Most of us probably believed 2021 and 2022 would be better than 2020. Now that we’ve begun 2022, it doesn’t seem like it will be. Tribal virtual civil war churns on unabated. It seems many people never really listen to artists now. Why would they need artists when they have Twitter? But if you listen closely and you watch carefully you will see there is a reason, consciously or not, that these handful of films have dropped in the Academy’s lap.
Although we don’t yet know what the final ten nominees will be, we have a pretty good idea, more or less. What I love about these movies is purely selfish. I like what they say about the current state of things. That means I like artists who tell a truth. Despite everything, the truth shines through even the murkiest of waters. It’s like that one piece of gold shimmering under the surface that you recognize because it doesn’t look anything else. You are drawn to it. You want to pick it up and keep it.
Both Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast are, in their own ways, about our cold virtual civil war. Each of them is about a time and a place that survived the bloodshed. When you are in a fighting mood you aren’t in a reconciling mood. It has to get much worse before it gets any better. But artists, the best ones, make sense of things we can’t see clearly while we’re living through them. In West Side Story it’s about race, racism and territory, but it’s also about economic displacement. It’s about a working class neighborhood that was bulldozed out of existence to make space for ballet and opera patrons. It was easy to blame immigrants but not see the big money interests that was about to swallow up so much of New York and the surrounding areas. That working class, white and non-white, very much still thrives in and around the five boroughs. There is still gang warfare and battles over territory. West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet which is based on two people from two warring families that fall in love and how tribal conflict can kill such a pure and beautiful thing as that. The message could not be more clear, delivered by Maria in the chilling ending of that movie:
“All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!”
In Kenneth Branagh’s splendid Belfast. In it, Branagh very specifically illustrates how religious differences made it easy for many to resent and otherize their neighbors in 1969 Ireland, a pivotal year in Branagh’s childhood. Perhaps something about being in lockdown and looking around at what was happening inspired him to finally tell his story. Religious hatred led to dehumanization which led to war, because it always does – cold or hot, real or virtual. We understand it easier because it is about a different time and a different subject. Some of us will watch Belfast and see our world today. But probably most won’t, or won’t want to as Belfast doesn’t offer up easy villains and virtuous heroes. It makes the case that we’re all just human beings trying to do the best we can. It is far easier today if people can see the villains they believe live among them. Still, it is Belfast’s message of healing and humanity that stays with me, and it’s one I return to on the darkest days which seem to be every day now. To that end, I think Belfast stands out, along with CODA and maybe Licorice Pizza as films that give us hope when it feels like all hope is lost.
Sian Heder’s CODA is groundbreaking because it’s a film featuring actually deaf actors performing alongside Emilia Jones, the only hearing actor in the ensemble. Perhaps because it keeps getting nominated and is most definitely “in the conversation” we don’t really stop to think about what a big deal it is that CODA is about to become a Best Picture nominee. Not just because Apple will break through to the Oscar race (they made them an offer they couldn’t refuse) but because the film itself seems to open up so many possibilities. For all of the annoyance with people who insist on authenticity in performances, and those who seek to punish anyone who doesn’t comply, with CODA you see why that matters. You believe the actors in the story more because you understand that they understand what it’s actually like to live with deafness. Seeing things from another person’s point of view is what CODA is all about and why I always tear up when I write about that ending. When she understands her family is sitting in the balcony and she wants them to be able to hear what song she is singing – and she begins to sign “Both Sides Now,” it is such an incredible thing to see that they can kind of, sort of share with her that moment.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is a movie that, at least for me, grows on you. Rewatching it, especially the scenes between the two leads, is touching and memorable. With so much going on in the film overall this kind of tenderness is just part of the whole experience. But singling out their scenes together is, to me, what makes the film such an important one this year. PTA stands among a singular set of directors who feel free to explore experimental narrative forms. That’s why no matter what kind of movie he makes, it is always surprising. This film is a reminder of a different time and place – that is, I think, why it resonates so deeply.
Fear is everywhere in America and it paralyzing effects are palpable. Twitter has never been more vicious or dehumanizing than it is right now. The fear of being caught saying something or doing something or watching something or listening to something deemed “wrong” has never been higher, at least not since the 1950s.
While we don’t yet have the kind of government intervention that existed during the Red Scare and the HUAC, we have corporate monopolies that have become more powerful than the government. These corporations are responsible for making careers, maintaining platforms, enabling artists and other creative individuals to make a living. We gave that power over to them willingly, years ago, believing that they would have our own best interests at heart. But they don’t. They have their profits and shareholders in mind. To maintain their power and their status they have to be on board with the idea that outspoken people are to be punished for what they think, what they say online, how they spend their money, how they behave in the real world. Everyone is being watched all of the time to make sure they are 100% compliant.
The film that echoes this fear more than any other this year is Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, which is about another time in American history when art and artists were under the thumb of a controlling corporate ideology that drove fear and even hysteria. That was fear of communist infiltrators. Back then, it wasn’t that Lucille Ball “checked the wrong box.” It was that she might secretly be a communist. To 1950s America that was a terrifying prospect. Are you now or have you ever been… a communist? The reason is that once you were accused or suspected of being a communist, anyone who associates with you, is related to you, works with you was also then under suspicion.
But how to deal with something similar where the artists themselves, and the corporations that control their careers, are caught up in the same kind of hysteria? Watching Being the Ricardos should be a reminder of what that might feel like, to know everything you have worked for could go up in a puff of smoke, never mind those work alongside you, all because you once marked a card that tagged you as a communist.
Among the many ways we’re going collectively insane as we enter our third year of COVID, we’re dealing with existential anxiety from a number of sources. I used to be someone who saw this as most of those reading this still see it – that it’s easy to know who the “good” people and who the “bad” people are. In fact, it’s profitable to have that kind of mindset. It’s dangerous to think any other way. But to be a great artist requires seeing the bigger picture and that is what Adam McKay has done with his latest, Don’t Look Up. While it’s an easy sell to people who are worried about climate change, and believe they know who the villains are, it is how McKay portrays our insane “shiny object” culture that will resonate most strongly in the coming years – we’re all in this mess together and indeed, we did “have everything.” Or so it seems. Don’t Look Up is a mirror to our culture – as messy, contradictory, silly, and terrifying as it has become in 2022. I don’t think the movie offers up easy answers but it capture that feeling of helplessness that how we’ve built our society now is something that prevents us from seeing what really matters. If artists won’t do it, who will.
There is an enduring fascination with the western, and with reevaluating frontier tropes, and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog wades right into that iconic territory. Bringing her distinctive female point of view to a traditionally male genre (give or take a few other recent offerings), Campion brings to life the spirit of the landscape as its own character in the movie. Because it’s spare and quiet, Campion leaves room for the animals in the movie – horses, rabbits, cattle and dogs. Because she is sensitive to them she uses their vulnerability at the hands of humans to great effect. What has mankind done for all of its existence is to tame the land, and all living things. For many today, that is an easy way to lay blame at a certain kind of human – a white male kind of human – but I think it’s more complicated than that. This movie isn’t just about something so clear cut as “good” and “evil.” Rather, it’s more a mystery that unfolds: who is the protagonist really? Asking that question is the key to unlocking The Power of the Dog. And it’s really the key to surviving 2022.
Another film that is very much relevant to 2022 is Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. It probably isn’t a film that leaps to mind when people think about defining our culture now but there is an aspect to it that resonates. One of the reasons film noir was such a powerful genre in the late 1940s and through the 1950s was that it had to exist in the shadow of “normal” American life, which was, by then, striving to be utopian. McCarthyism took hold back then because communism disrupted utopia. This is not unlike the same kind of ongoing fear, panic and hysteria we’re living through now. And that is why there is something powerfully resonant about Nightmare Alley, at least to me. This is specifically true about what it says about the need to throw sacrifices into the arena for public shaming. In a time of profound social and economic despair, it was important to show people examples of other people who were even worse off and less respected. The bottom rungs of society, the discards, the human garbage. That allowed for some kind of emotional release. If a society can lay blame or shame or hatred on someone collectively, that keeps all of those on the other side safe.
The beauty of Nightmare Alley is that it’s circular. The moral of the story might be something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.” While Bradley Cooper Stanton Carlisle doesn’t exactly judge the creature he himself becomes by the end, the moral of the story is clear. Pride goeth before the fall. Nightmare Alley might be the most reflective movie of all in that way. It tells us not who we think we are, but what we risk becoming.
King Richard is a film that brings together our collective admiration for the wonders that are Venus and Serena Williams, along with a scrappy success story of their father, King Richard. The proof turned out to be in the pudding where he was concerned. No doubt he was mocked and laughed at, disregarded and written off. In the end, though, his girls were his success story. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has made one of the most enjoyable films of the year – just pure enjoyment throughout.
It’s the same kind of thing with Lin Manuel-Miranda’s tick, tick… Boom, about the tragically short life of Jonathan Larson as embodied by Andrew Garfield. Something about he electrifying commitment to his vision is connecting with people whose entire lives are dedicated to making art, or trying to. The fact that he found fame only after he died also seems to be part of the connection so many have to this film. All of the stuff we involve ourselves with that seems so important, just falls away when you realize just how short life is, and how little time we actually have. That we had three outstanding contributions from Miranda this year should also not be ignored. In the Heights, which was clearly inspired by West Side Story, Encanto inspired by his heritage, and now tick, tick… Boom, another clear inspiration for Miranda in Larson. And all of this while Hamilton is still be performed in theaters all across the country. It’s not exactly at the top of every film journalist’s list but it is something to take note of all the same.
And finally, it wouldn’t be 2022 without a movie that takes people away completely from the realities of the everyday and that transportive sensation could be one of the reasons Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has become such an awards monster, hitting almost all of the major guilds. Dune is a film that offers up a universal experience into the world of the mythological on an intergalactic scale. It’s beautiful to watch, moody and mysterious contemplate. So much is left unsaid because it is just the beginning of what promises to be an ongoing cinematic series.
While all these movies seem to be the frontrunners to be named best of the year, there are so many more that may resonate in ways that won’t necessarily be recognized by the Academy. But in these movies, I think, we have an abundance of riches, of artists who have something to say and found an extraordinary way to say it.