Most years, my film group conducts a poll amongst its members. In the past, we’ve determined our all-time favorite films of a particular genre (horror, documentary, animation) or other categorical distinction (remakes and sequels, foreign language, black-and-white.) For the first time, this year’s list is centered on people rather than films. One would think it a breeze to curate a list of just 25 or 50 directors; my original long list ended up past the 150-mark. We were allowed to include up to 100, which is what my ballot below has. The first 30 or so are the most important; the placement of almost anyone beneath is a little more arbitrary.
In curating my list, I thought about whom I’d most like to see on the group’s list which is chiefly why Agnes Varda ended up at #3 – French, female, equally adept at documentary and fiction, she’s the sort of revered talent (that might not necessarily be a household name) that the group was created to promote and highlight. I also wanted to talk up my favorite LGBT directors which accounts for half of my top ten. My first draft placed the ever-dependable, ever-unique Tsai Ming-liang at top but in the end, I couldn’t deny giving it to the artist I wrote my Master’s thesis in Film Studies on.
The thing with all-time-best-of lists is that they could credibly go on for days. What favorite filmmakers of yours missing from the 100 below would you have included?
I read exactly the same number of books as last year, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I read as much. Look through the list below and you’ll find nothing nearly as long as My Struggle (Book 6) or Don Quixote (though the compulsively readable The Goldfinch sprawls way past the 500-page mark.) Of the eight re-reads, Tom Spanbauer’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age-in-1960s-Idaho novel was the most enjoyable, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Good Squad proved the most illuminating, particularly in those moments where she anticipated (if not quite fully predicted) the current era.
My ten favorite new-ish books I read in 2022 (unranked; in alphabetical order by author’s last name):
Jennifer Egan, The Candy House
As sequels to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels go, this gets a nod over Andrew Sean Greer’s pretty great Less Is Lost for its sheer ambition. Matching and occasionally exceeding the first book, Egan shifts her focus from music to technology which allows her to cast an even wider net without obscuring the ethical and psychological implications of humans having access to, well, everything.
Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads
Franzen’s long-form fiction is so consistent he might be my favorite current American novelist. This typical-for-him doorstop, the first in a purported trilogy is simply what he does best. A rich but contained familial drama set mostly in 1971, it’s like The Corrections after two decades of lived experience informing an attitude that neither belittles nor deifies its well-drawn characters.
Hannah Gadsby, Ten Steps To Nanette
You’d wouldn’t expect a by-the-numbers memoir from Gadsby or even her one-woman show Nanette simply retold in book form. Although this serves as both memoir and Nanette companion, it’s also a fascinating deconstruction of Gadsby’s history, persona and, in meticulous detail, how she conceived and constructed the monologue that made her infamous.
Jessi Klein, I’ll Show Myself Out
I enjoyed this as much as You’ll Grow Out Of It, television writer/producer/voice actor Klein’s first essay collection from 2016. Following the birth of her son, this sequel consists of amusing, caustic and often riotously funny observations of raising a young child in your 40s. More Sedaris than Bombeck, Klein deserves an audience as bountiful as either of them.
Mary Jo Pehl, Dumb Dumb Dumb: My Mother’s Book Reviews
Best known as a writer/performer on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Pehl’s slim but satisfying memoir has a novel slant. Following her mother’s death, Pehl discovers a box full of notecards containing handwritten, haiku-like thoughts on the books she had read. From these pithy remnants, she assembles (with disarming Midwestern humor) a multifaceted portrait of her mom while also surveying her own grief.
Sarah Polley, Run Towards The Danger
A child actor-turned-director/screenwriter, Polley’s been mostly MIA for the past decade; this essay collection explains why. Due to a freak accident, she suffered brain damage that left her unable to work. She’s now recovered (her new film, Women Talking, is in theaters as I write this) and uses this experience as a catalyst for six essays about taking risks, working through trauma and confronting the unknown. Happily, her essaying retains all of the steel-eyed complexity and personable wit of her other creative pursuits.
David Sedaris, Happy-Go-Lucky
The newfound depth and maturity on display in 2018’s Calypso continues in this latest collection. Sedaris muses on life during COVID, naturally, but also centers on his 98-year-old father’s decline and death and his own mortality. Rest assured, even as he delves further into personal and often uncomfortable places (from American gun culture to revelations about his father), he has little difficulty locating the humor in such taboos without coming off as cynical or flippant.
Gary Shteyngart, Our Country Friends
Having written a novel set during the 2016 election, Shteyngart’s follow-up concerns a family and their friends sequestering themselves at a crumbling, upstate New York estate in the early days of the pandemic. It reads like a Robert Altman-directed French farce as filtered through the author’s unique, endearing perspective of an immigrant writer/humorist forever navigating/questioning/discovering their own place in America.
Bob Stanley, Let’s Do It
A companion to 2013’s Yeah Yeah Yeah, a history of modern pop (i.e. the Rock and Roll era), this tracks everything that came before, from the dawn of popular music at the turn of the 20th Century to early 1950s crooners and their adherents in the following two decades. It doesn’t cohere as well as its predecessor but Stanley writes so eloquently about everyone from Duke Ellington to Rod McKuen that it winds up another essential tome for nearly all music fans.
Martha Wainwright, Stories I Might Regret Telling You
Often in the shadow of her parents and older brother, Wainwright’s own talent as a singer/songwriter is nothing to scoff at. Her memoir might be the best I’ve encountered by a musician since Liz Phair’s Horror Stories in that Martha exhibits a candor fully in tune with the book’s title without seeming sensationalist or self-indulgent. She’s set a high bar if Rufus ever decides to attempt a memoir of his own.
Here’s my complete 2022 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):
Tom Gatti (ed.), Long Players
Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads
Tamara Shopsin, LaserWriter II
Gary Shteyngart, Our Country Friends
Kelefa Sanneh, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres
Dana Stevens, Camera Man
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad*
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store
David Mitchell, Ghostwritten
Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties
Marilynne Robinson, Jack
Peter Terzian (ed.), Heavy Rotation
Mel Brooks, All About Me!
Dale Peck, What We Lost*
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House
Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick*
John Dos Passos, 1919
Stephen King, On Writing
Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors*
Alex Jeffrey, Donna Summer’s Once Upon A Time (33 1/3 series)
Bob Odenkirk, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama
Julie Klausner, I Don’t Care About Your Band*
David Sedaris, Happy-Go-Lucky
Karen Fowler Joy, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Jessi Klein, I’ll Show Myself Out
Sarah Polley, Run Towards The Danger
Mary Karr, The Liars Club
John Waters, Liarmouth
Jennifer Egan, The Candy House
Carson McCullers, Collected Stories*
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Sloane Crosley, Cult Classic
Tom Perrotta, Tracy Flick Can’t Win
Lesley Chow, You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women In Music
Charlie Berens, The Midwest Survival Guide
Amos Vogel, Film As A Subversive Art
Hannah Gadsby, Ten Steps To Nanette
Molly Shannon, Hello, Molly!
Geoff Dyer, The Last Days Of Roger Federer
Kliph Nesteroff, We Had A Little Real Estate Problem
Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg, Full Service
Paul Rudnick, Playing The Palace
Martha Wainwright, Stories I Might Regret Telling You
Patricia Bosworth, Montgomery Clift: A Biography
Bob Stanley, Let’s Do It
Mary Jo Pehl, Dumb Dumb Dumb: My Mother’s Book Reviews
The year I came back, heck, we all came back from the dead even if the pandemic’s not over yet. Regardless, we needed this—life can’t possibly be the same as before, so all we can do is seek that which inspires us to go forward. In that regard, Jessie Ware’s “Free Yourself” is the track of the year: an invitation to the dancefloor (among other activities), a commandment more than a request, it pleads for renewal, self-expression and cathartic release. Currently a standalone single (it may or may not appear on Ware’s next album, rumored for 2023), it’s also a natural progression from last year’s best song, “Like I Used To”: “Keep on moving up that mountaintop,” indeed.
Even if their albums didn’t crack my top ten, a number of veteran acts put out exceptional singles this year: Beach House fine-tuning their dream-pop gauze with “Superstar”, Alison Goldfrapp returning as a guest on Röyksopp’s burbling epic “Impossible”, Hurray For The Riff Raff’s searing, anthemic “Pierced Arrows”, Regina Spektor still a delightful weirdo on the tip-top whimsy of “Up The Mountain”, even The Dream Syndicate, having now released as many albums in the past decade as in their original 1980s incarnation proving their continued worth with “Damian”—as brisk and cool as an evening wind.
Among artists new to me in 2022: Australian Hatchie, whose “Quicksand” pays homage to late Cocteau Twins and gets away with it for being as precise and pleasurable as late Siouxsie and the Banshees; Bartees Strange, in the running to become his generation’s Stew only as a postpunk explorer instead of a showtunes guy; Alex G, an indie weirdo crafting jingle-worthy jangle pop on “Runner” while managing to turn the lyric, “Load it up, know your trigger like the back of my hand” a sing-along hook; and The xx’s Oliver Sim in his solo debut, a sly, queer commentary too jaunty and droll to fit in his band’s discography (and presented to best effect in Yann Gonzalez’s short film Hideous.)
Also: Tears For Fears reunited and made an album that didn’t suck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs reunited and made an album that was at best inconsequential save for the dramatic, searing “Burning”, Junior Boys returned with Waiting Game which lacked actual tunes expect for the evocative closer of a title track and First Aid Kit showed they’re ready for world domination even if the Fleetwood Mac-worthy “Out of My Head” won’t actually accomplish it. What I’m craving in the year to come, however, is more stuff like Christine and The Queens’ “Combien de Temps”, an eight-and-a-half-minute vamp that gradually feels more knowing than it initially lets on while fully sustaining its stoned groove as if it were Traffic (or perhaps Morcheeba.) Supposedly, there’s more to come from that project in 2023 along with Emm Gryner, who previewed her forthcoming Business and Pleasure with “Valencia”, a yacht rock homage that acknowledges regret but firmly pushes towards brighter days ahead.
Such rituals, however, barely graze the bottomless cornucopia of what makes Christmas complete. Not only did we schlep home a fresh tree every year, Mom would also handcraft a distinct set of ornaments (albeit usually from a kit): wooden painted Disney figures, painstakingly cross-stitched trinkets, little “people” constructed from clothespins and felt (I was always partial to the lady cellist because her eyes ended up a bit googly.) She’d also lay out my grandmother’s nativity on the dining room’s built-in buffet shelf while Dad and I put up the vintage Lionel train set I inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene around the tree. We’d watch nearly all the television specials that, in those pre-cable, pre-VCR days you had but one chance to view in real time when they aired, from the unimpeachable A Charlie Brown Christmas to whatever was trendy that year (even Pac-Man was deemed worthy of one.) Mugs of hot chocolate, glasses of eggnog, the brass angel display that spun when the heat from a lit candle was applied underneath, the red (or green) bulb Dad would place in the front porch light fixture—it simply wasn’t Christmas without each and every one of these traditions.
The most anticipated and certainly tastiest of them all were the many batches of cookies Mom made (and still makes to this day.) The rest of the year, we’d have your standard Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter varieties, perhaps Oatmeal Raisin if mom was so moved. December was strictly for the season, even if it was as elemental as changing the chips from milk to mint chocolate or sprinkling colored sugar on the peanut butter ones. Actually, even those somewhat paled next to the extra special varieties, the ones that took more effort. Many came from ten-to-thirty-year-old cookbooks my mom wouldn’t consult for anything else—some of them were even exclusively devoted to Christmas cookies, published by and made available for free from the Wisconsin Gas Company every season. I was astonished a few years back to discover my mom had hung onto a book from 1953 that appeared to have been run through the dishwasher multiple times.
From such tomes came recipes for delicacies like Pecan Fingers, Rum Balls and that famous holiday staple, the Gingerbread Man. I believe this is also where the beloved, dreaded Pinwheels came from—adored for their complex taste and texture of chocolate and vanilla dough swirled together as its name dictates, abhorred because it was a particularly difficult, time-intensive cookie to make (even my grandmother, a masterful baker often groused about the process.) Much simpler (but no less delicious) were Almond Shortbreads topped with apricot or raspberry jam and Cream Cheese “Spritz” cookies, their dough (often enhanced with red or green food coloring) stuffed into a tube in a machine that would emit perfect spheres onto the baking sheet while unnervingly making a noise resembling a protracted, if finite scream.
Even without any of these varieties, it’d still be Christmas as long as we had a few batches of iced and decorated sugar cookies, so essential that as a child I simply referred to them as “Christmas Cookies” (as if everything else was ancillary.) A week or two before the 25th, Mom would mix together two batches of the dough and refrigerate them overnight to allow for hardening. The next afternoon, she’d remove them from the cold to briefly thaw, then bring out her massive plastic rolling pin usually filled with water to give it some weight. She’d clear off and clean the kitchen table, sprinkle it with a fistful of flour, then roll out the dough to the perfect width—not too thick or thin. Then, out came the cookie cutters, seasonal shapes such as bells, trees, candy canes (which could also double for the letter J), angels, wreaths, stars and of course, Santa Claus himself. She’d cut the shapes, lay them out on baking sheets and place in the oven for eight to ten minutes.
The fun began once the baked shapes cooled. We’d set up a mini-assembly line of sorts: mom would spread white icing on each cookie, then hand it to me for decorating. I’d sit at the table with a large spread of aluminum foil or plastic wrap before me and an array of shakers and plastic containers with spoons. What a smorgasbord I had to choose from: chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles (or “jimmies” as we called them), a rainbow of sugars (definitely green and red, but also yellow, blue and occasionally pink), tiny cinnamon candies, even tinier crunchy, crystalized multicolored dots of sugar, walnut pieces and, if we had any leftover, some chocolate chips. It was my job to make sure we had a suitable variety of different colors and textures on various shapes. As the excess sugar and sprinkles accumulated on the foil or plastic, I’d occasionally place a cookie on top of the mess, generating a baked good equivalent of the zombie concoction one could devise at a restaurant’s do-it-yourself soda stand, mixing together all available flavors simply because you could. Mom wasn’t a fan of my zombie décor but she preferred it to those times when I’d place two chocolate chips on an angel shape, anticipating that infamous cone bra Madonna would adorn years later.
I was allowed to enjoy a cookie here and there in the days leading up to Christmas Eve when Mom would bring out her loaded, multi-tiered dessert display stand and all bets were off. The next 48 hours and beyond were for eating cookies day and night, along with boxes of chocolate covered cherries and, when I was a bit older, fancy petit fours my parents would procure from a mail order catalog. We’d also make sure to put some out for Santa (along with an obligatory bowl of sugar for his reindeer); I recall earnestly asking my parents one year if he’d like any Rum Balls, a bit uncertain whether it was appropriate to bequeath him something with a presumed alcohol content. We always had enough cookies to last us through New Year’s Eve. By then, the three of us, close to crashing from our extended sugar high, my folks struggling to make it to Midnight (but enjoying a few Brandy Alexanders regardless), would finish off whatever was left and resign ourselves to a bright New Year of diets and other resolutions, quietly anticipating Valentine’s Day where cards and chocolates and perhaps some store-bought cookies would have to suffice.
Instead of my usual multi-post countdown, here are my top ten albums of the year, starting at number one. Number two is not too far behind and was my frontrunner for most of the year. All ten are pretty good-to-great and those in the Also Recommended list are all worth a listen.
1. Beth Orton, Weather Alive
After Trailer Park and Central Reservation, two striking, genre-expanding albums she made in the late 1990s, Orton continued putting out new music every couple of years. Apart from a track here or there, she often felt like an artist simply past her prime even if she rarely repeated herself, often distilling her approach into pure folk (2012’s Sugaring Season) or something predominantly electronic (2016’s Kidsticks.) Her latest studio album (and her first self-produced one) is less a reset or return-to-form than a bold leap forward. It defies categorization as much as those first two albums although it feels part of a British neo-folk tradition reaching back to Fairport Convention, John Martyn, even Everything But The Girl’s Amplified Heart. Its eight songs unfold at an unhurried pace, with Orton’s piano accompanied by murmuring saxophone, gentle polyrhythms and a haziness providing contrast to the sturdy melodic foundations. Most remarkable, though, are Orton’s vocals—now in her fifties, she exude more warmth and also mystery than before, emitting sounds both mellifluous and occasionally harsh. Since its September release, Weather Alive has proven ideal Autumn-into-Winter listening; I suspect it’ll adapt nicely to Spring and Summer as well.
2. Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
A double-length album in the age of maximum streaming seems like a potential folly, although with streaming comes flexibility from restrictive formats which proves a boon for this American folk-rock quartet. Their appeal has escaped me in the past (perhaps due to Adrianne Lenker’s plaintive vocals or lack of a novel angle) but here, track by track, they produce a lasting impact. Tusk of all things is the rough template, as this also kicks off with a ballad (“Change”) before branching out in 19 different directions (from the downhome stomp of “Spud Infinity” to the loping, lyrical pop of “Simulation Swarm”.) Then again, perhaps 69 Love Songs is a closer analogue (and not just because “Wake Me Up To Drive” actually resembles The Magnetic Fields)—throughout, Lenker and co. convey the intimacy of people simply playing together in a room while remaining open to seemingly limitless permutations.
3. Destroyer, Labyrinthitis
Dan Bejar stumbled upon a kind of genius with Kaputt, his 2011 yacht-rock-in-heaven opus. While he has hasn’t released a subpar album since, his latest is nearly its equal for building on the bizarro-world New Order-isms of ken and Have We Met? while burrowing further down the rabbit hole without getting lost (even with titles such as “Eat The Wine, Drink The Bread”.) Gradually building opener “It’s In Your Heart Now” only hints at the odd but appealing detours he takes, from the irresistible extended “rap”/funk breakdown of the second half of “June” to the trancelike “The States” and guitar-and-voice closer “The Last Song”. Labyrinthitis is Bejar’s 13th album as Destroyer and it still shows more potential than most acts with only three albums in their discography.
4. Stars, From Capelton Hill
This veteran Canadian indie-pop band’s first album in five years doesn’t necessarily do anything new; fortunately, it plays so well to all their strengths that it doesn’t much matter. The primary mood is pastoral and reflective—similar to 2010’s The Five Ghosts, only more consistent and confident. Still crafting music swoon-worthy enough for a John Hughes film (“I Need The Light”, “Back To The End”) or propulsive enough for a home dance party (“Build A Fire”, “Hoping”) their unforced exuberance, boy/girl vocals and chiming arrangements never grow old. Now, they further benefit from hindsight and accumulated wisdom.
5. Alvvays, Blue Rev
This Canadian indie-rock band’s first album in five years positively deepens the twee wall-of-sound approach of their evergreen 2014 single “Archie, Marry Me”. Dressing up their perfect pop instincts in reverb-heavy guitars, nimble key changes and melodies stuffed with hooks for days, their tunes’ less-than-three-minutes average duration thrills like early Ramones. Vocalist Molly Rankin’s careening tone, however, remains their most distinct feature and she sounds better than ever, whether she’s aiming for humor (rave-up “Pomeranian Spinster”, the hilarious, searing “Very Online Guy”) or heart (“Belinda Says”, a sparking tribute to the lead singer of The Go-Go’s.)
6. Wet Leg, Wet Leg
Last year’s “Chaise Longue” is one of those out-of-nowhere debut singles so sublime it could forever prove a tough act to follow; while this cheeky British female duo doesn’t exactly match it on their first full-length (which includes it), they’re far from a one-trick pony, even if their sharpest tunes (“Wet Dream”, “Angelica”, “Ur Mum”) exhibit a similarly bratty reserve. Some will balk at them singing about getting too high at the “Supermarket” and dropping Buffalo 66 references into their lyrics but name another band this buzzed-about as fully formed and disarmingly themselves.
7. Cate Le Bon, Pompeii
A Welsh weirdo who makes recordings that sound like Kate Bush 45 slooooowed down to 33 rpm, I got on her wavelength with her fifth album, 2019’s Reward; this follow-up is not so much a continuation as a refinement. Strip away the occasional goofy synth or honking sax and you’d be left with music not dissimilar to what you’d hear on Sirius XM’s Coffeehouse channel, except that Le Bon often sounds like she’s happily floating into the great beyond. Thankfully, the playfulness and humor in sweet, if slightly off tunes like “Remembering Me” and “Running Away” or even the near-anthemic “Moderation” comes through.
8. Arctic Monkeys, The Car
I didn’t care about them when they were post-Britpop breakouts in the mid-aughts or arena rawk stars about ten years ago; their transformation into spacey lounge music on 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino also passed me by. This seventh album, however, is enough for me to question if I’ve missed anything. Apparently extending the vibes of its irony-laden predecessor, it sounds completely out of time: wah-wah guitars, dramatic strings and Alex Turner’s Bowie-esque falsetto all suggest vintage American soul but it translates as something quiet, melancholy, almost unknowable and on standout “Body Paint”, soaring and majestic.
9. Jenny Hval, Classic Objects
Probably this Norwegian’s most accessible work (I haven’t heard all of her previous seven albums, though keep in mind her breakthrough was called Blood Bitch) but by no means lesser or boring due to that—not when it has a seven-minute tone poem named after an Apichatpong Weerasethakulfilm (“Cemetery of Splendour”) or the prog-pop epic “Jupiter”, a clear highlight which builds to a chewy, lovely mind-melting coda. Going for ethereal and bright instead of sinister and subterranean opens up worlds for her as does the world-music percussion and dreamlike chord changes that nearly seem like second nature to her.
10. beabadoobee, Beatopia
This 22-year-old Filipino-British wunderkind got my attention when, prior to her second album’s release, she remarked, “I’ve been really getting into a band called Stars.” Given her vocal similarity to that group’s Amy Millan, it’s not too much a stretch. On Beatopia, it’s merely a jumping off point. Sure, much of it sounds like it could’ve come from 2006 (or even 1996), but the guitar crunch (“Talk”) and wistful melodies (“Lovesong”, not a Cure cover) are everything one would want from such a formulation. Occasionally, she even transcends it (the lithe bossa nova of “The Perfect Pair”.)
Alex G, God Save The Animals
Andrew Bird, Inside Problems
Angel Olsen, Big Time
Christine and the Queens, Redcar les Adorables Étoiles
First Aid Kit, Palomino
Hatchie, Giving The World Away
Hot Chip, Freakout/Release
Sharon Van Etten, We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
A rumor spread like wildfire across social media last week that this decade’s Sight and Sound critics poll of The Greatest Films of All Time would crown a new winner. Citizen Kane had won every ten-year iteration of the poll from 1962 until 2012 when Vertigo finally knocked it off the top—an upset for sure but supposedly not as shocking as 2022’s victor. Some speculated it would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which placed sixth in 2012—a reasonable guess but not a particularly game-changing one; although somewhat divisive among viewers, Kubrick’s sci-fi head trip feels firmly ensconced in the canon as much as the Welles or Hitchcock films. I wouldn’t mind it topping the poll nor would I have felt too strongly about it.
One can imagine the collective gasp on Film Twitter when the actual winner was announced: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, all the way up from #36 in 2012. For the unfamiliar (i.e. mostly everyone who is not a film critic or a considerable cineaste), it is a 1975 drama about three days in the life of the titular housewife (Delphine Seyrig) and her mundane routines. She peels potatoes, cleans the dishes, brushes her hair, etc. Nothing else happens, except for one crucial thing each day—revealing it here would be a major spoiler. The film is over three hours long and so exceedingly methodical that it can feel like thirty. This deliberateness is crucial for, as the film continues, the slightest deviations in Dielman’s routines (like when she drops a just-washed spoon) seem all the more noticeable though even they do not prepare one for the alarming finale.
I first watched this in a graduate-level film studies class; at the time, few of us knew what to make of it. Completely unprepared for the sluggish pace and rigorous formalism, many of us sat in our seats talking back to the screen, giving it the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment (our professor was not present for the screening, though he heard about our reaction to it and later scolded us at length.) Whenever one describes a movie as unlike anything one has seen before it often comes off as hyperbole, but Jeanne Dielman (few casually refer to it by the full laborious title) wholly lives up to this aphorism. It is an experimental, structurally radical film and also one of the key works of feminist cinema (made by a 25-year-old Belgian lesbian director, no less.)
How could something so extreme top even a critics poll of the best films of all time? For one thing, nearly doubling the number of participants (1639, up from 846 in 2012) allows for more inclusivity and diversity. It could reflect the current era, serving as a course-corrective to decades of white male critics dominating this and other likeminded polls. It might also be a way to honor Akerman’s legacy (sadly, she committed suicide in 2015.) The film is also more accessible than ever before: one can easily stream it on Criterion Channel (or, a few years ago, purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD; it’s currently out of print. At the time of my first viewing, I don’t think one could even find it on VHS.) I remember watching it again a year or two later, perhaps at the Harvard Film Archive; I haven’t revisited it since though I’ve seen a good chunk of Akerman’s filmography, which contains everything from audio-visual diaries (News From Home) to a glossy musical (!) (Golden Eighties, also starring Seyrig.) Undeniably a great work, it is a film to endure, maybe even admire rather than enjoy in the conventional sense. That it topped Sight and Sound in 2022 will delight some and infuriate many. Still, it’s altogether preferable to seeing Citizen Kane (a worthy film whose continued dominance of such polls pushed it to seem overrated) at number one again.
As for where films on my (fake) 2022 ballot placed, the highest was In The Mood For Love (#5, up from #24), followed by The Passion of Joan of Arc (#21, down from #9), The Apartment (#54, did not crack the top 100 in 2012), A Matter of Life and Death (#78, up from #90) and Parasite (#90)—the latter the newest entry to make the top 100 along with Portrait of A Lady on Fire (#30). I didn’t expect most of my other five entries to chart except for maybe The Shop Around The Corner. 35 Shots of Rum isn’t as nearly as beloved as Claire Denis consensus choice Beau Travail (#7, up from #78!) and I suppose the others are too obscure, though at least Love Streams and The Long Day Closes are part of The Criterion Collection—not so Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I just bought a Kino Lorber Blu-ray of since it remains unstreamable.
Regarding my entirely different 2012 ballot (which included Beau Travail), four other titles placed in 2022: Vertigo (still a very respectable #2), Mulholland Drive (#8, up from #28), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (#11, down from #5) and Playtime (#23, up from #43 (tied)). As for titles I’ve covered so far in my 24 Frames project, in addition to the Denis and Lynch films, there’s Close-Up (#17, up from #43 (tied)), Meshes of the Afternoon (#16) and The Piano (#50) (the last two did not crack the top 100 in 2012.)
Akerman’s triumph was not the only surprise among the results. I certainly didn’t predict Barbara Loden’s Wanda (#48), Daughters of the Dust (#60), The Gleaners and I (#67), My Neighbor Totoro (#72 – over Spirited Away at #75!) or Tropical Malady (#95) to place. That The Godfather Part II dropped out of the top 100 entirely after placing at #31 in 2012 was also unexpected. 2001: A Space Odyssey did top the adjacent directors poll where Jeanne Dielman reached #4 (tied with Tokyo Story.) I’ve seen all but ten of the critics poll’s top 100; of those, I’m most eager to watch Sherlock Jr. (I know!), The Spirit of the Beehive, Madame De…, Once Upon a Time in the West and Black Girl.
Is it too soon to speculate what will top the 2032 poll? Given that I wouldn’t have bet my life on this year’s number one back in 2012, who knows? I’m more curious about where the most recent titles (Portrait of A Lady On Fire, Parasite, Get Out) will place, for it’s always intriguing to see how a newish movie endures (or not) in real time.
It’s nearly time for British film magazine Sight and Sound to publish their once-every-decade critic’s poll of all-time greatest films. Ten years ago, I presented my own hypothetical ballot; for this latest edition, here’s another one with ten different films. My only criteria was to not repeat anything from my 24 Frames project—a relatively easy task because there is an almost overwhelming amount of movies to pick from for a list like this.
In chronological order:
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Director: Carl Dreyer, France, 1928)
My silent-era pick. Wholly radical when it was made, it still feels as such today—I can’t name another film that utilizes faces and close-ups with such candor. As with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, I remain uncertain whether an alternate universe where the invention of sync sound was decades away would’ve been a good thing, but this film’s rare achievement makes me wonder.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1940)
This is the oft-described “Lubitsch Touch” at its most graceful and lithe. The epiphanous, empathetic last twenty minutes or so is what all romances, comedies and rom-coms should aspire to; Stewart (in arguably his most complex performance until VERTIGO) puts it best: “You know, people seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth.”
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1946)
I could’ve gone with any one of this duo’s efforts from this period; this has the most innovative use of switching back and forth between black-and-white and glorious color (even more so than THE WIZARD OF OZ). Still, as with the best of Powell and Pressburger, the technical spectacle is always in service of a fable full of heart and substance.
THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, USA, 1960)
I didn’t appreciate this when I first tried watching it in my twenties, but I fully get it now (being a major influence on MAD MEN helps.) No other filmmaker besides Billy Wilder ever achieved such a tricky balance of humor and melancholia as he did here. Also, how in the world did a rarely-better Shirley MacLaine lose the Academy Award for Lead Actress to Liz Taylor???
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, Mexico/USA, 1974)
I first saw this neglected classic five years ago at a screening in conjunction with Charles Taylor’s indispensable book on ‘70s genre cinema, OPENING WEDNESDAY AT A THEATER OR DRIVE-IN NEAR YOU and fell for it instantly: Peckinpah’s scabrous take on the human condition feels entirely undiluted and yet so… humane. Warren Oates very well may also be the original anti-hero (or at least the template for those of modern prestige-TV.)
LOVE STREAMS (John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
Cassavetes’ final film is almost a beautiful mess, and one by design. Knowing he had not much longer left to live, he made something people might’ve deemed elegiac if his philosophy would’ve allowed for such sentimentality (it mostly did not.) To put so much of oneself onscreen warts and all was his specialty whether in the guise of his ensemble players (including wife Gena Rowlands) or, in this case, himself; arguably, no one did so with more blistering honesty.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Terence Davies, UK, 1992)
Davies’ personal, idiosyncratic style refashions memories as a stream-of-consciousness rush, although perhaps rush is the wrong word for a film that lovingly takes its time. The rare period piece to revel in nostalgia without letting it obscure the mundaneness of everyday life, it’s also pure poetry in how it orchestrates all of its cinematic elements, especially its bold use of light and darkness.
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
Last year, I rewatched all of Wong’s films included in the new Criterion Collection box set and this one’s still his best. A deceptively simple tale of a romance that’s never acted upon, it sounds like the stuff of a prime Douglas Sirk melodrama. Instead, it plays out with such nuance and restraint that it achieves an almost unbearable intimacy, leaving the viewer both swooned and devastated.
35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis, France, 2008)
I included another Denis film on my 2012 ballot; here’s one nearly its equal. Less formally adventurous, this account of a single father and his adult daughter communicates less through words than glances and evocative stylistic choices such as hypnotic point-of-view shots taken from commuter trains in motion. Also, what a sublime soundtrack, not only for the Tindersticks score but also its unexpected use of a certain Commodores song.
PARASITE (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)
Haven’t rewatched this since right before the pandemic, but I imagine it holds up brilliantly—so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control. As usual with Bong, it’s tough to classify or define: is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror film? Bong seems to be asking, “Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that?”
I spent a recent holiday watching the 287-minute director’s cut of Wim Wenders’ 1991 techno/sci-fi extravaganza Until The End Of The World (streaming on Criterion Channel.) The 158-minute theatrical cut infamously bombed and the film, a follow-up to the still-beloved Wings of Desire seemed to languish in memory until this longer version surfaced–first in Europe, then in the US in 2014 and finally as part of the Criterion Collection a few years later.
Rather than attempt a traditional review, I present a journal of my viewing experience, done pretty much in one sitting—possibly the longest film I’ve ever conceived this way. (Times are in hours:minutes.) SPOILERS AHEAD, obv.
0:04 – Protagonist Claire (Solveig Dommartin) wakes up and wearily strolls through a lingering party in a bohemian but upscale Venice apartment like she’s Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll 25+ years early.
0:10 – Set in “1999”: MP3s do not yet exist, although music comes on ultra-thin rectangular discs that resemble playing cards instead of CDs. More prescient (to the COVID age, anyway): the boat driver wearing a face mask.
0:14 – I was thinking I could spend the entire film blissfully watching Claire driving through pre-apocalyptic landscapes and whoops, her car just crashed.
0:24 – The problem with sci-fi, particularly films set less than a decade in the future is that the imagined technology often resembles a slightly warped take on what is readily available in the present. Hence, the bank of VIDEOPHONES Claire calls her friend Makiko from (and runs into Sam (William Hurt) at for the first time.)
0:24 We have the U2 title song! I remember seeing/hearing this soundtrack everywhere but have no memory of the film playing theatrically in Milwaukee, though I was 16 and not yet aware of the ins and outs of arthouse cinema.
0:30 – At least some of the imagined tech is seriously warped, like the police cars that resemble Lego Duplo figures.
0:37 – Well, Claire and Gene’s (Sam Neill) Parisian flat is the most 90s apartment ever; Elvis Costello’s slooow version of The Kinks’ “Days” is the worst version I’ve heard (def. inferior to Kirsty MacColl’s from two years before.)
0:44 – Someone actually says, “Don’t be stupid; this is 1999.”
0:53 – Nearly 20% (!) through the film, and I’m suitably entertained. When not overtly wacky, the production design’s sublime (e.g. the giant, rotating world globe illuminating one time-zone clock after another.)
1:03 – Between this and The Piano, early 90’s Neill really was your go-to guy for playing strait-laced, uptight cucks.
1:14 – “Bounty Bear” WTF.
1:29 – I might’ve done without so much narration from Gene. “She spent a fortune video-faxing the tape to me in Paris,” he notes, presumably straight-faced.
1:33 – Oh Claire, I hate Gene’s suit too.
1:35 – Guessing the Tokyo hotel chase scene, where the film briefly turns into an episode of Scooby-Doo (with spazzy, incidental music straight out of an ancient Merrie Melodies cartoon) was cut out of the shorter theatrical release.
1:44 – Regarding the rural Japan sequence, as Wenders proved in his earlier doc Tokyo-ga, Ozu he is not; it’s still touching to see octogenarian (and Ozu regular) Chishū Ryū onscreen though.
1:52 – Here we get to the premise/MacGuffin/whatever: “A camera that takes pictures blind people can see !” (o rilly?) To which Claire silently responds, Can you see my naked body?
2:01 – After the unexpected thrill of seeing Claire and Sam to do “The Twist” on a cruise ship, the U2 theme appears for the third time. Feeling overwhelmed that we’re not even halfway through this thing, so I’m taking a 15-minute break.
2:19 – The bright blue and orange of the Australian outback landscape is truly breathtaking; not even late-period Lou Reed can destroy it, although Gene doesn’t throw the most convincing punch at Sam. I had to look up and confirm that the South Australia town of “Coober Pedy” actually exists.
2:31 – “They shot down the satellite” – man, it really is Y2K; also, “It’s the end of the world” (but certainly not the film.)
2:42 – “These are bloody dangerous times, mate.” Believe the guy with the hook (not only for a hand, but his entire arm.)
2:51 – So happy Jeanne Moreau is here. And Max von Sydow as a weird doctor? What novel casting!
3:22 – Around here is where I start to drift. The theatrical cut apparently contains less than an hour of the Australia stuff while this has more than two. I miss the “on the road” part of this road movie—it builds more momentum than waiting to see if blind Moreau can see the images taken by the special camera. I imagine the actress lying down in the simulator thinking to herself, “Merde, what did I get myself into?” The “simulations” themselves have a flash video quality and sound not far off from the early days of dial-up internet (so that’s prescient of ’99.)
3:27 – We have a digeridoo, and of course the guy with the hook is playing it.
3:43 – Gene’s narration includes a dippy speech about music being the purpose for their journey – what a dopey writer, ain’t he?
3:49 – On 12/31/99, we find out the nuclear crisis is averted for the missiles conveniently blew up in space. Von Sydow exclaims, “The world is still alive!,” while sourpuss Moreau dissents: “The world is not okay.”
3:51 – At least Solveig’s Nico-esque version of “Days” is charming (and much better than Costello’s.)
4:03 – That darn Dr. Von Sydow! Now he wants to record pictures of dreams, the dope. I begin waiting for Harvey B. Dunn from Bride Of The Monster to show up and say, “He tampered in god’s domain.”
4:12 – The dream imagery is not pretentious, exactly, but unquestionably weird. Turn off the sound and it might make for good ASMR. This is getting vaguely psychedelic, like end of 2001: A Space Odyssey but less portentous.
4:19 – Someone named Karl: “There’s a line that should never be crossed, and we passed it a long time ago.”
4:32 – “Split… from myself”; “Impossible to rescue a man lost in the labyrinth of his own soul”… now the film’s getting a little pretentious.
4:38 – Gene’s still wearing that awful suit!
4:41 – Gene wrote his book, and Claire read the whole thing! It all ends with perhaps the worst rendition of ‘Happy Birthday” ever, then that damn U2 song returns over the closing credits.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Not the resurrected masterpiece I was hoping for and not Wenders’ best by a long shot (I’ll stump for Paris, Texas though I haven’t seen it in a quarter-century.) Maybe his last good non-documentary*, however, though it may have had a sharper impact had it been split into two a la Kill Bill or The Souvenir.
*Buena Vista Social Club, while imperfect, belongs on a shortlist of essential Wenders.
Continuing a tradition, here is a selection of color shot in and around Boston during my favorite time of year. Above is the Charles River Esplanade as seen from the Longfellow Bridge. This is a few days before Daylight Savings Time ended; as of today, I’m doubtful much foliage is left.
A burst of yellow on the Esplanade with the Arthur Fiedler statue in the right background.
The Boston Public Garden one brisk morning this past week.
The Garden’s easily one of my favorite spots in town. When I took this photo, I noted how it was a reminder as to why, after moving here decades ago, I stayed.
Across the Charles and over to JFK Park near Harvard Square on an idyllic Saturday morning.
In late September I first noticed how unusually… robust the color was this year. Chalk it up to the summer drought, the subsequent rain, global warming or chance. Either way, I made time for a visit to Mt. Auburn Cemetery on the Cambridge/Watertown border, a place I didn’t make it to last year.
My mom has asked me, “Why go to a cemetery to take pictures?” Here’s one reason…
…and another. Mt. Auburn often feels as much of an arboretum as it does a cemetery.
We conclude on Millennium Park in West Roxbury – a ten minute walk from home and thus a park I’ve spent more time in than nearly any other in the area.
The trees were noticeably sparser than they were just five days before I took this one. Luckily, flashes of that rare autumnal red remained.
IFF Boston’s Fall Focus is a counterpart to their main film festival in late April/early May (in my opinion the best in the area.) Since this offshoot began about 7 or 8 years back, I’ve caught titles there such as Anomalisa, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Cold War and Shoplifters. After an online-only edition in 2020 and my skipping it last year, it was a treat to return. Of the eleven films playing over four days (plus two bonus titles afterwards), I saw these three.
Sarah Polley’s return to directing after a decade carries almost ridiculously high expectations due to her previous, consistently strong body of work (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell) and all the awards season hype already showered upon this new film, which Polley adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel. Happily, Women Talking mostly meets them.
Set in a remote, rural, unnamed religious community (though Mennonite seems most likely), it revolves around an emergency, clandestine meeting among about a dozen of its women. Upon discovery that some of their men are drugging and raping them, they debate whether all the women should stay and fight back or leave the settlement with their younger children. It takes place in the near-present, though with the addition of an unlikely musical cue it could reasonably be any time since the late 1960’s; it also leaves open the possibility that it could even be in the near (or remote) future.
Much of it is exactly what the title promises: the women process the dilemma before them, discussing and arguing at length the implications of what courses of action are available to them. If this sounds dry and overly, well, talky, it’s visually far less static and isolated than something like last year’s (admittedly great) Mass. Polley not only sculpts dialogue to ebb and flow naturally like a good screenplay should, she also comprehends the value of opening up this world cinematically when the time is right for it. As the camera moves around and sometimes away from the barn where much of the action occurs, one can usually sense Polley’s hand as an additional unseen character right beside the women, reacting to and often enhancing what transpires.
The superb ensemble cast includes indie-friendly stars (Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy), Canadian stalwarts (Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod), revered veterans (Judith Ivey and in a smaller role, Frances McDormand) and Ben Whishaw as the sole on-screen adult male, a sympathetic school teacher asked to take minutes of the meeting (most of the women there are not taught to read and write.)
As the women work their way towards decisive action, the film accumulates considerable power, laying out what’s at stake for these characters, illustrating their turmoil (but never in an exploitative way) and placing it in a larger context that strives to be universally applicable. Occasionally, the story oversteps, simplifying logistical concerns for actions taken; the final section also drags a bit, reiterating ideas and emotional beats already touched upon. However, those are minor missteps. The world Polley depicts is contained to the point of being restrictive; Women Talking, with great catharsis and reasoning explains with artful clarity as to why this is damaging and what future generations can do to avoid succumbing to such a closed-off, incomplete life. (4.5 out of 5)
After a brief sojourn in France (The Truth), director Hirokazu Kore-eda made this movie in South Korea rather than his home country of Japan, purportedly so he could work with the actor Song Kang-ho (he was most recently the patriarch in Parasite.) As with its predecessor, the shift in locale does not mean any departure in style or tone, though some parts of Broker might comprise his most overtly comedic work in years.
The plot, however, is the stuff of drama and suspense. Two men, Sang-hyun (Song) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) run an illegal business in Busan where they steal abandoned infants from a church’s drop-off box and sell them on the black market. It works swimmingly until So-young (singer/songwriter IU), a teenage mother in the process of dropping off her own baby discovers their scheme and joins them to interview prospective adoptive parents. Meanwhile, two detectives (one played by Kore-eda alumnus Doona Bae, now middle-aged but still fabulous) sit in their unmarked car and watch this all play out.
Although Broker won the Jury Prize at Cannes, it isn’t on the same level as Kore-eda’s very best work (my top four, chronologically: After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Shoplifters.) Actually, it’s slightly flabby (maybe 10-20 minutes too long) and although he retains a knack for getting amusing (but not irritating!) performances out of children, this film’s humor and pathos do not always sit comfortably alongside each other. Of course, as veteran auteurs go, Kore-eda is still in a class of his own. He may be relying on variations on familiar themes, but no one else matches his sustained comfort and nimble touch with depicting makeshift families and finding those ingenuous, unforced grace moments that co-exist with the mundane. (4 out of 5)
The latest from writer/director James Gray is almost nakedly autobiographical. His 11-year-old alter ego, Paul (Banks Repeta) lives in Queens, 1980 (as Gray did), the younger son of a middle-class Jewish-American family whose grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) arrived at Ellis Island near the turn of the 20th century. A would-be artist prone to daydreaming with little traditional work ethic in him, Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), an African-American classmate who was left back the previous year and is barely tolerated by their public-school teacher. His friendship with Johnny doesn’t so much open up a new world for Paul as it gradually puts into perspective his own place in the world and how his race and class afford him privilege; meanwhile, his grandfather helps him to understand the complexities of bearing such privilege along with the moral and ethical implications at risk as a result.
Gray gets the period look and feel exactly right but sometimes struggles with other details. Apart from Hopkins, Paul’s family can come off as stereotypical-verging-on-cartoonish; even worse, Johnny’s barely a character at all, a sacrificial lamb for Paul to learn from. The insertion of two real-life figures related to a former president also feels a little clumsy, reiterating the overall point by practically banging it into the ground. On the other hand, the film would fall apart without Repeta’s naturalistic performance; he’s certainly one of the more plausible 11-year-old film protagonists, itself a tough age to depict in that Paul is still an innocent child to a degree but also easily corruptible. Of the few Gray films I’ve seen (Ad Astra, The Immigrant) this is somehow the most satisfying but also the most flawed, which frustrates–I repeatedly sensed that he’s just too close to the material even though it’s undeniably his story to tell. (3 out of 5)