After seventeen years, Todd Field finally returns to filmmaking with Tar, the objective masterpiece of 2022. Only Field’s third film, Tar comes in the footsteps of In the Bedroom and Little Children, both literary adaptations about the sins lurking beneath their ostensibly happy Americana settings. In Tar, Field’s first original screenplay, the same basic theme applies but there’s nothing normal or average about the film’s towering protagonist. Cate Blanchett gives what could be the best performance in her storied career as Lydia Tar, an elite conductor beloved by high society but haunted by all the personal and professional landmines she’s planted in her life. As those landmines begin to detonate, the rarefied air that she’s been living in becomes a toxic cloud, brought on by her own manipulations and arrogance. For 158 immaculate minutes, Field and Blanchett keep the viewer rapt and devoted to the political minutiae of classical music as one of its brightest stars comes crashing back to earth.
It’s understandable if a viewer is out on Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis from its first scenes. Unfolding kaleidoscopes of rhinestones bedazzle the title card while breakneck zooms in and out of Colonel Tom Parker’s (Tom Hanks) eye accompany his portentous narration in an accent best described as indescribable. It’s overpowering in its first five minutes and there’s another 150 to go. Luhrmann will immediately abandon his framing device of the Colonel’s deathbed confession by showing childhood scenes of Elvis that he wouldn’t have known anything about, and the movie will make awful decisions in its storytelling and its filmmaking over and over again. Luhrmann and Hanks are both doing all they can to break Elvis, but in the titular role, Austin Butler keeps putting it back together. This is a mess that indulges in all of Luhrmann’s worst impulses to such an aggressive degree that it implies the director is in on the joke of his own filmography. However, there’s so many lifeless, rote musician biopics that injecting some gonzo energy into one is appreciated, especially with Butler at the center.
Marvelous and the Black Hole
Before embarking on her directorial debut, Kate Tsang worked on Steven Universe and Adventure Time, two Cartoon Network series that deftly used fantasy storytelling to dissect thorny emotions. Adventure Time especially never talked down to its audience; adults failed children, leaders resorted to imperfect solutions, and the universe was unfair. In Marvelous and the Black Hole, Tsang brings that same spirit to a coming-of-age story that places wonder and despair right next to each other while providing a star vehicle for talented actors both new and stalwart.
I wouldn’t have pegged Asghar Farhadi as a Rick and Morty fan, but in the acclaimed Iranian director’s latest film, he’s depicted the perfect Jerry. In Rick and Morty, Jerry is the pathetic son-in-law of a multiverse-trotting genius, a monument to weakness who aspires to mediocrity and uses pity as deftly as Rick uses his trademark portal gun. With A Hero, the lead isn’t as loathsome as the comically inept Jerry, but the comparison cannot be missed. Farhadi has long used the exposed cultural tripwires within Islamic Republican Iran to make his penetrating social dramas, and here, his protagonist uses some fuzzy feel-goodery to step over them. In Farhadi’s best film in a decade, the society that makes a man pathetic can perhaps be manipulated by pathos.
Restraint isn’t a word I would use to describe the films of Pedro Almodovar. Sometimes, that’s an asset in his Spanish melodramas. When the amount of plot points are in the right combination and proportion, he can cram in all the soapy details that he wants. However, it doesn’t take much overseasoning to spoil the batch. Parallel Mothers, yet another collaboration between Almodovar and Penelope Cruz in the lead, soars as one of Almodovar’s best, at least until the point where he gambles on a late development that turns the film from a thing that was working tremendously well into something less successful. Parallel Mothers contains one of the best performances of 2021, though, overstuffed as it is, it misses out on being one of the best films of the year.
Two of the greatest female tennis players, if not outright tennis players, make a biographical appearance on the big screen but the movie that contains them is about their father. King Richard provides a baffling starring vehicle for Will Smith, whose salary eats up 80% of the film’s production budget, and though the premise is fatally flawed, the resulting film provides competence while depicting the pursuit of all-around excellence. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s third film is aware of the tropes of sports films and biopics, and while he doesn’t subvert them in this straightforward work, he does polish them. King Richard doesn’t reinvent anything in the way its child subjects will, but with a compelling story and the cast to inhabit the roles, it does a recognizable thing well.
The French Dispatch
Without taking a poll, I suspect that I’m in the minority of preferring Wes Anderson’s last decade of work to his previous one-and-a-half. Moonrise Kingdom proved a much better fit for Anderson’s children who act like adults, as opposed to his adults who act like children. The Grand Budapest Hotel became my favorite of Anderson’s films after a second viewing, a perfect blend of eccentricity and melancholy that also happened to be more thoughtful and meaningful than anything he'd done previously. His latest, The French Dispatch, follows in Grand Budapest’s footsteps, an anthology where all the ingredients are perfectly calibrated to amuse and affect in a film that’s unmistakably Anderson’s but is completely lacking in the things that used to annoy me. In telling the story of a magazine editor who wanted everything just so, Anderson writes another autobiographical character whose control and vision leads to something wonderful.
The Card Counter
In The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s lonely men get another workout. The film functions as a loose continuation from First Reformed, such that the cause of the self-imposed loneliness is located in the War on Terror. Where Ethan Hawke’s Father Toller encouraged his son to enlist and die in a pointless conflict, Oscar Isaac’s William Tell took a more direct approach. Isaac, long overdue for a return to prestige filmmaking after several lucrative but creatively bankrupt years in the superhero/Disney Star Wars wilderness, couldn’t have found a better vehicle than a Schrader starring role to catapult back into critical good graces. However, where Schrader’s grasp of Big Christianity and black-pilled environmentalism was ironclad in First Reformed, the world of The Card Counter is loose and undefined, while Isaac’s costars aren’t given the material necessary to keep up with him. The director-lead actor combination here is brilliant, but the film that contains it is not.
Nicolas Cage, patron saint of ham, has a low hit rate. Whether for financial distress or a love of being on a set, the man doesn’t say no to much, regularly appearing in half-a-dozen or more films every year. Most of those go straight to video, never to be seen by anyone but bad-movie podcasters and insomniacs who’ve already watched every other movie in existence. However, Cage’s considerable talent sometimes runs into the right project and the viewing public remembers that under the accents and the random voice modulation and the bulging eyes is a man who can readily access depth and sincerity when he wants to. It’s only been three years since Cage’s last reminder, with Mandy and Into the Spider-Verse, but he’s amassed another 11 movies in that space. With Pig, Michael Sarnoski’s stunning debut, Cage puts away his high-volume theatricality for a quiet performance that, while lacking in volume, is missing none of the actor’s unforgettable presence. An untouchable lead performance paired with Sarnoski’s precise direction and a lacerating script makes Pig into one of the best films in recent memory, thus lending Cage the credibility to go make another ten straight-to-video money laundering schemes.
Lee Isaac Chung goes back to his childhood in the pastoral Minari, an autobiographical breakout from a promising filmmaker. A Korean American whose father moved the family to an Arkansas farm when he was a boy, Chung dramatizes exactly that as his characters navigate various divides and ambitions. An immigrant story of the kind that American filmmakers keep returning to, for good reason, Minari’s down-to-earth roots and naturalistic style make for an affecting film.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.