Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Despite Covid, we finally got back to the movies the way we knew them, as evidenced by “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” buzzing and flooding the box office. There were fewer masks, ID checks or sit-in-every-other-seat stipulations, but streaming did make clear inroads on how we see entertainment. Of the 10 films the Day selected for our Top Films of 2022, two (“Decision to Leave” and “RRR”) played exclusively on the small screen; three are Non-English-language; three had limited releases (“Emily the Criminal,” “God’s Country” and “Fire of Love”) and can now be found on streaming platforms, but resonated enough with the Day’s critics to make the list; and there is one documentary. A diverse list of must-sees.

 width=

Just shy of making the cut were Charlotte Wells’ impressive directorial debut “Aftersun,” about an emotional father-and-daughter vacation; the documentary “All That Breathes” about two brothers who rescue small raptors in India; and the Polish entry for Best Non-English Language Film, “EO,” about a donkey’s fateful journey across Poland.  

whitespace

 width=“Decision to Leave”

The latest from Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden”) is a dark crime drama in which the lives of a police detective and murder suspect intersect and fold in on each other. It’s a psychological thriller that has Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) looking into the curious death of a skilled rock climber who fell despite safety measures. Gathering the mountainside evidence makes for an interesting process, with a second detective strapped to Hae-jun’s back as they rope walk up the sheer surface. Suspicion falls on the wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant who’s not quite fluent in Korean – did I mention that her departed husband was an immigration official? Hae-jun is a hands-on profiler sort and in scenes when observing Seo-rae, he’s suddenly in the room, a ghost to her, observing her. It’s a neat device Park throws at us that blurs the lines between reality and projection. It’s also a reflection of Hae-jun’s detached demeanor; he’s an insomniac, and has a strangely dysfunctional sex life with his wife. Natch, Hae-jun and Seo-rae have an attraction to each other that hangs dank and ripe in every scene they’re in. In the second part of the hypnotic slow burn, both have relocated to the same new city where Seo-rae is married to a fund manager and works as a caregiver to the old. It’s here that the film moves into darker territory, as Seo-rae is visited by a disgruntled client of her husband who slaps her around (the character is actually named Slappy) and there’s another death that cannot be misconstrued an accident or suicide. Of course Hae-jun is the one assigned the case. How Park lays down the cards does have reveals, but it’s mostly a deeply internal reckoning by Hae-jun. The film feels a bit like a true-crime noir and would make a perfect double bill with countryman Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003), about Korea’s first true documented serial killer. (Tom Meek) On Mubi.

whitespace

 width=“Return to Seoul”

Besides a deep emotional journey, the revelation of Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” is the phenomenal debut performance by Ji-Min Park as Freddie, a 25-year-old adoptee who travels from her home in France to Seoul, South Korea, in reluctant search of her biological parents. Energized and hypnotic, with scenes of Freddie letting loose and dancing alone center stage at a bar (a best-dance-scene-ever candidate) or a tense family meal broken by translations and clear misunderstandings, it’s the palpable undercurrent of rage communicated by Park that links it all together. Adrift in a world where she is of two (and many more) parts and struggling to assimilate as a Korean-born transplant who speaks fluent French, some English and a modicum of Korean – but by norms is expected to behave within Korean custom and genuflection when there – her story is a familiar one for many, but set apart. An aching open wound, “Return to Seoul” begs the question of where we find our identity, how much of it is shaped by where we grow up and with whom, and the power of the perception of others. (Ally Johnson) Not in theaters or online.

whitespace

 width=“Tár

Todd Field’s first film in 15 years following “Little Children” likely could not have come into existence without its star, Cate Blanchett, who delivers a turn so bravura, lived-in and essential that it may just be the most defining performance of a highly accomplished career that already has notched two Oscars (“Blue Jasmine” and “The Aviator”). Her Lydia Tár, the commanding maestro of the Berlin Philharmonic, is a barrier breaker and even more so, a breaker of souls. Lydia has a wife and daughter – she’s a self labeled “U-Haul lesbian” – and also manipulative, often cruel, if not abusive, and an opportunist fostering and engaging in several inappropriate relations with young aspiring female musicians and conductors. Field’s provocative flip is of a woman behaving as entitled and above the law as many a miscreant called out and cut down via the #MeToo movement. The astute use of sound, both atmospheric and Lydia’s keen perception of it, gives the film an aurally immersive texture that deepens the moral contemplation. Let’s hope it’s not another 15 year for Field’s next potential magnum opus. Read a full review from Oct 13. (Tom Meek) Available for purchase online.

whitespace

 width=“The Banshees of Inisherin”

As heartbreaking as it is hilarious, “The Banshees of Inisherin” is a tremendous deconstruction of what happens to the human condition when the hands on the clock begin to move rapid. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), the film and its stars revel in the filmmaker’s taste for the macabre. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play lifelong friends whose relationship is suddenly severed by Gleeson’s Colm with little to no reasoning. A meditation on the necessity of art and escaping life’s mundanities in contrast to the simplicity of enjoying our time together just for the sake of it rather than pushing forward, it’s paradoxically hopeless as it is life-affirming by the film’s end. Farrell delivers career-best work with Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan all excellent as well. Read a full review from Oct. 28. (Ally Johnson) On HBO Max.

whitespace

 width=“Emily the Criminal”

Jersey-accented Emily (Aubrey Plaza, recently seen in the second season of “The White Lotus”), an art school dropout with a criminal record, is stuck in gig-job purgatory and soaring student-loan debt. Tired of earning chump change and not realizing her dreams or making a livable wage, she dips her toe in the prosaic criminal underworld as a “dummy shopper,” using fake IDs and credit cards to buy expensive goods to sell on the black market. Emily flirts with her illicit mentor and fellow dreamer Youcef (Luke Cage’s Theo Rossi, playing to type as a man with a weakness for powerful, angry women) and turning misappropriation into her full-time job. The money is enticing, but danger mounts. Here Plaza finally gets to play a character that matches the distinctness of her simmering television role of April Ludgate on “Parks and Recreation.” John Patton Ford’s directorial debut is captivating as the threats to Emily’s well-being escalate from being called out for lying in an interview to physical harm. Plaza projects her character’s apprehension and channels it into moral outrage directed at her attackers as well as her physical and societal limitations. (Sarah Vincent) On Netflix.

whitespace

 width=“Fire of Love”

Sara Dosa’s documentary about renowned French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft has tons of eye-popping footage of flowing rivers of boiling lava and bellowing volcanos. It’s “wow” with a capital W and ever mesmerizing, if not hypnotic, and you can easily get why the Kraffts became so obsessed with these earth-shaping phenoms. Of course there’s sudden danger that comes with storm-chasing volcanic eruptions, and the couple died in the 1991 eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen. The film’s title is purposefully multilayered, referring to the couple’s love for one another as well as their unquenchable passion for all things hot, molten and flowing. Narrated by Miranda July with a warm but oddly flat and twee intonation, the film transforms the Kraffts’ vast ’87 archive into a world-hopping travelogue punctuated by eruptions and opulent rivers of red. In construct, “Fire of Love” calls to mind Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (2005), because there too an obsession with something massive and lethal threatens to become deadly in nearly every frame – and ultimately does. (Tom Meek) On Disney+.

whitespace

 width=“The Northman”

Viking Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) seeks to avenge his father’s death, rescue his mother, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman in a fearless, taboo-shattering performance) and reclaim his identity. His quest transforms him from being an animalistic killing machine to a man who sacrifices himself to break the cycle of violence for his future family and fight for the freedom of those he enslaved. For the project, Skarsgård nagged writer and director Robert Eggers to adapt an old Icelandic poem, an antecedent to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In the “gods’ war,” the characters are consenting shamanistic avatars for raven god Odin, fertility god Freyr and the Norns of Fate in the form of a seeress (Björk) rooting for Amleth’s unlikely ally, enslaved Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) with Amleth as a pawn to protect her queen. Eggers’ visual style is a roller coaster of primordial, oneiric imagery of an epic, wild landscape, turbulent supernatural forces and untamed nature sans any whiff of domestication. Read the full review from April 22. (Sarah Vincent) On Amazon Prime Video.

whitespace

 width=

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

The sublime, multitalented Michelle Yeoh (“Supercop,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), stars in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” as Evelyn, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant who discovers  around the Lunar New Year while juggling a tax audit, receiving a visit from a judgmental father and handling multiple family crises that she is the multiverse’s savior. Writers and directors The Daniels’ surreal feature blends sci-fi, action, horror and comedy without neglecting the story’s heart: finding meaning in life through love and kindness to others. The genre mashup provides a fuller insight into the characters’ personalities than a drama could. The multiverse is a metaphor for the different facets of peoples’ potential and makes their internal lives literal. The immigrant, laundry lady and bureaucrat often appear in the margins of other films; The Daniels’ beautiful elevation of them honors these unsung pillars of society. They turned their moms and dads into flawed heroes, while the audit and the threat to the multiverse serve the same function of forcing Evelyn to assess her life and decide if she wants to stay the course, change or give up. It creates the possibility of redemption and renewal for her as an individual. By healing herself in this epic journey, she can heal generational trauma. Read the full review from March 31. (Sarah Vincent) At The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Harvard Square, and on Showtime.

whitespace

 width=“RRR”

S.S. Rajamouli’s three-hour-plus epic is a bold, outrageous spectacle, peppered with thrills, jaw-dropping stunt work, breakouts into Bollywood dance and a poke in the Western eye about the evils of colonialism. The Indian production takes place in the 1920s, when the country was under British rule. Our bigger-than-life heroes come in the form of Raju (the highly charismatic Ram Charan Teja), an Indian soldier under British command, and Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a can-do villager and mechanic whose daughter has been abducted by the British governor (Ray Stevenson). The governor’s so hyperbolically nefarious they could have just called him Snidely Whiplash and been done with it, and his wife (Alison Doody) is nearly as nasty; at one point she supplies a torturer with a barbed whip. We meet each protagonist separately, each performing Herculean feats: Raju battling through a throng of hundreds, who hammer and pound him, to apprehend a suspect; Bheem outrunning a wolf and, bare-chested, shouting down a tiger. (The CGI is pretty low budget, but it hardly matters.) Later the two team up to save a boy above a flaming river, but even later in the epic run time find themselves at odds because of Raju’s allegiance and Bheem’s ceaseless quest to regain his daughter from Raju’s higher-up. “RRR” (for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”) is astonishingly energetic from start to finish, tongue-in-cheek craziness that sometimes strains but never breaks the wild turning and dropping ride. (Tom Meek) On Netflix.

whitespace

 width=“God’s Country”

Professor Sandra Guidry (Thandiwe Newton, “Crash”) lives in a wide-open, snowcapped mountainous wilderness of Montana and works in the warm halls of civilized academia. After two hunters use her property without permission, she leaves a note on the windshield of their pickup truck; when they keep coming back, she refuses to back down despite the physical disparity and looming threat they pose. Julian Higgins’ neo-Western turns the trope of the lone stranger not looking for trouble on its head in unexpected, beautiful and tragic ways. Guidry rejects cynicism and is compelled to confront and change the things she cannot accept, but that list grows as the movie unfolds. Like most women in Westerns, she cries out for civilization: “We all gotta play by the same rules if this is gonna work.” Because of a lack of resources, weak character or corruption, authority figures fail to heed her cry for justice. Once Guidry’s past is revealed, she is no damsel in distress, but remains grappling with frustration over her inability to protect others. This is an unpredictable, majestic visual feast, sparse with dialogue and rife with superb performances, and Higgins’ sophomore feature is a strong contender for best American film of the year. (Sarah Vincent) Available for rent and purchase online.


Previous story

The top 10 films of 2021

Next story

The top 10 films of 2023