In a year that some had feared would mean the end of the theatrical experience altogether and the triumph of streaming, there were moments in 2022 when things looked almost anachronistic in their normalcy. Festivals returned to analog, in-person editions; people flocked back to cinemas as a new wave of blockbusters hit the screens; and face masks all but disappeared. It was “the summer of almost no flops,” Chris Lee reports at Vulture, noting that the success was not limited to films à la Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick or Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but non-franchise studio projects too, like Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, or Jordan Peele’s Nope. Still, this alleged cinematic resurgence requires careful spelling. If films like Top Gun could carve their outsize market share, it was largely because “there were 37 percent fewer movies hitting the multiplex than over the same period in 2019,” a drought that meant “nearly every major release delivered profits at the box office.” Come fall, though, things looked very different.
For all the talk about movies roaring back to life and the success stories of the summer, one of 2022’s essential narratives was the ever-widening gap between big blockbusters and non-franchise projects. That’s nothing new, in and of itself: smaller and independent films have long fared worse than IP sagas, a trend that’s only worsened in recent years. What is new, Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman argue at Variety, is that 2022 also registered major financial disappointments for big prestige titles released in the fall, leaving the industry to grapple with an existential crisis:
This fall, the story of how prestige films, awards films — whatever you want to call them — underperformed at movie theaters was more than a box office story. It was, potentially, the story of a paradigm shift. An essential question was raised: If a drama as acclaimed and exciting to watch as “Tár” — or, God forbid, the most highly lauded Steven Spielberg film since “Lincoln” — can’t raise the temperature of moviegoers, then what hope do movies for adults have?
The worry, to borrow from the L.A. Times’s Justin Chang, is that both industry and audiences may now “increasingly equate the big screen with outsized spectacle, to the exclusion of all else.”
The learned viewing habits of the pandemic, which prioritize convenience over curiosity, now seem to suspend themselves only when a big event picture — or a Marvel movie, which at this point can scarcely be considered an event — comes along. Romantic comedies and grown-up dramas have been on the commercial decline for years, but there seemed a particularly harsh finality to the mass-audience rejection of “Bros” and “She Said.” Some industry finger-waggers gleefully blamed these flops on Hollywood’s allegedly progressive agenda, which doesn’t quite explain the success of a racially inclusive, politically conscious thriller like “Nope,” one of the few original hits released by a major studio this year.
“I’m not convinced a future in which movies have to be big events to be considered worth seeing in a theater is all that positive,” Alison Willmore ponders at Vulture. On the one hand, as Richard Brody echoes at The New Yorker, the visibility streaming platforms promise to smaller films is all too often a mere mirage, and as they slip “from limited theatrical release to rapid engulfment in an oceanic streaming domain, many movies of great merit remain nominally available but leave hardly a trace of their presence.” On the other, Willmore and Bilge Ebiri argue at Vulture, as financial considerations become all the more prominent in conversations around new releases, there’s a risk that film critics might inadvertently turn into “industry cheerleaders,” giving in to the urge to quantify a film’s achievements in terms of its box office returns.
Over at The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw unpacks this further:
With things hanging financially by a thread, financial returns are scrutinised even more neurotically for significance. Nicholas Stoller’s sparky gay comedy Bros underperformed commercially, which led to a lot of soul-searching about whether LGBTQ+ audiences or allies failed to support the film, and what it all means. But then everyone can name some really great films that failed at first to find their audiences. There were disappointing box-office returns for Maria Schrader’s excellent She Said, a film about the Weinstein affair. Does that mean society is losing interest in #MeToo issues? Not necessarily – and it certainly doesn’t mean the film isn’t good. I predict that it too will find its feet. But also I suspect that many journalists, critics and media observers feel it is their cinematic duty to go easy on the big-ticket movies that look like creating the vital bum-seat contact. […] It is down to critics to redouble their passions to argue for movies which deserve to be seen on the big screen before they disappear into the world of screening platforms.
This is why, at their best, year-end lists are so vital. One does not look at them for consensus, but for the pleasures of discovery; they are not a final word, but an invitation to seek out more. “If they reflect, clash with or challenge your own tastes and opinions, that’s a good thing,” per The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney; “if they inspire you to seek out a title you haven’t yet had time for, or might not even have been aware of, even better.” As for the criteria and organizing principles that shape them, I can think of nothing better than what Dana Stevens offers ahead of her top ten at Slate: “Which were the movies that made me experience the increasingly elusive sensation of movie-ness, that feeling of full-body rapture that comes when a film sneaks up on you and captures your consciousness?”
For Stevens as well as many others, the answer this year was a kaleidoscope of titles big and small. Browsing through the lists that began surfacing a few weeks back, one finds big prestige titles like Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Todd Field’s TÁR, or James Gray’s Armageddon Time, but also arthouse gems by august masters (Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, and Terence Davies’s Benediction) as well as new and emerging voices (Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, Ricky D’Ambrose’s The Cathedral, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer), together with such barnstorming marquee titles as Nope, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and, yes, Top Gun: Maverick. A certain bias toward English-language titles—still widespread, but smaller than it was in previous years—leaves little room for discoveries beyond festival circuit icons like Skolimowski, Jafar Panahi (No Bears), or Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave). Once again, longer lists prove the most illuminating, with Film Comment’s top 20 adding to the usual suspects Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film and In Front of Your Face as well as Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, and Richard Brody’s top 30, at The New Yorker, squeezing in The Tsugua Diaries, by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes, and Qiu Jiongjiong’s A New Old Play.
Spielberg’s latest is only one of several films this year designed to evoke the wonder of cinema’s past, so much so that “cine-nostalgia,” as A.O. Scott observes at The New York Times, “has become a genre in its own right.” “Sentimentality and self-consciousness can be signs of decadence,” Scott goes on: “set out to memorialize the glories of an embattled art form, and you may end up contributing to its obituary.” That may be true for films like Damien Chazelle’s Babylon or Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, but it isn’t for other more eye-opening inquiries like Nope, which connected the medium’s history with a genealogy of vast evils, or The Cathedral, which made a boy’s aesthetic education inseparable from the political crises of his generation. This combative exhumation of history was another crucial narrative of the past twelve months, as evinced in American films like Armageddon Time, which traced fault lines of political and social divisions back to the Reagan years, or Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which chronicled photographer and activist Nan Goldin’s battle with the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical giant that fuelled the US opioid epidemic. As brazenly antidemocratic and hate-driven movements are sprouting within (and beyond) the United States, filmmakers are, per The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “contending with the past [to] reflect and resist the falsifications, denials, and suppressions of history that are integral to the right wing’s political agenda of miseducation.”
For current filmmakers, the turn to the past is no retreat from present-day conflicts but a crucial, targeted, and deep-rooted contention with them—a diagnosis and an intervention. Their films expose the foundation, the substructures, the underlying abuses and sedimented forms of power that are manifested in today’s politics. […] These directors are taking part in the ongoing culture war over what stories of American life get taught. They’re taking up cinematic arms against nostalgia, cliché, and myth—against the notion that there’s one story to tell, and against grotesquely oversimplified ways of telling it. They don’t fall into the trap of mere topicality but devise distinctive and individual forms for the recuperation of history, for manifesting the ceaseless life of the past.
It’s a wonderful testament to the medium’s vitality, and a powerful reminder that movies, apocalyptic prophecies notwithstanding, aren’t dead. At best, Eric Henderson contends at Slant, “they merely remain in a state of, to borrow from Jonathan Rosenbaum, mutation.” A restless transformation of the ways in which they’re distributed and marketed, sure, but also of the place they occupy in the culture. In the upside-down, spongy moment we live in, the art form is no less alive and relevant for being in a state of cognitive dissonance.
If the entire art form is in a state of now-permanent identity crisis, we are all, indeed, the beneficiaries. Our yearly roundup of the titles that gave us fits, starts, and hope is no less fruit-flavored for belying the proverbial center that did not hold. In fact, taken from the 10,000-foot view, our best of 2022 offers the reassurances that any multiverse offers to those who are receptive. Our shared experience has, in a sense, never been more democratically aware of the individuality, the curiosity, the inclusivity of how a supposedly dying medium can still be harnessed for two—or three, or four—hours of presuppositional submission.
Cinema is in a state of restless flux; as lovers of the embattled artform, we’re all the better for it.
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about topics in the wider film conversation.