With 2022 particularly impressive so far, we look at whether great films which might pass the Scorsese “cinema” test might be turning the tide against formulaic blockbusters…
2022 has been pretty horrible all told. From a cost of living crisis to the war in Ukraine to skyrocketing energy bills and a farcical political landscape, real life has been head-bangingly irksome. The film world has been particularly impressive though.
A couple of years ago Martin Scorsese bemoaned (and many other filmmakers and actors have likewise voiced concerns) that cinema was increasingly being monopolized by generic blockbusters and particularly those of the ilk that Marvel and Disney are pumping out.
As it has transpired this year, Marvel’s hotly-anticipated Thor: Love and Thunder proved unpopular with the critics, the fans and underperformed at the box office. Taika Waititi, who ordinarily can do no wrong with me, approached the film a little like he wasn’t that interested in the character, and the legacy and just wanted to make an elongated skit out of the material. Tonally jarring, and overly silly, it doubled down on what worked in Ragnarok, to the point it all become annoying in this one.
Blockbusters, in fact, have been a mixed bag, to say the least. Black Adam, despite a critical mauling, has gone down well with fans and is performing well at the box office. It’s a rare blockbuster from 2022 performing on par with where it should be. That said, it’s still exactly the type of film that cinephiles feel is overwhelming the multiplexes right now. No depth, no character refinement, no rewatch value beyond looking at overblown set pieces. It’s a theme park ride which is powered largely by CGI. Increasingly though, we’re seeing overly generic formula blockbusters coming up against a slight backlash from audiences. It turns out many young audience members are actually paying attention.
Then you have Top Gun: Maverick. You might say this could be just about the finest exponent of theme park cinema, but where Scorsese may allow it a pass is in the sincerity with which the simple story and character arcs are performed. The theme park side is just that, a thrilling ride driven by those astonishing, and largely practical set pieces. It’s a marvel of technical achievement without relying almost entirely on CGI. Thus, those set pieces invest you in a way that feels way more thrilling than a Marvel hero defying gravity against CGI backdrops might.
In terms of that mix of pure entertainment and engaging characters, Top Gun: Maverick proved to be a delightful throwback to a better age of blockbusters which were naturally more involving, in part because the set pieces feel inherently more real. The box office returns were expected to be high, they were even higher than expected. It all leads to a hope that even franchise blockbusters, despite tried and trusted ideas, will take a more practical approach and seek to engage the audiences on a more emotional and even physical level rather than make something easily digestible and instantly forgettable.
The other top blockbuster of the year, certainly from a wide acclaim point of view, was The Batman, Matt Reeves Detective Batman opus, which was exceptionally made and very focused on using as much practical work as possible. Additionally, in what is rare for blockbuster cinema these days, it had a proper director’s vision. An auteur’s film.
Maverick though, impressive as it might be, isn’t the most pleasing aspect of the year so far. That belongs to the sheer number of interesting, engaging, creative and challenging films we’ve seen so far. Critics have been suitably impressed too, with a huge number of films clocking over 85% on Rotten Tomatoes (and for the most part, vibing with audience scores too). Film-makers and studios are making some excellent films and audiences appear to be responding with ticket stubs, purchases and/or streams.
Horror in particular has had an astonishingly good year. The kind of year we haven’t seen since a golden era in the 70s probably. Mia Goth hasn’t had one, but two, great horror films. X and its prequel Pearl (both from the mind of Ti West). A Texas Chain Saw ode, followed by a brilliant pastiche of technicolour, golden era Hollywood films, with a twisted tale and exceptional Mia Goth at the heart of it. Not only were both films popular and critically acclaimed, but Pearl in particular is being talked up for Oscar recognition (or more pertinently, Goth is).
Then you have Barbarian, Black Phone, She Will, Terrifier 2, Smile, Prey, You Won’t Be Alone, Mad God, Piggy, Watcher and Nope opening to great reviews. Some of the more generic franchise horrors have been perhaps more disappointing, such as Halloween Ends (which is proving very divisive) and Hellraiser (which is solid, if forgettable).
More engaging, and original horror films that look to be psychologically engaging, creative, subversive, or effectively pastiche the genre are rife. Going forward this could be a preference over just creating generic sequel content (whereas Prey as an example had an interesting way to update the Predator lore). A24 both directly in the films they’re releasing, and the many the studio’s ‘style’ is inspiring, have helped hugely in the upturn.
As someone who has occasionally bemoaned a frustrating lack of ‘special’ cinema or movies which can be hugely enjoyable without needing to pummel us with relentless CGI, I’m delighted we’ve had so many enjoyable films this year and such an eclectic mix of both well worn but expertly delivered tropes or gleefully nostalgic works which still retained dramatic engagement.
We had Nicolas Cage as himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. It was a film I saw on the big screen which was one of the most breezily enjoyable and fun capers I’d seen in ages. Light yes, but with enough sincerity and heart to keep us caring, and a belly full of laughs. A flipside to that would be something as old-fashioned, epic and dense as The Northman. It’s as simple a film as Robert Eggers is ever likely to make with more than a passing nod to Conan the Barbarian (which honestly, seriously, actually has more layers). Still, it’s as superbly crafted as you’d expect from Eggers with great performances and stunning cinematography.
One thing I’ve particularly loved, and Tom Cruise is a welcome exception, is how little ‘superstars’ have mattered this year on the whole. A HUGE strength of the quality of cinema this year has been the fact that many of the films have been top-heavy with character actors or perennially underappreciated performers. The aforementioned Mia Goth has jumped herself from enthralling supporting actress to THE leading lady to watch in the years ahead after X and Pearl.
One of my favourite films of the year has been Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s quirky, delectably creative, hilarious, poignant, exciting and viscerally dynamic. Best of all, it’s a leading role for Michelle Yeoh who has been almost criminally underused in her US films. She deserves way more front-and-center roles, way more attention and recognition. Here’s hoping she will get it with Everything Everywhere hopefully bringing some Oscar attention.
Likewise, Ke Huy Quan made a triumphant return to mainstream cinema in the film. He’s wonderful. Both deserve Oscar nods for this one. In terms of 21st-century films, there’s a select handful of films I can see myself considering as long-standing favourites, or within my own Top 250. Everything Everywhere feels like a film (and I need 1-2 more repeat viewings to confirm) which will retain its grip on me.
Another film that will undoubtedly get that honour and become a personal favourite, is The Banshees of Inisherin. From viewing one it grabbed me intensely. It’s an exceptionally written film, layered with texture, depth and insight. The characters are beautifully crafted and in its fusion of elements, another film that feels very much its own unique beast. Further, Colin Farrell, who is quickly transitioning into becoming an exceptional character actor (particularly the more he’s stepped away from mainstream cinema) is sensational. Brendan Gleeson (one of the best character actors in the business) is equally exceptional. Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan further bolster the film with two more exquisite and heartbreaking performances.
The nuance in the film, which plays out almost like a fable, really nudges this beyond rival black comedies of recent times. It’s legitimate masterpiece-level filmmaking. It’s exceptional now, but subsequent viewings will only embellish the qualities and unearth even more. The last year I can look back with two such outstanding, potential all-time favourites was 2007 with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Even so, the other films of this year make it a stronger one overall than 2007.
Going forward, as fans become oversaturated by disposable fare and potentially turn away from it, they may well seek to watch films that engage them more beyond the end credits. Films remembered because they’ve activated the focus of their audience. Films that challenge and push us and insist we come back to fill in the blanks. With such an impressive output of films in 2022, are we finally seeing the tide turning in favour of better, more memorable cinema? Best of all, the year’s not over yet.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2022/2023, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.