Friday, December 23, 2022

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2022

While I have done a better job of keeping up with current releases this year, mostly because the films that came out in 2022 are altogether more interesting than those that came out in 2021, it was still another big year for watching older movies for me. In addition to filling in some massive blind spots, including finally seeing one movie that cause multiple people on separate occasions to audibly gasp when I said I hadn't seen it, I tried to dig deeper into the works of filmmakers I was passingly familiar with but felt like I should know more about.

As such, to avoid this list being dominated by John Ford or Frederick Wiseman films, I'm only going to write about one film from each director and bundle the rest up under honourable mentions for each entry, since those directors in particularly have made a huge number of great movies and anyone looking for some suggestions could do worse than check those films out.

So here's the list of the best older movies I watched for the first time in 2022, presented in chronological release order since trying to rank these movies would drive me insane.

Dragnet Girl (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Sprightly crime romance set amidst small time crooks and the women who love them. Like the other Ozu silent films that I've seen, it's got tremendous energy to it, barrelling through the story at a pretty frenetic pace (particularly in comparison to his sound-era work, which is notably more sedate and less genre-oriented) but combines that with layered, complicated characters whose wants and conflicts are beautifully sketched by the minimal intertitles and the actors. Much less angsty than American crime films of the same period, and with a great well of empathy for people caught in a life of crime.

They Were Expendable (dir. John Ford, 1945)

I watched a lot of John Ford movies this year and this story of PT boat crews doing battle against the Japanese was one of the best. It has an incredibly poignant mix of poetic, expressive scenes about the souls of the men and women who risked their lives in WWII and starker, documentary-like action capturing the reality of what combat was like for PT boats.

It also has one of John Wayne's better performances. The eulogy he delivers near the end is a wonderful encapsulation of how much presence he brought and how captivating he could be on camera, even though he was not a particularly versatile actor. One of his least starry performances, but ironically one that illustrates why his stardom endures. (Honourable Mentions: Up the River, The Plough and the Stars, The Quiet Man, Young Mr. Lincoln)

Spring In A Small Town (dir. Fei Mu, 1948)

Someone on Twitter cited this as a film that was criminally ignored in the recent Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made and you know what? They were 100% correct. A beautifully acted, delicate chamber piece about rekindled but suppressed love that makes you care deeply for everyone in the situation, and makes any possible resolution to it more and more painful the longer the story goes on.

Titicut Follies (dir. Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

Prior to this year I was mainly familiar with Frederick Wiseman's more recent documentaries, so I decided to go back and become more familiar with his earlier work. There is a remarkable consistency to his style over the last 50 years, such as lack of narration or on-screen information to guide the audience the way many documentaries do, but nothing stands out more so than his ability to very clearly articulate his viewpoints about a given subject purely through editing. This is readily apparent in his debut, in which he captures the brutal conditions at a Massachusetts asylum, which is as searing an indictment of the people and structures that allow for such cruelty to occur as you are ever likely to see. A deeply difficult and uncomfortable watch. (Honourable Mentions: Law and Order, Basic Training, Essene)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (dir. J. Lee Thompson, 1972)

While I have seen the original 1968 Planet of the Apes many times over the years, I decided this year to finally watch the sequels, which I've long been fascinated by after reading this piece by Keith Phipps on The Dissolve (RIP to a very good film site). They're all pretty good apart from the fifth and final film, Battle For the Planet of the Apes, which really feels like they ran out of ideas and budget, but the fourth film was the one that really stuck out to me. After diverging into culture-clash time-travel comedy for much of the third film (seriously, watch these movies if you haven't, they are wild), Conquest picks up the story at the point that apes have become a slave race to humans and shows what ultimately causes them to snap and overthrow their masters. It's a stark and bleak movie (particularly the director's cut) which argues pretty strongly for violent, revolutionary solutions to oppressive systems, while also featuring the single greatest line delivery in American cinema: "I knew that circus owner was lying."

The Last of Sheila (dir. Herbert Ross, 1973)

A really fun little mystery thriller about a group of movie industry types being brought together on a yacht by a producer (James Coburn) a year after the hit-and-run death of his wife in order to play a series of games and riddles. The motives and secrets of all the attendees unfold in compelling fashion in Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins' witty script, and the atmosphere is nicely balanced between playfulness and menace. A clear influence on Glass Onion, which borrows its sun-kissed setting and premise of friends being brought together by a rich weirdo before going off in its own direction.

Hooper (dir. Hal Needham, 1978)

Usually when something is described as a love letter to cinema, it conjures up an artsy, dewy-eyed sentimental image, of people reverently staring at the silver screen in awe of the majesty of the moving image. By focusing on a stuntman (Burt Reynolds), Hooper is a love letter to the grunts and roughnecks who help make those images possible which has a lot of affection at its core, but of a rougher, rowdier sort. The stunts are, appropriately enough, really fun and exciting, and the inside baseball Hollywood stuff is handled with a deft winky knowingness that perfectly complements Reynolds' persona, without ever being quite as loose or throwaway as Smokey and the Bandit.

Dance Craze (dir. Joe Massot, 1981)

The Specials, Madness, The Beat, The Selecter, Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers in concert, what more could you want? This documentary, consisting solely of footage of the aforementioned bands with zero filler, is a thrilling snapshot of 2 Tone at its peak, given unexpected extra resonance by the recent death of Terry Hall.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1982)

Despite being a fan of Spielberg and being in the right age range to have watched the film endlessly on VHS, I had never watched E.T. in its entirety until it was re-released this year. There's really not much to say about it except that it's a masterpiece. The sense of adventure and the humour of the film still work, its depiction of suburbia feels really authentic, as do the relationships between all the kids, and the emotional moments in the back half hit like a ton of bricks even if you know them all. 

L'Argent (dir. Robert Bresson, 1983)

As pure a distillation of the idea of money as a corrupting influence as you're likely to see. The first hour is particularly great, as Bresson follows the ripples out from one schoolboy being given a counterfeit note and spending it at a shop, tracing the movement of the note as it passes from person to person. Once it settles down to focus on a single character in the last act it loses some of that energy, but only comparatively speaking since its final scenes are as declarative an indictment as its opening ones are abstract.

Star 80 (dir. Bob Fosse, 1983)

This film has the dubious distinction of being the greatest film I would never ever recommend to another person and may never watch again. In depicting the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) by her ex-boyfriend Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), Bob Fosse recreates an incredibly upsetting and sad series of events in upsetting and sad detail, while Eric Roberts gives a revelatory performance as Snider that is so pathetic and unsettling that a scene of him trying to pitch an idea to an actor and being completely shutdown is almost as difficult to watch as the murder-suicide that forms the crux of the whole story. A profoundly depressing and distressing work of true crime filmmaking lacking in any of the sick thrills that underpin the genre.

Runaway Train (dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985)

For years I only knew two things about Runaway Train: John Voight and Eric Roberts were both Oscar-nominated for it, a rarity for an action movie, and that it started out life as an Akira Kurosawa project. It's a testament to how good the film is that I pretty much immediately stopped wondering how the unmade Kurosawa version would have turned out. A taut movie about two convicts trapped on a train that is running out of control (hence the aptly blunt title), it's anchored by a bunch of great performances, cut through with an existentialist edge that really comes to the fore in the back half.

The Seventh Curse (dir. Lam Nai-Choi, 1985)

One of the most purely enjoyable films I've seen in a long time. A relentlessly fun and entertaining Hong Kong action film about people doing battles with ancient tribes and evil spirits. Seemingly the result of an experiment to see if it would be possible to create a film that it not boring for literally a single second, and a successful one.

Taipei Story (dir. Edward Yang, 1985)

Edward Yang remains one of my worst cinematic blind spots, and I started to correct that this year by watching his story of a couple slowly being pulled apart by their diverging dreams and loyalties. An endlessly evocative film that pulls at the strings holding the relationship together until it can't take any more.

Round Midnight (dir. Bernard Tavernier, 1986)

Quite simply one of the best films of the 1980s. It’s very trite and cliched to say that a film is about the power of music, but this is a rare film that fits the bill without itself being trite and cliched. A warm and empathetic film about a forgotten man being found again, and discovering community and support through his music. 

Special mention to Martin Scorsese for showing up for five minutes in the last act of the film and acting like a shot of caffeine. Truly nothing else could more effectively mark the film’s action shifting from Paris back to New York than Marty picking the characters up from the airport and talking a mile a minute.

King of New York (dir. Abel Ferrara, 1990)

For years I put off watching this because I assumed it was one of those movies that capital-L Lads love because it's brutal (like Boondock Saints), when in fact it's one of those movies that capital-L Lads love because it's brutal and a great work of cinema (like Goodfellas). Christopher Walken stars as a drug lord just released from prison who sets out to wipe out his competition in order to improve the lives of the poor and needy of New York. I love how gaunt and wan Christopher Walken is throughout. He really looks like someone who’s been hollowed out by the things he’s done, a real creature of the underworld venturing out to feed. The inclusion of Nosferatu in one scene feels like putting too fine a point on it, but then again you could never accuse Ferrara of being too subtle,

Beyond Walken, who really is magnetic in the lead role, the whole film feels like an all-star game of actors who were killing it in the ‘90s. Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi, nothing but quality. And of course Laurence Fishburne really stands out, bringing a raw nerve quality every second he’s on screen.

Nightbreed (dir. Clive Barker, 1990)

As a fan of the original Hellraiser, I was expecting Nightbreed to be fairly gruesome and to have some psycho-sexual overtones, but I did not expect it to be quite so ambitious or romantic. More of an urban fantasy story than an out and out horror, it follows a young man who discovers a secret society of monsters living under a graveyard in Calgary (sure, why not, they've gotta live somewhere) before joining them after he is killed by the police who wrongly believe him to be a serial killer. There's lots of gross and gory moments - the one that particularly sticks out in my memory being a man tearing his own scalp off - but it's mainly a story about outcasts finding community away from a world that hates them, a metaphor for homosexuality that is not hard to decipher, and which lends the film a poignancy that I found very sweet. And to top it all off, you get David Cronenberg as a deeply unnerving psychiatrist

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (dirs. Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski 1993)

Despite being obsessed with Batman: The Animated Series as a child, I never watched the feature-length spinoff, which means that for all this time I had denied myself one of, if not the best, cinematic Batman stories, as Bruce Wayne (the much-missed Kevin Conroy) is faced with the opportunity to leave his life of caped crusading behind, if only some mysterious new villain wasn't murdering some of Gotham's worst criminals.

It's perhaps not coincidental that this and Spider-Man 2, the best comic-book movie, grapple with their heroes being tempted by the possibility of living a normal life, and get so much emotional resonance and dramatic tension out of the pull between happiness and their pursuit of justice.

Demolition Man (dir. Marco Brambilla, 1993)

I had somehow never seen this before and am kicking myself for waiting so long. An hilarious vision of the future that manages to have the broadest possible satire and a real tactile quality to it. All the sets are so great, and really make for a complete vision of the future. The performances are all top-notch. Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock have a great culture-clash dynamic between them, while as Simon Phoenix, Wesley Snipes provides one of the most compelling villain performances of the '90s. A joy.

Jerry Maguire (dir. Cameron Crowe, 1996)

I remember seeing some of this on video in 1998 or thereabouts, and I know most of the big moments from cultural osmosis, but watching it all strung together revealed what Cameron Crowe does so well here and has struggled with in many of his subsequent movies. This has a lot of the extremely embarrassing sentimentality that made Elizabethtown a punching bag, but balanced out by many, many moments of its whimsy getting knocked down by unfeeling reality. That tension is central to making the film so winning, since its world is so brutally cynical, but plausible, that you can’t help but want these intense weirdos to succeed, and that pushback is either absent from his later work or not credible enough to balance out the treacle.

Anyway, this is all to say that I was rolling my eyes when it revealed that the title of Jerry Maguire’s manifesto was “The Things We Think But Do Not Say”, yet I was tearing up and ready to cheer at the one-two punch of “You complete me.”/“You had me at ‘hello.’”

The Rock (dir. Michael Bay, 1996)

After being bowled over by Bay's Ambulance early in the year, I decided to go back and watch some of the films from his filmography that I had missed. That was largely not a great use of my time, hence the lack of honourable mentions under this one, but I did finally watch The Rock so it was all worth it, probably.

Unmistakably Bay, with his expressive and lurid visual style and broad sense of humour coming through loud and clear, but restrained just enough by the budget and technology of the time that it doesn't veer into the excesses that would shape his work in the subsequent years. As such the end result feels very much of a piece with the kind of tight action-thrillers that Hollywood was putting out at the time - big name cast, high concept plot - but with a distinctive visual and tonal quality that sets it apart and still feels brash and fresh so many years later.

Dirty Work (dir. Bob Saget, 1998)

A perfect vehicle for Norm MacDonald since it tackles gross and offensive material with an off-handed breeziness that makes gags about rape, murder and incest seem positively quaint. It takes a little while to get going, but once Norm and Artie Lange are looking for jobs, and particularly once they start their revenge business, it really kicks into gear, as their jobs form the perfect skeletal frame upon which to hang a lot of very dumb jokes and bits. A hugely entertaining movie that isn't for everyone, but I had an absolutely great time with it.

The Mission (dir. Johnnie To, 1999)

I went through a pretty intense period in the summer of watching nothing but films by the Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, and I can't recommend his filmography enough. Contained within it are some of the most intense and entertaining crime films I've ever seen, of which The Mission, about a group of five gangsters who are hired to protect a Triad boss who is in danger of being assassinated, was one of the best. I particularly love how To finds time for little fun moments like the team having a kickabout with a ball of paper while they're waiting around, doing more in a wordless minute to establish their friendship and bond than 10 minutes of dialogue ever could. It makes it so easy to care about the gunfights and whether or not any of them will make it to the end, even though the tone of those fights is very studied and cool. (Honourable Mentions: Election, Election II, Throw Down, Blind Detective)

Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton, 2000)

Just when I thought I couldn't miss Bill Paxton more, I watched Frailty and learned that not only was he an incredibly fine actor, but he was a pretty good director as well. A deeply unnerving horror movie about a man (Matthew McConaughey) telling an FBI agent about how his father (Paxton) trained him and his brother to kill people he believed to be demons. The thing that really impressed me about it was the precision of the filmmaking and how well Paxton maintains a tone of uncertainty throughout. He sustains the question of whether the demons he's hunting are real or not through to the end, which is no mean feat.

Love & Basketball (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

It's a real testament to how good the writing, directing and acting in this sports romance is that it all builds to a final scene - in which Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan play a game of one-on-one to determine if he will leave his fiancee so the two of them can get back together - that could feel totally corny and artificial, but instead feels earned and authentic. A decades-spanning romance that also illustrates the transcendental possibilities of sports better than just about any movie that isn't Hoop Dreams.

Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

Considering that Jonathan Glazer directed one of my favourite films of the last decade in Under the Skin, and I also have a lot of affection for his debut Sexy Beast, I'd always been curious about the film he made between the two, a brittle character piece about a woman (Nicole Kidman) who meets a ten year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her deceased husband. It's an incredible exercise in tone and mood, as Glazer manages to perfectly balance a story that could easily be laughable or totally off-putting, but instead remains deeply compelling and affecting. Kidman is incredible, while the supporting cast is nothing but ringers doing good work. Now if Glazer could put out a fourth film some time soon that would be pretty cool, to me.

Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, 2009)

This was the first film I watched in 2022 and what a banger to start the year off. In detailing the romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Jane Campion crafts a film which is intensely sad, owing to Keats death at a young age, but also incredibly hot in that restrained way that the best period romances achieve. There's a real frisson between Whishaw and Cornish which illuminates the passion of Keats' poetry in a way which I hadn't appreciated before.

Wolf Children (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2012)

I got really into the works of Mamoru Hosoda this year ahead of the release of his new film Belle (which, ironically, I still haven't got around to watching) and this fantastical story about a woman raising her two children (who also happen to be part werewolf) was the one that I found the most affecting. It's beautifully animated - every Hosoda movie looks absolutely incredible - with the more mundane scenes of domestic life having a true lived-in quality to them that lends a realism to the central dynamic between the mother and her children. It draws out a central contradiction of parenthood - it's an extremely common experience which is unique to everyone who goes through it - by adding in a fantastical element, making it at once extremely relatable to parents and children alike, but also hugely enjoyable since there's plenty of fun in trying to hide the fact that the kids are part wolf from society at large. Delicately drawn in every sense, hugely affecting in its big and small moments, a real wondrous film. (Honourable mentions: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, The Boy and the Beast)

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (dir. John Hyams, 2012)

For years now I've heard people talk about how good the sixth (technically third since it ignores most of the previous films) installment in the Universal Soldier series is, and while I didn't doubt them per se, since the people who tended to sing the film's praises were people whose opinions I trusted, I always had a small doubting voice in my head saying "Well, how good could it be really?" 

The answer, it turns out, is really fucking good. A brutal, sparse and unsettling action movie that tackles notions of identity and memory in ways both thoughtful and violent. Returning stars Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme make for great sources of ambient menace as Hyams uses their weathered physicality to set a grim tone belying the film's status as a late entry into a schlocky franchise. Scott Adkins also makes for a compelling lead, not merely because he's obviously great at the action, but because he manages to convey his characters' emotional pain and grief in between the kicks.

Asako I & II (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

After Hamaguchi delivered two stunning films last year with Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, I had to go back and watch his earlier films, of which this romance was the highlight (though nothing I've seen so far has been less than terrific). With its bifurcated narrative about a woman (Erika Karata) who falls in love with a man who then disappears, and then years later meets another man who looks just like him (both played by Masahiro Higashide with a real Clark Kent/Superman degree of differentiation simply through demeanour), Asako I & II is a gorgeous movie about past loves and the pull they can still exert. (Honourable Mention: Happy Hour)