14 Dec 2022

At the Movies - Best of 2022

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 14 December 2022

Simon Morris looks back on this year's film releases - many of which popped up on streaming platforms.

A collage of movie scenes from 2022

Photo: Various / RNZ

So we come to the end of 2022, the year that promised to get back to normal after two years of lockdowns, close-downs, reboots, reshoots, delays and even cancellations.

But "normal" proved elusive. Months of being locked out of cinemas confirmed what was already on the cards before Covid. Why go out when the streaming services offer all you could want on your computer?

Watching big-budget extravaganzas like Don't Look Up at home was certainly convenient. And with so many streamers available there were now far more titles from all over the world on offer - too many for audiences to share in fact.

Since many films don't even get a cinema release these days, audiences are often left in the dark leading up to awards season.

Now if you didn't have subscriptions to Netflix, Neon, Prime Video, Apple and all the rest, you'll never get to see half the big movies - even Oscar-winners like CODA.

CODA actually won a surprising three Oscars, including Best Film. "Surprising" because a few months on, it seems to have vanished from everyone's consciousness. Like so many films we half-heartedly watch online.

Of course, Netflix's Power of the Dog made a huge impact here when it picked up not only the Best Director Academy Award but - according to the Internet - 269 other awards around the world. Clearly, Jane Campion's going to need a bigger mantlepiece.

But this was in many ways a gala year for New Zealand films and filmmakers. Taika Waititi made Marvel Comics' Thor: Love and Thunder very much his own.

Even more popular round the world was the long-delayed Jurassic World Dominion, thanks in no small measure to the old-fashioned star power of Sir Sam Neill.

There were also an unprecedented number of actual home-grown New Zealand films this year.

There were entertaining and thoughtful thrillers like Muru, documentaries about Dame Valerie Adams and Gloriavale, by-the-numbers biopics like Whina, hit-or-miss comedies like Millie Lies Low and Nude Tuesday, and genre flicks like X.

Pick of the crop for me was a little documentary called Whetū Mārama Bright Star - the story of how Sir Hec Busby helped revive the art of Polynesian star navigation.

I loved it because, unlike so many New Zealand films, I didn't already know the story going in.

On the other side of the world, another country having rather a good year was Norway. They produced the scary Innocents and the explosive comedy Everybody Hates Johan

But a popular favourite was a charmer with the most Norwegian of titles - The worst person in the world.

Despite the title, everyone fell in love with The Worst Person in the World's Julie as she struggled to decide who to pick. The best line of the year was her "I love you and I also don't".

But this was a year of novelty from around the world. Japan led the way with the Oscar winner Drive My Car.

The critics were mostly unanimous about several other winners - the Iranian A Hero, from Spain, The Good Boss, French crime movie The Night of the 12th - and a quite brilliant animated Danish documentary about refugees called Flee.

My own favourite world movies both came - in a way - from Africa. There was a documentary called Blind Ambition about the least likely team of the year. Four novice wine tasters from Zimbabwe set off to Europe to take on the world's best.

And the other was set in Somalia at the height of the civil war. But all the protagonists of Escape from Mogadishu are Korean - North and South - and it's touch and go whether they'll get away or kill each other first.

If you think they've forgotten how to make old-school Hollywood, edge-of-your-seat thrillers, you're looking in the wrong place.

Hollywood itself continues to make remakes, reboots and sequels, but curiously, fewer than usual.

There was another Jurassic World, a further rather pointless Hogwarts prequel - The Secrets of Dumbledore - and more, in every sense of the word, Marvel Comics spectaculars.

The most of the "more" being the aptly titled Spiderman No Way Home which contrived to include anyone who'd ever been in any previous Spiderman movie.

It was a good year for incoherent excess, epitomised by an extraordinary mashup with the self-explanatory title Everything Everywhere All at Once.

At its heart was a battle across the multiverse between two middle-aged women. Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis seemed to be having a good time though.

More coherent - though that's a relative compliment - was the sci-fi/horror/satire from Jordan Peele that wowed the critics when it came out. It was called Nope.

I liked Peele's first film Get Out, was less keen on Us, the follow-up, and am reserving the final "Yep" on Nope until I see it again. Maybe.

Best title of the year was a film starring the famously unpicky Nicolas Cage. It was called The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

To many people's surprise, Unbearable Weight proved as entertaining as its title - Nicolas Cage's performance was notable for an untypical lightness of touch.

Frankly, a smart comedy like that was a rarity this year. Too many relied on special effects, in-jokes about popular culture and the charm of their stars.

George Clooney and Julia Roberts were presumably bribed with a tropical holiday to make a creaky romcom called Ticket to Paradise.

And they showed that even after 30 years they can still show the young folks how it's done. But of course, they weren't the biggest sixty-something star to conquer the cinemas in 2022.

Tom Cruise returned to his first massive hit Top Gun - it came out in 1986 - to rekindle the old magic. Not that it went anywhere, as his contemporary Nicolas Cage would say.

Top Gun Maverick was the top-grossing movie of the year and was also far better than it needed to be. The scene between Tom and his old nemesis, the now ailing Val Kilmer, was one of the most poignant of the year.

For some reason, there was a run on nostalgia for the late '50s/early '60s in 2022. Including the pair who defined the era.

Baz Luhrmann's Elvis defied all those who wondered why we needed to hear the story of the King of Rock'n'Roll yet again…

Luhrmann offered two fresh angles - his trademark, campy glamour, and the sinister presence of Elvis's manager, former fairground huckster Colonel Tom Parker. Only Tom Hanks could have made the Colonel remotely sympathetic.

And sharing the King's spotlight this year was the ultimate blonde - Marilyn Monroe.

Blonde seemed another totally unnecessary addition to the library of books and films about Marilyn.

But writer-director Andrew Dominik, and particularly star Ana de Armas, lift the old story to the level of art - albeit rather gaudy pop art.

Speaking of art, the most famous painting in Britain at the time was The Duke.

Goya's painting of the Duke of Wellington was all over the front pages in the Sixties when it was stolen. The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, provided a funny - and touching - swansong to the career of the late director Roger Michell.

Once again it was a good year for the oldies.

There was a popular remake of a dusty old favourite Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, a documentary about style icon Mary Quant, and a smarter-than-you-'d-expect reminder of that prickly comic genius Lucille Ball.

Despite the multiple Oscar nominations, Being the Ricardos barely got a release, but Aaron Sorkin's script and the performances, led by Nicole Kidman, deserved a bigger audience.

Of course, the biggest star of the year was also the most senior. It was only fitting that Roger Michell's final movie should have been Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts.

The two World Wars both got their usual fair share of coverage. Germany offered a harrowing, and timely, remake of the classic All Quiet on the Western Front, and the even more chilling The Conference, essentially the bureaucracy behind the Holocaust.

Equally true, but rather more entertaining, was Britain's Operation Mincemeat - a con job on the Nazis, dreamed up by one Ian Fleming, later the creator of James Bond.

Rather more disappointing was an over-crowded extravaganza called Amsterdam, in which writer/director David O Russell bites off a bit more than he can chew. It's a fictionalised real-life story about American Nazi sympathizers attempting to topple the Government.

A waste of a good cast, unfortunately.

A far better idea than filling the screen with famous faces is to deliver a small, simple idea with the right people.

A popular example was a twist on a romantic comedy plot - Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. A late middle-aged woman gives herself a treat - a young sex worker.

Like any good sex comedy, it's all in the telling - in this case, the totally smirk-free performances of Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson.

Meanwhile, a far darker take on the genre had no stars in it at all - the next-to-no-budget Red Rocket.

Red Rocket is a hard sell to the uninitiated, I know. Why should anyone care about the attempts of failed porn star Mikey Saber to get back to Hollywood - they involve dope-dealing, lying, cheating and an underage waitress called Strawberry?

All I can say is that director Sean Baker is a genius - he made the wonderful Florida Project a couple of years ago - and Simon Rex is the star America deserves at the moment.

Many rather bigger names queued up to be part of Wes Anderson's esoteric tribute to highbrow American journalism of the '30s and '40s - The French Dispatch.

Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and a dozen other favourites… And who doesn't like a good, old-fashioned journalism story?

The women who win awards get all the press, understandably.

But away from the headlines, what's also undeniable is that more women are getting to make their own movies, and many other films know enough now to make sure there are plenty of strong parts for women in them.

It was called The Quiet Girl - an independent Irish film told, beautifully, mostly in Irish.

Another Irish girl was equally touching - The Wonder's Kila Lord Cassidy, who had the good fortune to play opposite Florence Pugh.

Two quiet Irish girls, but my favourite this year was noisy and English. Catherine called Birdy was a medieval equivalent of a modern coming-of-age story, starring Game of Thrones' Bella Ramsey and written and directed by Lena Dunham.

At the end of the year, I like to award the traditional Cate Blanchett Award for Being in Everything to performers whose appearances were above and beyond expectations.

Certainly, last year's winner Olivia Colman was as busy as usual, as were Tilda Swinton and indeed Cate herself. But for me there can be but one winner…

The tarnished silver award goes to the tireless Anya Taylor-Joy, coming off the back of Last Night in Soho to appear in The Northman, The Menu, Amsterdam and the TV series Peaky Blinders. Well done, Anya, you played several blinders.

The men's section was equally competitive.

Will it be pop star Harry Styles, or popular favourite Timothée Chalamet? Or Idris Alba - whose six projects this year included a genie, a lion hunter in Beast and rather smaller game in Sonic the Hedgehog 2?

Worthy contenders all, but I think we can do better.

Apart from scene-stealing performances in Bullet Train and The Lost City, Brad Pitt's production house Plan B has also been responsible for a wide slate of TV and movie titles, including Blonde and She Said.

He may not have been in everything this year, but Brad's certainly been in enough to see off the competition.

I can't claim that, but I've certainly seen off this show. I wish you happy holidays, and I'll see you at the old stand this time in early 2023.