Jan. 3, 2023
My Favorite First-Time Watches of 2022
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.
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.
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 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… — 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