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Jan. 3, 2023

My Favorite First-Time Watches of 2022  

From 1976's "Insiang."

ot all the movies helping define last year for me were released in 2022. Below are some of the discoveries — with excerpts from the reviews linked in their respective titles — that made things feel a little brighter.

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Secret Defense (1998), dir. Jacques Rivette

 

As it is for many of Rivette’s films — Secret Defense clocks in at a little under three hours — what could otherwise have been a quick and cheap thrill takes its time to the point of putting you under a spell, almost. The quotidian, rather than sensationalist genre traits, dominates.

 

The Big City (1963), dir. Satyajit Ray

 

The Big City was Ray’s first project to explore modern life in Calcutta, where he was born and raised, after years of period pieces. It’s a work defined by the empathy for which he’s come to be admired, and is also one of several in which he focuses on characters treading the unfamiliar waters of social evolution, finding some moments of transcendence but, in the long run, far more uncertainty and difficulty.

 

À Nos Amours (1983), dir. Maurice Pialat

 

À Nos Amours’ fundamental premise has been reproduced by the coming-of-age film so many times that by now it may sound almost quaint. It follows a 15-year-old girl, Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), as she navigates the first flushes of young adulthood and the blossoming sex life it comes with. But as this narrative is handled by writer-director Maurice Pialat, it becomes a fairly devastating piece of work.

 

Smoke Signals (1998), dir. Chris Eyre 

 

Smoke Signals is forced to carry the improbable weight of historical significance: it’s been billed “the first feature-length film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans to reach a wide audience both in the U.S. and abroad.” But it tells its story of vexed friendship and grief with an ease and spiritedness that feels largely unencumbered by the heaviness of outside expectation.

 

Affliction (1997), dir. Paul Schrader 

 

Affliction is a frightening drama about the ripple effects of abuse — so effective that we come to consider it more a horror film unsoftened by any assurances that this is only a movie. 

In the Bedroom (2001), dir. Todd Field 

 

Actor turned director Todd Field’s first effort as a filmmaker, In the Bedroom, is one of the best movies about grief I’ve seen; it captures with unnerving clarity its capricious waves of anger and emptiness and sadness in a way that feels both thoughtfully precise and practically improvised. 

 

Death Game (1977), dir. Peter S. Traynor 

 

Death Game plays out like Daisies (1966) by way of Funny Games (1997), the former’s feminine chaos fusing with the latter’s nerve-wracking home-invasion cruelty.

 

Ghostwatch (1992), dir. Lesley Manning

 

Ghostwatch’s blacklisted quality only heightens the good time, paralleling the latter-day found-footage horror movies indebted to it. (Which, strictly in terms of media hubbub, comes closest in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.) It’s more than worth seeking out, not merely for the novelty of its format but also the agile, studied execution of it. 

 

Harlan County USA (1976) dir. Barbara Kopple 

 

In all, it took documentarian Barbara Kopple about four years to complete her sophomore film. For Harlan County USA (1976), Kopple and her crew descended on southeast Kentucky to film the unionization efforts by 180 Brookside Mine and Prep Plant workers — plus their spouses — in the summer of 1973. They wound up staying for about a year and a half. What they captured was condensed into a mere 103 minutes; what comes together is one of movie history’s most astounding, abidingly relevant documentaries, distinguished by a stunning breadth of access and a refusal from Kopple, who only was in her mid-20s when she started work on the movie, to weave an ultimately palatable story from the copious footage thinned by editors Nancy Baker and Mary Lampson. 

 

Vagabond (1985), dir. Agnès Varda 

 

We meet Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), the lead of Varda’s terrific Vagabond, for the first time in death. It’s a little after 10 a.m., and her frozen-solid body has been discovered at the bottom of a ditch by a farmer. An unseen narrator, whom Varda loans her voice, roundaboutly tells us that the rest of the movie is going to be a portrait of Mona as she was seen by others. “Interviews” with a mixture of professional and cast-off-the-street actors recalling their time with this young woman tamper alinear scenes I suppose could correctly be categorized as speculative fiction. Vagabond comes to feel like a kind of mosaic — a scrapbook whose pages have been shuffled. 

 

Bone (1972), dir. Larry Cohen

 

In typical fashion for writer-director Larry Cohen, Bone is as prone to incisiveness as feeling like it’s going to fly off the rails and fall apart.

 

Walker (1987), dir. Alex Cox

 

The minutiae of Walker aren’t accurate. But Cox isn’t looking to make veracious historical fiction or even portraitize his subject. It’s the broader themes inherent to William Walker’s story — the ugliness of imperialism and hypocritical invocations of democracy and religion as means to justify it; the corrupting nature of power — that fascinate him. 

 

Chameleon Street (1989), dir. Wendell B. Harris, Jr.

 

Chameleon Street is among the most original, assured debut features I’ve seen. Its idiosyncratic approach to character isn’t only shrewd — it also sharply invokes (without ever resorting to easy didacticism) the pervasiveness of what amounts to deceitful role-playing in the professional world, and how the practice is unequally acceptable for certain people and not others.

 

Summertime (1955), dir. David Lean

 

Summertime plays like a fantasy wished true.

 

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), dir. Albert Lewin 

 

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is among the most insanely premised romantic films I’ve ever seen; you never exactly buy what’s going on. But it also looks so beautiful that it being profoundly nuts eventually takes on an almost incidental quality — something to be aware of but not really bothered by. 

 

Thomasine & Bushrod (1974), dir. Gordon Parks, Jr.

Thomasine & Bushrod remains one of the blaxploitation era’s best made, and most thoughtful — if vexingly underappreciated — works, substantially exploring what might result if a different iteration of Bonnie and Clyde weren’t made in their exact image. 

 

Bigger Than Life (1956), dir. Nicholas Ray

 

The conclusion one comes to, watching Bigger Than Life, is that this situation, and the social mores only digging into its agonies, is unendurable. 

 

Lux Æterna (2019), dir. Gaspar Noé

 

Because Lux Æterna runs only 51 minutes, you fortunately never get to the expected-for-Noé point where you can’t take it anymore. It’s like a Noé film with only the good parts left in.

 

Charley Varrick (1973), dir. Don Siegel 

 

It’s a fatless thriller where no one, not even an idiosyncratic star as aggressively charming as Walter Matthau, can overpower the confidence of Siegel’s heist-movie craftsmanship. 

 

Saving Face (2004), dir. Alice Wu 

 

Saving Face is rich with sitcom trappings, and at times can’t help itself from skittering into farce when it oughtn't. But it’s never insincere, and it has palpable care for and emotional perceptiveness around its characters that keeps you invested even when some of its narrative decisions stretch credulity.

 

Threads (1984), dir. Mick Jackson 

 

Threads is the most frightening movie I’ve seen that doesn’t resemble, in most respects, a traditional horror movie. 

 

Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975), dir. Claude Chabrol

 

In Innocents with Dirty Hands, Chabrol’s uncharacteristically keyed-up thriller, few people say what they mean or are thinking what you think they are. It’s a twisty, sometimes ingenious potboiler. 

 

Rosewood (1997), dir. John Singleton 

 

For his fourth movie, a still-not-yet-30 John Singleton went in a direction in which he hadn’t yet gone and never would again. Rosewood — a powerful, fictionalized account of the racist massacre that essentially destroyed the eponymous, majority-Black Florida town in 1923 — marked both the first and last time he’d explore historical drama and the Western, and remains one of his best-realized works. 

 

Play It As It Lays (1972), dir. Frank Perry 

 

I read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970) a few years ago. I don’t remember most of its finer narrative points, but I’ll never forget the glacial spareness of its prose or the unsettling nihilism of its worldview. Something tells me its subsequent 1972 movie adaptation, whose screenplay Didion wrote with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and which was directed by Perry, will do something similar in my head with time. Only the bladed edge of Didion’s prose here is traded for Perry’s stark, sometimes cannily impressionistic filmmaking. And now there are actors — Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins, both great — who give faces to the haunting feelings the movie imprints. 

 

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), dir. Frank Perry 

 

Diary of a Mad Housewife can sometimes itself feel like an exhale or a step forward, frank about domestic frustration following decades of Hollywood filmmaking that tended either to approach the topic allusively or with a soap-operatic bent that rarely centered the wife’s experience with such unnerving intimacy and emotional viciousness. 

 

Insiang (1976), dir. Lino Brocka

 

Insiang is a difficult watch, but a worthwhile one — a first-rate melodrama whose realist presentation and portrayals of sexual trauma, poverty, and parental emotional abuse empathetically avoid the sensationalism they oftentimes get in the movies for something more considered and complex. 

What Happened Was… (1994), dir. Tom Noonan

 

What Happened Was… — which Noonan also wrote, directed, edited, and composed after debuting the material on stage in 1992 — is an almost transcendentally uncomfortable movie, but in a way that signals its effectiveness rather than its lack of it. It’s a romantic film that subversively constructs closeness between its characters not through obvious chemistry and flirtation but instead a reciprocated, almost yanked-out vulnerability expunged sooner rather than later.

 

Sudden Manhattan (1996), dir. Adrienne Shelly 

 

Sudden Manhattan is one of the best elucidations of being in your mid-20s and thinking everything is hopeless — including yourself — I’ve seen in a long time.

 

The Unbelievable Truth (1989), dir. Hal Hartley 

 

Hartley and Adrienne Shelly’s creative partnership might have been fleeting, but the imaginativeness of The Unbelievable Truth presses on. 

 

Brown Sugar (2002), dir. Rick Famuyiwa

 

Romantic-comedy devotees may think Brown Sugar takes too long, and has too many petty interferences, to get its couple together, with the few teases of what’s to come a little meager. But I didn’t mind the slow burn.

 

Vera Drake (2004), dir. Mike Leigh

 

Vera Drake is a work of deep empathy whose emotional astuteness does justice to a subject worthy of serious discussion and sensitivity. 

 

Duelle (1976), dir. Jacques Rivette

 

Easy binaries and simple classifications are more often than not a disservice to a form as possibility-expanding as cinema. This feels especially true as applied to Rivette’s disruptive Duelle, a willfully unpindownable gambol of a movie whose mysteriousness and dream-like quality are hypnotic virtues rather than alienating setbacks.

 

LOVED BUT DIDN'T WRITE ABOUT

 

Seeds (1968) and Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973), dir. Andy Milligan

House by the River (1950), dir. Fritz Lang

Junebug (2005), dir. Phil Morrison 

Thanksgiving (2007), dir. Eil Roth 

Les Dames du bois de Boulogne (1945), dir. Robert Bresson 

Woman on the Run (1950), dir. Norman Foster  

Caught (1949), dir. Max Ophüls 

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018), dir. Stephen Susco 

Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies (1992), dir. Joseph F. Robertson 

Dead Silence (2007), dir. James Wan 

Night Tide (1961), dir. Curtis Harrington 

Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell (1995), dir. Shinichi Fukazawa 

The Devil’s Daughter (1973), dir. Jeannot Szwarc 

Clorae and Albie and Girls at 12 (1975), dir. Joyce Chopra 

Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning 

Ruby in Paradise (1993), dir. Victor Nunez

Some Came Running (1958), dir. Vincente Minnelli 

Mur Murs (1981), dir. Agnès Varda

A Day in the Country (1946), dir. Jean Renoir 

Anna Lucasta (1958), dir. Arnold Laven 

History is Made at Night (1937), dir. Frank Borzage 

Scalpel (1977), dir. John Grissmer 

No Down Payment (1957) and Hud (1963), dir. Martin Ritt 

Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1981), dir. Delphine Seyrig 

Beau Travail (1999) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008), dir. Claire Denis 

In Her Shoes (2005), dir. Curtis Hanson 

The Willmar 8 (1981) and What Sex Am I? (1985), dir. Lee Grant 

Images (1972), dir. Robert Altman 

Southern Comfort (1981), dir. Walter Hill 

Green for Danger (1946), dir. Sidney Gilliat 

Coma (1978), dir. Michael Crichton 

Golden Eighties (1986), dir. Chantal Akerman 

The Human Tornado (1976), dir. Cliff Roquemore 

Dagon (2001), dir. Stuart Gordon 

Runaway Train (1985), dir. Andrei Konchalovsky 

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973), dir. Christopher Speeth 

Godjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018), dir. Jung Bum-shik 

Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking of Louisiana (1990), dir. Les Blank and Maureen Gosling 

Nothing But a Man (1964), dir. Michael Roemer 

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), dir. Peter Greenaway 

Orpheus (1950), dir. Jean Cocteau 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021), dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi 

Road to Nowhere (2010), dir. Monte Hellman 

The Mechanic (1972), dir. Michael Winner 

The Green Ray (1986), dir. Éric Rohmer 

Ravenous (1999), dir. Antonia Bird 

Madhouse (1981), dir. Ovidio G. Assontis 

Out of Time (2003), dir. Carl Franklin 

Pride and Prejudice (2005), dir. Joe Wright 

The Town (2010), dir. Ben Affleck 

Querelle (1982), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder 

Big Time (1988), dir. Chris Blum 

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