During my interview earlier this month with Babylon director Damien Chazelle, I asked if he’d seen Zach Cregger’s low-budget horror hit Barbarian. Cregger’s over-the-top creepfest shares with Chazelle’s giddily over-the-top chronicle of Jazz Age Hollywood a sense of proceeding down dark, winding pathways, literally and figuratively, uncertain how far the film will go.
Chazelle hadn’t seen Barbarian. “But I’ve heard a lot about it,” he said. “I love movies that do that, where the movie itself feels dangerous. Where you actually don’t know just what the filmmakers are capable of. And that almost makes you a little uneasy, or on edge. When you get that sort of feeling from a movie, there’s something electric that comes from it.”
The La La Land Oscar-winner has a point, and each of the films on this Ten Best list, including Babylon, has a way of casting a spell, creating that electric feeling of falling into a distinct, fully-formed universe where anything might happen.
At a pivotal moment in Zach Cregger’s gonzo debut feature, the movie’s heroine Tess (Georgina Campbell) is granted an easy exit to survival, if she just walks out of her weird Airbnb rental, and never looks back. The audience is meant to wish her well on her way. But for Tess to leave would mean leaving someone behind, lost somewhere in the basement. Here, the audience is meant to be screaming, “Too bad about them, get the hell outta there, Tess!” Of course, we also need her to go into that basement, so down Tess goes — and what follows is the most delicious thriller fake-out since Clarice Starling showed up on Buffalo Bill’s doorstep in Silence of the Lambs. Somehow, the film has further freaky depths to descend to after that, making savvy use of co-stars Bill Skarsgård and Justin Long, and serving up intense horror with a side of sardonic laughs.
9. Saint Omer
Deliberately paced, prone to lengthy silences, Alice Diop’s French-language stunner Saint Omer doesn’t clamor for audience approval. The same might be said of Laurence, the nearly inscrutable young mother on trial in this gripping drama for killing her infant daughter. Guslagie Malanda delivers the year’s most mesmerizing performance as the Senegalese immigrant to France and university student who testifies for days on her own behalf. But what possible testimony can Laurence give to justify her actions? Under the scrutiny of a compassionate judge (beautifully played by Valérie Dréville), and a packed courtroom, Laurence evinces no desire to justify her actions. She does offer a compelling story of isolation and depression, but that might be merely the ruse of a cold-hearted killer.
8. Triangle of Sadness
Funny in ways you don’t expect, clever in ways you don’t expect, and grosser than you could possibly expect (unless you’ve been warned), this serrated-edge social satire by Force Majeure maestro Ruben Östlund unfolds layer by tasty layer until reaching its gleefully nasty center. Riding the zeitgeist of ultra-rich-skewering ensemble dramedies, Triangle of Sadness lays down sharp lessons on class and capitalism, and hilariously flips the script on its cadre of millionaires by making a badass boss of cleaning lady Abigail, played with guts and gusto by Dolly De Leon. She’s the captain now.
7. Bad Axe
A scrappy, on-the-fly documentary with the twists and turns and tension of a cinematic epic or generations-spanning novel, David Siev’s award-winning film portrait of his Asian-American/Latino family running a small-town restaurant deep in Trump country during the pandemic swings marvelously from intimate expressions of joy and struggle, to edge-of-your-seat run-ins with Nazis. Somehow, the family makes it through what looks like the toughest couple of years of their lives, emerging as admirable examples of the fortitude and perseverance that got us all through the whirlwind.
6. The Batman
Introduced in 1939 as a vigilante detective — as opposed to a gadgety superhero version of Hannibal Smith putting his A-Team together — Batman is perpetually a big-screen draw, but he’s not always that interesting. By drawing from the well of the character’s early history, situating the Dark Knight of Gotham in a chilling serial killer murder-mystery, and resisting the urge to fit the character into anybody else’s universe, writer-director Matt Reeves made Batman more interesting than the gadgets on his utility belt for once. Surrounding Robert Pattinson’s brooding Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne with blazing performances by Paul Dano as the Riddler and 2022 MVP Colin Farrell as the Penguin helped bring the Bat into sharper focus.
As audacious a big-budget studio film as you’re likely to see this or any other year, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon takes the simple premise of late-1920s Hollywood excess to fabulous extremes. Dripping with sex and decadence, propelled by Justin Hurwitz’s thumping jazz score and vividly colorful performances by Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva, the film tracks Hollywood’s careening turn from silents to talking pictures with all the affection that Singin’ in the Rain brought to a similar story, but with a rawness Gene Kelly couldn’t have dreamed of putting onscreen. Yet the excess doesn’t feel gratuitous in characterizing a time and place where no dream was too big, and no danger as frightening as falling from the top of Babylon.
4. Nelly & Nadine
Just when it seems that Magnus Gertten’s wondrous documentary Nelly & Nadine has no more secrets to reveal in the lives of its subjects, opera singer Nelly Mousset-Vos and writer Nadine Hwang, the film hits you with a new revelation to beat the last. Onscreen, Nelly’s granddaughter Sylvie shares our surprise, as she learns in real-time amazing details about Nelly’s time spent imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, where she met and fell in love with Nadine. The dramatic story of how the lovers were separated during the Allied liberation of the camp, then later found each other to resume their romance, sprawls from Germany to France to Chile and back, augmented by painstakingly researched archival footage of the ladies with other prisoners in the camp. History comes alive for Sylvie and her family, who will never be the same, and for the viewer granted a singular window into a queer experience that might just as easily have been erased.
3. Everything Everywhere All at Once
Exploring the infinite possibilities contained in a single life, Everything Everywhere All at Once is thrilling, hilarious, exhilaratingly unpredictable, and not for one second complacent in its storytelling. Rather, the film, written and directed by the Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert), and superbly edited by Paul Rogers, throws every possible element at us to get its story across. It’s a zany comedy when it wants to be, and, at times, a twisting puzzle of a new-age thriller. It’s a martial arts action extravaganza, and a touching romance with a fraying family at its heart. It’s also an overdue showcase for every facet of star Michelle Yeoh’s remarkable talents, and the comeback of the year, thanks to the impressive return of Temple of Doom and Goonies star Ke Huy Quan as Yeoh’s multiverse-hopping hubby. In short, the movie’s got everything, everywhere, all at once, and we’re lucky it landed in this universe.
Who couldn’t love EO? The title character of Jerzy Skolimowski’s eloquent drama is smart, humble, friendly, and loyal. He’s a gentle soul, but not above delivering a swift kick to the head, if that’s what it takes to make a point. EO is also a donkey, several donkeys, in fact — Hola, Tako, Marietta, Ettore, Rocco, and Mela — who combine to create easily the most appealing leading man of 2022. And, oh, the troubles he sees. Rescued from a Polish circus by animal activists, EO ventures on an odyssey filled with danger and surprises. Never interested in getting sucked into anyone else’s drama, the little guy just tries to keep it movin’, while, ironically, reminiscing on his days in the circus. Those animals suffer unimaginably, scream the protesters, but what do they know of EO’s life and loves? The genius of Skolimowski’s beautifully shot film is that viewers will consider that they can know this donkey’s mind, and care deeply about his well-being.
1. The Banshees of Inisherin
EO would make a feckin’ great double feature with Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly bleak comedy reuniting In Bruges buddies Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as friends falling out on a tiny island off the coast of Ireland. Farrell’s Pádraic finds some solace in the companionship of his loyal donkey after Gleeson’s dour Colm impulsively cuts off the men’s years-long friendship. From the sudden breakup, and Pádraic’s stubborn refusal to accept it, springs a profoundly moving story about wringing every ounce of vitality from your time on earth, among other hard-learned lessons for Pádraic, Colm, and the lonesome folks on Inisherin. With not a single misplaced step, or line, or shot, The Banshees of Inisherin leads us breathlessly through its small-scale conflict towards a deeper understanding of a much bigger picture.
And 10 more that missed this list but made their mark:
André Hereford is Metro Weekly’s film critic. Read his columns online or in the weekly magazine. Subscribe for free.
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