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Superficial Wounds & Fave Film Tropes




Damian’s Favorite Films of 2022



Hello! Welcome to another year-end top ten film list! This was a fun year with some big wild swings, some of which you’ll find on the list you’re about to read. So, in that spirit, I decided to take a bit of a swing with how I put this list together.


I’m pretty fond of structure. I like outlines and well-defined acts in stories, or when directors break their films into sections with title cards. I like a plainly stated thesis, with signposting along the way that lets the reader know exactly where we are and where we're going. These sorts of devices appeal to the part of my brain that wishes it could be so orderly. So, with that in mind, I've tackled my list for 2022 by breaking it into a series of double features. This is my top ten (plus two honorable mentions), and they are in the order I would list them, but they’re also grouped into pairs that should work well thematically if you wanted to curate a little movie night for yourself.


Will this actually work? I have no idea, but as many of the films on this list will make clear, you only live once, so why not have some fun with it? Enjoy!



Curation

Honorable Mentions: The Menu & Sr.



What I see The Menu and Sr. sharing is attention to the creative intentionality we can bring, or at least try to bring, to the things we make and do with our lives. The Menu shows a perversion of that creative drive by unhealthy inputs and feedback, while Sr. shows something like the best-case scenario of a creative life well lived.



The Menu may have been the biggest inspiration for tackling my top ten list in the way that I have. Ralph Fiennes plays world-class Chef Slowic, a chef gone mad, curating the final menu of his long and illustrious career. Slowic explains to the small group of customers that have come to his private island restaurant, that he and his team have meticulously crafted an unforgettable menu for them, only later revealing that part of the plan for that menu includes no one inside the restaurant surviving the final dish.



Anya Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as Margot, the foil for Fiennes’s Slowic, and the sole innocent who was never supposed to be there. Ralph Fiennes is unreal, conveying both a believable mastery of his craft and cult-like control over his staff while embodying a scarily grounded total break with reality. The rest of the ensemble is wonderful as the trashy fodder that comprises the ingredients of this horrific dish.



In The Menu, the film and the evening are paced by the menu for the night. Each new dish allows Fiennes an opportunity for exposition, to reveal a bit more to the customers and audience about where we are in the meal and where we’re going, dropping hints to the customers about their fate. But, while this was once what Chef Slowick lived for, there is now something empty in the kind of experience creation he is engaged in; he has been hollowed out, realizing he may have wasted his talents and time, catering to what he now sees as the very worst people. He mistakenly sees this last menu as something of a redemptive final statement that might justify and tie together his whole misspent life.



In Sr., Robert Downey Jr. is making a documentary about his ailing father, the counterculture director Robert Downey, Sr. I’m fond of Downey Sr.’s films, and I can remember being a burgeoning film fan, haunting cult movie sections in my early twenties, trying to track down gems like Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace. I went into this film expecting a simple retrospective on the rest of his work and life. And we do get that, but true to Downey Sr.’s creative and contrarian temperament, we also get something much more interesting.



Downey Sr., even in his failing health, has no interest in being a passive subject for any film, and will only participate in his son’s project if he can shape the film being made, making and editing his own cut in parallel with his son’s documentary. The final product is a fascinating blending of the two. We do get a standard survey of his work, and talking head interviews with people he worked with, like Alan Arkin; but we also get a meditation on Downey Sr.’s inevitable passing, from him and his family, along with a look at the restless creative spirit of someone taking even their very last days to follow their inspiration to make something new.



Longing

#10) Three Thousand Years of Longing

&

#9) Cyrano



What I see Three Thousand Years of Longing and Cyrano sharing is a look at lovelorn figures trapped in seemingly inescapable circumstances, largely resigned to their lot, but still nursing a deep desire to somehow transcend their situation through a connection with someone else.



Three Thousand Years of Longing was the film on this list that I’ve seen most recently, and it may be the one most likely to be bolstered by recency bias. I had set it aside because I had heard it described as a “well-intended misfire” by director George Miller. It’s possible that having heard about those misgivings, though, I was properly prepared for what this quiet film really is rather than expecting some kind of supercharged follow-up to Miller’s previous film, Mad Max: Fury Road.



The film stars Tilda Swinton as Alithea, a professor with a research interest in narrative stories and storytelling, who discovers an antique bottle in a market in Istanbul, which happens to contain a djinn, played by Idris Elba. The Djinn offers Alithea three wishes, but she is familiar with the common warning that runs through such stories: to be careful what you wish for, and she finds herself more interested in hearing the Djinn’s own story, rather than in making any wishes of her own.



In one sense, the story is very contained, as the core plot is mostly just the Djinn telling his millennia-long story to Alithea in her hotel room. At the same time, we do get to see flashes of the story of how the Djinn had been bound to the human world for so long, and how he hoped, all the while, that someone would make the wish that would finally free him. We cut between the hotel room and the voluptuously depicted ancient settings where his tale takes place, while always keeping in sight that the important part of the story is the quiet connection beginning to form between Alithea and the Djinn in the present day. I have heard some criticism of the story’s final act and its conclusion, but it was specifically those choices that elevated the film from good to great for me. The ending isn’t grand or explosive, but rather something much simpler and more intimate. We’re told in the title that it’s a story about three thousand years of longing, and what we get in the end is seeing that longing finally satisfied.



Cyrano is the first of two films on my list that are from 2022 that played extensively at festivals back in 2021 and qualified for last year’s Oscars. There are a few films like this every year that are held back as part of an awards strategy but wind up falling through the cracks. Peter Dinklage stars as the titular Cyrano in this musical reimagining of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, based on Edmond Rostand's 1897 play. Dinklage gives what ought to have been a best actor-nominated performance. He’s reprising the role that he originated on stage, in the adaptation penned by his wife, Erica Schmidt, with music provided by Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the band The National. Haley Bennet also reprises her role of Roxanne from that same stage production and is incandescent as she believably plays someone that you could imagine anyone falling in love with. Bennet’s husband, Joe Wright, makes it even more of a family affair, by signing on to handle the directing duties.



I’ve long been a fan of Steve Martin’s 1987 version of this story, Roxanne, which he wrote as a light romantic comedy take on this story. This new version remedies the one reservation I have always had with Martin’s take, though, by returning to something more like the original ending of Rostand’s play. What all of the versions of the story have in common is that Cyrano (named C.D. Bales in the Martin version) is a widely respected figure in his community, admired for his poetic wit and feared for his fighting prowess. He’s cultivated these abilities to compensate for how ugly and isolating he finds his appearance to be. On the stage, and in the Martin version of the story, this defect is usually depicted with a comically oversized prosthetic nose. What Schmidt and Dinklage recognized is that some of the weight of the story is undermined by the audience’s awareness that, underneath that prosthetic nose, is still a handsome actor who gets to set aside his prosthetic when the curtain falls. By casting Dinklage as Cyrano, his height is something the audience never loses sight of. Where this inferiority complex comes into play is that Cyrano is in love with a woman he is close friends with, Roxanne, but he can never believe that anyone, especially Roxanne, could love him back, so he throws himself into his work and his poetry and his fights. He is stoically resigned to his lot, until one day he is given the misperception that Roxanne might have feelings for him. He is briefly elated, making it all the more painful and raw when he learns that it is actually a handsome, if somewhat dim, man named Christian, whom Roxanne has fallen for.



The story becomes a complicated triangle where Cyrano, in order to have some way to express everything he feels for Roxanne, offers to write love letters to her on Christian’s behalf. Cyrano loves Roxanne, Christian loves Roxanne, and Roxanne loves who Cyrano makes her think Christian is. Martin, in telling the story as a romantic comedy, wraps everything up with a happy ending that superficially satisfies, but can’t help but leave you conflicted about the fundamental lie at the origin of Cyrano’s and Roxanne’s and Christian’s relationships. As Edmond tells the story, and as Schmidt and Dinklage repeat it, it’s rightfully a tragedy. Only on Cyrano’s deathbed does Roxanne realize what has happened, and only then does Cyrano confess. It’s a more appropriate conclusion to the story, as Cyrano’s deception isn’t rewarded with the happily ever after that Martin wants to give him, and we leave the two of them longing for the life they could have had with one another if Cyrano had simply swallowed his pride and been honest with Roxanne from the beginning.



Family

#8) Petite Maman

&

#7) Turning Red



What I see Petite Maman and Turning Red sharing is an examination of the often rocky relationships between parents and children, particularly between mothers and daughters. In both films, through some unusual circumstances, the children are given an opportunity to understand their mothers as the children they once were.



Petite Maman, like Cyrano, is another film released this year in the US, that qualified for the previous year’s Oscars. While the release of Cyrano was badly mishandled, Petite Maman simply suffered from being an international film that just finally came to the U.S. at an inopportune time to be widely seen and fully appreciated.



In Petite Maman, a young girl, Nelly, accompanies her parents to clean out her mother’s childhood home after the passing of her grandmother. Nelly, too young to be of any real help, spends her time outside playing in the woods surrounding the house, the same woods her mother played in when she was a child. Out in the woods, Nelly befriends another young girl, Marion, who is in the process of building a tree fort. It’s this brief magical friendship that will end up having such a profound impact on Nelly’s understanding of, and relationship with, her mother. I’ll hold off saying any more, as this was a fairly underseen film and it would greatly benefit the viewing experience if you can go into it as unaware as possible of its twists and turns.



Looked at in one sense, Turning Red was my favorite superhero film of 2022. It’s basically an X-Men origin story about a young girl who discovers that something in her genes gives her a special power that has only started to manifest now that she’s hit puberty. In this case, 13-year-old Meilin discovers that if she loses control of her emotions, she turns into a giant red panda. Just below the surface, the film is a metaphor about the experience of going through puberty, but a bit deeper still, and it’s even more about the relationship between parents and children. Meilin learns that this ability is a family secret that all of the female members of her family have to contend with. The fallout of this revelation brings to head the tension between Meilin and her mother, the tension that mirrors what any parent struggles with when trying to accept that their child is growing up. Ultimately, this will wind up strengthening the bond between Meilin and her mother, as it eventually brings home for Meilin the idea that her mother was once a young girl too, who went through the same experiences, and importantly, she remains at heart something of that same young girl to this day. What proves to be the biggest difference between their respective experiences, though, is that Meilin has the unconditional acceptance of her friends. It’s a wonderful film about navigating some of the messy life milestones we may all share but don’t discuss as often or readily as we should, and how much of a difference it makes to have and offer support to the people in our lives as we all try to make the best of things. (For a full review of Turning Red, click here).


Regret

#6) Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

&

#5) Everything Everywhere All at Once



What Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Everything Everywhere All at Once share is that they both tell stories about how it’s never too late to start your life and become the person you always wanted to be and that you should be prepared to help the people in your life do the same. (For a full review of Leo Grande, click here).



In Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Emma Thompson plays a recently widowed older woman who is struggling to come to terms with how impoverished her sex life was during her long marriage to her husband. Now, at her current age, it feels like it may already be too late to experience anything different. When we meet her, she is in a hotel room awaiting the arrival of the male sex worker she has hired; when that man arrives, she tells him her name is Nancy (which it is not), and he will give Nancy the professional name he works under, Leo Grande. While each of them pretends to be someone else, they will teach each other a bit about who they really are.



This film is specifically about sex, particularly in terms of being honest with ourselves and our partners about our wants and needs. The larger theme, however, is about the regrets that come with age as we reflect on the accumulated years of things we never said and all the lives we never led. There is a version of this story that could be much slighter, just a rehashed carpe diem tale of someone older getting their groove back, and some of that is here, but this is a smaller film that takes seriously that, however young you might feel in the moment, we still need to make peace with the fact that all of our options and abilities will diminish over time. A fresh start that doesn’t take into account such inevitabilities is just putting our regrets into a box to re-experience at a later date. What Nancy finds over her series of encounters with Leo Grande isn’t simply a moment of youthful indiscretion, but actual peace with who she was, is, and will be. She’s able to find a way to enjoy what’s available to her in the moment, without being distracted by what might have been, or being scared of what might be looming over the horizon.



In Everything Everywhere All at Once Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a married woman with one adult daughter, who finds herself barely keeping her head above water as the owner of a rundown family laundromat. When we meet Evelyn, her husband Waymond is about to serve her divorce papers, she’s in the middle of a contentious audit, and her relationship with her daughter, Joy, is frayed to the breaking point. Up to this moment, we’re being introduced to a woman who finds herself unhappy with the life she finds herself stuck in, but the film rescues her from that in the biggest way possible. Evelyn is pulled from her audit by a version of Waymond from another universe, thrusting Evelyn into a story that places her at the center of a crisis that concerns the future of all reality, a crisis whose resolution will ultimately depend on her being able to repair her relationships with her family. The miracle of this film is that it is an unabashedly over-the-top presentation of mind-bending events, that somehow still manages to stay rooted in utterly honest and relatable human relationships. Evelyn overcomes the limitations of the life she felt trapped in, but that only becomes possible by her first making things right with the people she is sharing that life with.


Rebellion

#4) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical

&

#3) RRR



What Matilda and RRR share is that they’re stories of truly exceptional individuals standing up to cartoonishly villainous oppression, while also doubling as larger stories about the mass movements of ordinary people engaged in collective actions that are needed to ever make real and lasting change happen.



Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical is an adaptation of the award-winning West End and Broadway stage musical from 2010, which is itself an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 book. Matilda is a precocious genius of a young girl, born to neglectful parents who neither like nor want her. They only finally enroll her into school when forced to by the local authorities. Matilda has a contentious relationship with her parents but she is largely able to manage them by being so much smarter than either of them. Matilda is briefly excited by the prospect of going to school, thrilled to be able to enter a world of learning and books, but that happiness is brief as she discovers that her new school is actually a prison-like environment under the tyrannical rule of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.



In a lot of ways, Matilda is a kid’s wish fulfillment story. The protagonist is the very smartest and bestest kid, who takes on cartoonish and uncomplicatedly evil villains, whom they will defeat in a grand fashion. In this case, Matilda will unite all of the kids around her to defeat Miss Trunchbull, gaining herself her first real friends, before also replacing her mean parents by going to live with her favorite teacher, Miss Honey.



There is a great deal that is wonderful about this adaptation. Emma Thompson is having the time of her life chewing scenery as Miss Trunchbull; Lashana Lynch is absolutely lovely as Miss Honey, playing the idealized version of the teacher every kid would want; and Alisha Weir is a bit of a miracle as the young rebel genius, Matilda. Matthew Warchus’s direction captures the magical realism of Roald Dahl’s world while leaving enough grounding to still care about the emotional connections between the characters. What elevates this film to something truly special, though, is the music and lyrics from Tim Minchin. His sense of wordplay is just superb. He has an enviable ability to shift gears within songs to be raucous, joyful, menacing, or lovely as needed. They’re the perfect anthems for any revolution-minded children in your life.



Somewhat oddly, the thing that kind of unlocked S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR for me was seeing the list of films he submitted on his ballot for BFI’s Sight and Sound list. Among the 10 films he listed as the “best of all time,” he included Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Apocalypto, along with Disney’s The Lion King and Aladdin. These are certainly unique choices, particularly taken together, but I think this does illuminate something about Rajamouli’s aesthetic. There’s often visceral violence to some of the action scenes in RRR, but it’s also blended with an often cartoonish magical realism. This is a film that will display a British soldier clubbing a mother unconscious as her child is stolen from her, and will show another character catch an out-of-control motorcycle with his bare hands and start swinging it around over his head like it was made of just so much balsa wood.



The story of RRR imagines that two real-life Indian revolutionary figures had met one another, and became friends, before beginning their fight against the British empire. I came to the film having been told that it had action sequences that had to be seen to be believed. It more than delivers on that promise, but what I was unprepared for was just how much movie it is. RRR is one of the most tonally diverse things I’ve ever seen. It’s an unbelievable action movie, it’s a high production value historical epic, it’s sometimes a romance, sometimes a heist picture, and more than a few times, it’s a full-scale musical with one of the best bromances I’ve ever seen depicted on film.



Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about RRR has been just how successful it has been in the United States. Where once you might be hard-pressed to find someone in the general public that could name even one Indian film, now you can readily find people that can identify the distinction between Bollywood and Tollywood films; and we can look forward to the song, “Naatu Naatu,” from the film, potentially being performed at the Academy Awards because it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. Here’s hoping that this is just the beginning of a trend that will continue for years to come.



Mortality

#2) Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

&

#1) White Noise



What Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Noah Baumback’s White Noise have in common is a hopeful grappling with ideas of mortality. They’re both stories that take seriously the limited time we have on this Earth while making an argument for filling that time with all the joy and connection that we can.



In del Toro’s reimaging of Pinocchio, he begins the film in a bleaker way than the story is usually told. His Geppetto is a grieving father, struggling to accept the death of his young son, Carlo. When this Geppetto drunkenly carves a wooden child puppet, he’s just trying to process his grief. He certainly never wishes that this puppet would come to life, and wouldn’t if he ever thought that was a possibility. He’s completely unprepared for when Pinocchio comes to life and is offended that Pinocchio calls himself Gepetto’s son. Pinocchio’s infectious joy for life does eventually bring Geppetto out of his grief, though, and they do come to love one another.



After many adventures, Gepetto and Pinocchio, along with Sebastian J. Cricket, and Spazzatura the monkey, come to live happily together; but that isn’t where del Toro leaves us. A story that begins in loss also ends in loss, but now through a brighter lens. Geppetto is an old man when he carved Pinocchio, and their time together was always going to be short, and del Toro doesn’t hide that part of the story from us. Gepetto does eventually die, as does Sebastian J. Cricket, but while Carlo had been so cruelly taken from Gepetto without warning, Pinocchio gets to spend time with Geppetto and Sebastian preparing himself for their passing. We leave Pinocchio at the end of this particular story, walking off into the sunset to begin a new story. Everything may eventually end, but every ending is a beginning for something new. (For a deeper dive into all things Pinocchio, click here).


White Noise is Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1986 novel of the same name. In it, DeLillo examines American ideas around Consumerism, Vacuous Academia, Misinformation, Pharmaceuticals posing as the solution to all of life’s problems, and the pervasive fear of death. The centerpiece of the film is an Airborne Toxic Event created by a runaway chemical reaction caused by an explosion when a truck containing flammable materials collides with a train carrying a toxic chemical compound called Nyodene D. The explosion creates a deadly dark cloud over the town that leads to an emergency evacuation.



The film is told in three parts. Before the toxic event, we are introduced to college professor Jack (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their collective children from various marriages. Prior to the event, we see Jack and Babette as a loving couple with a happy family and life. In the background, they each have normal fears of mortality but they are able to joke with one another about which of them they hope dies first, as they discuss their respective fears of death versus their fears of being alone. The toxic event changes all of that. Coping with the fear of death through jokes and the like becomes impossible when a literal dark and deadly cloud is forming over your head. The middle section of the film is the family’s disaster movie journey to escape to safety. A different story might end with them having finally made it to their evacuation point, happy to be alive and looking towards an uncertain future. What White Noise does, though, is give us a long look at the mundane aftermath of such an experience. Jack, Babette, and their family are all fine. The cloud is dissipated and they can return to their town and lives, but now with that whole experience looming over their heads. Jack and Babette spiral out from this experience. What anxiety Babette previously had is now out of control. Jack had prolonged exposure to the cloud while they were evacuating which could possibly take years off his life.



This next bit may be a spoiler, but a big part of my affection for this film comes from its ending. Through a series of circumstances, Jack and Babette find themselves towards the end of the film laying side by side in hospital beds, each with superficial gunshot wounds. Reaching across the empty space between them, they hold hands, once again talking to one another with something like the easy comfort they had with one another during the first act of the film. This is something like my favorite film ending trope: two people who have been through hell, and may have more to go through, yet, but are just happy to have someone to go through it with. With so little in this world to have faith in, they have faith in one another. What more could anyone ask for?




 

Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.


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