Saturday 31 December 2022

My Top 20 Films of 2022

1. Memoria [above]
You couldn't pitch it: Tilda Swinton chases sounds around Colombia. You could only float it, as you would a spell or a wavelength, in the hope it would eventually reach open and receptive ears. Once in, it recalibrates the senses, and your understanding of what great cinema can do, in a way nothing else released this year (no, not even the much-trumpeted Avatar 2) managed. And after a while, after it's pinballed around inside your head for the better part of a year, you realise what it's really getting at. The mystery isn't that this one woman hears this one sound every now and again. The real mystery is why everybody isn't hearing all of the sounds all of the time.

My Top 50 TV shows of 2022 will be published here tomorrow.

Friday 30 December 2022

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of December 23-25, 2022):

1 (1) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
2 (2Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
3 (20) Love Actually (15) ***
4 (6) Elf (PG) **
5 (4) Violent Night (15)
7 (7) Home Alone (PG)
8 (8) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****
9 (5Strange World (U) ***
10 (9) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****

(source: Variety)

My top five:

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Elf (PG) **
2 (2Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
3 (4) The Polar Express (U)
4 (3) The Grinch [2018] (U)
5 (6) Elvis (12) **
6 (new) Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (PG) ****
8 (7) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
9 (9) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
10 (8) The Batman (15) ***

My top five: 
1. The Velvet Underground

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Shawshank Redemption (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 10.30pm)
2. Singin' in the Rain (New Year's Day, five, 1.15pm)
3. The Searchers (New Year's Eve, five, 11.10am) 
4. Manhunter (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
5. In Which We Serve (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 9.20am)

Thursday 29 December 2022

On demand: "Aisha"

Set against the backdrop of the hostile environment our leaders have created for migrants, Frank Berry's Aisha is a tender drama with two emergent local stars in the lead roles. Letitia Wright plays the eponymous heroine, a Nigerian woman who - as the film opens - has been holed up in a Dublin processing centre for the best part of a year, awaiting official clearance. As last year's breakout hit Limbo floated, the migrant experience now involves more waiting than moving: for the post bringing government communiques, for the buses carrying these new arrivals to the jobs they're desperate to get on with, for access to the computers that allow them to maintain some link with the folks back home. It's wearying, this waiting in place, but it's better than the alternative, represented here whenever hired security goons barge into the migrants' chambers to remove and relocate those who - for whatever reason - have failed to appear in the allotted place at the allotted time. There's a new guy working nights, however, one who exhibits no particular desire to strongarm anybody; for Conor, this is just a job like any job, and the centre's residents are people like any other people. He's played by Josh O'Connor of God's Own Country and The Crown, who makes him softly spoken, amenable, and a little bit sleepy, as if he'd only just woken up, or needs his bed. (Anyone who has themselves worked nights will know exactly how he feels.) Yet despite the comparative freedoms Aisha and Conor enjoy - the conversations they strike up on the bus, like they were any other commuters - and despite their growing closeness, they are still prisoner and captor. Now we're waiting, for the one scene that bears out the sorry messaging underpinning so much modern policymaking: that migrants have no friends, no business, and can expect no favours here. 

To its considerable credit, Berry's film is never that predictable. It's been constructed around certain stumbling blocks, yes, but it also knows that the deft deployment of actors, and a close attention to individual moments in a story arc, can help an audience forget (or merely get us around) the inevitable. For starters, this role is far more encompassing role than Wright's part in the recent Black Panther sequel, where she appeared weighed down by a grief both felt and performed. Here, she gets to flash a smile alongside flickers of mischief, a withering wit and good citizenship. (She has some nicely observed, cautious interactions with the clientele at the salon where Aisha works.) The central relationship holds the promise of a new start within it - for the security guard, too, equally trying to put the past behind him, sketched in unfussily by Berry and O'Connor. But we're also forever aware of Aisha's internal hurt: the doubts and fears that flood her head whenever the lights go out, the impermanency knocked into her with every white slip denying her leave to remain. (One question the film raises: how to envision a future for yourself when the system, and the politicians working its levers, simply won't allow it.) Wright gives us some of the year's best jaw acting - there's a lot that requires clenching, bad news that needs swallowing down - and also some idea of why this adaptable character has had to adapt: because she keeps being bounced from place to place, sometimes to places where she can't work and has no allies. Aisha is less guessable than it first appears, partly because its heroine is less guessable than she first appears; there are surprises as this tightly guarded soul offers up some memory of what she's had to leave behind on her travels. Steered both by the performers and Berry's quietly assured, nimble direction, it's a rare movie that gets more complicated and involving as it goes along, detaching itself from the newly established migrant-movie template and moving closer to the contours of credibly circumscribed life. Landing amid the latest wave of unfounded tabloid rabblerousing about overseas visitors, good work like this can only count double.

Aisha is now streaming via Now TV.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

On demand: "Nanny"

n eyecatching example of New Black Horror that scooped Sundance's Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the beginning of the year, Nanny details the growing tension felt by Aisha (Anna Diop), a Senegalese woman obliged in the course of her working days to care for the daughter of well-to-do New Yorkers (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) while checking in with her own son back in Africa via FaceTime. Inevitably, a large part of that tension derives from Aisha's status as an outsider in East Coast high society, and adjacent issues of money and class. The button-cute daughter (Rose Decker) presents as another of this desirable loftspace's elaborate furnishings: a delicate object, to be handled accordingly. Aisha herself falls subject to issues of ownership, dressed up in one of her employers' dresses (corset-tight though it is on her) for a social event, then paid off or not paid the agreed sum. And while her intelligence, empathy and sensitivity draw a compliment from the kid's ruggedly handsome, too-smooth father - "I can tell that you're not going to be with us very long, much as I'd like to keep you" - something about the phrasing is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Nevertheless, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu holds her nerve, and with it our attention. We spend Nanny's first half settling in, on the lookout for potential sources of peril, with only odd splashes of watery imagery - framed as Aisha's nightmares - to justify the horror tag. While we wait, we have time to notice a not inconsiderable achievement: that this may just be the most gorgeous looking movie to have been filed away on a streaming platform in the course of 2022.

Jusu and cinematographer Rina Yang go big on ambience, embedding the viewer in this suspiciously cosy environment; therein, they do much to correct that long and sorry history of films that have been blindly indifferent to the challenge of correctly lighting and filming Black skin, while seeding the ground with some idea of where the biggest threat is likely to come from. (Leading contenders: the distance between Aisha and her son, the dad's roving eye, a Babadook-like children's story about a trickster spider.) The eye for this milieu is matched by a strategist's mind for story. Jusu's guile is such that, by the halfway point, I still wasn't sure what would happen next; it even seemed possible she just wanted to put her audience in the fraught headspace of a working woman required to go behind enemy lines on a daily basis, that no further horror was required. Along the way, you spy the tyranny of influences looming over a young filmmaker stepping up to features this late in cinema history: at various points, you may wonder whether Nanny is going to turn out more Roman Polanski or Chantal Akerman, whether its abiding angel is good or bad. Yet if the third act has to battle through some shopworn horror imagery - traces of the film you expect Nanny to turn into - where it's going is somewhere fresh, distinctive and cheering. It is, finally, a Nikyatu Jusu film above and beyond all else - as well as proof producers Blumhouse can pull off something more refined and affecting than their usual popcorn-rattlers.

Nanny is now streaming via Prime Video.

In memoriam: Ron Peck (Telegraph 23/12/22)

Ron Peck
, who has died aged 74, was a filmmaker who assured his place in British cinema history with his 1978 debut Nighthawks, one of the first homegrown features to directly address the daily realities of gay life. Written by Peck with Paul Hallam, Nighthawks focused on a man living a carefully compartmentalised existence. Inner-city geography teacher by day, clubber by night, Jim (Ken Robertson) is continually obliged to check himself, not least during a climactic classroom confrontation in which he calmly rebuts his pupils’ prejudices (“Do you dress in women’s clothes?”).

The film was a labour of love: after being denied BFI funding, a budget was cobbled together from private donations. Peck advertised in the gay press to recruit extras for the nightclub scenes, though only forty hardy souls showed up; many of those the director asked to appear declined, fearful of being seen on camera at a moment when homosexuality was decriminalised but still considered taboo. Nevertheless, with help from Derek Jarman (who lent Peck his flat for filming, appearing in a walk-on role) and completion funds from German TV, the film finally made it into cinemas.

Reviews were mixed (Time Out’s Geoff Andrew lamented the “sluggish pace and awkward amateur performances”); an X certificate and half-hearted tabloid kerfuffle (“Child Porn Row Looms On Gay Film”) followed. American viewers were more intrigued: while conceding the film was overlong, The New York Times’ Janet Maslin found the film “gentle and believable… so realistic, or at least so intimately close to its main character, that it has the feeling of documentary”. The film endured as a rough-edged landmark, gaining a new audience over the decades as a teachable episode in gay representation. (Ironically, the BFI later issued it on DVD.)

13 years later, Peck completed a follow-up, Strip Jack Naked (1991), which wove outtakes from Nighthawks into an autobiographical account of gay life in the AIDS era. Peck admitted Nighthawks offered a selective glimpse of that life: “Almost any film starts off with the burden of trying to redress an imbalance... We need hundreds of gay films, not half a dozen.” Yet he saw its appeal: “I think that it’s a reminder of a past, because I think young people today have a sense of entitlement which we didn’t have. It all had to be worked for. Today, they’re able to be very open, which my generation generally wasn’t.”

He was born Ronald Lindsay Peck on May 15, 1948 in Merton Park, one of two sons to estate agent Richard Peck and wife Joan (née Lindsay), who’d served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. A keen cinemagoer from an early age – he landed a detention for skipping PE to see Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) at the Tooting Classic – Peck attended Rutlish School before studying English literature at Swansea University and American Studies at Sussex University. After enrolling at the London Film School, he co-founded the Four Corners collective; his graduation short, Its Ugly Head (1976), centred on a closeted husband.

Appropriately, he followed Nighthawks with Edward Hopper (1981), a mid-length Arts Council profile of the American painter. After serving assistant director duties on Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of The Bostonians (1984) – James Ivory was a Nighthawks fan – Peck fell in with the emergent Channel Four, providing a natural fit with the demands of their Independent Film & Video slot: his frisky short What Can I Do with a Male Nude? (1985) juxtaposed stock pin-up poses with a rumination on desire and censorship.

He ventured into commercial thriller territory with Empire State (1987), a Long Good Friday-ish collision between British and American gangsters around the titular Docklands nightclub. Mixing such established performers as Martin Landau with non-professionals, it drew baffled admiration from reviewers (Time Out dubbed it “a brave but flawed attempt to escape the straitjacket of British realism”) but failed to find much of an audience. Its legacy was Team Pictures, a production company Peck formed with writer Mark Ayres in 1985; it opened a digital production house in 1998.

Empire State introduced Peck to boxer-turned-actor Jimmy Flint, who proved central to Peck’s subsequent Channel Four work: Fighters (1991), a feature-length documentary study of boxers at an East End stable, and Real Money (1996), a largely improvised crime drama, starring several of the Fighters pugilists, which had the misfortune to arrive a year or so before the late Nineties British gangster-movie revival. A third film of this ilk, Gangster, was planned with the same team, only to be abandoned due to financing issues.

Peck persisted with docufiction in Cross-Channel (2011), made with funding from Brittany Ferries, though it failed to land theatrical distribution. He was interviewed for the Derek Jarman tribute The Gospel According to St. Derek (2014) and produced Jarman’s “lost” film Will You Dance with Me? (2014), comprising a single, impressionistic 78-minute take shot inside a London nightclub thirty years before. He was the subject of a retrospective at the Queer Lisboa festival in 2018; his final work was Canning Town Voices (2020), accompanying Jimmy Flint on a tour of childhood haunts.

As Peck explained, many cherished ideas remained unrealised: “Given how many of the projects you develop don’t actually get made, […] the actual projects themselves have to be ambitious, engaging and worthwhile. That way you get something out of it, made or not, and don’t simply waste your life on your knees in front of producers and financiers. I had to see each project as a voyage, a striking out into new territory, an enlargement of my experience. Life after all is short. You want to live what you have of it.”

He is survived by a brother, David Peck.

Ron Peck, born May 15 1948, died November 2 2022.

Friday 23 December 2022

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office (for the weekend of December 16-18, 2022):

1 (new) Avatar: The Way of Water (12A) ***
2 (1) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
4 (3) Violent Night (15)
5 (4) Strange World (U) ***
6 (6) Elf (PG) **
7 (8) Home Alone (PG)
8 (re) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****
9 (9) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****
10 (5) The Menu (15)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Elf (PG) **
2 (2Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
3 (4) The Grinch [2018] (U)
4 (8) The Polar Express (U)
5 (13) Ticket to Paradise (12)
6 (7Elvis (12) **
7 (6) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
8 (12) The Batman (15) ***
9 (10) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
10 (5) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)

My top five: 
1. The Velvet Underground

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. It's a Wonderful Life [above] (Christmas Eve, C4, 1.25pm)
2. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Bank Holiday Tuesday, ITV1, 1.30pm)
3. The Untouchables (Bank Holiday Tuesday, C4, 12.05am)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Friday, C4, 8pm)
5. Great Expectations (Boxing Day, BBC2, 9.15am)

From the archive: "The Queen of Spades"

'Tis a good season for fans of the tall, aristocratic 1940s character actor Anton Walbrook: along with a dazzling new print of Powell and Pressburger's 
The Red Shoes, in which he plays the ballet instructor Lermontov, there's a revival of The Queen of Spades, a 1949 drama in which he takes top billing. Walbrook here plays Herman Suvonin, a Russian officer in 19th century St. Petersburg who learns the secret of winning a fortune at cards resides with an aged former society belle (Edith Evans). She's a formidable type who keeps such secrets close to her chest - and her daughter (Yvonne Mitchell) on the tightest of leashes. Suvonin's tactic is to use one to get to the other, but as the final high-stakes card game makes clear, he's a man who just doesn't know when to stop. Based on a Pushkin short story, it's a film with an acute sense of the pleasures of storytelling, made manifest in the soldiers' barrackroom anecdotes, and the dusty book Suvonin finds in an antiquities shop, offering up its own tales of the unexpected. The director is Thorold Dickinson, whose grounding in silent cinema had left him a supremely visual filmmaker: the screen abounds with snow, smoke, mirrors and shadows. Mitchell now seems a rather insipid romantic lead, and Dickinson lays caged-bird imagery somewhat thickly around her, but it's a worthwhile reissue, returning to our attentions one of the few British directors who appeared unembarrassed by melodramatic opulence and thus closer to the European sensibility of a Max Ophüls than any of his homegrown contemporaries, P&P notwithstanding.

(December 2009)

The Queen of Spades returns to selected cinemas from today.

On demand: "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery"

2019's enjoyable
Knives Out was one of the last major pre-pandemic hits, and one of the few American films of its moment to appeal beyond kids and fanboys: an old-school country house whodunnit in which Daniel Craig's drawling detective Benoit Blanc interrogated a variably fresh-faced set of unusual suspects. As the movie hit big and the world went into lockdown, Netflix pounced for the rights, inviting writer-director Rian Johnson to turn a one-off into a franchise, and so we now have Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a vastly more expensive (and expansive) sequel that factors the pandemic into its thinking. Its initially masked-up pool of suspects are "disruptors" - including a white influencer (Kate Hudson) cancelled for dressing up as Beyoncé on Halloween, and a men's rights activist (Dave Bautista) who still lives at home with his mom - invited to escape the virus on the sunkissed Greek isle tech bro Miles Bron (Edward Norton) calls his holiday home. Bron's modernist retreat - the Glass Onion of the title - has been stuffed with pricey, one-of-a-kind tchotchkes (including the actual Mona Lisa, loaned out, we're told, by the Louvre during lockdown), but these provide precious little defence as the party's planned murder-mystery weekend unravels, and the guests are picked off one by one. Among the casualties: any goodwill you might have brought to Johnson's revivalist project after Knives Out. Glass Onion runs a full two hours and 20 minutes, because Netflix refuse to employ producers who might lean on their sacred content-providers, or gently suggest that a murder-mystery where it takes an hour for the first body to hit the floor is pushing it somewhat. And while the longer, more indulgent sequel - the follow-up that serves double duty as a lap of honour - is a not uncommon theatrical tactic, Glass Onion barely logged a full week in cinemas earlier this month, because the Netflix higher-ups insist their model isn't theatrical but streaming. The dysfunction now factored into American filmmaking is such that it messes up even the good stuff.

There is some good stuff in Glass Onion: Johnson's renewed faith in ensemble playing, which nudges the movie past the implausibility of these diverse characters knowing one another as they apparently do, and the filmmaker's ludic streak, his delight in games, puzzles, gag cameos. (There's a nice series of character beats early on, hinging on how the principals open Bron's hard-carved wooden invitation.) But the upscaling helps nothing and nobody much. As in TV's The White Lotus - another pandemic artefact suffering from diminishing returns in 2022 - the ever-bright blue skies immediately slash the dramatic stakes by a further 50%: we're watching actors enjoying a nice holiday, and a prime opportunity to model bespoke swimwear. Replacing the fraught but relatable family dynamics of the first movie with the vapid, perilously irritating elite of social media feels like a grave error. And the film's too damn big for its own narrative good. These nincompoop characters get lost or overlooked on sets this vast; Johnson has to fill some of the space with torturous second-act backstory that a tighter script would finesse into the present-day activity. (Inevitably, it involves the kind of corporate skulduggery creatives now feel obliged to write in so as to keep the execs interested.) In the best murder-mysteries - and even in Knives Out, which was a pretty good murder-mystery - the pleasure lies in seeing all the pieces clicking together. Maybe it's the new digital context, but a lot of Glass Onion just feels like Johnson and company were spinning wheels, as we were all spinning wheels towards the end of lockdown. If you come away remembering anything of it - and Glass Onion does seem emblematic of the kind of so-so content you plod through in chunks, then forget almost instantly - it'll likely be the memory of people sitting around a pool twiddling their thumbs, and being paid handsomely to sit around a pool twiddling their thumbs. Around them, the franchise gets built-up and reaccessorised: for Chris Evans' much-memed white sweater in the first movie (simple, cosy, form-fitting), we now get Kate Hudson in a metallic rainbow dress (flashier, looser, colder). But it's all hollow construction this time out, a transaction devoid of heart, charm and soul. Money still talks, but - as far as our movies and TV are concerned - rarely can it have less of interest to say for and about itself.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is now streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

The great blue hope: "Avatar: The Way of Water"

So this is it. 2022 was supposed to be multiplex Year Zero, the first uninterrupted year of cinemagoing in three years, an opportunity to regain the trust and custom of all those who'd kept their distance after Covid came to town. What did the year bring us?
Top Gun: Maverick, primarily, during which you could persuade yourself that the studio system was still functioning as it was set up to function, and that someone in Hollywood - be that Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie or Jerry Bruckheimer - hadn't entirely forgotten how to make big, crowdpleasing movies. It spent 17 weeks on the UK Top 10, the whole summer plus a spot of autumnal change, a fact that said as much about the accomplishments of Top Gun: Maverick as it did about the failure of its immediate box-office rivals: put simply, folks decided they'd rather see Top Gun: Maverick two, three or five times than anything else once. After the longest time, James Cameron - no less tech-savvy than Cruise, no less of a perfectionist - has finally finished tinkering on The Way of Water, his sequel to 2009's billion-grossing hit-of-all-hits Avatar, and so this really is it: Hollywood's final throw of the dice for 2022, the movies betting the house on state-of-the-art spectacle to make up for the shortfalls incurred elsewhere this year. Clear the screens; release nothing that might give Cameron a run for his money; reintroduce the 3D ticket surcharge; sit back, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Good luck everyone, we're going all-in.

First things first: if history teaches us anything, it's that the broadly mixed reviews The Way of Water received this past weekend count for very little, beyond logging a collective critical sigh at the direction Cameron - like him or not, as much a figurehead of the contemporary American scene as Spielberg or Scorsese - has elected to travel in. I was mixed on Avatar in 2009, before relaxing into its better spectacle upon the release of its coffer-topping Special Edition a year later. My late-blossoming fondness was fortified by the Season 2 episode of TV's How To With John Wilson where a small community of real-life Na'vi nuts spoke touchingly to how Cameron's movie elevated them from the pits of suicidal despair. If Avatar meant so much to those sweet kids, why trouble to snark about it? At the very least, the first film was the work of a singular penhand and will, unlike all those anonymous comic-book blockbusters-by-committee popping up like zits in its wake. Equally, though, I well understood those who struggled to overcome the Dances with Smurfs-ness of it; indeed, I remain amazed I let down my own guard long enough to relax, gawp and marvel as I did. From the off, the sequel offers even more for these naysayers to have to get past; where Avatar dipped a mere toe in the light blue fantastical, The Way of Water wades in up to its neck. This may be why so much of the pre-publicity focused on the amount of time the performers spent underwater during the film's years-long shoot. These tales are both proof of cast and crew's total, immersive commitment to the bit, and a veiled warning to potential ticketbuyers. We, too, will have to dive in unreservedly - and hold our breath to the point where we go lightheaded and helpfully giddy.

Unlike Cruise's endurance stunts - which are, as his viral Tweet from earlier this week illustrated, always finally shown to have been performed at some risk by the star himself - all this celeb synchro swimming proves rather moot in the context of the finished movie, because it's not Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver we watch doggy-paddling, but their digitised Smurfling avatars. It could be anyone, or no-one at all; we are almost exclusively in the digital realm now. Of the humanoid Sam Worthington, we see nothing (which the snarkmongers will doubtless frame as an improvement), because his Jake Sully has gone full Na'vi, bedding down on Pandora with blue-babe wife Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña) and their many children; key supporting players - Winslet, Weaver, Stephen Lang - have themselves submitted to full-body motion capture, giving family man Sully a whole legion of Smurfs with which to dance. If the first film was an escape from Earth, the second plants its big blue feet squarely on Pandora, and starts putting down roots with an eye to further sequels. The human isn't the base or norm here, but the enemy. Rearmed and redefined as "fire people", they seem to have forgotten about the much-mocked unobtainium, and now present as a source of interruption, disruption and all-round trouble. Like billionaire George Lucas turning the Star Wars prequels into a series of deadly tedious tax disputes, this is Cameron writing what he knows: presumably some poor soul had to drag him from his shed, and his beloved Pandora, whenever his tea was ready. Nevertheless, as the franchise veers ever further away from reality, it may be surprising to recall that Cameron once signed his name as screenwriter to a great, tough, underrated movie (1995's Strange Days) which saw the dangers of leaning too hard and far into virtual fantasy.

It would only be more surprising if the spectacle The Way of Water generates wasn't so seductive: if you let it, it does pull you in. The spectacle isn't that of the spectacle, say, Emmanuel Lubezki captures for Terrence Malick, reaching towards the divine. (Avatar gets laughable and resistible when it does, cf. its Tree of Life business.) But it functions, still, as a demonstration of high-end industrial light and magic, reaching out - via the power of 3D - for the end of your nose, like some hacky but effective grandpa-conjuror. This world looks and feels far too lived-in to be the wholly cartoonish endeavour some have dismissed it as, and you keep catching grace notes on the fly: the twang of an arrow lodged rigidly in a fallen warrior's chest, the play-area bounce of the canvas walkways extended across the film's Blue Lotus coastal resort. Such touches speak to considered virtual craft, if not fully-fledged art. And the spatial architecture has been puzzled over and worked through, unlike the gabbled action in the average Marvel or DC dust-'em-up. You can reject the whole thing, as you could turn your nose up at a Lego set for being, you know, for kids, but you cannot say that it's shoddy workmanship, that it doesn't fit together. (Neither does it succumb to the gravitational problems the recent Black Panther sequel faced with its winged bodybuilders: here, everything leaps, hovers and lands precisely as it should.) The deeper one sank into The Way of Water, the more aware I became of a pronounced split in my own responses: how little I got from thinking seriously about it, i.e. putting up any sort of resistance, and how much I was enjoying just being there, i.e. simply wallowing in it. As my left brain kept telling me: this does look like a project someone's spent 13 years on. As my right brain retorted: yes, but why would anyone spend 13 years on this?

Rewatching the first movie on its reissue in October, I was struck by how light it was, at least compared with the try-hard self-seriousness of the MCU/DCU. The sequel is lighter still. In The Way of Water, when one character literally enters the belly of the beast, his path is illuminated by bio-luminescent freckles; the most persuasive, awe-inspiring stretch, which takes up practically the entire second hour, has no greater goal than to show these characters having fun beneath the waves. (It allows Cameron to affirm the growing connection the Sullys have to waters that in time will become disputed.) It's floatation-tank cinema, right down to the New Agey words and noises on the soundtrack; it distinguishes itself by mollifying, where so much event cinema is geared towards agitation. Such lightness is easily (and has been readily) mocked: I can't claim The Way of Water holds much in the way of dramatic weight, even after it sends on the gunboats. But it's the reason the film moves as fluidly as it does for the better part of three hours 20; my feeling as I emerged and towelled down was that Cameron had made the best film he possibly could with fundamentally plasticine characters. As to whether it'll sink, swim or merely wash its face, it's too soon to say. If you're anything like me, you may emerge with a sense of having had your money's worth. But The Way of Water's ultimate fate, and the fate of those planned sequels, may hinge on a matter of practicality, and the one calculation Cameron cannot make. In the real, non-blue world, getting everyone in situ for three hours - even during the holidays, especially during the holidays - is a big ask; to ask us to then return two or three times, as Cameron requires to cover his initial outlay, is monumental. This brave new digital world will stand or fall on something as important to Mark Zuckerberg as it is to Jake Sully: it needs legs. But The Way of Water may have swallowed an enfeebled marketplace at a moment when non-Pandorans have plenty on their hands already.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Sunday 18 December 2022

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle votes 2022


Actor of the Year
1. Simon Rex, Red Rocket
2. Tom Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick
3. Hrithik Roshan, Vikram Vedha
4. Park Hae-il, Decision to Leave
5. Vincent Lindon, Both Sides of the Blade

(Honourable mentions: Viggo Mortensen, Crimes of the Future; Hassan Madjooni, Hit the Road.)

Actress of the Year
1. Alia Bhatt, Gangubai Kathiawadi
2. Juliette Binoche, Both Sides of the Blade
4. Anamaria Vartolomei, Happening
5. Wei Tang, Decision to Leave

(Honourable mentions: Viola Davis, The Woman King; Maya Vanderbeque, Playground; Pantea Panahiha, Hit the Road; Virginie Efira, Benedetta; Suzanna Son, Red Rocket.)

Supporting Actor of the Year
1. Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
2. Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin
4. Anthony Hopkins, Armageddon Time

(Honourable mentions: Glen Powell, Top Gun: Maverick; Ethan Hawke, The Black Phone; Chris Heyward, Brian and Charles; Richard Bremmer, Flux Gourmet; Rayan Sarlak, Hit the Road.)

Supporting Actress of the Year
1. Samantha Morton, She Said
2. Gwendoline Christie, Flux Gourmet
3. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ponniyin Selvan - Part One
4. Anne Hathaway, Armageddon Time
5. Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin

(Honourable mentions: Lashana Lynch, The Woman King; Seema Pahwa, Gangubai Kathiawadi; Keke Palmer, Nope; Radhika Apte, Vikram Vedha and Monica O My Darling; Carrie Crowley, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin; Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Rachel Sennott, Bodies Bodies Bodies.)

Director of the Year
1. Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave
2. Laura Wandel, Playground
4. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Gangubai Kathiawadi
5. Joseph Kosinski, Top Gun: Maverick

(Honourable mentions: SS Rajamouli, RRR; Audrey Diwan, Happening; Eskil Vogt, The Innocents; Daniels, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Colm Bairéad, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin; Panah Panahi, Hit the Road; Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King.)


Screenwriter of the Year
1. Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin
2. Park Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-kyeong, Decision to Leave
3. James Gray, Armageddon Time
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Living
5. Sanjay Leela Bhansali et al., Gangubai Kathiawadi

(Honourable mentions: Colm Bairéad, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin; Terence Davies, Benediction; Peter Strickland, Flux Gourmet; Mani Ratnam, Jayamohan and Kumaravel, Ponniyin Selvan - Part One.)

British/Irish Breakthrough of the Year
1. Colm Bairéad, writer-director, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin
2. Katy Brand, writer, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
3. Haider Rashid, writer-director-producer, Europa
4. Jay Bedwani, director, Donna
5. David Earl and Chris Heyward, writers, Brian and Charles

(Honourable mentions: Charlotte Wells, writer-director, Aftersun; Andrew Gaynord, director, All My Friends Hate Me; Tom Palmer and Tom Stourton, writer-producers, All My Friends Hate Me.)

Young British/Irish Performer of the Year
1. Catherine Clinch, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin
2. Frankie Corio, Aftersun

British/Irish Actor of the Year
1. Jack Lowden, Benediction
2. Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
3. Jim Broadbent, The Duke
4. Bill Nighy, Living
5. Daniel Kaluuya, Nope

(Honourable mentions: Mark Rylance, The Outfit; Adeel Akhtar, Ali & Ava; David Earl, Brian and Charles; Andrew Bennett, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin; Adam Ali, Europa.)

British/Irish Actress of the Year
2. Lesley Manville, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris
3. Catherine Clinch, The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin
4. Claire Rushbrook, Ali & Ava
5. Saoirse Ronan, See How They Run

(Honourable mention: Helen Mirren, The Duke.)

My Top 20 films of the year list will run here at the end of the month.

Saturday 17 December 2022

For what it's worth...

Top ten films at the UK box office
 (for the weekend of December 9-11, 2022):

1 (1) Roald Dahl's Matilda: The Musical (PG)
3 (3) Violent Night (15)
4 (4) Strange World (U) ***
5 (5) The Menu (15)
6 (15) Elf (PG) **
7 (new) The Nutcracker - Royal Opera House London 2022 (U)
8 (13) Home Alone (PG)
9 (14) The Muppet Christmas Carol (U) ****
10 (re) The Polar Express (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Top Gun: Maverick (12) ****
2 (4) Elvis (12) **
3 (5) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
4 (2) Elf (PG) **
5 (3) Jurassic World: Dominion (12)
6 (10) The Grinch [2018] (U)
7 (11) Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12)
8 (12) Bullet Train (15)
9 (7) Top Gun Double Pack (12) ****
10 (8) The Batman (15) ***

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Casablanca (Thursday, BBC2, 3.35pm)
2. Die Hard [above] (Thursday, ITV1, 11.15pm)
3. Edward Scissorhands (Friday, BBC2, 4.50pm)
4. Back to the Future (Monday, ITV1, 2.45pm)
5. Meet Me in St. Louis (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20pm)