From the return of the American action hero to a strange encounter to a halting father-daughter tale, these are the best films of the year
Last week, an international, decennial poll of over 1,000 writers coordinated by the British film magazine Sight and Sound led to the coronation of a new greatest movie of all time: Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s complex, minimalist domestic epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, a movie not only light-years removed from contemporary multiplex aesthetics but formally and thematically opposite from past winners like Citizen Kane and Vertigo. The upshot of this pick—beyond the predictable frenzy on Film Twitter—is that large numbers of people will seek out and watch Akerman’s superlative, near-real-time exercise in structuralist storytelling. This sets the stage for countless moments of living-room awkwardness. (I keep thinking of Carmela’s movie group on The Sopranos starting at the top of the all-time list with Citizen Kane and desultorily concluding, “Well, there was the cinematography” when it ended.) There has also been some scathing backlash, including a Facebook post by Paul Schrader in which the director accused Sight and Sound of a “politically correct rejiggering” of the poll, adding that “Jeanne Dielman will from this time forward be remembered not only as an important film in cinema history but also as a landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.”
Bad vibes, finger-pointing, quote-tweet dunks: Cinephilia is back, baby. But beyond which specific titles ended up inside or outside the Top 100 (a few stunners: no Luis Buñuel, no Howard Hawks, no Pulp Fiction), the contents of the Sight and Sound list make a collective case on behalf of analysis and explanation—and against the cynical cheerleading for movies that are “critic-proof” (a euphemism with all kinds of anti-elitist connotations). For the record, I don’t think Jeanne Dielman (which I love, but did not make my top 10 ballot) was a shocking pick, or a random one, or that the fix was in. Rather, it’s a movie that elicits a certain, burning passion in people who want to share their love of the things that cinema can do when pushed to certain limits.
For the past few years, I’ve collaborated on The Ringer’s Best Movies of the Year with Sean Fennessey, a man whose tastes are after my own—to a point. This year, I’ve got all 10 slots to myself, which brings to mind that old line about power and responsibility—one that not only predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe but resonates in a moment when people are paying more attention than usual to film critics and the strange, controversial process of canon formation. Now, I don’t know if any of the films below have a realistic chance of crashing the canon in 2032, but as the year comes to a close, they’re the ones I’ve been thinking and talking about the most.
Try to follow me on this one: Top Gun: Maverick and Jackass Forever are basically the same movie—a gracious, public attempt by a weathered icon of American-made sadomasochistic excellence to pass the torch to a new generation of daredevils, except not so fast. What links existential punching bag Johnny Knoxville to eternal flyboy Pete Mitchell (and the guy who plays him, Tom Cruise) is a desire to be the best of the best at what they do, whether that’s piloting supersonic stealth aircraft or getting blasted out of a cannon. In a moment when the internet and Martin Scorsese keep debating what makes a movie star, these dudes have the battle scars—and, with them, the gravitas—to lay claim to the designation. Both movies are hugely entertaining spectacles about, in no particular order, masculinity, camaraderie, paying one’s dues, and mastering one’s fears. That they’re both also kind of stupid isn’t a bug, but a feature. Sometimes, you just need to have the thoughts driven from your head.
Speaking of jackasses: In reducing the world to the immediate purview of a lonely, wandering donkey—inspired by Robert Bresson’s canonical livestock-as-Christ allegory Au Hasard Balthazar and named after Winnie the Pooh’s pal Eeyore—Polish stalwart Jerzy Skolimowski takes perhaps the biggest risk of his 60-year career. The end results say something about the virtue of just going with it. EO’s picaresque journey from rural circuses and rest stops through forests teeming with predators (including laser-sighted human ones) and along the sidelines of local soccer matches can be read allegorically—a four-legged pilgrim’s progress toward his own mortality—but works even better as an inventory of perception-altering camera tricks. Floating tracking shots; abstract close-ups; even deep-red dream sequences that project out of the hero’s subconscious into our own. All the standard animal-movie warnings apply: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and, if you’re Morrissey, you’ll probably hurl. But you’ll also think deeply about matters of sentience and sentimentality, and—if you’re anything like me—thank Skolimowski for knowing exactly how and when to end his movie, if not for EO’s sake, then for ours.
The ghost of John Ford has always hovered over Steven Spielberg’s films, and his burnished autobiographical fantasia The Fabelmans gives the man they called Pappy his close-up, coming in like the cavalry in the final scene to dispense crucial filmmaking advice to his spiritual protégé. But if Ford’s great theme was the relationship of outsiders to their community—the conceptual lynchpin of the American Western—The Fabelmans manifests it in fascinating ways, positing young Sammy F. (whose home frontier is scenic Phoenix) as a misfit whose gift for heightening life through the camera lens tempts him equally toward heroism and villainy. No wonder the most important movie in this exquisitely executed ode to the medium is Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a majestic meditation on who gets to write history and why. The question is less whether Spielberg has earned the right to print his own legend than what’s at stake when the greatest escapist filmmaker of all time gets confessional—whether he’s betraying his gift or, more powerfully, examining and illuminating it once and for all.
Raised to believe that her loving, wrongfully institutionalized older sister’s death was an accident rather than a death by suicide, Nan Goldin became a photographer partly out of a desire to see—and show—the truth of peoples’ lives. That the subjects she gravitated to were part of marginalized, militant, or socially invisible subcultures testifies to both sisters’ nonconformist souls. A prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, Laura Poitras’s documentary threads its archive-heavy account of Goldin’s life and artistry through its on-the-ground depiction of her activism—a scorched-earth campaign against the OxyContin profiteers masquerading as culture vultures known as the Sackler family. That Goldin’s crusade comes rooted in personal grievances as she recovers from addiction does little to curb her righteousness—where so many celebrity mouthpieces offer platitudes, she plunges into the fray with the zeal of a lifelong, camera-savvy superstar. Whether speaking, seething, or vaping, Goldin is a uniquely compelling heroine.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s grim fairy tale is titled after a tiny, burrowing insect, and like its namesake it furiously digs its way into your consciousness. When it’s over, you feel like it’s going to be stuck in your head forever. Confined to a small apartment with a man who may or may not be her father, 10-year-old Mia (Romane Hemelaers) suffers a rigorous caregiving routine: Every day, for no apparent reason, the man inserts rows of ice cubes in her toothless mouth and then leaves her to play on her own. Gradually, in austerely surreal increments, we learn just enough about Mia’s situation to care about her, and see just enough of the violent, dangerous world beyond her locked door to worry about what will happen if she ever makes it outside. In lieu of the sort of sadistic, grandstanding cruelty endemic to so much art-house horror, Hadzihalilovic splits the difference between tenderness and terror, asking to us to consider the frailties of children (and their parents) in ways that evade easy answers.
Long live the old flesh: At 79-going-on-immortal, David Cronenberg gathered together an insanely hot cast of art-house stalwarts, flew them to Athens, and pulled off a genuine Greek tragedy that begins with an act of infanticide and continues through other brutal interludes before unexpectedly touching the sublime. An auteur work in every sense—and as much an experiment in autobiography as The Fabelmans—Crimes of the Future is probably too intellectually demanding for the edgelord crowd it was marketed to, but it’s destined to hold up beyond its box office grosses (and gross-outs). Cronenberg’s prerelease claim that he has “unfinished business with the future” is borne out by a movie that feels like it’s already taking place after the end of the world as we know it. Yet it’s also powered by a potent, unsentimental optimism about the strength of our species’ survival instincts—as well as a mordant, funny curiosity about whether our bodies will be able to keep up.
There isn’t a boring shot in Park Chan-wook’s melancholy police procedural, which stands as the year’s purest example of directorial craftsmanship—a stylistic tour de force that’s more restrained than the director’s earlier exercises in taboo-poking extremes. The halting, ethically challenged romance between a master detective and the woman who may be his prime suspect is the stuff of old-fashioned noir, and Park honors the smoldering core of the genre while riffing exuberantly on its surface tropes. Playing a potential femme fatale with a commanding voice and a lonely soul, Tang Wei magnetizes the camera, as if it doesn’t want to look away—every cut in her scenes feels involuntary. Bonus points for the extraordinarily well-staged and edited climax, with its primal, mythic backdrop and harrowing depiction of true love’s ultimately self-effacing consequences: what it means to care so much about somebody else that you disappear completely.
Humble and genre-savvy enough to disavow being elevated above John Carpenter by online fans with short memories, Jordan Peele comes closer than ever to his heroes in Nope (not only Carpenter, but also Spielberg). Effectively a mashup of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a big heaping of Western iconography to give the proceedings widescreen scale, Nope is the first of Peele’s movies to fully subsume his sketch-comedy sensibility into the business of scaring an audience (instead of feeling interestingly self-divided, à la Get Out). At least two sequences are destined for future highlight reels: a Shyamalanish fake-out in a farmhouse that made my audience scream and the centerpiece sitcom-taping massacre, which shut them up completely. All of this topped off with an honor roll of needle drops that suggest Peele’s been listening to vintage Canadian rock radio. Corey Hart, fair enough, but … Gowan? “Strange Animal?” Give the man his honorary citizenship and Raptors bag.
The crime described in Alice Diop’s fact-based courtroom drama is almost beyond understanding; taking the stand to discuss her role in drowning her own 15-month-old daughter in the waters off an isolated French fishing village, Laurence (Guslagie Malanda) confesses that she hopes the trial proceedings—whose outcome is more or less inevitable—will help her come to terms with the mystery of her own behavior. The lurid, jaw-dropping revelation that Laurence, who comes from Senegal, claims to have been under the influence of witchcraft is a fake-out; while issues of culture and heritage are absolutely integral to Saint Omer, the hauntings it examines are rooted in solid, granular social reality. Time and again, the mother’s guilt is contextualized (as opposed to absolved) by details that point toward a series of irreconcilable inequalities—some specific to her life as an African immigrant in France, some located in even more ancient and jagged divides. The presence of a keen, emotionally invested journalistic observer, Rama (Kayije Kagame), gives the audience a surrogate to help organize feelings, though by the end of the film it’s clear that Diop is treating both women as protagonists. The one moment when something palpably passes between them—and, through superb use of camera placement and performance, onto us—is startling, scary, and unforgettable. It’s the sort of thing we go to the movies for.
It’s a hard thing for children to imagine their parents suffering. Charlotte Wells’s wonderful debut feature Aftersun immerses itself in precisely such sensations as anxiety and uncertainty, slowly at first and then with the sinking, suffocating feeling of being in over your head. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with Calum (Paul Mescal), who’s doing a very decent—if endearingly clumsy—job of chaperoning his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a Mediterranean holiday. Rolling with the punches of dicey bookings and underwhelming amenities—and dutifully checking in with his ex to reassure her that their kid is in good hands—he’s sweet, attentive, permissive, and just young-looking (and acting) enough to offset any potential embarrassment at his presence while Sophie’s trying to hang with the older teens by the pool. He’s a good hang, and a good dad. But he isn’t happy, and Wells’s observation of a decent man’s grueling, desperate, and finally heartbreaking efforts to disguise and overcome his own torpor is even-handed despite the urgently personal nature of the subject matter. The dreamy, sun-baked cinematography, shivery editing, and superbly curated soundtrack of ’90s pop suggest a young filmmaker in total command of the medium, and the actors’ rapport is so convincing that it’s hard to even judge their performances. Rather than representing or standing in for anything, Calum and Sophie just are.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.
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