For British Columbia at least, 2022 was the first year of this decade where movie theatres weren’t shuttered for months at a time due to government-imposed pandemic restrictions. After one last gasp of emergency health powers, Bonnie Henry eased her grip on our everyday lives over the spring as masks came off, theatres and restaurants returned to full capacity, previously “virtual” events returned to the real world, and those who had elected to forgo vaccination were allowed to rejoin polite society.
I essentially have two filmgoing lives: the ones I see as a private citizen and the ones I review here. While there is occasionally some overlap as you’ll see below, the film critic’s world is largely one of review screeners, festival screenings, and the occasional sneak preview by invitation.
While those who know me have noted my disdain for the flavourless blockbusters and ice-cold Oscar bait that have come to define much of the modern moviegoing experience, there are still nuggets of real gold to be found among the pyrite, the cream of which I will now divulge thusly:
I actually predicted in my review for this one that it would end up on my Top 5, and here we are with Agam Darshi’s directorial debut leading off the list. This film has much to recommend it with its compelling story of a young woman at the centre of her Punjabi family’s dysfunction that transcends cultural boundaries that is capably brought to life by a flawless cast (an against-type Stephen Lobo being a particular stand-out).
In addition, the film avoids the many pitfalls of many independent Canadian movies where the script’s reach exceeds the production’s budget. Everything is professionally rendered (despite obviously challenging Saskatchewan winter conditions) and verisimilitude is never sacrificed. Overall a strong debut work that effectively portrays arrested development and family baggage, whoever your family is.
4) Swan Song
An underappreciated and under-seen sci-fi that brilliantly mines the tenuous connection between human cloning and the human soul, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Mahershala Ali excels as Cameron, a terminal man who has secretly agreed to be cloned in order to switch himself with a clone and save his family the grief of his passing. As with all life-and-death decisions, this one proves to be less than cut-and-dry as Cameron begins to become paranoid about the clone replacing him and whether he is doing the right thing by his wife and young son.
A sort of Black Mirror with more shades of grey, Swan Song opens Pandora’s Box on the issue of cloning humans and the possibility of them enabling a sort of immortality. I personally find the film’s conclusion to be both immoral and unethical with unsettling implications, but it was the journey and not the destination that earned Benjamin Cleary’s moving film a place on this year’s list.
3) Violent Night
It’s rare that a trailer gets me excited these days, but the preview for Violent Night elicited both an audible “fuck yeah” and a silent “Wish I’d thought of that!” reaction from me. Essentially Die Hard if it actually was a Christmas movie (fight me in the comments), this Winnipeg-shot genre piece finds David Harbour as a worn-out Santa disenchanted with his job who winds up caught up in a home invasion at a rural mansion. Since the child of the house happens to be atop of his nice list, St. Nick decides to go old-school R-rating on the heavily armed thugs. Add a few Home Alone-style antics with actual consequences and you get a blood-soaked yuletide treat that still manages to pull some heartstrings in the final reel. Best enjoyed with the more unhinged members of your family this Xmas.
2) We Don’t Dance For Nothing
It’s often the most challenging of conditions that spur the most creativity and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this concept in action than Stefano Tai’s suburb docudrama. Produced during COVID-19 lockdown, the film relates the semi-fictional story of a Filipino domestic worker (known only as “H” to the audience) for a wealthy Hong Kong family. While there is much love between her and the children she cares for, there is much more tension between her and the family’s tiger-mom matriarch who seems impossible to please.
While this domestic life is rendered almost exclusively in still frames, motion is introduced during H’s days off where she gathers with her fellow Filipinos to vent about their employers and let off more steam by dancing. Even this movement is rendered in choppy motion as the freedom it represents is fleeting. Tai’s film is a mesmerising portrait of marginalised workers and the endurance of the human spirit.
Sonic The Hedgehog 2
The fact that Sonic even has a second live action movie is a minor miracle given the severe backlash to the initial character design. It’s a relief that they reversed course as I can’t imagine how Tails and Knuckles would have fared under the initial renderings.
All three are looking splendid here however, as Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) returns to wreak havoc on the planet, this time with much higher stakes. The film scores high as an action-packed and joke-filled romp buoyed largely by stellar voice casting, especially Idris Elba as the deadpan Knuckles. The only speedbump being a protracted wedding sequence seemingly to wrap up a plot thread involving a subplot and characters the audience could care less about. Nonetheless, the whole affair left me excited for further entries in the franchise and given the fact that I barely played the games growing up, that’s saying something.
The recently released Glass Onion is the first mainstream Hollywood film I’ve seen to directly depict the COVID pandemic onscreen (at least for the first act). But many months earlier, actor/director Milo Shandel was putting those early quarantine days on screen for this bite-sized comedy gem. The story of a young man faking a girlfriend over Zoom to avoid quarantining with his over-bearing parents generates a surprising amount of mileage and laughs and is carried effortlessly by a top-notch cast including the welcome surprise of Corner Gas alumni Brent Butt and Nancy Robertson as the parents.
Its concept will likely date it in the years to come, but it was just the sort of tonic we needed as society slowly crawled into the Post-COVID era.
An odd choice to include at first glance considering I rated it much lower than other films on the list (6/10). But this subversive take on the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in Communist China struck me most during the end credits where multiple crew members (largely based in Taiwan) decided to be credited as “Anonymous” for fear of themselves or their families being targeted by the CCP in retaliation for their participation. Knowing how much credits mean to those in the industry, the effect is truly chilling.
1) The Long Rider
Cinema can entertain, shock, and provoke, but it’s something special when a film inspires its audience and lifts their spirits. In The Long Rider, director Sean Cisterna chronicles the epic journey of one Felipe Masetti Leitte as he treks nearly 25,000 km on horseback from Calgary to his native home of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As expected, there are a plethora of obstacles in his path from weather, challenging terrain, horse trouble, to maddening bureaucratic inertia that keeps him stranded at several borders. Much of this is captured via video diary by the man himself and we are fellow travellers with him, right up until his ultimate triumph as he reaches his final destination (you didn’t think this was gonna be a tragedy did you?). But even then, Felipe’s journey isn’t over as there are further journeys to undertake. After all, once you’ve reached the moon, why not continue to the stars?
Happy New Year and see y’all in 2023!