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Monday, December 11, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Our favorite films of 2022—or, the sky...

Screen Grabs: Our favorite films of 2022—or, the sky falls on Hollywood

From 'The African Desperate' and 'RRR' to 'White Hot' and 'Free Chol Soo Lee.' Plus, two new releases unearth trans history.

This was a year in which Hollywood felt like the sky was falling—the initial shock of COVID shutdowns was bad enough, but apparently 2022 proved that audiences just aren’t coming back to theaters, possibly ever. And the major exceptions to that (Top Gun & Avatar parts deux) aren’t exactly the kinds of movies that make me excited for the future of the medium. There were, rather shockingly, a surprising number of long, costly, creatively out-on-a-limb mainstream projects this year—including the very recent Bardo, White NoiseAmsterdam, and Babylon—but it is sad to report that their underwhelming-to-catastrophic popular reception is likely to push a kibosh on any such major gambles in the near future. (And it is painful to note that in artistic terms, most of them misfired badly enough to deserve their fate.)

Still, there were plenty of good movies to be found, if you knew where to look. Hopefully this column provided one tipsheet. Certainly its focus rested more solidly than ever on independent, foreign, and documentary features, in niche release or at local festivals. It would have covered more mainstream films, but…well, suffice it to say that I didn’t see all that many movies in theaters this year, yet still walked out on more of them than ever before. While that can quite possibly be attributed to increasing crankiness of age, the phrase “life is too short for this” isn’t just for fogeys. At the same time, the theatrical experience is a vanishing species, with venues continuing to shutter throughout the Bay Area. On the slimmer plus side was the opening of a renovated 4 Star, as well as an unexpected return for repertory-style programming at several other surviving houses.

Though some premiered elsewhere earlier (and a couple are actually archival films never before given a Stateside release), all the below were released to Bay Area and/or US viewers in 2022. (I bowed to awards-campaign pressure and included the exceptional Close, a film that won’t actually open here until early 2023.) Note: These lists also include a couple guilty pleasures (RRRNew York Ninja) that don’t exactly fall into the category of “best” anything, but were too much fun to leave out.

Anyhow, here is the rollcall of last year’s personal favorites, which probably won’t include some of your own —simmer down, Everything Everywhere At Once fanatics [Hey that’s me! —Ed.]—But such is the nature of “best” lists. Most of the films included were covered at some length during the last prior months, which reviews you can access by clicking on the relevant titles.

US features:

The African Desperate (Martine Syms) 

Barbarian (Zach Cregger) 

Catch the Fair One (Josef Kubota Wladyka) 

Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Raiff) 

Dinner in America (Adam Rehmeier) 

Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford) 

Funny Pages (Owen Kline) 

The Good Nurse (Tobias Lindholm) 

The Inspection (Elegance Bratton) 

Kimi (Steven Soderbergh)

Mad God (Phil Tippett) 

Master (Mariama Diallo) 

New York Ninja (1984/2022, John Liu & Kurtis Spieler) 

Spin Me Round (Jeff Baena) 

To Leslie (Michael Morris) 

Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard)

Topside (Logan George, Celine Held) 

Ultrasound (Rob Schroeder) 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican) 

The Woman King (Gina Prince-Blythewood) 


International features (in the case of complicated international co-productions, I just listed the principal country or countries):

All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany, Edward Berger) 

Argentina, 1985 (Argentino, Santiago Mitre)

The Banshees of Inisherin (Ireland, Martin McDonagh) 

Close (Belgium, Lukas Dhont)

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes (Germany, Kevin Kopacka) 

EO (Poland, Jerzy Skolimowski) 

Fear (Bulgaria, Ivaylo Hristov) 

Great Freedom (Austria/Germany, Sebastian Meise) 

Happening (France, Audrey Diwan) 

The Innocents (Norway, Eskil Vogt) 

Josep (France, Aurel) 

Leonor Will Never Die (Philippines, Martika Ramirez Escobar) 

My Donkey, My Lover & I (France, Caroline Vignal) 

Official Competition (Spain/Argentina, Mariano Cohn & Gaston Duprat) 

The Olive Trees of Justice (1962, France/Algeria, James Blue) 

Playground (Belgium, Laura Wandel) 

The Roundup (South Korea, Sang-yong Lee) 

RRR (India, S.S. Rajamouli)

Servants (Slovakia, Ivan Ostrochovsky) 

Speak No Evil (Denmark/Netherlands, Christian Tafdrup) 

The Tale of King Crab (Italy, Alessio Rigo de Righi & Matteo Zoppis) 

Taste (Vietnam, Bao Lee) 

The White Fortress (Bosnia & Herzegovina, igor Drljaca) 


Documentary features (US unless otherwise noted, same proviso re: international co-productions):

It should be mentioned that there was, as usual nowadays, a ridiculous bounty of nonfiction cinema—the Oscars reportedly had about 150 submitted films qualify for consideration in this feature category alone. So the below-listed should really just be taken representing the tip of an iceberg of good work.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras) 

Blue Island (Hong Kong, Tze Woon Chan) 

A Decent Home (Sara Terry) 

Escape from Kabul (Jamie Roberts) 

Eternal Spring (Canada, Jason Loftus)

Free Chol Soo Lee (Julie Ha, Eugene Li) 

A Machine to Live In (U.S./Brazil, Yoni Goldstein, Meredith Zielke) 

Navalny (Daniel Roher)

The Territory (Brazil, Alex Pritz)

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Ambercrombie & Fitch (Alison Klayman) 


One thing 2022 certainly reinforced was the notion that in American conservatives’ perpetual push to turn back the clock to some semi-imagined idyllic mid-20th-century past, all those pesky minorities who subsequently got some rights are to be openly targeted. None more so than transpersons, who’ve become the hysterical flag flown in the bogus “But think about the children!” cause Republicans slap on their every attempt to distract from the things they’re really focused on (ie cutting popular social benefit programs and taxes for the rich). Two current movies provide some counterpoint on the matter.

Chase Joynt’s Framing Agnes, like their prior No Ordinary Man about jazz musician Billy Tipton, reels us in with an intriguing story from the past, but is mostly a podium for discussion of up-to-the-moment perspectives on gender theory and fluidity. The starting premise is discovery of interview transcripts from a UCLA “gender health study” in the 1960s. The interviewers’ line of questioning wasn’t particularly evolved, but the interviewees’ responses remain fascinating—even when, in at least one case, it turned out they were lying about some things. The fibber was one “Agnes,” a poised white transwoman who cannily “played the system” to get gender-reassignment surgery approved, something she probably wouldn’t have qualified for if fully honest. By contrast, African-American transwoman “Georgia” (these names were pseudononymous) was more frank, less assimilationist, and less interested in saying what the staff presumably wanted to hear. Among other participants was “Jimmy,” a teenager whose parents were surprisingly accepting of his FTM journey, particularly for the era.

These interviews are acted out by present-day “out” trans activists. The original subjects are pretty much lost to history, their real identities and whereabouts unknown, so our insights towards them are necessarily limited. Still (as in No Ordinary Man), Joynt’s approach can be somewhat maddening—this is adocumentary too much about the process of its own making, with performers analyzing the prior figures’ words, how they feel about them, and so forth. It’s a little like being told you’ll see Hamlet, then spending three hours watching the actor put on his makeup and talk about how he relates to the role. Nonetheless, this supremely self-conscious approach does provide considerable food for thought, even if our desire to know more about trans life six decades ago remains frustrated. Framing Agnes is currently playing Oakland’s New Parkway; it will also be available from the Kino Now streaming platform as of January 31, on other major digital/VOD platforms as of February 14.

A less heavily interpretive flashback is Dressed in Blue, which opens at the Roxie Tues/3. Antonio Giminez-Rico’s 1983 Spanish documentary, which had fallen into relative obscurity until its recent restoration and re-release, likewise mixes interviews and staged elements. But here the subjects are “playing” themselves, six Madrid transwomen ranging from 20 to middle-age. They discuss problems with family, conventional employment. romance, and police harassment. Some are sex workers, some do stage acts we glimpse at a club.

Gathering in a deluxe salon setting for the film’s running setpiece, they occasionally seem to be performing catty exaggerations of femininity. But they also demonstrate a wide range of experience, attitudes, and aspirations, including in the realms of self-definition and degree of transition sought. Dressed hardly passes a sniff test in terms of nonfiction “purity”—it embraces elements of theatricality and high cinematic polish within a documentary framework. But it is something of a revelation nonetheless, particularly for a hitherto neglected celluloid nugget from 40 years ago.

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