I had a fun conversation with a friend of mine the other day about “Top Gun: Maverick.” I saw it in the theater shortly after it was released, and I loved it. It was the type of genuinely exciting, popcorn flick that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen and that so rarely gets made anymore outside of the Marvel movies.
On the other hand, it was still a popcorn flick. The dialogue was superfluous, the characters were cut-and-pasted from the first movie, and the plot could essentially be boiled down to an early level of a first-person video game about flying. This was not high art.
And yet, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a nominee for Best Picture. That’s crazy, right?
On the one hand, comparing what went into making “Top Gun” with something like “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” or “Banshees if Inisherin” underscores just how light “Top Gun” is. There’s no depth to it, no deeper message it wants to convey. It’s largely what a really good algorithm might’ve written in that it hits on all the elements of an enjoyable movie without actually having any feeling behind them.
On the other hand, as my friend argued, you unquestionably feel something watching “Top Gun.” It was exhilarating. It was the type of movie where, cliched as it sounds, people stood up to cheer. How rare is that these days? And isn’t the point of a movie to make you feel something?
That’s the case my friend wanted to make. Just because the feeling evoked by “Top Gun” wasn’t sadness or introspection or existential dread doesn’t make the feeling evoked any less significant. Indeed, the feeling of watching “Top Gun” in the theater for the first time might be far rarer than anything the other Oscar movies delivered this year.
So, is it reasonable for “Top Gun” to be a Best Picture nominee? My sense is its presence on this list is as much about gaining a wider audience for the awards show as it is about the movie’s actual quality. But that it forced me to consider what art really is on the big screen probably supports its inclusion either way.
As for other movies that got some serious buzz in 2022, I’ve spent the past few weeks playing catch-up on all I missed throughout the year, and I have thoughts below.
Of note: Movies I have no intention of seeing:
Avatar: The Way of Water – I’ve never seen the first one. I’m not going to see this one. I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.
All Quiet on the Western Front — I’m sure it’s great, but I just don’t think I have it in me to watch a 3+ hour German war movie. I’ve got to draw a line somewhere.
The Whale — Tom Hanks in “Elvis” was enough “actor in a fat suit” for me this year.
Movies I plan to see in the near future and may write about then:
Triangle of Sadness — Finally someone is speaking out about how awful rich people are. Oh, I’m being told that’s literally what 70% of all new shows and movies are about…
The Eternal Daughter — I need to see it to be certain it’s not just a fake movie from an episode of “Seinfeld.”
Women Talking — Assuming this is just an episode of “The View” but I’ll give it a shot when I can see it on a streaming service for free.
Babylon — This looks like if they remade Leo’s “The Great Gatsby” but, you know, good this time.
Moonage Daydream — I love Bowie but I also have to be in the right mood to go through a Bowie looking glass. And by that I mean I probably need to secure some edibles.
RRR — People seem to love it, and I’ve chosen to pronounce it only in a pirate voice.
Decision to Leave — I’m assuming this is Tim Robinson in a hot dog suit for two hours and I’m very excited to see it.
The Fabelmans — It’s about time indie director Steven Spielberg gets some national recognition.
Aftersun — I enjoyed “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” so I’m looking forward to this sequel which I’ve not researched at all.
Empire of Light — I have nothing funny to say about this. I actually don’t know a damned thing about it.
If you’re interested in digging into the vault, here are my reviews from last year’s Oscar binge.
As for this year…
Tár (Rental, 3.5 stars)
“Tár” opens with fictional conductor Lydia Tár being introduced on stage for a conversation with NPR’s Adam Gopnik. During their conversation, he poses questions about the role of a conductor, and how different conductors can alter music through their own interpretation of the creator’s intent. Tár’s true muse is Mahler’s Fifth, which she says, unlike all of his other work, remains mysterious beyond a dedication to his new bride.
This, to me, is the mission statement of a movie that virtually every criticism I’ve read has missed. In “Tár,” critics want to see a treatise on cancel culture or misogyny or #MeToo or power dynamics in relationships or classism or political correctness or… you name it.
All of this is in the text of the film, too. But while “Tár” appears to want to broach these subjects through the gradual fall from grace of its title character, it always wades into the water only to turn back without making a real statement.
It’s why the film has been cast as both a comment for and against cancel culture; a biting criticism of Gen Z’s culture of feelings or a cynical satire of an older generation’s “fuck your feelings” mantra. It argues for separating art from artist, then shows us an artist who seems very much worthy of our disdain and never asks us to root for her. To know what the movie thinks about any of these issues is to fill in your own blanks.
All of this would be interesting enough, I think, if that’s where this ended: As a conversation about the film’s true intent. But what I think is missing is something far more obvious than the subtext so many want to apply to it.
I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I would simply say that there is a lot on the screen that begs the viewer to ask questions about what they’ve just seen. There is so much that simply doesn’t make sense as objective truth, and as a result, an ostensibly political movie actually plays as a ghost story, a whodunit, a psychological thriller, a twisty mind-game — and yet almost none of this seems to be discussed in most of the reviews of the movie I’ve seen, save this one, which astutely leans into the less political but very clear signals the movie offers.
I watched it with my wife, who upon its conclusion assailed the film as “boring.” That’s perhaps a fair review, too, and one I probably shared to an extent in the immediate aftermath of a movie that offered no clear conclusion. But the more I thought about it and read and dug in… the more I fell in love with all it offered — from what was on screen and, more importantly, what wasn’t.
What is “Tár” about? I think it’s like Mahler’s Fifth. It’s about everything or nothing. It’s what you want to see in it. It’s a mystery. It is, like a great composition of music, something that exists entirely within the context of how the conductor chooses to interpret it, and in this case, we are the conductor of our own orchestra.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (Showtime, 3 stars)
What a weird, fun, hilarious, strange, interesting, philosophical ride this movie was. How to explain it? No, it’s better not to. It’s inexplicable. It has so much to say in so many strange ways. No one has ever taken the literal idea of an everything bagel to its logical conclusion, but this movie does. No film has ever made better use of a butt plug joke. This is like the most elevated “Rick and Morty” episode on steroids. It defies convention at every turn and I absolutely loved that. Was it all executed perfectly? I don’t know. I have a sense that it’s a movie I’ll enjoy more upon a second viewing because, honestly, I spent most of my initial watch just wondering how the hell someone came up with all of this.
Oh, and Biff Wiff is in it. I am a huge Biff Wiff fan since learning of his existence in Season 2 of “Dave.” I would really like to read a 10,000-word feature on Biff Wiff’s life.
The Banshees of Inisherin (HBO Max, 4 stars)
There’s a rich tapestry of “Hollywood doesn’t make anything original anymore” complaints these days, and usually, I’m inclined to agree. But boy, this year’s crop had some genuinely surprising narratives and unique ideas — with “Banshees” right near the top of the list.
It’s not that the story itself is entirely inventive. It’s an elegy of male friendship, which shouldn’t feel so surprising, but that’s a topic that is so rarely examined in popular culture.
Every performance in this movie is riveting — so much so that it’s easy to overlook Barry Keoghan or Kerry Condon in supporting roles — and the cinematography is just breathtaking. But it’s the friendship — or lack thereof — at the movie’s core that unveils so much depth and humanity.
Most reviews have focused on the wonderful performance of Colin Farrell as Padraic, and for my money, Farrell absolutely deserves the Oscar for best actor. He’s amazingly expressive, funny and sympathetic. I say this as someone who’s never been much of a fan. (Farrell’s typical style that’s akin to if a homeless guy could be a d-bag has always rubbed me wrong.) And indeed, the movie’s point of view asks us to largely view Padraic as our avatar, the jilted friend who’s desperate to find something of substance in his life.
Brendan Gleeson’s Colm largely takes a backseat, because we’re meant to find his explanation for ending this friendship confounding, frustrating, mysterious. But I think that serves to overlook what truly makes this movie special, because the tragedy of Colm’s life — a true Greek tragedy of self-inflicted misery — is so significant, too.
The setting and backdrop for the movie are essential here. The largely desolate island in Ireland allows for a close examination of loneliness and determination to find meaning in one’s life when, in fact, significance is a rare commodity. That this despair is examined against the backdrop of war — always seen in the backdrop, but never infringing on our characters’ lives — only underscores how insignificant our these men are — except to each other. And the fact that the movie’s climactic event occurs as a matter of pure happenstance — a series of choices resulting in a tragedy that couldn’t have been foreseen — effectively offers a reminder that, whatever meaning there is in life, it’s typically thrust upon us rather than hunted down.
This movie has little in common with “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” in terms of its production. “Banshees” is small and quiet, where “Everything” is, as the title might suggest, immense. But they share the same DNA at their core, about how we find meaning in life when, by all practical measures, our choices are meaningless — either because we’re small men on a small island in the middle of nowhere or because we’re small women in an infinite universe where anything that can happen already has. In a macro sense, the message of both movies is clear: We don’t matter. But each movie is far more interested in a micro view, where our choices matter to those we surround ourselves with, and value and significance are not determined by the universe, but what we choose to care about.
Causeway (Apple+, 2.5 stars)
I could list about a dozen somewhat glaring flaws with this movie — from the weirdly inconsistent use of the New Orleans setting to the significant lapses in plot development — and yet, I can’t say it wasn’t a suitably enjoyable viewing. It is, in a sense, the alternate narrative of “Banshees” — the start of a friendship and the pitfalls that accompany that delicate time. Like “Banshees,” it’s a small movie, almost entirely driven by quiet scenes of dialogue between two characters. Jennifer Lawrence is fine, given what she has to work with, but it’s Brian Tyree Henry who really shines. I’d watch Henry in pretty much anything, but his ability to play both detached but caring observer and wounded tough guy — hard and soft together — is his wheelhouse, and he nails it here. The movie checks in at a brisk 94 minutes, which is both a blessing (it’s an easy watch given the limited payoff) and a curse (it feels like there’s a lot more character development that could’ve been done here).
Nope (Peacock, 2.5 stars)
I really liked “Get Out.” I thought “Us” was interesting and ended on a particularly disquieting note that I found to be poignant and unnerving enough to make the movie feel bigger than it might’ve actually been. But “Nope” is just… fine. It’s a movie that’s perfectly watchable, reasonably suspenseful (though never actually scary) and moderately interesting, but it falls short of Jordan Peele’s previous work in that it never really amounts to much of anything. It feels like there should be deeper symbolism within the narrative, something more meaningful than just “people fight an alien” and yet it never really comes through. There’s tons of set up but no real payoff. Even the movie’s grand conclusion feels unearned — just a sort of a deus ex machina. There are fun characters here that never really get developed, motivations largely left unexplained. In short, “Nope” is more of an interesting idea than a fleshed-out world.
Elvis (HBO Max, 1 star)
I have no comprehension of why this movie was reviewed so glowingly other than reviewers were simply happy to see a music biopic that didn’t feel like every other music biopic.
I’m not a fan of music biopics in general. “Dewey Cox” pretty much ruined the genre by so perfectly skewering the blueprint that it’s hard to take any of them seriously. So, I suppose it’s reasonable to suggest that Baz Luhrmann wanted to do something different. In that, he succeeded. It is different.
It also lacks any sense of narrative focus and essentially feels like a two-and-a-half-hour montage scene.
Austin Butler is getting real buzz for his portrayal of Elvis, which may be good, but it’s hard to tell given that, aside from the music, he doesn’t really do anything besides sweat a lot.
I’ve never seen a Tom Hanks movie in which I didn’t enjoy Tom Hanks’ performance (even “Joe vs. the Volcano”) but I genuinely hated watching him here. And the decision to build the narrative around Col. Parker’s point of view is utterly perplexing. Why? Would you make a Batman biopic through The Joker’s point of view? (Actually, that’s kind of an intriguing idea. Never mind.)
I get the need to do something with Elvis beyond the typical “Behind the Music” style rise and fall narrative. But this has no narrative at all. There’s almost nothing explaining Elvis’ inner drives beyond what Col. Parker tells us as an unreliable narrator. It’s a fever dream based loosely on facts about Elvis’ life. Even the music doesn’t get a true chance to shine.
Perhaps there’s something to be said about “Elvis” as a piece of art. As a movie, however, it’s a total mess.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (Roku, 3 stars)
No this was a good music bio. OK, in fairness, it wasn’t exactly a biography. I’m sure there were some tidbits of Weird Al’s real life in there, but this was essentially a parody of parody, and it worked on every level.
The satire of a stereotypical music bio wasn’t as overt — or quite as damning — as “Dewey Cox,” but it did hit on many of the main tropes of the genre, while never straying too far from the silliness that ultimately has made Yankovic a star for four decades.
“Weird” is all the fun of an old-school Zucker Brothers satire — sharing more DNA with something like “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun” than with a true music bio, from the zany slapstick comedy (Weird Al killing Pablo Escobar) to the wonderful celebrity cameos (excellent use of Lin Manuel Miranda).
And unlike “Elvis,” which had, you know, a real music library to pull from, “Weird” actually celebrates the songs in a far more enjoyable way than Lurhmann does in his movie.
But the best part of “Weird” is the lead performance from Daniel Radcliffe, who is genuinely brilliant. He plays the whole thing straight — a la Leslie Neilson in “Naked Gun” — which allows the comedy to work so much better. But the pathos, as silly as it is, still feels earned. And I’d have given him an Oscar just for his delivery of the line “Hard pass!” in the pool party scene.
“Weird” actually reminded me a bit of “Top Gun: Maverick” in that it is the type of movie you just don’t see much anymore — something fun, light and cool. It had the same irreverent, silly, disarming, fun, charming and underground vibe that so much old-school comedy — National Lampoon’s stuff, “Caddyshack,” “Kentucky Fried Movie,” etc. — had… a veneer of cool laid overtop a fully nerd-based core.
If “Elvis” was a tribute to the artistic pretense of its creator, “Weird” was the exact opposite. It was an homage to all the underground comedy nerds that have kept Weird Al relevant for all these years.
The Menu (HBO Max, 4 stars)
I watched this within a few days of finishing Season 2 of “White Lotus,” a show I genuinely liked, if didn’t always find myself entirely invested in. Still, it served as a fine precursor — or, perhaps in this case, amuse-bouche — for “The Menu.”
Both “White Lotus” and “The Menu” (as well as a lot of other media out in recent years) is intended as dark comedy taking aim at wealth and privilege. Both succeed in their own ways, but what “The Menu” does so exquisitely is execute that satire in an utterly original way, while also saving some of its most pointed barbs not for the ultra-rich but for the bourgeoisie who feign their own inclusion in the elite class by mimicking many of the worst behaviors of the rich and entitled. In other words, it made me squirm worrying if I do that, too.
Ralph Fiennes is absolute perfection in the lead role, playing a role that asked him to appear both utterly crazed and yet entirely buttoned-up. Anya Taylor-Joy, whom I loved in “The Queen’s Gambit,” is equally mesmerizing here, too. And smaller but utterly wonderful performances from Judith Light, Nicholas Hoult (who is brilliant playing utterly detestable), John Leguizamo and Hong Chau all round out a fantastic cast.
It’s rare to find much that feels truly original in Hollywood these days, but “The Menu” is unlike anything else out there. It’s biting satire that takes its subject matter seriously and delivers an eloquent treatise not on food, but on food culture. It could easily serve as black comedy, genuine food porn, gothic horror or biting satire. It was all of it. It was a film filled with genuine surprises, real depth of character, and an absolutely perfectly executed finale.
“The Menu” was my favorite movie of the year, and it wasn’t particularly close. I predict, too, it’ll hold up as an utterly re-watchable tale that will continue to unveil more depth and humor upon subsequent viewings, too.
She Said (Showtime, 3.5 stars)
I was dubious going into this movie. For one, I’m rarely a fan of journalism movies for the same way I’m guessing a lot of doctors don’t watch “Chicago Med.” To see your profession dramatized is to see your profession lose the nuts and bolts — which is really everything. Worse, I assumed this could be simply a Hollywood movie congratulating itself for Hollywood finally taking women’s complaints about Harvey Weinstein seriously. At best, I figured, this would be “Spotlight” redux.
In some ways, all of those concerns turned out to be a little bit true. I’m not sure the movie covered any new ground. It certainly ignored some of Hollywood and, in particular, The New York Times’, roles in allowing Weinstein to prey on women for so long. And, of course, no movie worth watching will every truly show journalism as it actually is (example: I doubt the real Megan Twohey was making critical reporting calls while walking down a busy NYC street).
But that’s nitpicking at a movie that was absolutely stunning.
Carey Mulligan and, in particular, Zoe Kazan, depicted actual reporting better than I think I’ve ever seen dramatized in any film or television show before — the struggles, the monotony, the failure again and again and again. In both of them, I saw so much of other journalists I know. They absolutely nailed the roles — Mulligan as the more established and cynical veteran, Kazan as the sincere believer. Both deserve genuine Oscar buzz.
More importantly, the movie was never about Weinstein, per se. He was a plot device, really. The movie was instead an examination of the victims, of the impact Weinstein’s actions had on their lives, the grief and chaos and turmoil that lasted for decades after he assaulted them. It was as much a film about grief as it was about sexual assault or journalism or #MeToo. And because of that, the movie’s climax, as witnesses agree to go on the record and the story finally comes together, has such a genuine emotional payoff that far exceeds anything you could expect from a story that most viewers already knew well.
Of course, my bias here is for the journalism aspects of the film, and on that note, “She Said” belongs among the genuine great movies about reporting. It may be the absolute best.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix, 3 stars)
Here’s the seemingly ubiquitous review of “Glass Onion,”: It was good, but not as good as the first one.
Alas, “Knives Out” was such a thrill in part because of some spectacular performances (including Chris Pine and Jamie Lee Curtis playing against type) and wickedly sharp dialogue but also because it had been forever since we got a genuinely sharp whodunnit that didn’t feel like an overt regurgitation of something we’ve seen 1,000 times before. As good as “Glass Onion” might’ve been, it was invariably going to feel derivative in a way “Knives Out” didn’t.
I genuinely enjoyed the performances and dialogue again this time, and while the satire of rich privilege was brilliantly executed in the original, I actually preferred the send up of disruptor culture here.
But in the end, my real gripe with this installment was something the movie seemed to lean into: The simplicity of it all. I love a good murder mystery. I watch too much “Dateline.” And while I don’t typically obsess over the “who” in most whodunnits, the payoff in this one felt sort of… thin. Again, the movie readily admits this and tries to use it to its advantage, but I’m not sure it worked as well as it could have — at least for me.
On the flip side: Any and all jokes about Jeremy Renner’s hot sauce earn a solid stamp of approval.
Death on the Nile (HBO Max or Hulu, 2.5 stars)
As I noted on “Glass Onion,” I love a good murder mystery, and I’m usually a fan of even rudimentary Agatha Christie remakes. In this case, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job here injecting some new energy into a well known story, and the scenery, set design and wardrobes are all fantastic. (Gal Gadot dressed to the nines is always worth tuning in for.) Branagh, himself, plays Poirot with at least moderate depth of emotion (even if it doesn’t always feel earned) and the denouement played nicely whether you’re well aware of how the story ends or a first-time viewer. Was it something special? No, not close. But it was an enjoyable enough way to spend two hours.
X (Showtime, 2 stars)
This movie got some serious buzz as a brilliant homage to ’70s slasher films, and it certainly attempted to mimic the aesthetic. But it played as more stylized horror than as a horror movie with something interesting to say about repressed sexuality, religion or, most significantly, the marginalization of old people. It hinted at interest in all of those topics, but largely left motivations and depth aside in favor of getting the look and style of the ’70s right, then leaning into a “aren’t old people weird and gross” crutch that was far less interesting than the premise the movie might’ve been built around. It’s odd, too, that the film really takes its time building to the real gore, and yet in that time offers so little in the way of character building. It was fine, but frustrating that it could’ve been so much better.