Tom Jolliffe looks back at three technical marvels of filmmaking which wowed audiences in 2022…
2022 was a pretty stellar year for film. We had some great indie films, some spectacular action films, some choice cuts of world cinema and we were also treated to one of the best years in horror for quite some time. Filmmaking is a tough racket. From the smallest film, right up to the films which indulge the makers with a quarter billion dollars budget to play with, actually finishing one of these things is like one of the seven trials of Hercules.
I know from experience screenwriting and also making films myself. The very existence, of even the biggest pile of shit (could be one of mine to be fair) is something of a miracle. Sometimes it’s comparatively easy. If locations are simple, the drama is confined to dialogue and the film doesn’t require complex action or choreography, it might feel like a cakewalk. That is for the shoot of course. Development, financing, pre and post-production and finding an audience (easy if you’re Kevin Feige it seems), all bring their own unique challenges.
Some films more than others feel like a magnificent feat of impressive technical quality. Sometimes you watch a film, dumbfounded as to how they must have made it. How did they pull off those shots? How did John Woo orchestrate the action in Hard Boiled? How did Kurosawa capture the majestic and colourful battles in Ran, full of several hundred extras? How does Andy Serkis always nail such brilliant performances when he Mo-caps a CGI character? He brings to life what often in films, feel decidedly lifeless.
This brings us to our dive into the three most technically astounding feats in filmmaking from 2022. There were plenty, but these went above and beyond. Let’s begin with the lesser-known of the three.
Athena, the French Netflix production from Romain Gavras, is a Greek Tragedy dressed in current social issues. A French Ghetto riots after the death of a young boy, seemingly at the hands of overzealous Police. It’s a tale of four brothers (including the youngest who dies before the film starts). It feels Kurosawian, and heavily inspired by the masters’ King Lear adaptation, Ran which had a fractious and potentially deadly breakdown of sibling relations. Here, the (now) youngest, Karim (an amazing Sami Slimane) heads up a rioting gang from the Athena district, whilst his older brother in the police must try and diffuse the situation before it escalates into full-on civil war.
Some critics felt the oversimplification and some rote plot mechanics dampened potential political messages within the film, though I’d say it was less focused on a message and more on its operatic and relentless tale of tragedy. It’s at once the ‘theme park’ theatrics Scorsese might bemoan, but also thrillingly auteur in its delivery. For its narrative simplicity, it’s a masterclass in discomforting, nerve-shredding cinema. More so it’s a film of dazzling technical brilliance (and you should also check the making of, which is on Netflix too).
It opens with an uninterrupted 12 minute take which is full of visceral action, hundreds of extras, stunning practical pyrotechnics and immersive camerawork. The Steadicam work is exceptional involving a number of pass-the-parcel handoffs and rigging a camera that could be released as a drone too. We’re taken from ground level, through buildings as chaos rages, into vehicles, travelling a freeway while extras pull wheelies on motorcycles nearby before the shot ends with an aerial pullback. The usual way, even on a long take might be to segment all this into 5-6 cleverly hidden cuts, but Gavras doesn’t hold back. It took 4 months to shoot, often spending an entire day to pull off one shot.
There are equally stunning set pieces throughout that feel thrilling and almost claustrophobically intense. It’s not merely impressive for the fact they got these long takes, often tracking through a mass of extras who are often brawling. It’s not even that there are so many instances of live fire and pyrotechnics and complex physical stunts to pull off. It’s also the fact that in spite of the precision timing and choreography to pull these off, the film looks exquisitely beautiful too. Gavras gets a gripping and raw immediacy from the events, the characters and the action, whilst the cinematographer Matias Boucard captures it all with visual dazzle.
Those set pieces are also offset by the intimacy of the intense dramatic moments, coming to a head particularly when the brothers encounter each other. Everything is played in unison with a great and evocative score from Surkin which makes it all feel grandiose and operatic. Perfectly in tune with the feel of a Greek tragedy mixed with a fable.
Let’s take a look at a high-flying masterclass in aerial set pieces.
Top Gun: Maverick
Let’s face it, the biggest hit of 2022 (by virtue of the year ending before Avatar 2 surpassed its take) is a splendid achievement in filmmaking. It’s also the kind of indulgence to a star’s whim, afforded to very few but Tom Cruise. Yes, Cruise’s firm insistence on having as much physical work as possible has led us to a film with the kind of set pieces you almost never see anymore.
Were it not for the perfectionist nature of the star, Top Gun: Maverick would have probably been made in an atypical way, mixing some stunt aerial footage (if lucky) with CGI and some studio shot cockpit interior shots with the stars. Cruise does and insists on things that almost no one else in Hollywood could. This includes the lengthy flight preparation and training the principal cast of pilots (including Miles Teller) had to go through. This meant being acclimatised to dangerous levels of G Force. It meant being trained to operate the special cockpit cameras which could only be switched on by the actors.
In some ways, Top Gun: Maverick, like Athena, takes a classic archetype. It’s a simple story of redemption and heroism. Not particularly complex, but as audiences have shown of late, they’re drawn to simpler spectacle and escapism, particularly if the delivery of such is as stellar as here. Cruise is Maverick training his pilots, one of whom he has a previous and difficult relationship. They must make a potential WW3-averting bombing raid that requires manoeuvre, dropping and escape through an almost impossible valley. Of course, everything leads to Maverick having to step out of the classroom to personally lead what is viewed as a suicide mission by some.
Those cockpit sequences are only effective if we care. The script and Joseph Kosinski’s direction do more than enough for us to emotionally engage. That’s helped by a vibrant cast and a great lead performance by Cruise. Still, they are thrilling. With the cameras locked into the cockpit action with the fighter jets and the cast all up in the air performing the dizzying rolls and insane drops and rises it leads to seat gripping vertigo-inducing nausea as a big screen experience. It’s a truly bombastic experience, brought about by a level of dedication in Cruise, and power to get the studio to oblige him of the demand. Will we ever see set pieces like this again?
Now for our final technical marvel.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Whatever you might think of James Cameron’s blue creations, one thing is for sure. The man has always been a trendsetter in technically proficient, groundbreaking films. His films are astonishingly put together, even back to the days of The Terminator when he made a thriller B movie horror with a small budget. Whether it’s been a liquid metal terminator, sinking the titanic or creating the world of Pandora, very few have the attention to detail of Jimbo C, aka King of the World.
Cameron’s vision for the first Avatar film helped evolve 3D technology and CGI to a new level in 2009. The second film is more of an evolution rather than his prior evolution, but we’re in a time where CGI and the artists are being oversaturated. Artists are besieged with lots of work on short time scales and the results are beginning to look shoddy, particularly for the Disney production line which includes the MCU within their stable. It’s partly why Maverick with its old-school approach to good old practical film-making, stood out so much.
What Cameron did with Way of Water was still a typically stunning technical achievement, which benefitted as much as anything from his patience and the studio indulging Cameron’s demands. He had years to work on this. He didn’t undercook this one, that’s for sure. It’s been 13 years since the first, a massive wait. Within that time, years were spent designing and animating the world of Pandora. Forever polishing and repolishing the CGI. Years of perfecting the technology, as well as training his cast for underwater sequences.
Though the film of course has its top-of-the-line mo-cop technology, Cameron still wanted the underwater sequences to be shot underwater for realism, in comparison to Aquaman which was filmed in a sound stage with harness rigs to mimic the floating. CGI hair was added later. One certainly has a feeling of more authenticity and it’s not the one with Jason Momoa.
Again, like the others, it’s a classic archetypal tale. It may dally too long on certain arcs and threads, but its overall simplicity, with its own odes to old Greek mythology, makes the set pieces themselves, with all the visual splendor and stunning detail, all the more thrilling.
What was the most amazing cinematic technical achievement of 2022? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.