The halfway mark of 2022 is upon us. You know what that means! Well, maybe you don’t — it means a list! It’s at this point in the year that we look back and celebrate the best films we’ve seen so far. A Top 10, of sorts, except it’s really a Top Baker’s Dozen and it’s in alphabetical order.
Cha Cha Real Smooth
On Apple TV
Dakota Johnson is the unquestioned star of indie darling coming-of-age drama Cha Cha Real Smooth, but it’s writer/director/co-star Cooper Raiff who’s shining bright enough to blind you.
Solid support from Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett offers Raiff opportunities to subvert tropes with surprising compassion. There are also more than enough laughs to balance the drama.
Johnson’s greatest strength as a performer is the almost preternatural chemistry she shares with everyone else on screen. That connection with Raiff aches with human tenderness, as does the entire film.
Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won Sundance’s dramatic competition this year, overflows with charm and warmth. More than that, it points to a remarkable cinematic voice that’s just getting started.
Crimes of the Future
On Prime Video
In a dreary world where “surgery is the new sex,” two performance artists (Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux) turn one’s mutant organs into art.
If that doesn’t sound like a David Cronenberg movie, nothing does.
The film references, directly or indirectly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash, and most frequently and obviously, Videodrome. Like his main character, Cronenberg has long been an “artist of the inner landscape.” And after several decades of excising that tendency from his work, Cronenberg has come full circle to accept what was inside him all along.
Dinner in America
It’s not often you watch a film about a fire starting, drug dealing, lying man on the run from police and his romance with a woman with special needs and think, this is delightful.
But it is. Dinner in America is a delight.
Writer/director Adam Rehmeier delivers an unexpected comedy, sometimes dark, sometimes broad, but never aimless. Simon (Kyle Gallner, remarkable) is a punk rocker hiding from the cops. Patty (Emily Skeggs) is a 20-year-old punk rock fan who lives at home and isn’t allowed to run appliances when she’s alone.
Rarely does a film feel as genuinely subversive and darling as Dinner in America, the punk rock rom-com you never knew you needed.
On Prime Video
Take two longtime friends on the verge of going their separate ways, and throw in one night of epic partying before they graduate. There will be hijinks, conflict, feelings expressed, and resolution.
We know this formula, right?
Not so fast. Expanding their Emergency short from 2018, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila run those familiar tropes through a tense, in-the-moment lens that upends convention while still delivering a consistent layer of laughter.
So we get the two friends ready to explore the future, searching for their place in the world. But this wild night of partying holds more sobering lessons than we’re used to seeing.
For these young men, it’s about how quickly their perception of the world can change forever, and the unrelenting weight of navigating how the world sees them.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
In theaters and streaming
Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are back with their brand of sweet-natured lunacy for Everything Everywhere All at Once. The result is an endlessly engaging, funny, tender, surprising, touching maelstrom of activity and emotion.
This is a hard movie not to love.
At the heart of the insanity lurks Michelle Yeoh and a spot-on depiction of a midlife crisis. Yeoh’s Evelyn arcs as no character has arced before.
The real stars are the Daniels, though, who borrow and recast and repurpose without even once delivering something derivative.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
Nancy (Emma Thompson, glorious as always) is our hero, and sex is her quest. So she hires handsome young Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.
Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.
And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want.
Phil Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God. It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.
Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty.
Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles hell itself. Tippett peoples this landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.
If you are in the mood for something decidedly different, let Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative wonder Memoria beguile you. Or bewilder you. Or both.
The film becomes a mystery of sorts, but one that dredges up more questions than answers. On the filmmaker’s mind seems to be concepts of collective memory and isolation, sensory experience and existence.
Jessica’s (Tilda Swinton) travels through Colombia in search of answers to a confounding sound following her becomes an entrancing odyssey. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design heightens the experience, almost becoming a second character in the way that the sound supports Swinton’s performance.
And what a performance. Quiet and precise as if always listening and careful not to disturb, Swinton once again disappears wholly into a role.
On Prime Video
Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.
Filmmaker Alex Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.
Is she seeing what we’re seeing?
Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.
Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.
Robert Eggers released his third feature this year, a Viking adventure on an epic scale called The Northman.
What you have is a classic vengeance tale: prince witnesses royal betrayal and the murder of his father. He loses his mother and his crown and vows revenge.
Alexander Skarsgård is cut to play a Viking. His performance is primarily physical: blind rage looking for an outlet. He’s believably vicious, bloodthirsty, single-minded and, when necessary, vulnerable. The entire cast around him is equally convincing.
Classic is exactly how The Northman feels. The story is gritty and grand, the action brutal and the storytelling majestic. As is the case with Eggers, expect a fair amount of the supernatural and surreal to seep in here and there, but not enough to outweigh the meticulously crafted period realism.
At Gateway Film Center
Directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, working from Dixon’s script, drop you into the indie music scene you may never have realized existed in Columbus, Ohio. Lennon (Sylvie Mix) wants to change that with her podcast. She may not have a lot of listeners, but she promises those who do listen a deep dive into the scene, with interviews and performances from the best bands you’ve never heard of.
Mix’s open stare and stealthy movement — a technique she used to great effect in her haunted Christmas flick Double Walker — here feels slyly deceptive. Lennon’s an introvert, a fan, an artist herself. Or is she?
Like a cagey, pink-haired Jena Malone, Kitten commands the screen playing a version of herself. The singer from Columbus-based indie band Damn the Witch Siren, Kitten performs along with bandmate Z Wolf, whose presence adds a fascinating air of whimsy, danger and apathy.
Turning Red – Pixar’s twenty-fifth – keeps the winning streak alive with a frisky, meaningful and culturally rich update of a well worn message.
Director Domee Shi (who also co-writes with Julia Cho) has much to offer in her feature debut. Here, the often generic moral of “be true to yourself” plays out with stakes that will feel authentic to both kids and parents. Pixar has a long history of finding true poignancy amid big laughs, but Turning Red feels like a turning point.
Not only is it the first Pixar film with a female director, women are also in leadership roles throughout most areas of the production. The mission was clearly to begin speaking to a slightly older target, with a tender honesty that adolescents – girls especially – could appreciate.
Respect the past, but embrace the possibilities of the future. That future is going to include parts of your true self that are messy, and that’s okay. In fact, accepting those awkward, messy parts is the first step to being okay.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
It’s not just that it’s the role he was born to play. It’s also that it feels like precisely the right moment for him to be playing it, as if the cosmos themselves are aligning to deliver us some rockin’ good news.
How good? Well, for starters, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent gives him about a minute and a half just to name check himself as “Nic f’innnnnnnnnnggggggggow!WoahCage!”
And while we’re loving all manner of Cage, here comes Pedro! More natural and endearing than he’s ever been, Pascal starts by channeling the fan in all of us, and then deftly becomes the film’s surprising heart. Yes, there are nods to Hollywood pretension, but they’re never self-serving, and the film is more than content to lean all the way in to a madcap adventure buddy comedy spoof.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Boogie Nights?
Filmmaker Ti West delivers an utterly unexpected and absolutely inspired horror show like nothing he’s made before. A group of good-natured pornographers descends upon an out-of-the-way ranch to shoot a movie, unbeknownst to the owners. Mia Goth leads a thoroughly entertaining cast, each actor making the most of the humor crackling throughout West’s script.
West explores some common themes, upending every one without ever betraying his clear love of this genre. Blending homages of plenty of Tobe Hooper films with a remarkable aesthetic instinct, West fills the screen with ghastly beauty.