toatali’s 2022

Most years I dedicate separate posts to my year end round up, but I’m going to ditch that for a slightly more holistic post this year – mainly because, and I’m being totally honest here – I didn’t watch nearly enough TV or play enough video games to separate them into their own lists this year. Ah well, life goes on!

TV

I’m assured there was a lot of great TV that aired this year, but because there wasn’t a new series of Succession, I’m honestly not sure why anyone even bothered to tune into anything at all.

Of course, there were still some highlights. My favourite show of the year, although admittedly not by much, was Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, which I have already written extensively about. To save you the trouble and the spoilers of my earlier post concerning it and its relation to Jordan Peele’s new blockbuster Nope, what I will say is that The Rehearsal combined Fielder’s typical sense of cringe comedy with a frankly genius exploration into the ethics of documentary making and reality TV watching. The Rehearsal is the kind of TV show that makes one especially happy for the current TV revival period we’re living in, because without the boom in streaming services and social media, it’s unlikely that anyone would give nearly as much money to a comedian like Fielder to make something as difficult and knotty as this.

A much safer bet of your budget would be in making a spin-off series to what must be the most popular crime thriller of all time, Breaking Bad. So what’s especially affirming is that Better Call Saul is not only so different to its forebearer, but also just as brilliant. The first few seasons are slightly slow-going, but the patient viewer was rewarded this year with a final season that matched and occasionally exceeded the highs of the original show. Much of this is down to Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, who provided some of the best performances on screen this year. The strength of the show manages to mine drama from their human fear and folly, rather than the occasionally cheap tricks of mystery box storytelling that plagues two of the other shows I’m about to mention. The conclusion to their story is as close to perfection as the conclusion to Breaking Bad is far from it and is one that manages to mine genuine pathos and romance from a character who started on screen as a cheap gag acted by a guy who was a regular on Tim and Eric.

Elsewhere, but also making the jump from comedy to drama were Adam Scott (of Parks and Recreation and Party Down) and Ben Stiller (director of one of the greatest films of all time – Zoolander). Stiller directs and Scott stars in Apple TV’s Severance, a show that almost makes subscribing to another streaming service seem like a good idea, if, of course, you don’t know how to torrent stuff. Severance, a sci-fi show that imagines a future where your work memories are split from your normal memories, shows beautifully the occasional necessity of comedy in creating serious drama. Although Severance is only occasionally intentionally funny, the whole thing finds its tone by relying on the comedic instincts of its stars, who can use it to sell the creepily absurdist corporate hellscape of Lumon, the sinister company at which they work.

A late addition to the list of shows I’m happy to write about is The White Lotus, specifically the second season, which marks such an incredible step-up from the first that I had to double-check it was really by the same writer. Like the first season, this too starts with the promise of a death in paradise, but unlike that season that quickly becomes the least interesting aspect of the show. Concerned with relationships and the balance of power and control within them, The White Lotus Season 2 uses its Italian backdrop to explore several sexual and romantic relationships, each defined, in some way, by an interplay of money and power. To give away how series creator Mike White resolves these dynamics would be spoiling the fun, but where this season succeeds so well is in how it provides a delicate and occasionally even optimistic look at the way we all manage to navigate our relationships.

Video Games

I played so few video games I liked this year, I’m going to have to resort to talking about ones I didn’t really enjoy. With that in mind; God of War Ragnarok finally released last month, to much fanfare – but I found very little reason to actually enjoy it. After all, while the first one was no masterpiece, it made up for its flaws with a surprisingly lean story and fast pace. The game even opened with one of the best boss fights I’ve ever played – and while Ragnarok aims to give the opening a similar jolt with its fight against Thor (and one neat little meta trick), it then seems happy to settle into a boring rhythm of walking and talking and not much fighting. Why!? Perhaps we all took the first one too seriously, because Ragnarok feels far too self-involved for something this stupid.

Instead of wasting my time listening to the inane dialogue of the characters in Ragnarok, I instead spent my last month playing the surprisingly dialogue-lite Pokemon Violet. Much has already been written about the unacceptably broken state of the game at the time of release, and indeed that has hampered a lot of my enjoyment of it, but at least you get the sense that there’s a good game buried somewhere within the mess – one that just needed the time afforded to it by a more humane game development schedule.

Pokemon actually had two entries this year; Legends Arceus earlier in the year and Scarlet and Violet later. It’s hard to say which one is better – Legends Arceus doesn’t chug every time you move the camera and the art style goes some way (but not a long way) to hiding the game’s ugliness, but I think if push came to shove I’d rather play Violet. Even though it sacrifices some of the speed of Legends, the core interplay between catching and battling is just better in Violet. Both new Pokemon games manage to revitalise a lot of the spirit of the games that had been lost in the more story-heavy, exploration-lite games of the last two generations, but they do also push the acceptable limits of what people have come to expect from a full-price video game. Hopefully the critical response to Violet will allow the developers some more time to deliver on their promising vision for the future of the franchise.

The only unmitigated success of the year for me was Elden Ring, the long-awaited open-world entry in the world of dark fantasy RPGs created by Hidetaka Miyazaki. I say “unmitigated”, but those who’ve read my review of the game may remember my somewhat lukewarm response to it. Yes, it’s true that the game falls off slightly, but the overall impact of first playing Elden Ring is still unmatched. Even within its own series, the game offers unique delights – the sprawling open areas still somehow matching the unmatched level design chops of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Even if this was the only game I had managed to play in 2022, I would consider it a good year for the medium.

Films

Ok, here’s where I can really let loose – I watched a lot of films in 2022, and here are 11 of them I would like to recommend to you, the reader.

But first – some runner-ups. The film that has stuck in my head the most this year is probably Barbarian, a horror film with a surprisingly funny and nasty structure. It loses a lot of steam once it’s finished playing all of its cards, but it knows exactly when to wrap up after that, and for the first hour or so it is entirely unmatched in sheer delights.

Everything Everywhere All At Once definitely gets my award for the best trailer of the year, but sadly it seems to give away all of the Daniels’ best tricks – the film has struck a chord for a lot of people this year, but it failed to entrance me in quite the same way, often losing my attention with some humour that doesn’t quite work, or annoying attempts at literalising philosophy (the bagel…) When it does work, though, it fires on all cylinders – the action scenes are creative, funny and impressive and the moments where the Daniels let the human emotion shine through are often surprisingly touching.

Speaking of surprising action films, I’m sure few would have expected a Tollywood epic about Indian history to have smashed box office records, but RRR proves that sometimes all you need is a man using a motorcycle as a weapon to make crowd-pleasing entertainment (see also: Devil May Cry V, Police Story). RRR has been criticised by those who know about these things as being worryingly patriotic in the wrong ways, but for most of the run-time it’s patriotic in the right ways – an awe-inspiring ode to brotherhood, music, creative on-screen action and smashing the faces of British colonisers.

Armageddon Time

Probably one of the knottiest and most confrontational films to come out of Hollywood in quite a while, Armageddon Time is writer/director James Grey’s follow up to Ad Astra, which despite being reportedly ruined in the edit by Fox, was still one of the best films of 2019. Here, Grey tries his hand at cinematic memoir, a genre currently experiencing a small boom with entries from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Joanna Hogg and Kenneth Branagh.

What sets Armageddon Time apart is Grey’s extreme self-criticism. The film is a cinematic memoir tinged with white guilt and focussed on the tricky subject of the whiteness of Jewish Americans. Following a young boy’s relationship with one of his black classmates, Armageddon Time makes a couple of missteps if viewed as a “portrait of America”, but as a portrait of the artist as a young man, it’s remarkably honest about his place in society.

Similar to this year’s Funny Pages, which also examines the relationship between class and art, the crux of Armageddon Time is an interrogation of the ties between art, opportunity and race in the West, along with the price that comes with assimilation into whiteness. It’s such a stunningly complex “issues” film that it feels like it should have come out in the 1970s rather than now, but I couldn’t be happier that it did.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Most of the criticisms I’ve seen around Martin McDonagh’s new film The Banshees of Inisherin have revolved around the fact that it’s much more theatrical than cinematic. Indeed, the original script for Banshees was intended to be a play, and there hasn’t been much effort from McDonagh to insert anything that strains the cinematic form. However, when a script is this well written and draws so much drama from such a seemingly small premise, being too theatrical seems like a small problem.

Set on a small island off the coast of Ireland, The Banshees of Inisherin is about Pádraic and Colm (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, in an In Bruges reunion), two friends whose relationship is severed when Colm realises that he wants to dedicate his life to music, instead of “inane conversations” at the pub with Pádraic.

Although constant reminders of the Irish Civil War raging on the mainland give the personal drama a political angle, the most interesting part of the tale is in the conflict between artistic creation and personal happiness; is one important enough to sacrifice another, and does fulfilment in life come from artistic success or moments of human connection? Whatever the answer, it probably won’t be solved by cutting your own fingers off.  

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

As I mentioned when talking about Armageddon Time, cinematic autobiography is becoming more and more common, but as I look back on my own childhood and many of the formative experiences I had growing up, I have to wonder just how anyone will make films that truly capture the complicated feelings involving growing up on the internet. Enter We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, made by Jane Schoenbrun in her directorial debut.

Films about the internet are still a budding genre, but clever directors have always known how to tackle it in the realms of horror, going all the way back to 1997’s Perfect Blue. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair continues that tradition by framing the narrative with a viral internet horror based challenge, but instead of being a straight horror film, World’s Fair is more of a coming-of-age drama where snippets of the lead character’s personal development are filtered through youtube videos she makes for herself and for a sinister seeming friend she finds in the “World’s Fair” community.

Making use of grainy webcam footage and disturbing creepypasta-inspired internet aesthetics, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair feels like the kind of film that will be inspirational for filmmakers for years to come; a film that isn’t afraid to tackle a kind of life and childhood that has so far gone under the radar of older and more established filmmakers.

Licorice Pizza

When I completed my first short film this year, my mum told me not only that it wasn’t very good (fair), but that really, it should be a little bit more like her favourite film of the year; Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, a film so likeable that even being told that has not given me a grudge against it.

Ever the romantic, Anderson’s latest film is a shaggy dog story that loosely centres the relationship between the 15 year old Gary and the slightly older Alana (Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in their screen debuts) as they wander around the 1970s San Fernando valley, coming across various eccentrics and dealing with their coming adulthood, which Gary runs towards and Alana tries desperately to escape.

Not all of Licorice Pizza works, and it goes on a little too long for what it’s trying to accomplish (no, mum, I’m not just jealous), but Anderson is such a brilliant director he can’t help but sell the romance, sell the time period and sell the soundtrack to me on vinyl.

(That said, I’m done with the 70s now. Let this be the line in the sand.)

Tár

Are there two scarier words in the English language right now than “cancel culture”? Almost everyone is sick of talking about the existence or lack of existence of this loosely defined term that seems to have no bearing on the real world whatsoever when Louis CK is still out there winning Grammys. And yet, here is Tár, a film that some people are calling a thesis statement on cancel culture, appearing at the top of most critics best of the year lists.

Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár, a classical composer preparing for a recording of Mahler’s 5th. The film’s writer and director, Todd Field, ties Tár neatly into the real world, peppering in details about her relationships with other famous people in the classical music world and opening the film with an interview between her and the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, playing himself and introducing the audience to Lydia and her accomplishments.

As the film progresses, the narrative’s politics seem to test the viewer; are we to sympathise with Tár as she takes down a left-wing student in her class who refuses to play classical music because of his lack of identification with white male musicians of the past? Or are we supposed to be horrified at the growing bout of revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct that start to keep her awake at night, but don’t stop her attempting a relationship with a hot young cellist in her orchestra?

The answer to all of these questions is revealed in one of the most stunning, recontextualising and funny final scenes I’ve seen in anything this year, but what makes the film worth the full time investment is the way in which Field pulls you along before this, tracking the downfall of Lydia Tár through an active prodding of the viewer’s personal sympathies that keeps your mind racing throughout.

The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier’s conclusion to his informal “Oslo Trilogy”; The Worst Person in the World feels like such an instant, warming, effortless classic that I almost forgot to mention it on here. Isn’t its position already assured? Could anyone really dislike this film, one that takes the viewer on such an honest and intimate tour of the emotional life of its lead character? Surely not.

Julie, about to turn 30, lost in her path in life, cycles through relationships with two men; a semi-successful independent cartoonist and a laid-back coffee-shop barista as she struggles to find the passion that will fuel her own reason for living.

Trading on the kind of existential struggles that everyone will at some point find themselves in, The Worst Person in the World is the kind of film that makes filmmaking look simple and easy, as if Trier simply rested the camera in Julie’s brain and pressed record. Sometimes stylishly shot, but never showing off, The Worst Person in the World is a film that you can see yourself watching over and over again, without once getting bored, each time relating to a different element, crying at a different scene.

Bergman Island

Confession time; I’ve only seen one Bergman film (Persona), so some of the references in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, in which a couple holiday on Fårö, the island where Bergman lived and worked, were lost on me. Luckily, the film stands on its own without them. Bergman Island is a beautifully made look at the creative process through the eyes of its main character; Chris, played by one of my favourite living actresses Vicky Krieps.

Bergman Island deals both with Chris’ marriage to Tony, a director of horror/exploitation cinema and her own struggles with the writing process as she hashes out a script for a film she wants to make, that is acted out in a “film within a film” structure. Bergman Island comes into its own in this segment, where the creative process and personal life merge into one extended sequence that manages to be incredibly revealing about both.

NOPE

One of two films from this year that I’ve gone long on, NOPE is the latest from Jordan Peele, who is quickly becoming one of the best and most important American directors working today. A brother and a sister trying to record a UFO that is circling over their ranch, NOPE replaces the clear metaphor of Get Out with an intense and grand-scale blockbuster about the way in which we consume media.

Having already talked some about the thematic importance of NOPE, what I want to most emphasise here is the sheer joy of it as a cinematic experience. Bolstered by a stunning soundtrack from composer Michael Abels, NOPE packs in everything you could want from a summer blockbuster; thrills, chills, action, comedy, star-making turns from accomplished performers, a memorable threat – and builds it all up to one final, spectacular sequence that has to be seen large to be believed.

Aftersun

One of my part time jobs out in the scary real world is working in a cinema, and some time last month we hosted a cast and crew screening of a film I hadn’t paid much attention to called Aftersun; the screening was attended by the main stars of the film, including one Paul Mescal. My colleagues were starstruck thanks to his winning turn in the TV show Normal People – not having seen that, I didn’t even recognise him. Now, having seen Aftersun, I’ve experienced my first case of being retroactively starstruck.

Aftersun, the debut feature of Charlotte Wells, includes what is without a doubt the best performance of the year from a lead actor (sorry Brendan, but I hated The Whale). Paul Mescal, who plays a dad taking his 11-year-old daughter on holiday, puts through one of the most beautiful, layered and tragic performances I’ve seen in a film in quite some time; Mescal does things with his face that suggest character and feelings not even hinted at by a script already this emotionally dense.

What ends up being really emotionally striking about Aftersun though, is just how little happens in it. Almost everything about the characters themselves and their lives outside this beach resort is simply hinted at by brief snippets of dialogue or the way Paul Mescal and actress Frankie Corio act towards each other and others they meet along the way. It’s a film that manages to hide everything in the margins and the background, using a clever framing device of home videos to obscure everything but the memories that the characters want to keep.  

Decision to Leave

Park Chan-Wook is one of my favourite directors and my level of anticipation for his latest film, Decision to Leave couldn’t have been any higher. Of course, I needn’t have worried; Decision to Leave may well be Park’s best film yet.

Forgoing his usual plots driven by sex and violence, Decision to Leave instead swoons with unconventional romance (my favourite kind!). A policeman investigating the death of a hiker starts to suspect his wife of doing the deed, but his investigation into her slowly turns into a love affair. Although Park Hae-il plays the lead part ably, it’s Tang Wei playing the wife who steals the show here. The audience is kept on the edge of their seat as to the nature of their relationship throughout, Wei playing beautifully both to the detective and to the camera.

This is already the bare bones of a great film, but what pushes Decision to Leave over the edge and closer to perfection is everything that Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung develop in the margins. Take, for example, the fact that Tang Wei’s character is an immigrant without a fluent grasp on the Korean language. This isn’t just a character detail, it’s a thematic link to the way in which the relationship develops, and the often-lopsided nature of the couple’s power dynamic. And who can help but be amazed at a detective film that so naturally incorporates modern technology into the investigation – turning iPhone apps into vital clues and voice notes into sweeping romantic gestures.

All of this leads into perhaps the most stunning finale of… well, at the very least of Park’s career, which already has its fair share of knock-out endings. To say anything more would be to ruin it – whatever you think of Park’s films before this, you owe it to yourself to watch Decision to Leave.

Red Rocket

When I saw Red Rocket for the first time in March, I didn’t think it would be at the top of this year’s list, but then again, it’s kind of the film that I love the most; comedic, uncomfortable, political, beautifully made and well-acted, Red Rocket has it all. It also has a scene where a man streaks naked down the streets of Texas City while *NSync plays in the background. So basically, it has it all.

Scary Movie mainstay Simon Rex plays ex-pornstar Mickey Saber, who finds himself returning to his hometown and his ex-wife’s house after everything starts to go wrong for him in LA. Saber starts off playing the charming asshole – sure, he brags about getting the award for receiving the best blowjob, but he pays the bills and works hard to earn his place. All of this starts crumbling down after he meets Strawberry, a young girl who he believes is his ticket back into the porn industry.

Writer/Director Sean Baker plays on audience expectations brilliantly here, but the real star of the show is his dedication to showcasing the worst of humanity; Mickey Saber is a dirtbag pimp and Baker shines a light on his methods in the best way possible, creating a character that is truly despicable while never compromising on making a film that is as well-crafted and human as his previous works. And once you’ve seen the film, you can read my spoiler-y thoughts on it here!

Thanks for reading! As always, if you liked this, you can do me a huge solid and follow me on twitter or donate on patreon. See you all in 2023!

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