Saturday, December 17, 2022

Favorites of 2022: Movies and television

Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) and Granny (Angela Lansbury) in The Company of Wolves. Image source: CBS News

Given the flow and ebb and flow of COVID cases and the couldn't-care-less approach to mask-wearing that has become widespread (and, no doubt, is spreading widely), we're not going back to movie theaters for the foreseeable future. The only other way to see current movies (as well as most television series) is to subscribe to streaming platforms, which we also don't do. DVD releases are delayed (often, it seems, permanently), and so it's becoming harder and harder for us to see films released in the past twelve months. 

Public libraries have come to the rescue (as they so often do) by providing some current offerings through services such as Kanopy and Hoopla. But for those of us still wedded to physical media these are rich days for hunting, as people dump their (or their parents') collections. So, as I've been picking up DVDs for a song at various sales, the past year for us has been one largely of rediscovery. In previous Favorites lists I have focussed almost exclusively on movies and television shows viewed for the first time in the past 12 months, but for 2022 that would leave me with a list only a few items long. So this year I am listing my favorite viewing over the past twelve months, whether it was a watch or a rewatch, ordered chronologically. Two of the films that made my list, The Company of Wolves and Goodfellas, were rewatched in tribute to actors who sadly passed away in 2022, Angela Lansbury and Ray Liotta.


City Lights (1931). Starring Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, and Harry Myers; written, directed, and score composed by Charlie Chaplin. (First seen in the early 1980s.)

Perhaps this is a film that needs no recommendation. It is #36 on the just-announced 2022 Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, and #11 on the 2007 version of the American Film Institute's "100 Years. . .100 movies" list (up from #76 on the 1998 poll, just behind (egad) Dances with Wolves). In case you somehow haven't seen it yet, the plot is simple, but describing it doesn't capture what makes the film so affecting.

Chaplin's Tramp saves a rich drunkard (Harry Myers) from suicide, and is befriended by him—at least, whenever he's drunk. When he sobers up, he no longer recognizes the Tramp and kicks him out of his house. One day on the street the Tramp encounters a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who mistakes him for a rich man; the Tramp falls in love. From these two threads Chaplin weaves an emotionally rich tapestry full of ironic contrasts: the selfish rich and the generous poor; the sighted who avoid seeing the suffering all about them, and the sightless who perceive it all too clearly. The film ends with one of the most pathos-filled scenes in cinema; if you can watch it with dry eyes, you are made of stronger stuff than I am.

The Company of Wolves (1984). Starring Sarah Patterson and Angela Lansbury; written by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan, based on Carter's short story "The Company of Wolves" from The Bloody Chamber and other adult tales (1979); directed by Jordan. (First seen in 1984.)

The Company of Wolves, like the Arabian Nights, nests stories within stories. Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), a girl on the brink of adulthood, falls asleep and dreams a series of fearful fairy tales recounted by her superstitious grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Her grandmother warns Rosaleen of the beasts that lurk within men, and the danger of straying from the path. But Rosaleen's mother (Tusse Silberg) assures her, "If there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women too." And what if Red Riding Hood encounters a devilishly handsome wolf. . .?

GoodFellas (1990). Starring Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro; written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, based on Pileggi's book Wiseguy; directed by Scorsese. (First seen in 1990.)

Speaking of devilishly handsome wolves, Ray Liotta gives one of the best performances of his career as Henry Hill, a mobster who can never become a "made man" because of his Irish, rather than Sicilian, origins. Liotta somehow makes Hill—a brutal, mercenary opportunist—an appealing figure. We watch him slowly rise through the ranks, a career made perilous not only because he could be arrested at any moment, but also because his own compatriots in the mob might turn against him at any time. The "Do you think I'm funny?" scene, where Hill laughs at a story being told by Joe Pesci's psychotic gangster Tommy DeVito, only for the mood to change in an instant to one of deadly seriousness, is chilling.

Would it be heresy to say that Goodfellas is Scorsese's best film? The 2022 Sight and Sound poll thinks that honor belongs to Taxi Driver (1976, #29), which is certainly memorable, and the 2007 version of AFI's "100 Years. . .100 movies" list thinks it's Raging Bull (1980, #4). But when contemplating another rewatch I think I would reach for Goodfellas instead of either of those more critically acclaimed films.

Honorable Mention:

Bad Education (2004). Starring Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, and Daniel Giménez Cacho; written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. (First seen in 2022.)

Drawing on elements of film noir, Almodóvar's Bad Education is filled with twists, turns, assumed identities, and obsession. Enrique (Fele Martínez), a film director looking for a new project, receives a visit from Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), an actor looking for work. Ignacio claims to be Enrique's first lover. The two met in boarding school and began a clandestine relationship, but were separated when Ignacio was expelled; they haven't seen each other since. Ignacio, now a transgender woman, has written a story entitled "The Visit," which he wants Enrique to make into a movie with himself as the star. "The Visit" details Ignacio's molestation at boarding school by a priest, Father Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and his attempt as an adult to blackmail the priest for the money for gender-reassignment surgery. But despite Ignacio's intimate knowledge of Enrique's past, is he really who he claims to be? 

Bad Education echoes aspects of classic films noir such as Out of the Past (1947) and Vertigo (1958). But for me the film it most closely resembles is the neo-noir Mulholland Drive (2001). As in David Lynch's film, in Bad Education there are so many layers of fictionality that it can become unclear in which narrative a scene is taking place, whether in the frame story, "The Visit," or in the film that Enrique ultimately makes (and that we, evidently, are watching). Immediately after seeing the film my partner and I discovered that we had very different interpretations of certain scenes. A movie that probably needs to be rewatched several times to untangle.


Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides: Working with Time (2004). Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. (First seen in 2004.)

A fascinating look at the artist Andy Goldsworthy, who makes site-specific works entirely of found natural materials. We see Goldsworthy painstakingly creating both small-scale, ephemeral works, such as his icicle sculptures, as well as large-scale permanent installations such as his mortarless serpentine rock walls. Rivers and Tides, by allowing us to follow Goldsworthy's intricate process and by capturing both the creation and (often) disintegration of his environmental pieces, is a truer representation of his art than still photographs. Essential viewing if you are interested in art, or nature.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021). Written by Celeste Bell, Paul Sng, and Zoe Howe; directed by Bell and Sng. (First seen in 2022.)

In my 2011 memorial post on Poly Styrene I wrote that "as a teenager she was the lead singer and songwriter for one of the best punk bands ever, X-Ray Spex. She was a nonconformist even among the rebels and misfits of punk rock: she was short, wore braces, wasn't rail-thin, designed her own clothes (often in bright colors, an anomaly in punk), and was multi-racial. She was smart, wickedly funny (her lyrics are great), and absolutely electrifying onstage. Her voice was and will remain unforgettable."

I Am a Cliché (named after the title of the B-side of X-Ray Spex's first single, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!") is a biographical documentary made by Poly Styrene's daughter Celeste Bell and collaborators. It's an attempt to come to terms with her mother's legacy: her brief period of notoriety with her band X-Ray Spex, followed by decades during which she was a Hare Krishna devotée and struggled with bipolar disorder. A compelling film on multiple levels, it adds another dimension to the excellent Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, one of my Favorites of 2022: Books.


Gentleman Jack (2019-22). Starring Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, and Gemma Jones; created by Sally Wainwright, based on the books Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, and Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833–1836 by Jill Liddington. (First seen in 2022.)

Gentleman Jack dramatizes four key years in the life of Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), a Yorkshire estate owner whose coded diaries, once deciphered, revealed her sexual relationships with many of the single and married women of her acquaintance. Over the period covered by the series, Anne returns to her estate, Shibden Hall; meets, seduces, and makes a symbolic marriage with a local heiress, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle); and struggles against the suspicions of Ann's relatives and the hostility of their neighbors.

The series follows fairly closely what we know of Anne's life (and thanks to her diaries, that's a great deal), although it does add a number of unnecessary subplots in an attempt to heighten "dramatic interest," especially in Season 1; as the producers ultimately realized, Anne's story is fascinating enough by itself. I wrote in "No historical interest whatever: Anne Lister, part 6" that "a key reason to watch the show is the performance of Suranne Jones as Anne, who, naturally enough, is in virtually every scene of every episode. Unafraid to be unsympathetic (although the character softens a bit as the series progresses), Jones is an arresting presence onscreen. It's unfortunate that it looks as though Season 2 will be the last opportunity to see her dynamic portrayal of Anne Lister; in June it was announced that HBO would not renew Gentleman Jack."

Honorable mention:

The Best of Thunderbirds (1965-66). Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. (First seen a long time ago.)

"Thunderbirds are Go!" A product of the techno-optimism of the 1960s, the puppet series Thunderbirds ("Filmed in Videcolor and Supermarionation") mesmerized me as a young boy. Now that I'm a few years older, I am still amazed by the lavish detail of the sets, props, and special effects.

The immensely wealthy former astronaut Jeff Tracy has created the International Rescue team with his five sons Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John (any resemblance to the Mercury 7 astronauts Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Alan Shepherd, Gordon Cooper, and John Glenn is purely intentional). From their private Tracy Island in the South Pacific (um, isn't the South Pacific the farthest point on average from everyone on Earth?), International Rescue launches its fleet of Thunderbird machines—a swing-wing rocket plane (Thunderbird 1), a huge cargo plane (Thunderbird 2), a rocket (Thunderbird 3), and a submersible (Thunderbird 4)—whenever danger threatens. Their actions are coordinated by Thunderbird 5, a space station usually manned by John.

Of course, we're in a future world where, for example, Jeff thinks nothing of launching Thunderbird 3 to send Alan's girlfriend Tin-Tin to meet him Paris for the weekend (in the James-Bond-like episode "The Perils of Penelope"), and passenger airliners are powered by nuclear reactors ("Trapped in the Sky"). (My partner and I couldn't help wincing at the huge environmental impact of International Rescue.) Some of the episodes seem, in retrospect, eerily prescient: in "Sun Probe" a crew of solarnauts loses control of their ship and plummets helplessly into the sun, anticipating the Apollo 13 accident; and in "Terror in New York City" the Empire State Building collapses, a pre-echo of the destruction of the World Trade Center. If you can overlook the Orientalist tropes—one of the main villains in the series is Hood, a criminal mastermind with a Malaysian lair—the series can be enjoyed for its sophisticated, film-like mise-en-scène, pre-CGI props and special effects, and technologically preposterous storylines.

Should you be interested in seeing the original of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's parody Team America: World Police (2004), the entire Thunderbirds series is available on YouTube, "free with ads."

Other Favorites of 2022:

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