little too much celebrating leaves her destitute and in need of recovery, as seen in the new fact-based drama, “To Leslie.” Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Leslie is reluctantly taken in by Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), who took care of James when she was no longer capable of doing so. Nancy and Dutch give her a stiff warning that she’s out if she relapses into her old ways, which, not unexpectedly, happens rather quickly, leaving her homeless once again. The way things are going, it seems like she’ll never break this cycle.

When one bottoms out, the best one can hope for is the appearance of a Samaritan, and, fortunately for Leslie, one shows up in the personage of Sweeney (Marc Marron), the owner of a local motel. He takes pity on her and gives her a job, as well as a room to call home. But, even with such generous benevolence, Leslie still doesn’t learn her lesson, backsliding every time it seems she’s starting to get her act together. It also doesn’t help that Leslie comes under more than her share of relentless criticism from others, including Sweeney’s friend Royal (Andre Royo), another hard luck case who Sweeney took in years ago and who constantly says she can’t be trusted, and Leslie’s judgmental parents, Helen (Lauren Letherer) and Raymond (Tom Virtue), who spew ample venom based on everything their friends Nancy and Dutch tell them.

But there comes a point when Leslie finally wakes up and sees who is truly in her corner. It inspires her to plunge herself into her work and to realistically start turning things around, including an inspiring new undertaking that could fill her with a genuine sense of personal pride and fulfillment – that is, if others will let her. Can she do it?

In an attempt to get back on her feet after a hard fall, Texas lottery winner Leslie Rowlands (Andrea Riseborough, right) seeks much-needed accommodation with her adult son, James (Owen Teague, left), in director Michael Morris’s debut feature, “To Leslie.” Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

In countless stories like these, viewers witness characters spiraling out of control, actions that some will take pity on and that others will shrug off and say “Serves them right.” But who’s right? In such scenarios, there are lessons all around to be learned, both by those who find themselves in the middle of these circumstances and by the onlookers in terms of how they react. Such situations, tragic though they are, nevertheless arise from the choices made by all involved, materializations that, in their own singular way, afford opportunities to learn valuable life lessons. And those lessons arise as a result of the thoughts, beliefs and intents that manifest them, products of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources shape the existence we experience. Those involved in these circumstances may not be aware of this school of thought, but it makes possible the conditions to address the intentions that underlie them, for better or worse and no matter how easy or difficult they may be to endure.

Consider Leslie’s situation, for example. She may have never experienced the kind of powerlessness she undergoes here, and she might not have ever been the beneficiary of the kind of heartfelt compassion she receives from Sweeney. Likewise, Nancy, Dutch, Helen and Raymond, among others, may have never had an opportunity to engage in meaningful forgiveness, remaining mired in a relentlessly scornful pattern typified by continually berating those who are having difficulty getting back on their feet. These dynamics, however, make it possible to transform both of the foregoing outcomes. These co-created experiences may not be the most palatable way to go through such scenarios, but they may nevertheless be “ideal” in terms of the conditions they afford to make such opportunities attainable.

Motel owner and compassionate Samaritan Sweeney (Marc Maron) is a sucker for hard luck cases, routinely helping out those most in need of assistance, as seen in director Michael Morris’s debut feature, “To Leslie,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Some might see such situations as pointless and needlessly arduous, but, if they yield the opportunities to learn these valuable life lessons, can one truly say they’re without merit? Likewise, when one examines the circumstances prevailing in the lives of these characters, they may be seen as hopeless and unchangeable. However, should these individuals have a change of heart as a result of these conditions, they all have an opportunity to learn the power of redemption, a truly rewarding and empowering experience, one that they can carry forward in their lives and employ elsewhere should comparable conditions ever arise again. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

Moreover, the wisdom that comes from these insights significantly increases the likelihood of not repeating such past errors. When we go through painful experiences like these, they tend to leave indelible marks on our psyches and consciousness, imprints that tend to steer us away from backsliding and recurrences. Indeed, we can choose different paths for ourselves; addiction and unwavering prejudice need not be fixed fates, provided we alter the beliefs that brought them into being and prompt us to chart new courses. Here’s to Leslie, as well as to those who were once unwilling to give her a break, on the new paths they forge.

The story in “To Leslie” may be a familiar one, but there are enough elements to distinguish it from other pictures about the pains of addiction and recovery to make for a compelling watch. What works best in director Michael Morris’s debut feature are the performances of the superb ensemble cast, including Janney, Root, Maron, Royo and Teague. But the most notable attribute of this release is the positively outstanding portrayal of Riseborough, handily the best of her career. The film’s fittingly atmospheric soundtrack and ethereal cinematography significantly enhance the actions on screen and effectively capture the mood of the narrative underlying its fine screenplay. To be sure, the pacing could stand to be stepped up somewhat at times, and some story elements become slightly repetitive, particularly toward the end of the first hour. But, considering the picture’s many assets, it’s easy to see how this offering has been named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Independent Films of 2022. Catch this one online.

Bouncing back from adversity is difficult, but Texas lottery winner Leslie Rowlands (Andrea Riseborough) struggles to do so in the new fact-based drama, “To Leslie,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

It’s impossible to talk about this film without focusing on Riseborough’s performance, which has, regrettably, become quite a point of contention. As a superb portrayal that has been largely overlooked throughout this movie awards season (save for an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best lead acting performance), it was truly gratifying when Riseborough’s name was called as an Oscar nominee for best lead actress. Yet, in the wake of that announcement and several high-profile snubs in this category, there are those who have leveled claims of impropriety against the awarding of her nomination for this little-known film, specifically with regard to campaigning efforts to promote her bid. Some have even suggested that, if improprieties are indeed uncovered, Riseborough could be disqualified. However, just because the film and the actress’s performance have flown below the radar, that doesn’t mean impropriety has to be involved. In fact, Riseborough has had many Hollywood heavy hitters backing her candidacy, including fellow best actress nominee Cate Blanchett. What would a fellow competitor stand to gain by openly and glowingly supporting an opponent?

I’m not sure what’s behind this controversy. It could be sour grapes. It could be an attempt to torpedo Riseborough’s chances now that she has been given an opportunity to take home the big prize. But, given the fact that a little-known film performance has been able to make a successful breakthrough, does that automatically and necessarily suggest that something improper has occurred here? If that were the case, then one could just as easily apply that principle against other lesser-known performers and films that manage to attain Oscar nomination recognition, such as, for example, Paul Mescal’s performance in “Aftersun” (yet no one has even hinted at anything like that where this nomination is concerned). Indeed, has no one ever heard of the concept of the underdog? Unexpected nominations, for better or worse, occur almost every year, so why has this situation been so suspiciously singled out? The claims against Riseborough’s nomination strike me as being just as spurious as the contentions of the detractors themselves, and that, to me, seems like the real impropriety here. 

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that redeeming oneself from circumstances like those portrayed here can be a challenging journey. Compensating for years of questionable behavior and the heartache it often inflicts on others takes a lot of hard work. But bouncing back is attainable, benefiting not only oneself, but also in terms of helping to change the hearts and minds of those convinced that recovery and redemption are impossible. The potential is indeed there; all we need do is invoke it to make it happen. And what a blessing that is when it occurs.

Copyright © 2022-2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Worst of 2022

It’s that time of year again, the release of my lists of best and worst films of the year. In my previous blog entry, I looked at 2022’s finest. But now it’s time to turn the tables.

Thankfully, 2022 was a better year for movies than either of 2020 or 2021 (pandemic considerations notwithstanding). I was pleased to have screened a wealth of fine pictures in theaters, at festivals and online. However, despite that, 2022 still had more than its share of overrated, overhyped releases that, in my opinion, were erroneously labeled “masterpieces.” And that’s part of what this blog entry examines (though some others were just plain bad in their own right). I know some readers will disagree with me on some of these choices, but please don’t throw anything at your computer or smart phone screens; it’s just my opinion, not the end of the world.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not see every movie released in 2022 (who realistically could?), but I have seen nearly all of the major contenders (although there are a few I’ve yet to see given that they have not gone into widespread release as yet). In addition, as per custom, this blog and its more upbeat predecessor do not address documentary offerings; films in that genre will be covered in a separate blog entry in the near future.

So, with that said, here are my Bottom 10 films of 2022, followed by my list of 10 dishonorable mentions and a list of disappointing offerings. Hold on to your hats.

Bottom 10 Countdown

10. “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (Australia/USA) Web site Trailer

It’s truly astounding how a film dealing with magical, mystical subject matter can turn out to be as boring and unfocused as this offering is. However, that’s exactly what’s happened with renowned director George Miller’s latest, a meandering, talky, tedious tale about an aging single reclusive narratologist (Tilda Swinton) who has an unexpected encounter with a djinn (Idris Elba) while attending a literary conference in Istanbul. Having liberated the magical being from a long incarceration in a bottle, he promises to grant her three wishes, something she’s reluctant to act on, given her profound familiarity with the cautionary tale nature of such scenarios. As a result, much of the film ends up centering on the djinn’s recounting of stories from his life while his liberating benefactor questions him about what those experiences have meant to him. The process consequently plays like a Barbara Walters Special only far less interesting. While there are modest attempts at probing more in-depth subject matter, such as the significance of story and what it means in shaping and characterizing the nature of our existence (a la the observation of poet Muriel Rukeyser who noted that the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms), these notions are left largely underdeveloped, becoming lost in an ongoing parade of tales spun by someone who comes across like a magical male counterpart of Scheherazade. To its credit, the picture serves up some interesting special effects, a small helping of humorous bits, and fine lead performances by Elba and Swinton, though their talents are largely squandered here as they attempt to salvage material seriously in need of being significantly retooled and substantially rewritten. It’s a major disappointment given the parties involved in this work, one that makes it easy to see why this offering was relegated to a late summer season release, a notorious new movie graveyard.

9. “RRR (Rise Roar Revolt)” (India) Web site Trailer

The Bollywood style of filmmaking has, arguably, become a distinct genre all its own, characterized by long, visually dazzling movies filled with action sequences on steroids, the inclusion of hyper-energized music video segments (regardless if relevant to the story), and glamorously designed costumes, hair and makeup. It’s definitely an acquired taste and eminently commercial, but it’s not exactly something one could characterize as epic, groundbreaking cinema. Which is why I’m stunned by all of the attention and awards season buzz that’s been showered on this over-the-top offering, one that’s fairly typical of releases in this genre. In this hypothetical “what if” tale about a fictitious meeting between a pair of Indian freedom fighters (N.T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan Teja) who struggled against brutal British colonial rule (but who never actually met in real life), writer-director S.S. Rajamouli takes viewers on a whirlwind action-adventure saga that’s preposterous, predictable, clichéd, at times juvenile, and, above all, exhausting by the time one reaches the end of its 3+-hour runtime. The trite dialogue, corny narrative, cheesy CGI effects (particularly the film’s wild animals) and monodimensional characters (most notably the big bad Brits who come across more like caricatures than villains) are all laughable, almost as much as the film’s fight sequences, which play like scenes from the “John Wick” and “Matrix” franchises with a dash of martial arts flicks like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) thrown in for good measure. In fact, were it not for the seemingly incessant runtime, this might qualify as one of those good “bad” offerings for a group movie night, though the film becomes tiresome about an hour in and can’t adequately sustain that sense of high camp for more than 180 minutes. In its defense, the picture’s choreography in the musical sequences is commendable (if at times it’s like watching a protracted aerobics class), and the costumes, art direction and set design are all noteworthy (save, of course, for a shattered marble railing in one scene that looks like the Styrofoam from which it appears to have been made). Given all of the foregoing, however, I’m truly perplexed why this release has been singled out from all of the other films in this genre as the beneficiary of such generous awards season recognition (perhaps other than the fact that it has been a huge box office hit worldwide, which may well have something to do with that). But is that milestone enough to drive the ample bestowing of such accolades from the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and National Board of Review competitions? (Thankfully, the Oscars gave it only one nomination, and the BAFTAs shut it out completely, restoring such much-needed reason to this process.) Remember, popcorn may qualify as a great snack, but it certainly does not a meal make.

8. “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Ireland/UK/USA) Web site Trailer

Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy-drama is one of those films that leaves me (and probably many other viewers) scratching my head, making me sincerely wonder what all the fuss is about. In this fable-like Irish folk tale about two longtime friends (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) whose relationship suddenly reaches an impasse, they struggle to come to terms of where things go from there in the aftermath of this scenario. There’s just one problem here: the picture’s razor-thin premise with its virtually nonexistent back story doesn’t provide enough basis for why the dissolution of this friendship occurs and then escalates to a tale of inexplicable desperation and truly bewildering retributive self-abuse. Indeed, we seem to know more about the setting of the story – a small island off the western Irish seacoast during the waning days of the new republic’s 1922-23 civil war – than we do about its characters, their relationship and their motivations. To compound matters, the narrative stretches out far too long, taking a seeming eternity to unfold with no particularly satisfying payoff, punctuated by lame attempts at humor that mostly fail to land. To its credit, this offering features fine performances by its two principals, as well as superb portrayals by Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan in supporting roles, all of whom garnered Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations in the acting categories (as well as a Golden Globe win for Farrell and National Board of Review honors for Farrell and Gleeson). There’s also much to be said for its gorgeous cinematography and atmospheric Carter Burwell original score, itself an Oscar, BAFTA and Globe Award nominee. However, it’s truly mind-boggling to understand how this film has earned its many questionable accolades, including best picture, director and screenplay honors among its 9 Oscar and Critics Choice nominations, 10 BAFTA nods and 8 Golden Globe bids (including three wins). This exasperatingly dull, slow-paced effort falls woefully short of the fine work the filmmaker achieved in previous films like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) and “In Bruges” (2008) (not to mention its lack of the snappy on-screen chemistry that Farrell and Gleeson achieved in that earlier off-beat comedy), accomplishments that make this release come across as a great disappointment by comparison. In fact, at the risk of overstatement, “Banshees” could have been edited down to a short, and it still likely would have been a letdown. Catch this one at your peril; at the very least, it’s now available for online streaming and on cable TV, so you shouldn’t have to venture out and cough up box office prices if you really want to watch it.

7. “A Christmas Story Christmas” (USA/Canada/Mexico/Hungary) Web site Trailer

In the interest of full disclosure (and at the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge), I must confess that I have never been a big fan of this offering’s perennial and much-beloved holiday predecessor (1983), as I saw it as a vehicle that aimlessly meandered and struggled too hard to elicit laughs. But the problems faced by the original can’t begin to compare to those of this ill-conceived sequel, a plodding and even more meandering release that’s just not funny and is far too derivative for its own good. It’s easy to see why this is a project that went straight to streaming, because it never would have stood a chance in theaters, despite whatever goodwill and good cheer the holiday season might have been available to generously (and undeservedly) shower upon it. In short, director Clay Kaytis’s third feature outing misses the mark across the board with its lame narrative and even lamer attempts at humor, which come too few and far between to be detectable. “A Christmas Story Christmas” once again proves the old Hollywood adage about not remaking classics or attempting to produce sequels of them; they rarely work, as is very much the case here – a project that never should have left the drawing board.

6. “Fire Island” (USA) Web site Trailer

If you’re looking for a predictable, formulaic, episodic gay rom-com full of clichéd stereotypes, then this is the movie for you. The opening act of director Andrew Ahn’s summertime road trip tale about a troupe of shallow party boys (most of whose characters are seriously underdeveloped) to the infamous queer resort off the coast of Long Island is so cloying that the temptation to shut it off is almost impossible to ignore. With laughs few and far between and an overall approach that plays more like an introduction to the gay lifestyle for uninitiated heterosexual audiences than a bona fide piece of legitimately engaging LGBTQ+ cinema, viewer patience is seriously tried almost from the outset, despite its baffling Independent Spirit Award nod for best first screenplay. That’s especially true for gay audience members who’ve themselves seen (and probably experienced firsthand) material like this countless times before. While there’s an anemic attempt to infuse some depth into the story during the second half with its nods to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s not enough to salvage a project whose initial release obviously tried to tap into the Gay Pride Month demographic in hopes of milking it for all its worth. Given the wealth of better gay-themed movies out there (such as Bill Sherwood’s far superior “Parting Glances” (1986) with its numerous less forced Fire Island references), it’s easy to understand how this one bypassed theaters and went straight (no pun intended) to streaming. Yikes!

5. “Men” (UK) Web site Trailer

Talk about a letdown! Writer-director Alex Garland, who established himself as an exceedingly gifted new filmmaker in “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), really dropped the ball in this utterly ridiculous mess of a movie. The picture’s ultimately obvious, heavy-handed premise isn’t especially original or revelatory, and, no matter how much the film is dressed up in artful cinematography, a gorgeous production design and other polished technical accomplishments, it’s not enough to hide the fact that this is a blatant cinematic misfire from someone who’s truly capable of much, much better. This latest offering in the smart horror genre about a widowed London divorcee (Jessie Buckley) who retreats to the country to recover from the inexplicable suicide of her husband (Paapa Essiedu) manages to maintain a certain degree of suspense in the first hour, but it seriously loses it thereafter, mixing pretention, a rambling narrative and plot developments that are wholly laughable (its closing sequence evoked more chuckles than I’ve uttered at many recent comedies). This is such an awful offering, in fact, that the only reason I didn’t give it a lower score is because of its initial edgy creepiness, its admirable production values and the laudable performance of Buckley, who somehow manages to keep this release somewhat respectable (at least until the absolutely ludicrous final act). Here’s hoping that the director has managed to purge himself of the innately obligatory clunker that nearly every talented filmmaker has within him/her at some point in his/her career, because that’s certainly what this celluloid travesty represents.

4. “A Human Position” (Norway) Web site Trailer

Billed by some as “a love letter to the banality of life,” this truly pointless offering could have just as easily been billed as “a love letter to the banality of pretentiously esoteric filmmaking.” Writer-director Anders Emblem’s second feature follows the life (if you can call it that) of a bored journalist (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) living in the Norwegian seaport of Ålesund, reporting mostly on fluff pieces and minor news stories. She lives a reasonably comfortable life with her girlfriend (Maria Agwumaro) while recovering from an undisclosed medical procedure, spending much of her free time refurbishing chairs, doting on her cat and playing board (or is it bored?) games. But, when she stumbles upon a story involving the unexplained disappearance of a foreign asylum seeker, her work gives her life new meaning – or so the film’s production notes claim. The fact is, there’s really no telling that anything has changed with this revelation, given that the picture’s tone and style remain just as flat and uninteresting at this juncture as they do at the outset and throughout the entire duration of this tedious slog. The protagonist’s deadpan performance is a genuine snooze, and the film’s countless overlong incidental exterior shots supply enough needless cinematic padding to try the patience of even the most tolerant viewer. But, above all, given how banal real life truly can be, do we honestly need a longwinded cinematic tribute to it? This one is easily skipped – a phenomenal waste of time and energy. Don’t waste yours watching this.

3. “Bullet Train” (Japan/USA) Web site Trailer

I’ll be blunt about this one – I absolutely hated it. If you’ve seen the modestly amusing trailer for director David Leitch’s latest, you’ve seen all you need to see. This overlong, ridiculously convoluted train wreck (obvious pun intended) lost my interest about 20 minutes in, and I never got it back during its 2+ hour runtime. While seemingly attempting to be a playful action comedy in the spirit of movies like “Red” (2010), “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) and the “Deadpool” franchise, “Bullet Train” instead comes across as gratuitous, nasty and mean-spirited, more like the “John Wick” offerings or the works of Quentin Tarantino, pictures that desperately stretch the meaning of “funny.” This cinematic mess tries way too hard to generate laughs but falls flat at virtually every juncture, failing to stick any of its landings. And that’s a huge disappointment given the stellar cast, including leading man Brad Pitt, whose comedic talents are wasted on a script that gives him precious little to work with. The result is a feeble, exhausting, tiresome attempt at a summertime thrill ride that tells a story not worthy of caring about, filled with repulsive characters, wholly improbable events and underwhelming special effects. In fact, the only thing positive I can say about this disaster is that, fortunately, I survived to tell about it.

2. “Funny Pages” (USA) Web site Trailer

If ever there were a film that would leave you scratching your head in bewilderment, this is it. Writer-director Owen Kline’s debut feature is a pointless, aimlessly wandering piece of cinematic crap that serves no purpose and has no redeeming artistic value (which, technically, could qualify it as porn, though, in this case, without the sex). Billed as a comedy (quite a stretch if there ever were one), this coming of age story about an aspiring prodigal underground cartoonist (Daniel Zolghadri) has little to do with coming of age or cartoons. Instead, it runs through an endless list of episodic incidents involving the protagonist and an unhinged mentor (Matthew Maher), most of which veer off into a series of unrelated, disjointed tangents characterized by voluminous amounts of yelling, violence, property damage, insults and random interactions with quirky supporting players. It seems like the filmmaker is going for some sort of ultra-edgy humor and allegedly insightful sociological statements here, but the wayward route taken to attempt to achieve those supposed objectives amounts to little more than off-putting, unbridled repulsion. Indeed, how this unmitigated garbage got green-lighted is truly beyond me. What’s even more startling, though, are the accolades it has received, including nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards competition and the Cannes Film Festival, as well as a win from the National Board of Review. This is one of those movies that genuinely leaves me wondering “What were they thinking?” when it comes to those who dreamed up the idea, those who were willing to bankroll it and those who have gone on to lavish it with wholly undeserved praise. By all means, pass this one up – and give it a wide berth at that.

1. “White Noise” (USA/UK) Web site Trailer

Well, I’ll give writer-director Noah Baumbach credit for one thing – the title accurately describes the character of this stupendously terrible film. This absolute trash heap of a movie is astonishingly bad, even by misfire standards. I lost interest about 10 minutes in and never got it back, primarily because I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on (a problem that lingered for the duration of the picture, unfortunately). Its mix of pseudointellectual, condescending dialogue, miserably failed attempts at both smart and screwball humor, less-than-subtle symbolism as an allegory for the COVID pandemic, and utter inability to engage viewers in a story that struggles to fuse comedy, drama, sci-fi, mystery, horror and a meditation on life’s big questions is mind-bendingly awful. In many ways, it tries to come across as 2022’s answer to “Don’t Look Up” (2021) but fails stunningly at capturing the incisive, biting satire and breakneck pacing of that fine offering. And what’s with the ridiculous, overlong supermarket music video that plays over the closing credits? What’s that all about? While I must admit that I have not read the 1985 novel that served as the source material for this work (and having heard that the film is supposedly quite faithful to the book), I can honestly say I’m glad I’ve never wasted my time on that, either. Indeed, I truly wish I could say something positive about this cinematic tripe, but there’s nothing to compliment, a statement I almost never make about anything I watch. I especially feel sorry for the cast that got stuck in this trainwreck, especially Adam Driver, who, despite his Golden Globe nomination for this performance, really needs to start picking better scripts (he also appeared in “Annette,” my worst film of 2021). But, then, after seeing this, I could just as readily say the same thing about the filmmaker, who needs to forget this project, walk away from it and look to get his career back on track.

Dishonorable Mentions

11. “Bad Roads” (“Plokhiye dorogi”) (Ukraine) Web site Trailer

The indignities of war can be horrendous, if not downright repulsive. And, while it’s important that these atrocities are not overlooked, the way in which their stories are told matters greatly. That’s where writer-director Natalya Vorozhbyt’s debut feature regrettably drops the ball. This collection of loosely linked vignettes set during the civil war in the Donbas region of Ukraine shortly after the Maidan Uprising presents a series of stories depicting the physical, psychological and social impact of the conflict on the area’s citizens, much of it in restrained but unflinching detail. The problem, however, rests with the specific material chosen for these vignettes. Of the four narrative threads, the first is the most compelling, credible and engaging, even if it drags somewhat in spots. The remaining three, however, suffer from a variety of issues: the second one is dull and largely pointless, and the fourth is bizarre and at times laughably silly. But the most troubling is the third, which is positively sick, twisted and perverted, even if it manages to keep from becoming overly gratuitous in telling a story that seems to have little to do with the conflict itself and that merely provides the stage for an episode of manipulation porn. What’s more, the film overall does little to shed much light on the war itself, choosing instead to focus on the individual tales for which the conflict serves as little more than a backdrop. Given that this offering was primarily made for a Ukrainian audience, perhaps the filmmaker decided that locals were already familiar enough with the kinds of issues covered here and felt that they didn’t need to be belabored in the movie’s narrative. But, for those on the outside looking in, it feels like there’s a lot of back story missing that doesn’t enhance the individual tales told in the picture’s overarching content. And, as for what’s being shown here, it’s not patently obvious that we really need to see it, no matter how realistic it might be in capturing stories typical of the subject matter upon which they’re based. In these days of the current Ukrainian conflict, it’s natural to want to be supportive of the nation’s people, culture and society in the face of the oppressive circumstances prevailing there, but that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of that region should automatically be given a pass because of its source of origin, and that’s certainly the case where this film is concerned.

12. “Amsterdam” (USA/Japan) Web site Trailer

Given this picture’s much-maligned reputation, one might legitimately wonder why anybody would want to watch it. For me, doing so was more of an exercise in curiosity than anything else, to see if it really is as bad as everyone has been saying it is. However, unfortunately, after sitting through it and severely testing my resolve to stay awake, I’m sad to report that it lives up to every bit of what’s been said about it. It’s hard to believe that a writer-director as talented as David O. Russell, who has created such impressive works as “Flirting with Disaster” (1996), “The Fighter” (2010) and “American Hustle” (2013), could create something so far off the mark as this wayward offering. Yet this convoluted puzzle of a movie, which comically attempts to tell a fact-based story about the exposure of a nefarious conspiracy theory, hopelessly fails by never finding its stride, a product of its unfocused script. While the subject may be one worthy of exploration (though this particular scenario isn’t especially compelling or overly revelatory, at least as it’s presented here), the film never latches on to the right tone or approach to tell it. The picture’s attempt to do so through a half-hearted stab at a screwball comedy doesn’t work, either, mainly due to poor pacing and humor that just never sticks its landings. All of this is unfortunate, too, given the film’s excellent production design, exquisite BAFTA-nominated costume design, superb original score and fine stellar cast (Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Andrea Riseborough, Alessandro Nivola, Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, Taylor Swift and a host of colorful character actors), most of whom are sadly given little to work with. As a result, what was once considered one of the most anticipated releases of the year turned out to be one of 2022’s greatest critical failures, not to mention one of its biggest box office bombs. But, then, that’s not entirely unexpected from a film that loses its viewers early on in the story and never manages to retrieve them. Those who are genuinely (or, perhaps more accurately, morbidly) curious about this cinematic fiasco can catch it online or on cable TV if one is really interested, but keep your pillows handy, and be sure to pack a lunch.

13. “Blonde” (USA) Web site Trailer

Put simply, Marilyn Monroe deserves better than this. Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s biographical novel about the life of the Hollywood icon is little more than an excessively overlong exercise in exploitation porn. While the film is not meant to be a literal biography of its subject, it nevertheless conveys an impression to the contrary and focuses almost exclusively on the pain and suffering Marilyn experienced at the hands of men of power, as well as distant, abusive and troubled family members. Even though the film seemingly wants to avoid presenting a sanitized version of Marilyn’s story, it often goes too far in doing so, overcompensating and crossing lines of taste that shouldn’t have been so graphically broached (no wonder it received an NC-17 rating). And, with its 2:47:00 runtime, the picture grinds these themes into the ground, becoming progressively more tawdry and sensationalist in the process. To its credit, the production features some fine black-and-white cinematography, but it resorts to so many other different styles of photography and storytelling (some of them downright silly) that it’s difficult to fathom exactly what the filmmaker was going for. The casting of Ana de Armas in the lead role was a questionable choice, too, as she wavers back and forth between scenes where she positively nails the material and others where she comes across looking like a parody of herself (her inexplicable and undeserved Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and Oscar nominations for best lead actress notwithstanding). There are a few segments – such as the chilling opening sequence – where the film genuinely captivates, and the picture’s fine supporting cast (most notably Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale) helps to shore up some of this offering’s weakest spots. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder after screening this, is this how we really want to remember Marilyn? I sure as hell don’t. And the film’s eight well-earned Razzie Award nominations, unfortunately, would seem to bear this out.

14. “You Are Not My Mother” (Ireland) Web site Trailer

Gosh, who knew that horror stories based on Irish folktales could be so boring and predictable? Well, if one were to see director Kate Dolan’s debut feature, they could find that out for sure. As a vehicle that would probably work better as a film short, this sleepy story of a teen (Hazel Doupe) whose mentally ill mother (Carolyn Bracken) begins acting especially strangely is needlessly stretched out, padded with all kinds of extraneous material that’s not particularly scary, creepy, sinister, intense or interesting. And, when the big reveal finally comes, the story is eminently predictable from that point forward, with nothing coming as a surprise. What’s more, the narrative focuses more on the mental illness element than the supernatural, making this seem more like a domestic drama than a bona fide horror flick. Skip this one; you won’t regret it.

15. “Don’t Worry Darling” (USA) Web site Trailer

Well, I’ll say this much for this one – I’m glad I didn’t pay theater ticket prices for it. Director Olivia Wilde, who made such an impressive feature debut with the high school buddy comedy “Booksmart” (2019), has definitely stumbled with her sophomore (or is it sophomoric?) outing. This mishmash of science fiction, social commentary and mystery/fantasy is too long, too ill-defined, and, at times, more than a little too obvious in its message and metaphors. In this heavy-handed portrayal of 1950s idealized American life, it quickly becomes apparent that many aspects of it are a little too on the nose while simultaneously incorporating obvious anachronisms, immediately tipping off viewers to the fact that this is not a real place nor an authentic historical re-creation. That back-handed revelation seems to be somewhat casually glossed over, however, as the picture continues to try convincing the audience otherwise with only occasional references to the contrary, a practice that needlessly stretches out the story and becomes rather repetitive in the process. A number of elements seem to be included for sheer cinematic indulgence, too, such as an inordinate number of inexplicable sequences that look like an homage to the June Taylor Dancers. To its credit, this offering does have its share of strengths, such as its superb art direction and production design, gorgeous cinematography, terrific soundtrack, and capable performances by Florence Pugh and by the director in a supporting role. Nevertheless, there’s too much redundancy and extraneous material left in here, something that I sense is more attributable to the screenplay than to the director’s efforts. Wilde is a more adept filmmaker than what is apparent here, and that would seem to be more the fault of the script than the person behind the camera. Also, there are ample aspects that appear to be “derived” from other films, including “The Stepford Wives” (1975), “Ex Machina” (2014), “Minority Report” (2002) and “The Matrix” franchise. I’m not sure who’s responsible for so much egregious “borrowing,” but it, too, becomes obvious and annoying after a while, prompting one to ask, “What movie am I actually watching here anyway?” Unfortunately, there’s truly enough wrong with this release to recommend it, so I’d heartily suggest taking a look at “Booksmart” instead to see what this director is genuinely capable of.

16. “Band” (Iceland) Web site Trailer

So is this real or real fake? It’s hard to tell when watching this “documentary” about an all-female pop group trying to make it big at middle age with their own style of Björk-esque Icelandic performance art/rock music. Writer-actor-director Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir, one of the would-be aspiring artists, who slips back and forth in front of the camera, tries to chronicle a story where it’s difficult to know where genuine ambition leaves off and bona fide spoof begins, making it difficult for viewers to know what to believe is “real” and what’s made up. That deliberate ambiguity puts this offering in a category by itself, but it’s hard to know when viewers are supposed to laugh or lament. If it’s genuine, it tells a pathetically sad story of a woeful group of performers; if it’s not, it’s an overly silly mockumentary that often tries too hard and wears out its welcome rather quickly. But, as it drones on and on, it’s unlikely anyone is going to care, even by the end of its relatively scant 1:27:00 runtime. Indeed, sometimes trying too hard to prove one’s cleverness proves nothing, as is very much the case here.

17. “Samichay: In Search of Happiness” (“Samichay”) (Peru/Spain) Web site

It’s one thing for a movie to strive for greatness; it’s something else to try too hard in achieving it. That’s the case with director Mauricio Franco Tosso’s debut feature about a destitute Andean subsistence farmer (Amiel Cayo) living with his daughter (Raquel Florentina Saihua Huainasi) and mother-in-law (Agustina Aurelia Cougar Ccallo). He struggles to make ends meet, his only potential source of income being his undernourished cow, Samichay (which, in Quechan, translates as “in search of happiness”), on whom he places high hopes for birthing a fine young calf, something that’s unlikely to happen given her health. But he soldiers on, despite these conditions and a way of life that’s slipping away. The film thus examines the question of tradition vs. progress, as well as a man trying to hold on in the face of change. Unfortunately, the premise here is rather thin, and the narrative feels padded to cover that shortcoming, relying on qualities like its beautiful black-and-white cinematography to cover the film’s central failing. But, despite such attempts at polishing the tarnish and considering this work’s serious need of editing, this is a story that could probably be whittled down to a short quite handily. Instead, the use of artsy techniques to mask what is a simple tale dressed up in a feature-length package just doesn’t work. The result is a fundamentally boring offering that aspires to nobility with a phony, inflated, euphemistic sense of loftiness that, sadly, rings patently hollow.

18. “Me and the Beasts” (“Yo y las Bestias”) (Venezuela) Web site Trailer

Though billed as a deadpan comedy, director Nico Manzano’s debut feature prompts few laughs and leaves viewers mostly perplexed as to its message, purpose and intent. In telling the story of a musician (Jesus Nunes) who quits his band over performance schedule disagreements to pursue a solo career, the film follows his frustrating exploits in trying to establish himself. Artistically, he feels fulfilled with the music he’s composing, thanks in large part to the assistance of a pair of oddly dressed “beasts” (though “muse” would probably be a more fitting word choice) (Gael Gaviota, Eduardo Bol). However, when it comes to bringing his creations to market, he runs into constant roadblocks, some brought on by poor choices and others due to the corrupt business practices and government policies in place in the downward spiraling Venezuelan economy. The result is a mix of hopefulness and frustration that keeps him from reaching his potential. Regrettably, the picture itself never reaches its potential, either, keeping viewers at bay with clumsy narrative and screenplay choices that generally just don’t work. It feels at times as if the film is an underdeveloped feature, while at other times it comes across as a padded short, filled with far too many incidental, extraneous story elements and awkwardly orchestrated pacing that’s tediously protracted. Its attempt at social allegory falls flat, too, never developing this aspect of the story as clearly and compellingly as it might have. In fact, perhaps the only saving grace here is the music itself, which is often totally mesmerizing; indeed, a concert film of the picture’s original compositions would probably have been far more preferable to what the filmmaker has come up with. In the end, a complete retooling is in order here to make its story and symbolism more engaging, entertaining and tolerable.

19. “Nana’s Boys” (USA) Web site Trailer

Breaking up is hard to do (or so they say). In any event, that’s something no one would get from watching this largely improbable offering about an African-American gay male couple (David J. Cork, Jared Wayne Gladly) whose relationship is teetering on the brink. When a sudden and massive explosion not far from their New York apartment unexpectedly throws the partners into a mandatory lockdown, their confinement leaves them to confront one another, a process full of revelations that accelerates their assessment of their circumstances and hastens a decision about how to proceed. In all sincerity, it’s a story that seems to have its heart in the right place, but, unfortunately, the writing is so implausible and unconvincing that it’s difficult to believe that this is a couple potentially on the verge of collapse, despite the alleged sensitivity it’s trying to convey. The characters sound more like they’re reciting scripted dialogue than engaging in believable conversation, and they often behave more like they’re on a date than wrestling with the course of their future. In many ways, this comes across like a more dramatic, reworked gay version of “Scenes from a Mall” (1991), only with fewer characters and staged in a more confined space (and not as compelling as its predecessor, which itself struggled to capture viewer engagement). Writer-director Ashton Pina’s debut feature truly plays like a first-time effort, one sorely in need of a hefty dose of realism, not to mention a little less overacting and a soundtrack that doesn’t sound like it was pulled from a made-for-cable TV movie. Sadly, situations like this are often messy and ugly, and their depiction shouldn’t be glossed over with the kinds of polite, make-nice tropes that riddle the narrative and screenplay here, painful though that truth may be.

20. “Nanny” (USA) Web site Trailer

When it comes to making a movie (especially one in the suspense, thriller or horror genre), there’s a big difference between “nuanced” and “obscure.” And, when it comes to writer-director Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature, it’s an offering that more often embodies the latter than the former. This tale of a Senegalese immigrant nanny (Anna Diop) caring for the young daughter (Rose Decker) of an upscale New York couple (Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Spector) follows her pursuit of starting a new life in America, a venture intruded upon by an array of strange, sporadic, inexplicable, underdeveloped hallucinations, nightmares and other paranormal experiences in what amounts to one of the most muddled, unsuspenseful thrillers I’ve ever screened. Indeed, this film’s attempt to elevate what’s supposed to be a horror offering to a purported higher level of artistry and sophistication largely falls flat due to glacial pacing, disjointed and extraneous story threads, overly subdued and unexplained imagery, and a largely predictable, underwhelming payoff that just doesn’t merit the time and attention it requires to make sense of it all. While the picture features some imaginative cinematography and editing, along with a capable lead performance by Diop, it’s nevertheless sorely lacking when it comes to a compelling narrative and cogently written script. Despite its Independent Spirit Award nomination for the Someone To Watch Award, its National Board of Review designation as one of 2022’s Top 10 Independent Films and its Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, “Nanny” fails on countless fronts. But I suppose that shouldn’t come as any surprise these days given the unremarkable state of this once-venerated film genre. Horror films just ain’t what they used to be, and this one again proves just that.

Disappointments (in alphabetical order)

“The African Desperate” (USA) Web site  Trailer

Lampooning a supposedly revered sacred cow often provides great fodder for insightful satire and raucous comedy. And, at the outset of writer-director Martine Syms’s debut feature, the filmmaker seems to be off to an auspicious start. In this tale of an African-American woman (Diamond Stingily) seeking to complete her MFA degree at a prestigious private college in rural Upstate New York, the picture launches with a wicked skewering of the pretention underlying university-level fine arts education. The dumbfounding stream of consciousness pseudointellectual observations of the degree candidate’s ivory tower professors – who end up quibbling amongst themselves during their student’s dissertation defense – is incisively hilarious, exposing these alleged erudite blowhards as the supercilious, superficial frauds they truly are. Unfortunately, despite this brilliantly crafted initial setup, the picture woefully declines from there, not really knowing where it wants to go. Much of the ensuing narrative is devoted to a drug-infused celebration in honor of the new master’s degree holder, but it’s so rambling in nature that it becomes irrelevant and uninteresting. That problem is further compounded by the picture’s uneven, ill-defined development of the protagonist’s character, leaving audiences often wondering exactly who she is. Indeed, given the foregoing, one can’t help but speculate, why does this “story” even exist? Admittedly it’s presented with some inventive cinematography and a lively, colorful production design, with a capable performance by Stingily. But, as this offering limps toward its lame, unimpressive conclusion, it grows ever more trying, a huge drop-off from its superb start. Maybe it’s because that’s all this release had going for it to begin with, and what followed was merely an ill-advised

ttempt to stretch out that concept into a feature-length production. That’s too bad because, with further development, this Independent Spirit Award John Cassavetes Award nominee might have been a sidesplitting romp. As it stands now, however, it’s little more than a great opening sketch followed by a lot of would-be comedic flotsam.

“Ahed’s Knee” (Israel/France/Germany) Web site Trailer

When a perpetually disgruntled, self-absorbed, middle-aged Israeli filmmaker (Avshalom Pollak) attends a screening of one of his films at a public library in a remote desert locale, he uses the opportunity to protest the government’s increasingly aggressive and intrusive censorship of the arts. He particularly objects to having to fill out paperwork specifying the limited scope of subjects he’ll be able to cover in his post-screening Q&A session, especially since his failure to comply will keep him from getting paid for the presentation. But, as significant as these concerns are, they’re generally not covered in much depth until far into the film, one whose opening half is dominated by a wealth of irrelevant incidental material and pointless music video-style segments, much of it filmed with needlessly jarring camera work and punctuated with shots of landscapes, people and the sky, most of which add nothing to the narrative. When the film finally manages to get on track, it truly becomes intensely engaging (albeit somewhat preachy, though understandably so). However, by then, it’s too late to effectively salvage the project, as viewers are likely to be thoroughly confused and uninterested by this point. What’s more, there are several intriguing but vastly underdeveloped story threads here that, because of a lack of attention to them, could have just as easily been left out. It’s obvious that this offering’s protagonist is essentially the alter-ego of controversial director Nadav Lapid, making this film more of a personal catharsis than anything else (though that doesn’t mean audiences have to sit through it). It’s also ironic that this production is so unabashedly angry at some of those government-backed entities that bankrolled this very project (talk about biting the hand that feeds you). Indeed, it’s unfortunate that this 2021 Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner and Palme d’Or nominee never manages to pull things together to tell a cohesive, well-made story, as it appears it genuinely has something of merit to say – that is, if you can find it.

“Corsage” (Austria/Germany/Luxembourg/France) Web site Trailer

An old saying wisely maintains “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” It’s an expression aptly accompanied by a contemporary counterpart that says “Don’t believe everything you see in the movies.” That’s especially true for historical biopics, such as this fictionalized account of a year in the life of Empress Elisbeth of Austria (1837-1898) (Vicky Krieps), a film that incorporates events that are complete and total fabrications. While writer-director Marie Kreutzer makes no attempt to conceal the fictitious nature of this Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Award nominee, the fusion of elements that faithfully reflect the character of the real-life figure with this movie’s outright tall tales seriously muddies the waters, creating a mélange of misinformation that many viewers (especially those unfamiliar with the life of the protagonist) are nevertheless likely to interpret as gospel truth. On top of that, the film clumsily mixes Nineteenth Century elements with Twentieth Century influences, particularly in the soundtrack (I’m sure Empress Elisabeth was a big fan of the Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By). While the narrative sincerely aims to spotlight the severe restrictions placed on women of the era (symbolized here by the compulsive fashion requirement of wearing a corset (or a “corsage,” as they say in German)), the credibility underlying that point is often undercut by the liberties the story takes when it comes to portraying the events and culture of the time. Also, in its attempt to present a detailed character study about the often-restless, unpredictable monarch, this BAFTA and Independent Spirit Award nominee for best foreign film tries to tackle too many of the empress’s eccentricities, personal attributes and social outlooks, frequently yielding a meandering storyline that jumps around far too much for its own good. These thematic ambitions could have just as easily been addressed by playing it straight rather than veering off into fabricated fantasies and needless truth stretching, deviations that undermine the legitimacy of the picture’s intents. To its credit, the period piece production values are exquisite, and the film provides an excellent showcase for Krieps, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard best actress award. But there are so many other aspects of this release that are just plain “off” that it’s difficult to recommend it as anything that should be taken seriously, a disappointment in light of the underlying heartfelt statement that it’s attempting to make.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (USA) Web site Trailer

While I don’t completely agree with Martin Scorsese’s contention that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, this offering could arguably add fuel to the fire supporting that viewpoint. The second installment in the “Doctor Strange” series is, quite honestly, a hot mess in so many regards, a major disappointment from its predecessor and a movie in which it’s easy to lose interest. With a storyline that requires viewers to possess considerable foreknowledge of the characters, other Marvel movies and numerous other narrative elements (particularly with regard to the cable TV series Wandavision), as well as a number of plot elements that go unresolved and the inclusion of developments that grow progressively sillier with each passing frame, director Sam Raimi’s latest becomes increasingly boring, ridiculous and disjointed the further one gets into it. What I find most insulting, however, is the shameless way this offering has been employed more as a jumping off point for other upcoming vehicles in the Marvel Universe than as a standalone work of its own, a lynchpin in the perpetuation of this continuing body of work that amounts to little more than a vehicle for promoting future Marvel productions. Despite the film’s fine cinematography and art direction and a few choice moments of comic relief, I gave up on this one with about a half hour left. Except for diehard comic book nerds, who will undoubtedly love this offering no matter what, most other viewers could save themselves a lot of time and tedium by not waiting as long as I did to bail by just skipping this one entirely.

“France” (France/Germany/Italy/Belgium) Web site Trailer

If ever there were a film that embodies the notion of “Life sucks and then you die,” this would be it. Writer-director Bruno Dumont’s latest, a depressing, cynical comedy-drama, takes the concept of weltschmerz to an entirely new level. That includes not only the content of the film’s narrative, but also the agony that’s inflicted upon audiences viewing this irritatingly slow, unfocused slog. Told from the perspective of an immensely popular French TV journalist (Léa Seydoux) who has everything that everyone supposedly wants – fame, fortune, wealth, beauty – the film follows her triumphs and tragedies, all of which leave her feeling eminently empty and depressed. Some of it is personal, some professional, and nearly always in matters of integrity, meaning and fulfillment, conditions whose absence leave life affording us precious few joys. In some ways, the film could also be seen as a metaphor for the current state of society, most notably that of France (the nation) as reflected through the experiences of France de Meurs (the protagonist). Ultimately, the foregoing may be all well and good in theory, but it’s sorely lacking where the execution of this 2021 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or nominee is concerned. Dumont truly seems to be striving for something here, but it ends up feeling more like “reaching” in the end. This overlong, often-vague, frequently repetitive, generally lost cinematic exercise truly is one well worth passing up.

“Gagarine” (France) Web site Trailer

When a rundown housing project on the outskirts of Paris is slated for demolition, its predominantly low-income immigrant residents face forced eviction and relocation. But one occupant resists. As an aspiring astronaut, 16-year-old Youri (Alseni Bathily) tries to save the complex of high-rises named in honor of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and the youngster’s namesake, who once paid a hero’s visit to the site in the wake of his historic flight. But, when the clock runs out, Youri must scramble to survive as the project’s only remaining resident. It’s at this point, though, when the picture loses its way, turning somewhat preposterous. And, the longer it goes on, the more the film turns surreally preposterous, mixing fantasy and reality in a fuzzy, disjointed way, leaving viewers wondering how the two actually mesh. The result is an unsatisfying disappointment, almost as if directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh ultimately didn’t know where to take their debut feature. That’s regrettable, given that their production seems to start off with a promising premise that loses its legs part way through. It’s commendable to dream for the stars, but you have to have a flight plan in place before you launch, something that’s sorely lacking here.

“It is in Us All” (Ireland) Web site Trailer

Upon completing my screening of this indecipherable, preposterous cinematic offering, I couldn’t help but come away from it asking myself, “What the hell did I just watch?” Writer-director Antonia Campbell-Hughes’s debut narrative feature is so “nuanced” as to be utterly vague and patently incoherent. I probably gave this one more than sufficient benefit of the doubt while watching it, awaiting a payoff (or even a half-hearted rational explanation) come movie’s end, but no such luck. The rambling, improbable screenplay of this fuzzy tale about a car accident victim (Cosmo Jarvis) who becomes inexplicably fixated about a younger uninjured survivor from the same incident (Rhys Mannion) makes virtually no sense, jumping from one ostensibly random situation to another without seeming rhyme or reason, much of it padded with repetitive extraneous shots of the rural windswept Irish landscape. What’s more, it’s puzzling why this offering was selected as a featured presentation for an LGBTQ+ film festival, given that there are precious few references to the sexuality of the protagonist or the subject of his fascination or to the gay community at large. It truly boggles my mind how reviewers have praised this incomprehensible exercise in ill-conceived, poorly executed celluloid self-indulgence. Avoid this one at all costs.

“The Man with the Answers” (Greece/Italy/Cyprus) Web site Trailer

The title of this film may be the man with the “answers,” but I found it left me with more questions than anything else. This undercooked gay romance/road trip tale suffers from a significant lack of character development and narrative direction, consisting primarily of a series of disjointed, mostly unexplained events strung together by an episodic, meandering script. This road trip through Europe, extending from Greece to Italy to Germany, provides the backdrop for a slow-simmering relationship between two opposites – a reckless free-spirited German student (Anton Weil) and an uptight, über-responsible former Greek diving champ (Vasilis Magouliotis). While the “answers” that arise during their journey always seem perfectly suited to meeting the duo’s needs, they come about so synchronistically that they often defy believability – and frequently provide the requisite conflict that drives the on-again/off-again nature of the protagonists’ relationship. And that, of course, naturally raises the question of whether these “answers” truly are answers at all. But, given the lack of explanation for and development behind all this, the end result is a story that seems lazy and all too convenient in its execution. Director Stelios Kammitsis’s sophomore effort is more sophomoric than anything else, showing that the evolution of this filmmaker’s career is going to need a lot more spit and polish if it’s going to take off.

“Memoria” (Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/UK/China/Switzerland) Web site Trailer

It reaches...and reaches...and reaches...yet its grasp never attains fulfillment, leaving viewers feeling as though they’ve been toyed with for more than two hours for a payoff that’s only modestly satisfying at best. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest has its moments of visual and audio appeal, but its protracted, heavily padded, thin, meandering narrative, coupled with half-baked character development, is a frustrating follow for even the most patient of viewers. Its exceedingly tiresome still shots (of which there are many) alone push audiences to plead for getting on with it already. Those well-versed in the paranormal and metaphysical will find this an especially dull watch, given that the filmmaker’s objective is apparent quite early on, yet the picture leaves its spectators haplessly bound to sit through the flotsam that leads to a conclusion containing few surprises and little satisfaction. “Memoria” has somehow found a fan base among the arthouse crowd, but, to be blunt, lofty pretention and contrived artistry do not translate to profound insight, and this a decidedly overinflated balloon desperately in need if being popped. And none of this takes into account the peculiar distribution plan that has accompanied this picture’s release, one that has made it extremely difficult to find and watch (though, given the result, maybe that’s a good thing). Indeed, how this one managed to walk away with awards like the Chicago Film Festival’s Gold Hugo for Best Feature and the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize (along with a Palme d’Or nomination) is truly beyond me. And to think I was actually looking forward to seeing this for months...

“Pleasure” (Sweden/Netherlands/France) Web site Trailer

OK, so I’m prepared to be branded a clueless male when it comes to my assessment of writer-director Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature about women in the porn industry, but I’ll go on the record and out on a limb to say I just didn’t get much of what this offering is trying to say. As a treatise on the objectification and degradation of women in a male-dominated industry, yes, it makes that point loud and clear, with deliberate, unbridled candor. But it does so in a story involving a young protagonist (Sofia Kappel) who willingly leaves her home in Sweden and relocates to Los Angeles with the intent of wanting to become the next big female porn star. Doesn’t that scenario speak to an ambition that she voluntarily wishes to pursue? What’s more, she freely agrees to do challenging and shocking scenes involving violence and humiliation only to try and back out of them after starting to shoot. I can’t help but wonder, what did she expect going in to these projects? It’s as if she were utterly clueless, the personification of naïvete, making me wonder, how could she have possibly agreed to those terms if she had the ambition but no idea of what she was getting herself into? It’s not that I don’t sympathize with her feelings or what she’s subjected to, but her intention and reaction under these circumstances just don’t jibe for me, making me wonder what exactly did the filmmaker have in mind here. This is a question made all the more puzzling considering how the protagonist’s story ultimately plays out. Fault the writing here, given a haphazardly constructed story and screenplay, along with a lack of back story to explain how it all came together to begin with. Moreover, Kappel simply isn’t up to the task of carrying out the role, lacking the acting chops, charisma and (at the risk of sounding sexist) requisite physical attractiveness to pull off the part of a supposedly drop-dead gorgeous porn star. And, in a story involving titillating subject matter, the simulated porn is itself, frankly, dull – not the least bit provocative, troubling or the slightest bit sexy but more disjointed, clinical and tedious. This one represents a missed opportunity to make some kind of meaningful statement (even though the central premise of the picture’s narrative is anything but groundbreaking, new or particularly revelatory). How this one captured a host of honors and nominations at film festivals and awards competitions, such as the Sundance Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards, is beyond me. Skip it.

“Rounding” (USA) Web site

I suppose there’s a story somewhere inside this medical drama/horror offering, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. Writer-director Alex Thompson’s second feature outing is a plodding, dull, unfocused jumble in which viewers wait patiently for something to happen and nothing ever does. When a brilliant young medical resident (Namir Smallwood) suffers a breakdown after losing a patient, he transfers to a small town hospital for a second chance, upon which he becomes obsessed with the mysterious symptoms of a respiratory patient (Sidney Flanigan). What follows is an unorganized collection of vague (and unscary) surreal images, tiresome dialogue laden with detailed medical jargon, unexplained and implausible plot developments, and a story that ultimately goes nowhere, one that even requires an explanation at the end by one of the characters to inform the audience of what supposedly just happened. “Rounding” is a phenomenal waste of time that fails to live up to any of its hype – or potential.

“The Woman King” (Canada/USA) Web site Trailer

Where do I begin with this one: Simply put, BAFTA and Critics Choice Award-nominated director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest offering is a wholesale mess in so many regards that I couldn’t wait for this overlong slog to end. In the course of frequently checking my watch, I was subjected to 2+ hours of sloppy writing attempting to conceal fuzzy factual accuracy, despite the film’s unapologetic contention that it’s a historic epic set in an alternate historical timeline. (Huh? That’s kind of like claiming someone is almost a virgin or just a little pregnant.) On top of this, the endless saga is peppered with too many extraneous subplots that detract from the primary narrative, silly story elements that don’t make sense, far too many repetitive war dances, corny dialogue, frequently gratuitous and credibility-stretching fight sequences, and a disappointing performance by multiple award nominee Viola Davis, who tries to come off as a badass African-American female version of John Wick. The finished product thus ends up playing like a project put together by a committee of creatives. To its credit, the picture includes some little-known legitimate historical material that some might find disconcerting, a few noteworthy and heartfelt scenes in the home stretch run, and modestly entertaining touches of comic relief, but that’s small compensation for everything else this one gets wrong. I’m sure politically correct viewers will eat this one up, especially when it comes to addressing matters of female leadership and empowerment, but I also can’t help but wonder how any enlightened woman could look at this and say that the secret to being a better individual is to act more like a male macho schmuck (like that’s something aspirational). Because of all this, I’m truly at a loss to understand what so many critics see in this release, such as those from the National Board of Review, who named it one of 2022’s Top 10 Films. Even as a pure entertainment vehicle, it just doesn’t measure up compared to many of the other action-adventure offerings out there. Catch this one on streaming – and only if you have nothing better to do.

Copyright © 2022-2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Best of 2022

It’s that time of year again, the release of my lists of best and worst films of the year.

Thankfully, 2022 was a better year for movies than either of 2020 or 2021 (pandemic considerations notwithstanding). I was pleased to have screened a wealth of fine pictures in theaters, at festivals and online. However, despite that, 2022 still had more than its share of overrated, overhyped releases that, in my opinion, were erroneously labeled “masterpieces” (some of which made their way onto my “worst” list). With that said, though, I’d like to start out on a more positive note, featuring my “best” list in this blog, the first of two devoted to addressing my assessments of the year’s cinematic offerings. But don’t worry – that “worst” list will be along soon enough.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not see every movie released in 2022 (who realistically could?), but I have seen nearly all of the major contenders (although there are a few I’ve yet to see given that they have not gone into widespread release as yet). In addition, as per custom, this blog and the one to soon follow do not address documentary offerings; films in that genre will be covered in a separate blog entry in the near future.

So, with that said, here are my Top 10 films of 2022, followed by my list of 10 honorable mentions and a list of noteworthy offerings.

Top 10 Countdown

10. “Breaking” (f/k/a “892”) (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Justice ignored is indeed justice denied. What’s more, it’s an open invitation to things easily getting out of hand as the tension behind this is dialed up to an exaggerated level. That’s precisely what happens in this taut, fact-based drama about Iraq War veteran Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), whose VA disability benefits got lost in the bureaucracy and left him homeless and desperate – so much so that he took drastic measures to inform the public about his situation and that of many of his peers. Director Abi Damaris Corbin’s second feature outing (f/k/a “892”), reminiscent of the classic epic “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), is a riveting, albeit disturbing, watch from start to finish, casting a long shadow of shame on those who lack the decency and humanity to care for those who made the effort to care for us. The picture’s stellar ensemble cast, which captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Award in this category, is superb across the board, featuring the best portrayal ever turned in by Boyega (who has come a long way from his “Star Wars” outings) and an excellent performance by the late Michael K. Williams in one of his final roles. This Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize nominee is by no means an easy film to screen, but it’s one that anyone interested in seeing justice served should watch – and take action about to see that it’s not denied again.

9. “Emily the Criminal” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Given the level of graft and corruption in contemporary society, it often seems like the only way to get ahead is to cheat, even if it means breaking the law. The age-old wisdom of working hard, playing by the rules and being fair seems “quaint” to many, especially among many of today’s young adults, who feel as though they’ve been saddled with insurmountable debt from dubious lending practices like those associated with burdening student loans. But what is one to do when the old rules simply don’t work and a new solution is needed to break out of financial bondage? Those are the questions raised in this taut new thriller about a young woman (Aubrey Plaza) torn between following her principles and being practical in the face of staggering odds working against her. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature addresses these issues head-on in a straight-up drama about what desperation can prompt us to do when we feel we’re running out of conventional options. The film provides a superb showcase for Independent Spirit Award nominee Plaza as the beleaguered protagonist, who finds it surprisingly easy to turn to what many older viewers might see as a series of questionable and unethical choices, despite the fact that she often sees no other way out of her circumstances – and the troubling path that they set her on for the future. Some may see some of the narrative’s developments as a little far-fetched, but one simultaneously can’t help but wonder what would we do if we found ourselves in the title character’s shoes. This surprisingly thoughtful offering dressed up in a somewhat conventional crime drama, the recipient of four Independent Spirit Award nominations (including best first feature), makes for an intriguing fusion of genres that will have you on the edge of your seat for its economical and always-engaging 1:37:00 runtime. Don’t sell this one short; it may not be widely known, but it’s well worth a look.

8. “Triangle of Sadness” (Sweden/France/UK/Germany/Turkey/Greece) Web site Trailer Blog

Is turnabout fair play? That’s a good question, one that’s put to the test in this outrageously hilarious sociopolitical satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund. Drawing upon themes explored in previous works like “Force Majeure” (2014) and “The Square” (2017), the filmmaker explores what happens when the über-privileged passengers aboard a luxury yacht find the tables turned on them, placing them in circumstances where those they once callously and willfully disrespected suddenly find themselves having an undeniable upper hand. But will those who were once oppressed draw from their unfortunate experiences and treat the nouveau downtrodden with dignity and compassion, or will they morph into newly emerging versions of those they previously spitefully detested? In addition to matters of money and power, the characters in this sidesplitting farce also wrestle with issues related to gender, physical beauty and social influence and how they wield their influence in these areas in their relationships with others, including both peers and those of different class status. The symbolism employed to convey these notions can be a little heavy-handed at times, but it’s always decidedly clever in its implementation, making the picture’s message readily known but without being too on the nose. Also, some of the bits – as funny as they are – occasionally go on a little too long, a quality easily apparent given the film’s unusually protracted runtime of 2:27:00, uncharacteristically long for a comedy. Nevertheless, so much of what takes place here works so well that it’s truly hard to find fault with the Palme d’Or winner from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival (the event’s highest honor), as well as the multiple nominations it received in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, BAFTA and Academy Award competitions, including an Oscar nod for best picture. This is the kind of film that one might not suspect to be quite so uproarious upon entering the theater, but it definitely delivers the goods, much in the same way that the Oscar-winning offering “Parasite” (2019) did. And, if you found that funny, you’re sure to find more of the same here.

7. “After Yang” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

How often does a movie seek to address the big questions of life? Well, if you’re the filmmaker Kogonada, the answer to that question would appear to be “every time.” Like his previous beautiful and ambitious release “Columbus” (2017), the director has followed up with an even more beautiful and ambitious project in “After Yang.” Based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” this thoughtful and emotive cinematic meditation follows the efforts of a San Francisco couple (Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith) of the future in trying to save the family’s malfunctioning trans-sapien teenage “son,” Yang (Justin H. Min), an AI who was brought into the household to act as a cultural mentor and role model to their young adopted Chinese daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). But, as those valiant attempts to save Yang progress, parents Jake and Kyra begin to discover that there is more to their surrogate child than they ever realized, raising intriguing questions about what it means to be human (or even sentient for that matter). Countless recollections bring those considerations to the fore and give both characters and viewers alike pause to examine and reevaluate outlooks that may have once been rigid but can now be looked upon in a more fluid light. With fine performances all around, stupendously gorgeous cinematography (a Kogonada hallmark) and a lovely background score, “After Yang” evokes a profound array of moods, from joyful to sad to reflective, leaving one supremely touched by the experience. These are qualities that earned the film two Independent Spirit Award nominations, a Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Award nod and the Sundance Film Festival Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. There are occasional pacing issues, and a few of the ideas raised are left less than resolved (most likely intentionally), but overall this is a truly stirring experience, one whose impact will linger long after the lights come up.

6. “Scarborough” (Canada) Web site Trailer

Living life on the edge may not breed much hope for the future, yet it’s amazing how often those who struggle under such conditions manage to hold out expectations for its arrival. Such is the message of this incredibly stirring release about the lives of a group of occupants of the Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough, a low-income section of the city that’s home to many immigrant and working class residents. This often-gritty, sometimes-heartwarming, occasionally heartbreaking coming of age tale focuses on the lives of four kids and their parents, all of whom become acquainted through their interaction at a literacy center run by a compassionate facilitator (Aliya Kanani) who does her best to provide as much assistance and support as her resources will allow. The result is a realistic but supremely touching film that exudes a spirit and magic of its own, reaching out to viewers, drawing them in and never letting them go until the lights come up. That’s quite an accomplishment for a picture with a runtime of almost 2:20:00, one that moves by at a steady pace that never sags or grows tiresome. Directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson have turned out a truly remarkable debut offering deserving of its eight 2021 Canadian Screen Awards (on 11 total nominations), including best picture, first feature, actor, supporting actress, director, adapted screenplay, casting and sound editing. This was without a doubt my favorite offering from the Milwaukee Film Festival, a picture truly deserving of a general release for the hope it instills even when things are at their bleakest.

5. “The Inspection” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Finding one’s family may not always occur where one most likely expects it. For many of us, that typically comes with our blood relations. But sometimes circumstances arise that prevent that from happening, as is the case for a twentysomething gay Black man (Jeremy Pope) who has been on his own since age 16 when his close-minded single mother (Gabrielle Union) forced him out onto the streets to fend for himself. And, after years of bouncing around aimlessly, he decides to try getting his act together by joining the Marines, a seemingly unlikely choice but one that unwittingly helps him find what he’s been looking for all along. Writer-director Elegance Bratton’s fact-based debut narrative feature tells a compelling story of acceptance among those from whom it might least be expected and its absence where one would think it should most likely be present. The film’s superb Independent Spirit Award-nominated performances by Pope and Union, along with fine supporting portrayals turned in by other members of the excellent ensemble cast (most notably Bokeem Woodbine and Raúl Castillo), truly give this picture its razor-sharp edge and its touching moments of heartfelt compassion, an unusual mix of elements in the same story, to be sure. In several regards, “The Inspection” also echoes groundbreaking themes first addressed in “Moonlight” (2016), though with slightly different but nevertheless equal significance. Admittedly, the production could probably benefit from a little more back story development and slightly brisker pacing in the first half-hour, but those are truly minor shortcomings in the greater scheme of things where this film is concerned. For its efforts, the production earned three Independent Spirit Award nominations (including best first feature), a Golden Globe Award nod for Pope’s lead actor performance and recognition from the National Board of Review as one of 2022’s Top 10 Independent Films. If this film is any indication of what we can expect in future works from this director, I can’t wait to see what else he comes up with next.

4. “Living” (UK/Japan/Sweden) Web site Trailer Blog

Based on the film “Ikiru” (1952) by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, this English adaptation of that work by filmmaker Oliver Hermanus faithfully re-creates the touching story presented in that picture in a setting a world apart from the original. When an aging button-down bureaucrat (Bill Nighy) who has spent an unimaginative life following rules, regulations and protocols receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, he quietly desires to make the most of what time he has left. But there’s just one problem: Having spent a lifetime playing it safe, he doesn’t know how to enjoy his existence or imbue it with a meaningful sense of fulfillment. He experiments with different means to bring this about, essentially leaving his daily routine behind and worrying his family and colleagues that he has mysteriously abandoned the routine he has long carried out with clocklike precision and predictability. But, no matter what “radical” steps he takes, he still feels unsatisfied. What will it take to bring about that result? That’s what this earnest searcher looks for as time is rapidly running out. While the storytelling style here may initially seem somewhat scattered, episodic and unconventional, there comes a turning point where the reasons for this become apparent, leading viewers to a new level of understanding in what proves to be a truly moving and heartfelt final act, an approach often used by Kurosawa and lovingly reproduced in this fitting cinematic homage. This is the kind of movie that will appeal most to those of a certain age (i.e., those approaching their own finish lines), and it’s one that will almost certainly grow on viewers the further they get into it, even if it doesn’t garner widespread general appeal. The standout aspect of this production, of course, is Nighy’s stellar Oscar-nominated performance, one of many awards season accolades that has, thankfully, finally yielded ample, well-deserved recognition for this long-overlooked actor. It’s a portrayal backed by a fine supporting ensemble cast, gorgeous cinematography, and the excellent adapted screenplay of Kazuo Ishiguro, who previously distinguished himself in such works as “The Remains of the Day” (1993) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010) and has captured three awards season nominations for this script. And don’t be surprised if this BAFTA Award nominee for best British film and National Board of Review Top 10 Independent Film award winner evokes a few tears along the way, a sure sign that the inspiring and emotive message of this offering is truly getting through, successfully presenting audiences with insights into the true meaning of living.

3. “Till” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Rarely does a film come along that captures and fuses feelings of outrage and heartache as effectively as “Till” does. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s third feature outing breaks things wide open in her compelling take on the tragedy of African-American Chicago teenager Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), who was lynched and brutally murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a White woman. This fact-based offering vividly depicts the brutality and injustice of what happened (faint of heart viewers be warned) while simultaneously chronicling the efforts of Till’s courageous mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), to protect and champion the civil rights of minorities. As one of the seminal moments in the struggle to protect those who were most vulnerable at a time when many in society were content to otherwise look the other way, this release shows how a fiercely loving and devoted mother forced the complacent to see what was really happening – and creating a grass roots groundswell for change in the process. The film gets just about everything right (save for a musical score that doesn’t quite seem to align with the subject matter), including in the superb period piece production values, writing that fittingly captures the mood and themes of this story, and, most notably, the performances, particularly those of Deadwyler, Hall, Whoopi Goldberg and other cast members. Regrettably, this National Board of Review Top 10 award winner has not received nearly the amount of recognition that it deserves, especially for Deadwyler, whose National Board of Review Breakthrough Performance Award and best actress nominations in the BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award contests can’t make up for her shameful snub for an Oscar nomination in the same category. Nevertheless, this is a truly important film, one that genuinely lives up to all of its billing and as one of the best offerings of 2022. By all means, please see this one.

2. “The Fabelmans” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Writer-director Steven Spielberg’s less-than-veiled autobiographical coming of age story is easily his most personal film and one of his best efforts in recent years. In a production where he faithfully follows the storyline of his own youth in which just about the only thing that has been changed is the characters’ names, he chronicles the upbringing of an aspiring young auteur (National Board of Review Breakthrough Performance Award winner Gabriel LaBelle) who developed a passion for filmmaking when virtually everyone else around him thought he was just aggressively pursuing a hobby. In telling this story, Spielberg examines the many aspects of life that touched him and influenced his work, such as the support of his concert pianist-turned-reluctant-housewife mother (Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) and his onetime-showman Uncle Boris (Oscar nominee Judd Hirsch), the impact of antisemitism as the only Jewish kid in the neighborhood, and the strife of marital discord between his mother and father (Paul Dano) and an interloping family best friend (Seth Rogen). It’s also one of the best pictures about moviemaking that I’ve ever seen, rivaling works like François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” (1973). As with many of Spielberg’s later films, this one, too, is a tad long in spots and occasionally somewhat episodic. But the polished storytelling and fine performances of the cast (especially Williams and an all-too-brief appearance by Hirsch) allow this effort to shine as one of the best releases of 2022, the recipient of seven Academy Award nods (including best picture), as well as a boatload of nominations and honors in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and National Board of Review contests. As movies go, this is one of the best at illustrating how dreams really can come true.

1. “The Whale” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

The old saying about glass houses and not throwing stones seems fittingly apropos here, both for the characters in this story and the ever-so-cynical critics who have so unfairly and recklessly flung their condescending bile-laden assessments toward this offering. Director Darren Aronofsky’s latest tells the heartbreaking and heartwarming tale of a 600-pound gay man (Brendan Fraser) whose health is quickly failing and now struggles to make up for past misgivings and to work out long-lingering self-worth issues during what time he has left, neither of which come easily and often seem insurmountable. At the same time, however, we also see a character who frequently and genuinely manages to see the best in people, despite having often been the object of cruel, unapologetic ridicule while being needlessly hard on himself. It’s an uplifting outlook that few of us are able to imagine, let alone sustain, but, having been on the receiving end of both the good and the bad in others, he chooses to look for the best and to believe that such a benevolent attitude is our natural tendency, despite seeming evidence to the contrary. Now if he could only come to embrace the same view for himself. This thoughtful, insightful picture gives us much to contemplate (something many mercilessly ignorant, shallow-minded reviewers seem to have failed to grasp), reminding us to make the most of our beliefs during the short time we have in our lives. Admittedly, there are some segments in which the dialogue is somewhat awkward and stilted (even though the rationale behind this is ultimately revealed, even if a bit odd when initially introduced). But this modest shortcoming is more than made up for by the film’s superb ensemble cast (arguably the best I’ve seen this year), with stellar performances by Fraser (truly deserving of this year’s best actor honors) and a fine crew of supporting players, including Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton and Ty Simpkins. I truly feel sorry for those who have missed the message behind this excellent offering, but, then, if they’ve never walked in the shoes of someone like the protagonist, I suppose that’s understandable. For those who have been there, though (like myself), this is a moving tale that easily draws out the compassion in others – provided they have it to give in the first place (something I have to wonder about given some of the reviews I’ve read). If it’s something that the cynics have never had to contend with before, then maybe they’ll learn something from watching this release. Thankfully, there are those who appreciate what the film has to say, as evidenced by Fraser’s Critics Choice Award for best actor, as well as the many nominations that he, co-star Hong Chau and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter have picked up in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA and Academy Award contests. See this one.

Honorable Mentions

11. “To Leslie” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog (to come)

Winning the lottery should be a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, sometimes that celebrating can be taken too far, as chronicled in director Michael Morris’s fact-based debut feature about a woman (Andrea Riseborough) who won big and lost it all while circling the bottom of a bottle. Those losses included not only her winnings, but also her possessions, friends and family, as well as whatever reliability and credibility she may have had. With virtually nothing left, she’s forced into returning home to the small west Texas town where she grew up to start over and face her demons, some of which arose before her windfall. The film’s story may be a familiar one, but there are enough elements to distinguish it from other pictures about the pains of addiction and recovery to make for a compelling watch. What works best here are the performances of the superb ensemble cast, including Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, Owen Teague, and, most notably, Riseborough, whose outstanding, largely overlooked lead portrayal is handily the best of her career, an achievement that has deservedly, if belatedly, earned her an Oscar nod and Independent Spirit Award nomination in this category. The film’s fittingly atmospheric soundtrack and ethereal cinematography significantly enhance the actions on screen and effectively capture the mood of the narrative underlying its fine screenplay. To be sure, the pacing could stand to be stepped up somewhat at times, and some story elements become slightly repetitive, particularly toward the end of the first hour. But, considering the picture’s many assets, it’s easy to see how this offering has been named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Independent Films of 2022. Catch this one online, and immerse yourself in a truly moving story.

12. “She Said” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Movies about journalism can be somewhat problematic (especially these days in this age of growing media mistrust). Which is why these films really and truly work best when they play it straight, focusing on the facts in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no grandstanding or exaggerated histrionics, and that’s one of the innate strengths of this latest offering in this genre. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation and best-selling book of the same name, “She Said” provides a fact-based recounting of the efforts of reporters Megan Twohey (Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) to uncover and document the blistering sexual misconduct allegations leveled against high-powered Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The duo’s reporting helped lead to Weinstein’s eventual conviction and the launching of the #MeToo movement aimed at exposing a clandestine culture of sexual abuse against women throughout the entertainment industry and beyond. And, as a onetime-practicing journalist myself, I appreciate the unencumbered approach the filmmaker has employed here. However, just because the film takes a rather direct approach in telling its story, that doesn’t mean it’s without its compelling moments of emotional heft, particularly in the testimony of the victims, including some, like actress Ashley Judd, who appear in the film playing themselves. Director Maria Schrader may not draw upon anything overly inventive here, and the film is admittedly a tad too long, but it nevertheless chronicles the reporting process clearly, concisely and unburdened by technical jargon or gaps in explaining the legal and journalistic consequences involved, thanks largely to its superb Critics Choice and BAFTA Award-nominated adapted screenplay. It also features a fine ensemble cast, most notably Mulligan (in one of her finest performances) and Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton in significant (and, unfortunately, completely overlooked) supporting roles. While some have called this work “pedestrian” and “plodding,” I respectfully disagree with those characterizations and would readily put it alongside works like “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Spotlight” (2015), movies that detractors of this picture have contended are far superior when, in fact, they’re all mostly on par. This offering genuinely deserves a fair shake, something it regrettably has not received to the degree it deserves (thanks to its often-unfair torpedoing by cynical critics and misogynist trolls). It brings to life an important story that was long in the offing and that has, thankfully, had a lasting, deep, culture-shifting impact.

13. “Leonor Will Never Die” (Philippines) Web site Trailer Blog

For creative types (especially writers), sometimes it’s all too easy for the lines between reality and their work to become blurred. Where does one leave off and the other begin? Indeed, can someone become so absorbed in a project that perspective becomes lost? And what does this mean for those who care (and worry) about the artist? Those are the dynamics at play in this quirky, thoughtful comedy-drama about a retired once-successful screenwriter (Sheila Francisco) who has experienced her share of heartache during her life and has now fallen on hard times during what are supposed to be her golden years. She longs to complete an unfinished work, an action film reminiscent of those frequently made in the Philippines in the 1970s, with elements similar to those also found in classic martial arts and Blaxploitation pictures of the era. However, while in the midst of writing, she experiences a freak accident that leaves her in a coma – and her consciousness in the middle of her script as one of its central heroic figures, a sudden, unexpected appearance that befuddles the characters she created. But, as her adventure plays out in her mind, her family and friends can only look on and wonder what, if anything, they can do for her – that is, until these two different worlds somehow manage to become intertwined with one another. And, as these two parallel yet interwoven stories play out, a curious mix of synchronicities, kooky laugh-out-loud moments and metaphysical insights into the nature of existence all begin to emerge (sometimes simultaneously), providing viewers with much to ponder and plenty to chuckle over. Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s multiple-layered debut feature is an absolute delight, one that tells a hilarious yet perceptive tale, a challenging narrative combination to pull off as successfully as it is here. It’s an accomplishment comparable to what was achieved in such other 2022 releases as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Strawberry Mansion.” What’s more, this offering is a campy yet lovingly reverential homage to the cheesy action flicks it so capably and intentionally mimics in terms of its clichéd camera work, trite dialogue and sloppy technical elements (like out-of-sync vocal dubbing). Admittedly, the film begins to drag a little in the home stretch, but, as a very deserving winner of the Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award and an Independent Spirit Award nominee for best international film, this is must-see viewing for those who appreciate unexpectedly profound subject matter served up with a healthy slathering of unrepentant kitsch.

14. “Argentina, 1985” (Argentina/UK/USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Seeking justice is certainly a noble pursuit, especially when the transgressions calling for it have been particularly egregious. But it can also become a rather precarious undertaking when conducted under conditions that carry potentially serious consequences, such as retribution, vocational ruin and even death threats. So it was in Argentina in the mid 1980s, when the newly restored democratic government sought to prosecute military and civic officials from the previous regime for crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, torture, rape and genocide. These allegations were leveled against authorities who viciously and gratuitously violated their mandates in seeking out possible insurgents, essentially establishing a fascist police state in which suspicions were elevated to a grotesquely exaggerated level, one that was pervasively sadistic and brutal, affected countless individuals, and spanned the entire country for a decade. But the prosecutors (Ricardo Darín, Peter Lanzani) appointed to carry out this task were reluctant to take it on given the possible ramifications they could face and the tight time frame under which they would be working. Still, there was justice to be had, and its fulfillment was crucial to fostering a stable future for the new Argentinian republic, especially given the extent of the harm and need for the nation to heal. Writer-director Santiago Mitre’s latest presents a thorough, capably told account of this courageous venture, with a solid screenplay and fine performances that effectively depict the dangers, ironies and nuances involved in this tightrope-like endeavor, as well as the personal impact on its principal figures. This National Board of Review and Golden Globe Award winner could stand a little tightening in spots, and some of the background music doesn’t always fit. But, in all, this engaging, attention-grabbing BAFTA, Critics Choice and Oscar nominee successfully avoids legal jargon and excessively detailed political considerations while revealing much about one of the most compelling judicial proceedings since Nuremburg, one that, unfortunately, reiterates the same cautionary message to have come out of that landmark event – “Never again.”

15. “Official Competition” (“Competencia official”) (Spain/Argentina) Web site Trailer Blog

Oh, to be a revered film industry artist. It affords so many opportunities for meaningful creative expression – especially when one is full of oneself. So it is for a trio of collaborators – one director (Penélope Cruz) and two rival actors (Antonio Banderas, Oscar Martínez), all of whom have personal and professional agendas, styles all their own, and egos the size of Europe – as they struggle to make a movie financed by a wealthy, 80-year-old pharmaceutical company executive (José Luis Gómez) who’s more concerned with the legacy that he’s leaving than producing great cinematic art. As they’re thrown together for this project, they seek fulfillment in their respective milieus, even if it means stepping on one another’s toes and pulling scams to achieve their desired ends. And, through it all, viewers are treated to the principals’ innocuous, pseudo-profound wisdom about creativity, life, humility and hubris. Writer-directors Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, along with screenplay colleague Andrés Duprat, have cooked up a deliciously wicked dark comedy/satire that skewers the movie industry, the arthouse film community and the festival circuit with wry, hilarious wit and sight gags, splendidly played out by Cruz, Banderas and Martínez, all of whom turn in some of their best-ever work here. The masterfully written script delivers the goods with perfect understatement and just enough believable insincerity yet raucously nasty bits to make everything work just about perfectly. There’s a slight tendency for the pacing to drag at the outset, but, in light of everything else it offers, who cares? For those who enjoy their comedy with a sharp edge accompanied by hefty doses of unbridled comeuppance, this one is for you.

16. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (USA) Web site Trailer

At the risk of overstatement, it’s hard not to be blown away by writer-director Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” This is a vast improvement over its predecessor offering (2018), if not the best picture to ever come out of the Marvel Universe. It’s the kind of film that shows comic book movies can indeed go beyond action sequences and endless explosions to offer viewers something more meaningful and substantial, a result capable of silencing critics like filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who blanketly contend that these releases are without artistic merit. What’s more, this second outing in the franchise has undoubtedly saved it from oblivion after losing its lead character in the wake of its initial outing with the untimely death of protagonist Chadwick Boseman. In addition to telling a compelling story, this film provides a credible bridge to the future while fittingly serving as a respectful tribute to its fallen star, one that honors the actor in a way that the movie industry unfortunately never did. Its tactful, reverential treatment of this issue is sure to evoke an emotional response, if not a few tears, in a truly loving but not maudlin way. Beyond that, the narrative and character development in this installment are also a significant cut above the original, telling a more engaging story with deftly nuanced themes that make its predecessor look comparatively simple. It also features fine performances by its ensemble cast, particularly Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and, most notably, Angela Bassett in an impressive Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award-winning portrayal, a role that could earn her an Oscar, as well as honors in the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA Award competitions. But what’s most impressive is the film’s handling of its principal themes, delving into concepts that action-adventure offerings rarely, if ever, do, and certainly not as capably addressed as here (making pictures like “The Woman King” appear somewhat amateurish by comparison). To be sure, there are a few elements that might have been handled better (the picture is a little too long, it underutilizes the talents of Winston Duke, and there are a few too many James Cameron-esque graphic and cinematic attributes reminiscent of “Avatar” (2009) and “The Abyss” (1989)), but these are minor shortcomings in comparison to everything else the picture has to offer. Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this release without noting that it probably wouldn’t have the same onscreen impact were it not for the tragic offscreen story that has sadly accompanied it, though the filmmakers truly deserve praise for their sensitive handling of this matter without giving in to cheap exploitation or sensationalism, results that may very well not have occurred in lesser-skilled hands. It’s truly comforting to see that the “Black Panther” franchise has managed to weather this storm and to do so as well as it has. Wakanda Forever indeed.

17. “Bros” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Who knows why relationships work or fail? That’s especially true when it comes to gay male partnerships, which often come and go like the wind and whose permanence or fleeting nature frequently rests on the unlikeliest of considerations. But sometimes they somehow manage to survive, despite their conundrums, quirkiness and seemingly deceptive dysfunctionality. Such is the case in director Nicholas Stoller’s brilliant Critics Choice Award-nominated romantic comedy about a pair of apparently mismatched partners (Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane) who wade their way through the murky, uncharted waters of same-sex romance, a sort of gay male version of “Annie Hall” (1977). In some ways, this picture employs an adapted version of a rather tried-and-true formula of boy-gets-boy/boy-loses-boy/boy-gets-boy-back-after-a-series-of-extracurricular-flings, an approach that has earned the film its share of criticism. However, given the ways in which that basic narrative is dressed up with snappy, often-hilarious writing, ample situational and sight gags, and just the right amount of heart-tugging, inspirational drama (without becoming schmaltzy or overly preachy), the picture generally succeeds across the board. Virtually all of the humor is positively spot-on, and it’s served up in an easily relatable way such that one need not be a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ+ community to grasp the jokes. The film also features an array of appearances by gay and gay-friendly icons like Harvey Fierstein, Debra Messing and Kristin Chenoweth, a variety of cameo appearances by big name Hollywood stars, and a host of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender performers. It’s also worth noting that the film’s principal producer/distributor, Universal Pictures, deserves a hearty round of applause for taking a chance on material like this. Indeed, the backing of a romantic comedy involving alternative lifestyles by a mainstream studio is truly groundbreaking in the movie industry, and one can only hope that this savvy move by a major player opens the door to greenlighting future projects of a similar nature. Sensitive viewers should be aware that there is some explicit sexual content in this release, but, considering the comic nature of much of it, it’s hard to envision not evoking laughs from even the most conservative audience members. Given the picture’s critical acclaim, it’s a shame it was overlooked at the box office and that it has been underrepresented in awards season nominations, especially when it comes to its writing. Yet, despite these shortfalls, it was truly refreshing to see a film that knocked it out of the park in 2022 as well as this one did.

18. “Broker” (“Beurokeo”) (South Korea/Japan) Web site Trailer Blog

When we look to get the best out of life for ourselves, we often need to “broker” a deal to fulfill that goal. Which is precisely what an unlikely group of seemingly unrelated happiness seekers do in this heartbreaking and heartwarming new comedy-drama from acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda. While the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner initially hooks viewers with a scenario involving a literal interpretation of the word that comprises its title – those who deal in black market babies – it skillfully moves on to explore how we attempt to get what we want out of life by brokering circumstances to our advantage, whether or not infants are part of the equation. In taking this unexpected turn, the story shows how such endeavors can have both their unsavory qualities, as well as heartfelt, sincere intentions (their inherently questionable actions and manipulative practices notwithstanding). The filmmaker accomplishes this by deftly weaving gentle humor, genuine emotion and a moving soundtrack into the narrative, taking the edge off the primary troubling story thread and adding a sense of warmth that tenderly humanizes the picture’s overall direction. Thus what may be perceived initially as a dark and sinister tale tactfully guides audiences down a different (and heart-tugging) path. This is perhaps one of Kore-eda’s best and most personal offerings, featuring a well-crafted script and what is arguably a cast of Korean all-stars (most notably Cannes Film Festival best actor winner Song Kang-ho) who deliver touching and delightful performances. There are admittedly a few points in the picture where the pacing sags a bit, but they’re more than made up for by its many strengths, making for a surprisingly satisfying watch, one of the most heartening releases of 2022.

19. “Chrissy Judy” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog (to come)

Are BFFs really forever? We might like to think so, but, given the inevitability of change, such permanence might be too much to hope for – and a source of tremendous disappointment. So it is for Judy Blewhim (Todd Flaherty) and Chrissy Snowkween (Wyatt Fenner), a struggling drag queen sister act. When they’re not performing in little-known clubs in New York and on Fire Island, the besties party their way across Gotham and its environs, living a life of fun and frolic. But, when Chrissy unexpectedly announces that she’s moving to Philadelphia to live with her boyfriend (Kiyon Spencer), the decision throws life into chaos for Judy, both in terms of her personal life and performing career, changes that don’t sit well with her. So what’s next? And how will this all affect their friendship? Such is the high drama that unfolds in this deliciously funny debut feature from writer-director Todd Flaherty. The film’s crisp screenplay, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and fine performances by its excellent ensemble cast combine to make for a compelling, enjoyable watch, a project that in many ways plays like a gay version of a Woody Allen film. It touches on themes that many offerings in this genre seldom explore, such as gay male friendships, personal responsibility and living life outside the club scene. Also, while the picture includes many familiar LGBTQ+ community elements, it successfully avoids presenting them as clichés and stereotypes, often by taking those recognizable components and turning them on their ear. In light of all this, “Chrissy Judy” proved to be a very pleasant surprise (and my favorite offering) from the Reeling International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Check this one out for a good time at the movies.

20. “Servants” (“Sluzobnici”) (Slovakia/Romania/Czech Republic/Ireland) Web site Trailer Blog

Chilling and thoughtful, director Ivan Ostrochovsky’s second narrative feature spins an edge-of-your-seat tale while simultaneously delivering an insightful meditation on what it means “to serve,” as well as presenting a workshop on outstanding camera work. Set in 1980 totalitarian Czechoslovakia, the film follows the gripping struggle of a group of students and administrators in a Bratislava seminary who are being pressured to cooperate with a Catholic organization that has agreed to side with Communist Party dictates to prevent the circulation of “subversive” ideas, all the while wrestling with their own hearts about doing what is morally and spiritually correct. Failure to go along with these requirements could result in seminarians being expelled and drafted into the military or, even worse, the permanent closure of the facility. This high-stakes morality play is a tale told in the shadows, one perfectly suited to the picture’s magnificent black-and-white cinematography, which alone is worth the price of admission. The eloquent framing of each shot and the filmmaker’s masterful execution of the picture’s mise-en-scène element are among the finest I have ever witnessed, and they enhance the storytelling by skillfully embellishing the actions playing out on screen. Some may find the pacing somewhat sluggish, but this deliberately employed tactic significantly adds to the slowly simmering narrative, upping the tension as events unfold. What I most liked about this offering, however, is the deft handling of the themes that underlie the principal storyline, adding a level of depth that takes the film to an entirely different level. It’s unfortunate that “Servants” has not received wider play or recognition, but, now that it’s available on home media and for streaming online, here’s hoping it garners the attention it genuinely deserves.

Noteworthy (in alphabetical order)

“Babylon” (USA) Web site Trailer

“Babylon” is the kind of movie that most viewers are either going to love or hate. I, for one, am one of those who’s squarely in the middle. Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s outrageous, often-hilarious, visually dazzling epic about the early days of Hollywood and the excesses that typified an emerging industry during the Roaring ʼ20s (and the attempts to rein them in during the increasingly conservative ʼ30s) tells the stories of a number of rising on-screen and off-screen stars seeking to make their way while wrestling with personal and professional demons, as well as the advances (and challenges) in using the new cinematic technologies of the era. In some regards, I like to think of this opus as one that draws from a variety of vastly different cinematic influences, most notably the curious combination of Peter Bogdanovich’s “Nickelodeon” (1976) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997), with, of course, the musical aspects from Chazelle’s own “La La Land” (2016) (despite the inherently more tawdry – and more engaging – nature of this project). Because of the narrative’s extensive breadth in terms of time frame, characters, themes and story threads, it’s not surprising to see how this offering would clock in with a runtime of 3+ hours (though there certainly are segments, such as the film’s 30-minute opening party sequence, that could have been scaled back without losing anything). With that said, however, the picture is surprisingly well paced for one of this length, thanks to the vivid visuals, superb production design, and excellent performances of a great ensemble cast, including Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo, along with fine supporting roles by Jean Smart, Tobey Maguire and Eric Roberts, among others. However, considering everything that’s been crammed into this arguably overstuffed package, there are some shortcomings worth noting, such as occasionally undercooked character development and a number of visual excesses that more than push the boundaries of acceptable taste for a mainstream film (their inclusion as a nod to the picture’s title notwithstanding). Nevertheless, as this release also clearly shows, we wouldn’t have the industry that’s grown, evolved and matured over the years were it not for the ragtag pioneers of this period, despite their individual challenges and their succumbing to the temptations present in this often-dirty business. In my view, “Babylon” is certainly deserving of much of the recognition it has earned, even if some of its content may at times seem questionable or misplaced. The film has been nominated for a wealth of honors in this year’s awards competitions (including three Oscar nods), having already taken home one statue in each of the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award competitions. No matter what, though, there’s no denying that this is quite the cinematic rollercoaster ride, something for which movies themselves are often the ideal vehicle.

“Before, Now & Then” (“Nana”) (Indonesia) Web site Trailer

The search for happiness can be an elusive one, especially when confronted by challenges on multiple fronts, even for those who ostensibly appear to be superficially contented and well off. Such is the fate of a seemingly comfortable middle-aged housewife (Happy Salma) in 1960s Indonesia, whose first husband (Ibnu Jamil), a military officer, mysteriously disappeared and whose second spouse (Arswendy Bening Swara), a plantation owner, is having a less-than-veiled affair, all of which is set against the country’s political unrest of the period. It’s a scenario further complicated by her willingness to capitulate to her circumstances and by the secrets she keeps from virtually everyone. Surprisingly, though, when her husband’s mistress (Laura Basuki) moves in with the family, the two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that leads to some difficult but unexpectedly pleasant developments. Writer-director Kamila Andini’s latest feature outing tells a slowly unfolding but ever captivating tale with surprises awaiting around every corner. The deeply heartfelt performances of Salma and Basuki reach out and grab viewers throughout, portrayals all the more enlivened by the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography, and inventive, revelatory surreal dream sequences. Admittedly, the pacing at times could be a little more up-tempo, but this is a small price to pay for an otherwise thoroughly engaging watch, one of the 2022 Chicago Film Festival’s surprise charmers.

El Houb” (“The Love”) (Netherlands) Web site Trailer Blog (to come)

What happens when enough is enough? For a closeted gay Moroccan man (Fahd Larhzaoui) living in Amsterdam, spending his life constantly looking over his shoulder and dodging questions about marriage from his family and community have truly tried his patience. And, when his father (Slimane Dazi) accidently discovers him with his Ghanaian boyfriend (Emmanuel Boafo), the incident sets off a firestorm with his parents and younger brother (Sabri Saddik). But it also represents an opportunity to finally get things out in the open once and for all, a process where he symbolically locks himself in a closet in his family home and refuses to leave until the matter is resolved. Events unfold along thematic lines during the lockdown, told through tense conversations and augmented with flashbacks, surrealistic sequences and interactions with the protagonist’s younger self (Shad Issa), encounters that benefit both the elder self and his 10-year-old counterpart. This inventive storytelling approach unearths revelations that apply not only to the beleaguered son, but also to his other family members and his loving partner, who sets a courageous example by severing relations with his relatives when those relationships no longer work. Writer-director Shariff Nasr’s debut narrative feature makes an impressive, albeit controversial, statement about knowing when to hold on and when to let go to tradition, culture and even ties to kindreds where those toxic bonds no longer serve us, regardless of the cause behind such dissolutions, but especially among those forced to endure intolerable conditions related to one’s sexuality and lifestyle. The sequence of events may come across as somewhat meandering at times, but, given the confusion and frustration in play here, who’s to say that one could remain completely rational when undergoing such as analysis. Any deficiencies in this are skillfully concealed by the picture’s excellent cinematography and production design, as well as the superb performances of its fine ensemble cast. “El Houb” represents a noteworthy start for a filmmaker who obviously has much to offer, a career that I can’t wait to see develop and unfold.

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

How well do “you” know the version of yourself (sometimes called “the localized you”) with which the majority of us are most familiar? Chances are most of us aren’t even aware of any of our other selves, but those well versed in metaphysical circles have a good sense about our innate multidimensionality, and making audiences aware of this phenomenon is what this manic comedy-drama is all about. When the beleaguered owner of a laundromat (Michelle Yeoh) is beset by issues with her husband (Ke Huy Quan), father (James Hong) and daughter (Stephanie Hsu), as well as an irascible IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), it seems, as the title would appear to imply, that everything hits all at once. But that’s nothing compared to what happens when she’s unexpectedly contacted by a different “version” of her spouse who informs her that he’s been looking for her for a long time to help resolve an issue with a growing evil in the multiverse, a task she’s supposedly best suited to address but with which she’s completely unfamiliar. However, as her awareness grows, this new adventure begins opening doors for her in unexpected ways, not only in the universe in which she dwells, but also in those in which other versions of herself reside. The result is an insightful and hilarious exploration of some heady philosophical and moral concepts, punctuated by stunningly clever visual effects, huge laughs, uproarious send-ups of a variety of other films, and dynamite performances by Yeoh and Curtis. Nevertheless, despite these fine assets and its many awards season wins and nominations (including 11 Oscar nods), the film goes on far too long, telling a story that could have easily been trimmed by about a half-hour, primarily by eliminating some bits that overstay their welcome (such as take-offs of martial arts movies that start out funny but grow tiresome after a few too many run-throughs). This offering from directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“the Daniels”) is certainly an ambitious and inventive release, but it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t know when to stop. It’s indeed worth a look, but it’s regrettable that those responsible for the picture didn’t have the wherewithal to “kill their darlings” and quit while they were ahead.

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (USA) Web site Trailer

The whodunnit genre has been a movie industry staple for ages, so coming up with a fresh take on it is essential, and this “sequel” to the box office hit “Knives Out” (2019) does a commendable job at that, with wily Louisiana Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) making a return visit to the big screen. When a group of old friends gathers for a murder mystery weekend at the palatial Greek island estate of a wealthy acquaintance (Edward Norton), Messr. Blanc makes an unexpected appearance, despite having received what seems to be an official invitation to attend. His presence kicks off a string of events that takes everyone – including the host – by surprise, leading viewers and invitees down a rabbit hole of laughs and suspense, one somewhat reminiscent of the cult classic “The Last of Sheila” (1973). I’ll admit I had my doubts about this one going in, having not been a terribly huge fan of the film’s “predecessor.” However, writer-director Rian Johnson’s second outing in this series is a pleasant surprise, with gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful production design, and delightful performances by its fine ensemble cast, particularly by Craig, Norton and National Board of Review award winner Janelle Monae. And, for its efforts, the picture was named one of the NBR’s Top 10 Films and the winner of Critics Choice Awards for best comedy and acting ensemble, as well as an Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay. Perhaps my biggest issue with the picture is its title, which is more than a little misleading: Other than the presence of Detective Benoit, there are absolutely no other connections to this film’s predecessor, so viewers expecting to see any relation to “Knives Out” in this release will be sorely disappointed. While I can understand that the inclusion of the tagline may have been viewed as a necessary marketing tactic to hook viewers, it does a disservice to both moviegoers and to the Detective Benoit character, who is obviously being tapped as the foundation for a new franchise, one whose only connection to “Knives Out” apparently has to do with the return of the sleuth from the first film in the series. If the filmmakers and distributors of this franchise truly want to build out a string of movies based on this character, perhaps a more fitting (and more accurate) title would have been something like “Glass Onion: A Benoit Blanc Mystery.” After all, as any good detective knows, when it comes to solving a crime, “The truth will out.” And, in the case of a movie along those lines, it should start with the title.

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (UK/USA) Web site Trailer

Sex is one of those topics that many of us still have a lot of trouble not only talking about, but also freely acting upon. So it is for a retired, widowed religious education teacher (Golden Globe nominee Emma Thompson) who wants to experiment and experience much of what she has missed out on most of her life while she still has the chance, a decision she acts on by availing herself of the services of a hunky young sex worker (Daryl McCormack). But, when the time comes to get busy, she finds herself uptight, tongue-tied and unable to let herself go, something her hired gun helps her work through over the course of several sessions together. In essence, he becomes her therapist as much as her escort, counseling her on the merits of embracing pleasure and shedding the inhibiting practices of her past, lessons that she, in turn, employs in helping him to resolve issues of his own. The dynamics of this unusual relationship are intimate, therapeutic and often funny, making for a diverse and emotive viewing experience. While director Sophie Hyde’s fourth feature outing can be a tad stagey at times (this vehicle would make a great stage play), screenwriter Katy Brand’s script is generally crisp, engaging and insightful, and the chemistry between the film’s two BAFTA-nominated leads is captivating, especially in the variety of moods involved in their dialogues and interactions. “Leo Grande” may not have generated much fanfare (its four BAFTA nominations notwithstanding), but this online release is certainly deserving of whatever attention it receives, serving up a bundle of laughs, heartfelt moments and a fresh perspective on sexuality, one that could potentially have a rejuvenating impact on those in need of reevaluating their views on this topic before it’s too late.

“The Moon & Back” (USA) Web site Blog (to come)

Coming of age can be difficult enough, but, when we lose someone who has been a source of valuable guidance in the midst of that process, the result can be shattering. Under conditions like that, it can be easy to lose one’s way. So it is for Lydia (Isabel May), a distraught high school senior who feels adrift after losing the father (Nat Faxon) she adored. And those who care for her and try to steer her back on track – her mother (Missi Pyle), her guidance counselor (P.J. Byrne), a neighbor (Roman Michael) and a variety of friends (Miles Gutierrez-Riley, Molly Jackson, Taiv Lee) – seem unable to help. But, when Lydia stumbles upon an original sci-fi movie screenplay that her father wrote, the discovery finally sparks her interest in tackling something productive. She decides to make a film based on the unproduced work, but her enthusiasm is challenged when she finds out just how difficult such an undertaking can be. In doing so, she learns that, at some point, coming of age means letting go and striking out on one’s own – even leaving behind the source of inspiration who helped her get so far. Writer-director Leah Bleich’s charming comedy-drama provides viewers with a refreshingly distinctive take on material typical of this genre, providing just the right amount of heart tugs but without overdoing it, all the while serving up both laughs and serious moments that successfully avoid the clichés often found in stories like this. The narrative manages to stay on track quite well, despite a few meandering lulls, keeping the storytelling crisp and economical. And, given the excellent, incisive, edgy character development here, this offering strikes me very much as being the kind of movie that “Lady Bird” (2017) was striving to be but could never quite get right because of all its overly cutesy quirkiness. Indeed, “The Moon & Back” is a fun, pleasant, enjoyable little diversion, but it’s by no means a lightweight, just what a film of this stripe should be.

Murina” (“Moray Eel”) (Croatia/Brazil/USA/Slovenia) Web site Trailer Blog

Adolescence is a time for finding oneself, especially when it comes to our sense of personal power. That’s rarely easy, but it can be especially difficult for a teenage girl trapped in a household with a chauvinistic father, a condition not uncommon in many traditional Eastern European households. Such is the fate of a quiet but independently minded Croatian adolescent (Gracija Filipovic) who longs for freedom from under the thumb of her domineering dad (Leon Lucev) and capitulating mother (Danica Curcic). But the potential for profound change arises when a wealthy old friend of her father (Cliff Curtis) pays a visit to their coastal fishing village, one that could transform her life and that of her mother, provided they have the courage to act on it. Director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s debut feature from Executive Producer Martin Scorsese presents an intense, intimate character study of an individual’s search for empowerment in the face of oppressing odds and confusing circumstances that, like the clandestine behavior of the moray eels she and her father routinely hunt, deceptively conceal much of what’s actually going on. This 2021 Cannes Film Festival Golden Camera Award winner for best first feature and three-time Independent Spirit Award nominee (including best first feature and Filipovic’s breakthrough performance) simmers slowly but builds tension well, engaging viewers handily, despite some repetitive narrative elements and occasional “atmospheric” camera work whose deliberate murkiness goes a little overboard in metaphorically depicting the intended character of the story. A number of films with themes similar to those explored here have emerged from this region in recent years, such as “Hive” (2021) and “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” (2019). That’s an indication that there’s a need for the expression of these notions, and, thankfully, filmmakers have successfully risen to the occasion, making the world more aware about conditions for women desperately in need of reform.

“Olga” (Switzerland/Ukraine/France) Web site Trailer Blog

What’s one to do when caught between the fulfillment of personal achievement or taking a stand for a larger cause? What’s more, what’s one to do when the available choices are compounded by complications that make it difficult to decide and subsequently act? Such is the conundrum for a talented 15-year-old gymnast (Anastasia Budiashkina), the daughter of a Ukrainian mother (Tanya Mikhina) and a Swiss father, training for the 2014 European Championships in Switzerland while the deadly Maidan Revolt rages in her homeland. Should she remain afar and continue with her training, or should she return to Ukraine to join the fight with her investigative journalist mother and activist best friend/former teammate (Sabrina Rubtsova)? It’s a lot to consider for someone of any age, but, for a gifted adolescent, it’s an exceedingly exasperating choice, especially when she’s also forced to address the additional issues of jealous teammates, injury and deciding which country to devote her loyalty. Writer-director Elie Grappe’s debut feature walks a perilous, tension-filled tightrope in telling a taut, compelling story that successfully fuses the political thriller and sports drama genres, featuring a superb lead performance by Budiashkina, herself a former Ukrainian gymnast. Admittedly, there are a few under-explained gaps in the narrative that detract from the flow of the story, and some of the atmospheric cinematography definitely could have been improved upon in some scenes. However, when it comes to the elements that matter most, it’s easy to see how this offering captured the SACD Prize at the 2021 Cannes Critics’ Week and also earned nominations for the film festival’s Golden Camera Award and Critics’ Week Grand Prize. “Olga” may not have attracted a lot of attention in its initial theatrical release, but it should have and definitely deserves to now that it’s available for streaming. Give it a look – you won’t be disappointed.

“Queen of Glory” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

To paraphrase an old adage, you can take someone out of their native culture, but you can’t take the native culture out of that person. So it is for a young Ghanaian doctoral student/scientist (Nana Mensah) attending Columbia University who has endeavored to become Americanized, distancing herself from what she sees as her folksy, homespun roots, including the attitudes and practices of many of her über-Christian family members. She’s also made plans to move to Ohio with her boyfriend (Adam Leon) and start a brand new life of her own. All of those plans get sidetracked, however, by her mother’s sudden death, leaving her to sort out matters related to mom’s funeral and her estate, which includes her home and a business – a saccharin-encrusted Christian bookstore. Needless to say, this leaves the beleaguered protagonist in a pickle – does she follow her dreams or remain loyal to her roots (particularly when family members engage in more than a little less-than-subtle arm-twisting)? Actor-writer-director Mensah’s delightfully wry comedy tickles the ribs with wickedly funny humor that the often-thwarted ambitious among us (especially those of us who come from overbearing families) can readily appreciate, frequently with vibes reminiscent of films like “Shiva Baby” (2020), “Home for the Holidays” (1995) and “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (2020). And, for its efforts, “Queen of Glory” earned two 2021 Independent Spirit Award nominations for best first feature and the supporting performance of Meeko Gattuso as an ex-con bookstore employee, one of many colorful supporting players in the film. A few sequences feel a little drawn out, but this is a film with its heart – and funny bone – in the right place, making for an agreeably amusing watch.

“Strawberry Mansion” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Wow, this is without a doubt one of the most inventive releases I’ve seen in a long time. This little-known sci-fi gem from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney serves up a funny, thoughtful meditation on the nature of existence, the intrusiveness of attempted mental manipulation and the perils of unbridled greed, all wrapped up in a delightful, visually sensational package. It’s also one of the most romantic stories I’ve screened in ages, conveying genuine, heartfelt emotion without ever becoming schmaltzy, a rare accomplishment in general and something rarely seen in this genre. The film’s scrupulous attention to detail in the production design and writing is absolutely astounding, and its inventive, clever creativity sparkles but without ever becoming exceedingly excessive. There’s a lot to like in this Sundance Film Festival NEXT Innovator Award nominee, as well as a lot that gives viewers pause for thought. And, aside from a slight tendency to stretch things out a little too long in the final act, there’s really not much else to criticize here. This one may not appeal to everyone, but, for those who value cinematic innovation without becoming tedious, annoying or implausible, this one is for you.

“Tár” (USA) Web site Trailer Blog

Unquestionably this is one of the most unusual offerings of 2022. And, while much of writer-filmmaker Todd Field’s latest – his first directorial effort in 16 years – succeeds, there are sequences that could definitely use some work, especially at the outset of this somewhat overlong release. This tale of a brilliant, compulsively driven maestra (Cate Blanchett) manages to muster its share of dramatic tension and artistic exuberance, but it also leaves its share of loose ends and unclear motivations, making viewers wonder why events unfold as they do (and even more so about why they should care). It’s a body of work that also leaves open the question of whether this is innately a grand tragedy of comeuppance or a tongue-in-cheek exercise in pretention (again, something more to make audiences wonder why they should care). But perhaps the biggest irritant is the picture’s annoying and tiresome tendency (especially early on as the story is establishing itself) to break into protracted, insular discussions about classical music (and the business of it) that sound more like classroom lectures (or professional gossip) than bona fide credible dialogue. Much to its credit, the film features what is perhaps one of Blanchett’s best-ever screen performances (the winner of Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards), a finely tuned ramping up of the escalating pathos the further one gets into the narrative and a positively superb classical music score. And, for its accomplishments, “Tár” has earned an array of awards and nominations, most notably six Oscar nods (including best picture). Is that enough to save the film, though? I’d provisionally say yes, but, if none of this sounds like it would appeal to you, I’d recommend that you give this one a pass and rent one of the protagonist’s many other fine releases instead.

Utama” (“Our Home”) (Bolivia/Uruguay/France) Web site Trailer

Knowing when to hold on and when to let go can be fraught with difficult, emotionally charged choices. So it is for an aging farming/ranching couple (José Calcina, Luisa Quispe) in the Bolivian highlands, where they have been facing an unusually long and devastating drought that threatens their way of life, not to mention their very existence. In their attempt to hang on, life becomes increasingly difficult, forcing them to consider their options, especially when their grandson (Santos Choque) visits and puts the question to them directly. Director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s debut feature tells an intensely meditative heart-tugging tale photographed with stunningly gorgeous cinematography, backed by the fine performances of Calcina, Quispe and Choque, all in their premiere roles. There are some noticeable issues with the subtitling, and the pacing in the second half can be somewhat sluggish at times, but the picture gets far more right than not. And, for its efforts, this thoughtfully insightful offering captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Dramatic competition. This fine release is well worth a look, especially in a world where the cycle of death and rebirth has become such a profound element in environmental, cultural and spiritual circles, aspects of life that ultimately touch us all.

“The Whaler Boy” (“Kitoboy”) (Russia/Poland/Belgium) Web site Trailer Blog

Coming of age is a universal human process that virtually everyone goes through, no matter where they live and under what conditions. So it is for Lyoshka (Vladimir Onokhov), a 15-year-old who lives with his grandfather (Nikolay Tatato) in a whale hunting village in the Chukotka region of eastern Siberia along the shores of the Bering Strait. Like many of the men in his community, which has a pronounced dearth of women, he’s a red-blooded sex-starved male whose only contact with the opposite sex is through the performers on erotic video chat sites. And, like many young men in his peer group, he’s captivated with what he sees as his hormones flourish. He’s particularly smitten with a woman who goes by the screen name HollySweet999 (Kristina Asmus), a flirtatious blonde with whom he naïvely believes he’s made a genuine personal connection. And, because of that, he’s determined to meet her by somehow crossing the narrow nearby strait and making his way to her in, of all places, Detroit, a destination he erroneously believes he can reach with speed and ease. In bringing this story to life, writer-director Phillip Yuryev’s debut feature skillfully blends aspects of multiple genres and narrative formats, including elements of road trip tales, cross-cultural stories and personal transformations, along with adventures in sexual awakening, loss of innocence and rediscovered gratitude. The picture’s expertly penned script captures and conveys a variety of moods, from refreshingly whimsical to delightfully humorous to deadly serious and even deftly surreal, making for a viewing experience that’s always engaging, never dull and generally free of flotsam. In tandem with this, though, sensitive viewers should be aware that the director rarely holds anything back, including rather explicit depictions of sexuality and graphic footage of an actual whale hunt, story elements that some might find offensive or disturbing. There is also a slight tendency for the story to drag a bit toward the end. These matters aside, however, “The Whaler Boy” is an inventive take on a formula format that could easily have become trite, clichéd and melodramatic if left in lesser skilled hands, but, thankfully, that’s not the case here. This enjoyable little-known gem is well worth the time.

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