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The Traditions of Conflict 2022 Film Awards
What I watched and appreciated
I am not much of a fan of film criticism.
At its best, a review or commentary may point out things you missed, and help you gain a better understanding of a film. It can grow your appreciation for specific movies and the medium itself. At its worst however—and it is usually at its worst—it amounts to little more than some guy reifying his own prejudices and preconceptions and cultural assumptions into a pretend measure of quality.
I am not immune to this, naturally. Any list I produce will reflect my own biases and interests and preconceptions and assumptions. It will unavoidably be quite selective and self-serving.
With that said, here are the best films of the year.1
The Top Ten
If you see only one movie in theaters this year, it probably ought to be Avatar: The Way of Water. It is visually striking, the sound design is excellent, the music is excellent, the performances are affecting—it’s not the best movie of the year, but it is the best theatrical experience of the year. James Cameron, like George Lucas, knows good world building is about attention to detail, even at the margins of the story. When the Sullys come to the Metkayina village, we briefly see and hear this Na’vi blowing a shell trumpet to announce to the community the unexpected arrival of visitors.
It’s only a few seconds of images and sound, it has no bearing on the plot, yet these are the sort of details that fill out a fictional culture and make it believable.
When Jake and his family have to leave the Omaticaya clan, we see a ritual where the clan have to symbolically ‘kill’ their former chief with a cut to the chest, which reminded me of the themes of king sacrifice and stranger-kings in works like Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Graeber and Sahlins’ On Kings. This ritual comes back around later in the film, and there are hints that perhaps in the past the Na’vi had cultural norms obligating blood revenge, which may now be more peacefully satisfied with this ritual.
A brief comment in the film similarly notes that the whale creatures used to wage war on each other in the past, but eventually came to peace. These hints that Pandora may have had a fairly bloody history despite its apparent peace and prosperity before the arrival of humans are intriguing, I wonder if future films will develop it further.
Later we see a Metkayina Na’vi healing performance, very much like the performance of ‘sucking doctors’ cross-culturally, and we learn of the symbolic brotherhood the Metkayina have with the whale creatures. Pandora is a world that feels big, and alive, and complex, still with more mysteries to uncover.
Naturally the world building isn’t perfect. The Na’vi are oddly genderless—it’s not clear if they have much of a division of labor, which is a cross-cultural universal on Earth. Male and female Na’vi wear somewhat different ornaments and clothing, but even this is mostly just to fit current WEIRD modesty norms, like keeping Na’vi female breasts covered even when they’re in the water. The Metkayina chief having only one wife is also notable: chiefs are often, though not always, polygynous cross-culturally, but this would perhaps make him less sympathetic and relatable to most WEIRDos. Still, a very entertaining film and I quite liked the world building on the whole.
I highly recommend The Northman if you are interested in history and anthropology. Robert Eggers puts you into the mentality of a fundamentally different cultural context, where receiving omens from the Gods and interacting with magical beings are just as much a part of one’s essential activities in the world as spinning fibers and growing crops. My favorite movie of the year, check it out and then read my piece on it.
Tár was the best made film this year. In a post a few years ago I compared ‘cancel culture’ to sorcery—here Todd Field suggests it’s more like being haunted by a spirit. The movie is too subtle and sharp to do justice with a summary, even referencing it in relation to its exploration of ‘cancel culture’ makes it sound parochial and didactic, yet it is neither. Cate Blanchett portrays a very complicated and compelling character, and puts on what I think was by far the best performance of the year. Pay close attention to the references to Shipibo-Conibo music and conceptions of spirits and time. And watch for what lurks in the backgrounds.
Women Talking, adapted from the novel of the same name, and based on real events, effectively deals with some very unpleasant themes. As I’ve written a lot about over the years, across many societies historically men have used violence and deception to dominate and control women. This movie shows a group of women organizing in secret to protect themselves against men’s abuses. The music by Hildur Guðnadóttir is excellent, and there are some great performances here, particularly Jessie Buckley as a deeply scarred woman who reacts mostly with misplaced anger towards her fellows.
Men was a vicious takedown of a certain kind of man. The film is sharp, beautifully shot, and the ending is wonderfully insane, but I think Alex Garland pulled his punches a bit. The sort of man Garland is highlighting for the first two-thirds of the film is an easy man to dislike. Ugly, entitled, selfish, it’s all microaggressions and resentment. There is no charismatic, sociopathic, duplicitous, womanizing ‘Chad’ here to be shown for what he is. Instead Rory Kinnear and the deceased fiancé act as stand-ins for a kind of ‘beta male’ who resents women in part due to his own failures with them. There’s lots of interesting symbolism involving The Green Man and Sheela na gig. Jessie Buckley also puts on another great performance.
Related Post: Ongoing series on male cults.
Crimes of the Future is another gem from David Cronenberg. A future where people are so reliant on technology for survival their own bodies are somewhat foreign to them. Most people no longer feel pain or experience infection, traditional pleasures are muted, there is little concern for hygiene or conventional sex, the human form has become just another plastic modifiable technology to be maintained. This film is ugly and disgusting and quite beautiful. Typical Cronenberg, really. I’m still thinking about it.
Related Post: Handy man.
Nope is a sharp film with a lot to say about human interaction with, and exploitation of, nonhuman animals. Peele focuses on observation and communication, and how sensory biases are exploited—the recurrent focus on eye contact, the use of the fake horse as a lure, the tube men, the perfect ending which is thoughtfully built on everything shown before. There’s also a great misdirect early on. The performances are all good, particularly Keke Palmer, and Keith David gets an important but very brief scene in the beginning which ties a few things together: “I guess some animals aren’t fit to be tamed.”
Top Gun: Maverick was impeccably crafted. Everything is contrived to get you as quick as possible to the exciting action set pieces and build up the sweet moments of sentimentality, yet it doesn’t insult your intelligence in doing so. A popcorn flick for adults of the kind that big dumb Marvel movies have been gradually displacing. I want more stuff like this and less comic book movies. Which brings me to my next recommendation…
The Batman, much like 2019’s Joker, shows that comic book movies can succeed by copying superior genre films from the 1970’s. There are a lot of good performances in this one, primarily coming from the great chemistry Robert Pattinson’s Batman seems to have with everyone. Batman is at his best in a dyad, either with an ally, enemy, or frenemy, and Battinson’s scenes with James Gordon, The Riddler, and Selina Kyle were all excellent. Zoë Kravitz as Selina/Catwoman was a highlight, and Paul Dano’s Riddler gets a few nice riffs and has a good freak-out scene near the end.
Related Posts: Notes on the use of Homicide Costumes.
And finally, Chup: Revenge of the Artist was a fun surprise. It’s a Hindi-language horror/thriller/black comedy about a serial killer who targets self-righteous film critics. The tone of the film bounces around a lot and it almost collapses into farce, but there are some really fun scenes and digressions on art and passion, and the final scene is pitch-black perfect.
I might edit in more later, but two honorable mentions for now: the Japanese language animated musical Inu-Oh was a ton of fun—great music and a sweet but sad story. And Mia Goth’s performance in Pearl was up there with Cate Blanchett and Jessie Buckley’s work this year, plus the film was surprisingly beautiful to look at, with lots of bright vibrant color.