In Focus

2022 film reviews: 29 of the best movies so far this year

New films to watch include Prey, Thirteen Lives, and Hit The Road

1

Action

Prey

Prequels make “my heart sink”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer: all too often they’re used just to “squeeze a little more juice out of an already dead and desiccated franchise”. Prey, however, which revives the Predator series for a seventh outing, “is different”. For one thing, it’s set 300 years before the earlier films, on the Great Plains of North America, where Comanche life is presented in rich, authentic detail. Our heroine is Naru (Amber Midthunder), a warrior whose prodigious survival skills are put to the test when an alien creature starts killing everything in its path. To director Dan Trachtenberg’s credit, the film “stays true to the essence” of the 1987 original – it’s “stylishly violent, stickily graphic” and “impossibly tense” – while also succeeding “as a self-contained entity”. 

I was impressed by this addition to the franchise, said Benjamin Lee in The Guardian. “It feels genuinely new to see a genre film of this scale” anchored by an Indigenous American cast. This is not just a victory of representation; it also ensures that a story “we’ve seen a few too many times before” is told in an interestingly fresh way. It’s just a shame that the film, which is beautifully shot, and has some “intricate, well choreographed” action sequences, is going straight to Disney+. 

What I liked about this “audacious action flick” is that it reinforces the forgotten value of “dramatic jeopardy”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Its characters are seen “in actual danger of harm, injury or even death, rather than just punching stuff repeatedly for two hours while wearing a superhero costume”. Of course Midthunder’s stellar performance helps too; in a few short scenes, she conveys so much about Naru that when the “great big bloody predator” swoops to get her, we “really care”. 

2

Drama

Thirteen Lives

We all remember the events of 2018, when 12 boys and their football coach were trapped in a flooded cave network in Thailand, and were rescued – after 18 days – by an international team of cave divers led by two “plucky Brits”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. What we may not know is the detail; what it felt like to be trapped underground, or to dive underwater into darkness. 

Now, thanks to Ron Howard’s new film, we do. This is a dramatisation “that works on just about every level”: it’s thrillingly paced, “culturally sensitive” and beautifully acted. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell play the two British divers, and though neither are British, they pull it off brilliantly: Mortensen captures the “British blokey bolshiness” of ex-firefighter Richard Stanton, while Farrell is “quietly perfect” as IT consultant Jonathan Volanthen. The film is coming to Amazon Prime, but its “exceptional” underwater photography makes it well worth seeing on a big screen. 

When he’s on form, Howard makes “warm-hearted, decent and diligent” films characterised by a kind of “Centrist Dad” level-headedness, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. And this “compulsively watchable” dramatisation is him at his best. The diving sequences are so tense you’ll be “sympathetically shrinking in your seat”; and wisely, Stanton and Volanthen are not depicted as “saviours swooping in from lands afar”, but as gruff hobbyists who clash with each other as well as with the Thai rescue team. 

The film is certainly compelling, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times, but to me it lacks the “dramatic flair” of Howard’s previous true-life disaster movie Apollo 13. Viewers might do better to seek out The Rescue, a riveting 2021 documentary about the same events. 

3

Drama 

Hit The Road

For my money, “the best release of the week by far” is this Iranian film by debut director Panah Panahi – the son of the recently jailed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. It follows a family of four who are driving to the Turkish border, because the elder son (Amin Simiar) needs to flee the country. We presume that it is for political reasons, but “really, those reasons don’t matter”. This is a film about families; the profound love that holds them together, and the ways they can fall apart. The film has a “strong undercurrent of sadness”, but it is a “charmer. I was hooked from the opening scene, in which the irresistibly cute but unstoppably naughty” younger son (Rayan Sarlak) “mischievously hides his father’s mobile phone down his pants”. 

Sarlak is one of the most “believably annoying” kids you’ll ever meet on screen, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, but Pantea Panahiha is “wonderful” too as his mother, “forever silently asking herself whether they’ve reached the point of no return”. The film could “have had the gloom of a Stygian ferry ride”; instead it “pulsates with vivacity”. Hit the Road is a “miraculously accessible piece of entertainment” about people who “stay brave” even as they are “drowning”. 

Most of the action takes place within the confines of the car, a private space that can be an “island of freedom” in the director’s home country, said Christina Newland in The i Paper; but Panahi punctures “his closer camera work with some stunning wide shots of the landscape nearby”. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming film; what a crying shame, then, that it has not yet been shown in Iran.

4

Drama

Notre-Dame On Fire

The words “dramatic reconstruction” can be a bit of a dampener, said Larushka Ivan-Zadeh in The Times, but “I’d defy anyone” not to be gripped by “this spectacular minute-by-minute reconstruction of the blaze that engulfed Paris’s iconic cathedral” on 15 April 2019. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose), it captures the efforts of French firefighters to contain the inferno that nearly razed Notre Dame to the ground, combining dramatic recreation with archive footage, digital effects and amateur video. The result is a “documentary/thriller/disaster movie” mashup that doesn’t entirely pull it off; but if you do get the chance to see it on an Imax screen, take it. 

It’s still unclear how the fire broke out at Notre Dame, said Phil de Semlyen on Time Out; and Annaud wisely “hedges his bets” on this mystery “by showing us both a workman’s rogue ciggie and an electrical short”. The film comes into its own when the “almost demonic” inferno, raging at up to 1,300°C, starts “melting scaffolding and pouring molten lead” through the mouths of the cathedral’s gargoyles. And yet alongside this drama, there are some “surprisingly funny” moments. “The church is 800 years old,” notes a bystander at one point. “We should call your mother,” replies his wife. 

The film rather revels in the disaster, said Wendy Ide in The Observer, but it does capture the fire’s “daunting rage”, to often “eyebrow-scorching effect”. What we don’t really get is a “sense of emotional engagement with key characters”, partly because so many of them are “concealed behind breathing apparatus”. In its place, there “are contrived scenes in which newbie firefighters share gum, and moments of pure cheese involving an adorable moppet and a prayer candle”.

5

Horror

She Will

Directed by the artist Charlotte Colbert, She Will sits “somewhere between a feminist revenge horror and an arthouse psychodrama”, said Ed Potton in The Times. Alice Krige plays Veronica, a faded film star, who travels to a country house retreat in the Highlands to recover from a double mastectomy. She’s hoping that it will be a peaceful idyll; instead, it teems with self-help groupies who are in thrall to the house’s flamboyant artist-in-residence (played by Rupert Everett). He likes to pee against trees and says things like, “Don’t draw the landscape, let the landscape draw you”. To escape all this, Veronica retires to her quarters, but she soon starts to sense the presence of spirits that haunt the local forest – the site of 18th century witch-burnings – and which help her wreak vengeance on a director (Malcolm McDowell) who abused her in her youth. 

Krige’s “thrillingly intense” performance is the “lightning rod at the core” of this “viscerally atmospheric” drama, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. She grounds its “hallucinogenic visuals in the terra firma of past tragedies and modern traumas”. Not everything lands – some of the tonal shifts feel abrupt, and the plot can be wilfully obscure – but “these are minor imperfections” in what is a satisfyingly “chilling tale of buried secrets and dreamy vengeance”. Executive produced by Dario Argento, the film wants to be an “artfully lurid” feminist horror freak-out, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman; unfortunately, I found it “laughably bad”, with a “dramatically inert” script and tiresome use of “a generic Scottish setting as an off-the-peg signifier of folkloric dread”. 

6

Documentary

McEnroe

Decent sports documentaries are “ten a penny”, said Wendy Ide in The Observer, but ones that really delve into “the psychology of their subject” are rare. This film, about the tennis maverick John McEnroe, is one of these rarities. Using archive material, interviews and often “unwieldy” graphics, it explores “the experience of being a phenomenon and a hate figure for a kid who was barely out of his teens” when he exploded onto the tennis scene in 1977. The result is an excellent film that deserves to find “an audience far beyond just fans of the game itself”. 

This portrait of the enfant terrible of tennis is “refreshingly free of the sycophancy that drags down” most sports docs, said Ed Potton in The Times. Its appreciation for McEnroe is clear, but “tempered with an awareness of his flaws”. Among the interviewees are McEnroe’s greatest rival Björn Borg, “whose early retirement McEnroe calls an ‘absolute f***ing tragedy’”; Keith Richards, “one of several celebrity mates” who appear; and McEnroe’s second wife, Patty Smyth, who suggests that he is on the autism spectrum. “There’s only one star, though, and he’s candid, insightful and hugely likeable.” 

As a result, many of the film’s most eye-opening comments come from McEnroe himself, said Raphael Abraham in the Financial Times. (“Thirty-seven psychologists and psychiatrists didn’t help,” he snarls at one point.) Still, there are omissions: the film doesn’t delve deeply enough into McEnroe’s “technical brilliance” to satisfy the “tennis nerds”, and perhaps tellingly, we hear nothing at all from his first wife, Tatum O’Neal, or his nemesis, Jimmy Connors. 

7

Drama

The Railway Children Return

“Fifty-two years after setting the high watermark for ineffably wholesome family entertainment, the railway children are back,” said Kevin Maher in The Times. “And they haven’t changed a bit.” Yes, the era has shifted from 1905 – when the book and Lionel Jeffries’ much-loved 1970 film were both set – to 1944, but the characters are “reassuringly familiar”: three earnest siblings fond of outdoorsy japes find themselves evacuated from Salford to a village in Yorkshire. There, they are taken in by headteacher Annie (Sheridan Smith) and her mother Bobbie, who was the oldest of the original trio and is once again played by Jenny Agutter. There are attempts to make it more relevant to a modern audience – the siblings befriend a black GI (Kenneth Aikens) who has run away from his US army base to escape its violent racism – but the film’s appeal lies in its “unapologetic embrace” of old-fashioned storytelling. “Pixar and Marvel devotees will possibly be repulsed, but how could you not love conker fights, piggybacks on the common and a race-to-the-train finale?” 

The young cast “give it their all”, and it’s a “nostalgic joy” to see Agutter return as a “distinctly glamorous grandmother”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But alas, she is not on screen for all that long, and none of the actors can save the film from its “slightly opportunistic, made-for-television air”. Those who, like me, regard the 1970 film with “unalloyed affection” will be nervous about this sequel, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. But they shouldn’t worry: the film doesn’t quite capture the original’s “charm and innocence”, but it “makes sumptuous use” of many of the same locations, and is a “lovely celebration of an England and a brand of Englishness” that still lingers.

8

Comedy

Thor: Love and Thunder

Taika Waititi has done it, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times: he’s made “not just the best Marvel movie” to date, “but a bona fide camp comedy classic”, brimming with “gaudy” pleasures. The film, which is the fourth standalone Thor movie in the now 29-strong Marvel franchise, begins with a “helpful recap” that explains how the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) picked himself up and transformed his “bad bod to a god bod” following the death of “just about everyone he ever knew”. But though his pecs are now sharp, all is not well: Thor’s beloved ex (Natalie Portman) has cancer, and a “bald creep” played by Christian Bale is plotting to murder every god in the realm. The plot is “the usual lunatic babble” we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but the story unfolds with such wit and brio, who cares? This is just the kind of “silly summer movie we didn’t know we needed”. 

Steady on, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. This “intergalactic space adventure has a bitty first half”, and isn’t a patch on the last Marvel movie that Waititi directed, 2017’s Thor Ragnarok, which is widely deemed “one of the best superhero romps ever made”. Still, fans of the genre will find a “whole lot to love” here, including some memorable performances. Look out in particular for Russell Crowe, who plays Zeus as “a cheesily Greek pansexual” with an accent straight out of Mamma Mia!. I enjoyed the film immensely, said Ed Potton in The Times. It’s true that it lacks the “irreverent zing” of Ragnarok, but it “bursts with surreal spectacle” and “Pythonesque silliness”. The “twinkly script” is genuinely funny, and though Waititi has been made to churn out the mandatory CGI battle sequences, he manages to give even them some emotional depth. 

9

Animation

Turning Red

“It’s hard to know what’s more impressive about the latest Pixar film,” said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph, “its boundless artistry, ingenuity and loopy comic verve, or the mere fact that the studio got away with making it.” Directed by Domee Shi, this Disney+ animation looks squarely at female puberty, “with all the distinct bodily changes” it entails. Its heroine is Mei, a 13-year-old from Toronto (“winningly voiced” by Rosalie Chiang), who wakes up one day to find she’s turned into a giant red panda. Hearing her cry out in the bathroom, Mei’s mother (Sandra Oh) assumes she’s got her period and asks enigmatically outside the door, “Did the red peony bloom?” In fact, Mei has developed a “secret family trait”: at moments of “heightened emotion”, she becomes a bear. From there, the film explores the onset of Mei’s puberty sensitively and playfully, as she strives to bring her “furry alter ego” under control in time for her to attend a concert by her favourite boy band. 

Turning Red deserves credit “for finding comically direct ways to address the biological and emotional awkwardness of female adolescence in a family film”, said Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman. Usually, it’s a topic relegated to horror. But once Mei has learnt to control her panda self, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go, and it ends up feeling lazy and familiar. 

“Yes, there’s a formula at work here” and the dialogue can be a bit trite, said Kevin Maher in The Times. “But who doesn’t enjoy an exquisitely manipulated cry?” With a premise like this, the film could have been “awful and preachy, like a woke revamp of Disney’s actual 1946 public information cartoon, The Story of Menstruation”. In fact, it is “ingenious and light, and deeply lovely”.

10

Drama

Boiling Point

I realise it’s early days, but “if a more stressful film” than Boiling Point comes along this year, “I would be most surprised”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Filmed in a single continuous take, it stars that “powerhouse” of an actor Stephen Graham as Andy, the head chef and part-owner of a hot London restaurant. Andy’s staff “respect and like him”, but we can see something “broken” about him, “and are on it, asking ourselves: ‘Can he hold it together, or will he implode? That water bottle he is always clutching. Is it water?’” 

Jangling with nervous energy, Andy tries to get on with his work, but his customers don’t help: there’s a racist table, a trio of influencers who insist on ordering off-menu, a woman with a severe nut allergy (“hello, Chekhov’s gun”), and a poisonous celebrity chef (Jason Flemyng) who demands a ramekin of za’atar to go with his risotto; it’s “98% there”, he tells the chef. With an improvised feel, the film is as “tense as a thriller”. 

It’s to director Philip Barantini’s credit that I frequently forgot I was watching a one-shot film, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. It is “utterly immersive, conjuring the raw experience of an inexorably accelerating panic attack”. But like the 2015 German thriller Victoria, which was also filmed in one take, this is “first and foremost a gripping and gritty drama”. 

Graham is superb as a man on the edge, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, but there is “great, frazzled acting” from the supporting cast too, especially Vinette Robinson, who plays an overburdened sous-chef. The one off-note is the ending, which tries to make a “hard-hitting impact” but doesn’t quite succeed. That aside, this is a brilliant film that exerts a remorseless grip.

11

Action

Top Gun: Maverick

The original Top Gun propelled Tom Cruise from “a heart-throb to a household name”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. With this “absurdly entertaining” late sequel, we have possibly the “Cruisiest” film to date. Within moments of the opening credits, Maverick – Cruise’s charismatic fictional fighter pilot – is recalled to his “old Top Gun stomping ground” to train a new generation of aviators who have assembled for a deadly mission: the neutralisation of a uranium enrichment plant in an unspecified location overseas. Among the youngsters is Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s friend Goose, who died in the first film. For my money, this is the best studio action movie since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road; it is also “Dad Cinema at its eye-crinkling apogee – all rugged wistfulness and rough-and-tumble comradeship”, interspersed with flight sequences “so preposterously exciting” that they seem to invert the cinema “through 180 degrees”. 

This film isn’t short of “rock’n’roll fighter-pilot action”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, but weirdly, it has none of the original’s “homoerotic tension”. “Where, oh where, is the towel round-the-waist, semi-nude locker-room intensity between the guys?” Weirder still, it’s even “less progressive on gender issues” than the 1986 blockbuster, which did at least put a woman in charge (Kelly McGillis’s civilian instructor). 

It’s true, the female roles here are pretty thankless, said Clarisse Loughrey on The Independent, but the film is so “damned fun” you forget to care. Director Joseph Kosinski has made “the kind of edge-of-your-seat, fist-pumping spectacular that can unite an entire room full of strangers sitting in the dark, and leave them with a wistful tear in their eye” to boot.

12

Drama

Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza is the “metaphorical shot in the arm we all need right now, to go with the real one”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “irresistible” film brims with “effervescent charm” and “belly laughs”; “I cherished every minute of it.” Set in California in 1973, the film is a “boy-meets-girl-at-high-school” tale, but the twist is that only one of the lovers is at school. That’s 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a child actor who falls for a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant, Alana (Alana Haim) when she visits his school to take the pupils’ pictures. 

Shot on rich and grainy 35mm film, Licorice Pizza “does a superb job” of recreating 1970s Los Angeles, said Geoffrey Macnab in The i Paper. Hoffman has the same “shambling charm and force of personality” as his father, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Haim – better known as a musician – brings an ingratiating spikiness to her role as the “(slightly) older woman who can’t quite believe she is falling for a teenager”. The narrative style is “deliberately rambling”, with the story unfolding in loosely joined episodes, but the result is so subversive and funny that you forgive its “shaggy-dog approach to storytelling”. 

I’m afraid I found the episodic structure rather “gruelling”, said Kevin Maher in The Times. Anderson is “far too gifted to make a stinker”, but the film isn’t a patch on his better films, such as There Will Be Blood and The Master. While the love story is meant to be “adorable, cute and cuddly”, to me it seemed contrived. Alana articulates one of the film’s central flaws when she asks her sister: “Is it weird that I hang out with Gary and his 15-year-old friends?” The answer, as the characters are presented here, is: “yes”.

13

Drama

Belfast

“Kenneth Branagh has made a masterpiece,” said Kevin Maher in The Times. Belfast, set in the city in 1969, is a “deeply soulful portrait of a family in peril”, inspired by Branagh’s own childhood: his family fled to Reading that year, when he was nine. The film stars Jude Hill as Buddy, a Protestant growing up in a “warm and garrulous family”, whose carefree childhood is shattered when a “loyalist mob” rampages through their peaceful, largely Protestant community, “smashing windows and screaming: ‘Catholics out!”’ A loyalist enforcer then demands that Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) either “join the Catholic-bashing or face terrifying retribution”, setting the stage for a coming-of-age drama that, though not without cliché, is overlaid with dread and “an expectation of physical conflict”. Highlights of the film include a “hugely charismatic turn” from Dornan, and Haris Zambarloukos’s mostly black-and-white cinematography, which manages “to out-Roma Roma in frame after frame of meticulously lit gob-smackers”. 

The film does tip into the nostalgic: at times it feels like a mash-up of Cinema Paradiso and Hope and Glory, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator – but it’s so “heartfelt, warm and authentic” that you forgive it. I welled up at least three times; plus there are some very funny lines, many of them delivered by Buddy’s grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). “For some people, perhaps, the seam of sentimentality that runs through the picture might be too much,” said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. “But it will take a stony heart not to embrace it.” The film has a “wonderful” score by Van Morrison and – an added bonus – it is relatively short, at just over an hour and a half.

14

Documentary

Cow

“Have you ever looked a cow in the eye?” If you watch Andrea Arnold’s documentary, “you certainly will”, said Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent. Shot over four years on a dairy farm in Kent, this surprisingly gripping, largely wordless film allocates much of its 94-minute runtime to a Holstein-Friesian called Luma. We watch her give birth. We watch her chew cud. We watch her get “hooked up to a milking machine, its nozzles splayed out like the heads of hungry leeches” – and then “we watch those processes again. More birth; more milk.” The film is “grimy and unvarnished”; it captures the “banal cruelty” inflicted on dairy cows – but there are moments of poetry, too: “at one point, Arnold even catches Luma gazing dreamily up towards the stars”.

“This is certainly not the first film to make the point that industrial farming and animal welfare are uneasy bedfellows,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. Yet this “important” documentary “encourages an intimacy and emotional connection with its bovine subject that is rarely achieved elsewhere”. Shots have a “handheld urgency, the lens positioned at udder and eye level”; tellingly, it’s a good 45 minutes before we “even glimpse a blade of grass”. It’s a bleak film, and a challenging one, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Why would I watch a cow for 94 minutes? “What does this cow do that’s so interesting?” But you end up caring, and the finale, when it comes, is hard to bear. The trouble is, vegans already know about industrial dairy farming, and the rest won’t seek out this film, because they prefer to look away. All I can say is that the “next time I went to put milk in my tea, I did feel Luma’s big eyes upon me. So it is absolutely haunting in that way.”

15

Animation

Minions: The Rise of Gru

“There has already been one prequel to the Despicable Me series [Minions, 2015]”, and it proved so popular we now have another, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times. To judge by the laughter at the “child-packed” screening I went to, this addition to the franchise hits the mark with its intended audience. The film picks up soon after Minions left off, in 1976, when the would-be supervillain Gru is 11 years old (yet still voiced by Steve Carell) and just getting to know his little yellow stooges, the Minions (voiced, the lot of them, by Pierre Coffin). When a gang of hardened criminals known as the Vicious 6 oust their leader, Gru spies an opportunity, and plots to become their kingpin. The storyline is a bit “shaky”, but the film is redeemed by its “scattershot comedy” and immense “sense of fun”.

It has what the Despicable Me films do best, said Wendy Ide in The Observer: lots of silliness, “madcap, looney-tunes energy”, and a “big, wet raspberry blown in the face of sophistication”. There’s “not a whole lot that is new” here; the film is a “near-relentless barrage of sight gags, puns and effervescent cartoon violence”, and the result is “exhausting” but “extremely funny”.  

“Some think that the Minions concept has run out of steam”, said Ed Potton in The Times. This film has enough “vim, wit and invention” to suggest otherwise. Even the characters’ names are amusingly inventive: we meet Jean-Clawed, for instance, a criminal with a lobster claw for a hand, and Nun-Chuck, a nunchuck-wielding nun. Gru’s “dastardly ambition”, meanwhile, proves “weirdly touching”: here is a kid “who really wants to be good at being bad”.

16

Thriller

The Batman

Since 1989, five live-action Batmen have “slunk in and out” of our cinemas, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph – so you might wonder if a sixth could offer anything new. But for this latest instalment, director Matt Reeves has done something fresh and surprising: The Batman is less a superhero movie than a “sinuous” detective thriller with the plotting of a film noir. 

We meet the young reclusive Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) when his “Gotham Project” still mainly involves combating muggers and assisting a local police detective (Jeffrey Wright) in the decaying city. But that changes when the two find Gotham’s mayor battered to death with a coded message beside him. It’s from the Riddler (Paul Dano), a villain who in this film is given chilling plausibility. 

The acting is superb, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. Pattinson’s Wayne is spoilt and immature, but also intelligent, and full of self-doubt: “Basically, Hamlet in a balaclava.” Zoë Kravitz is glorious as Catwoman, while Dano delivers a performance that is “breathtakingly” intense and nuanced. It’s one of the most audacious films of the year: I was amused, entertained, intoxicated and shocked. 

To add to the pleasure, this “darkly splendid” movie looks like a work of art, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times, with “an enveloping mixture of roasted colours and noirish shadows”. And the action set pieces are thrillingly executed, said Christina Newland in The i Paper – among them a roaring car chase down a steamy, orange-lit highway at night. There’s some clunky over-explaining in the second half, but with its intriguing plot and hero fraught with contradictions, it should be one of the year’s “blow-your-hair-back” hits. 

17

Biopic

Elvis

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic isn’t “as much of a trip” as his 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!, but “it’s never less than stimulating” to look at, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail – “a spectacle as much as a story”, with plenty of the director’s flourishes, including tricksy editing, split screen and slow-mo. Austin Butler assumes the title role, while Tom Hanks, in a fat suit and acres of prosthetic jowl, is scarcely recognisable as Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s overbearing manager.

The film covers most of Presley’s life, from his rise to fame in the mid 1950s to his death in 1977: we see him recording those early songs in Memphis; making movies; enlisting in the US army; meeting his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge); and finally, overweight and unhappy during his lengthy Vegas residency. The story will be familiar to many, but the film offers “a lively reminder” of an extraordinary life.

The trouble is, it’s less a film about Elvis than a “159-minute trailer for a film called Elvis”, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. It feels like a “relentless, frantically flashy montage”, simultaneously “epic and negligible” with “no variation of pace”.

The film has nothing profound to say about Presley’s character or music; it “retrofits” him with liberal sensitivities, skirts over the less savoury aspects of his life, and barely hints at the “failure and suffering”. Even in the “Fat Elvis” years, we only ever see “a decorous hint of flab”, and there’s no sight of the “yucky burger binges or the adult diapers”.

The film is oddly shallow, agreed Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Butler is a “charismatic” Elvis, but “we never get to look into his soul”; he’s just a “simple fella who wants to sing the music he loves”. Still, the film does “fizz along”, and though it’s very long, it’s never dull.

18

Drama

Parallel Mothers

“With most films, you know exactly what you’ll be getting within the first ten minutes,” said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Not so with Parallel Mothers: a “delicious and beautifully styled” drama from the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Penélope Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer who has a fling with a forensic anthropologist called Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She gets pregnant, and when Arturo stands by his wife, who has cancer, she decides to raise the baby alone. In hospital, Janis meets Ana (a “terrific” Milena Smit), a teenager whose circumstances are even more complicated, and whose life becomes intertwined with hers. Alongside this domestic drama runs a second plot strand, concerning Janis’s desire to have Arturo exhume the mass grave where her grandfather was buried in the Spanish Civil War. The narrative is twisty and full of surprises, but “it all adds up to an immensely rich, satisfying whole”. 

In less skilful hands, said Wendy Ide in The Observer, the film’s “dual focus, which pulls us backwards and forwards” through time, might have been unwieldy. But Almodóvar “makes a light-footed dance of it”, expertly weaving together the story’s many threads. Above all, it’s Cruz who sets the tone “with a performance that radiates warmth”; she has surely “never been better”. Cruz certainly brings “incontestable, blazing life” to the film, said Edward Porter in The Sunday Times, but I found its handling of the history clumsy. Liberals in Spain are pushing to “disinter the crimes of the Franco years, an agenda fiercely opposed by right-wing populists”; in “doing his bit” for the cause, Almodóvar has extended the range of his work, but created a “slightly uneven film”.

19

Animation

Belle

A marriage of “dazzling spectacle, high-octane action and social commentary”, this animated film from Japan received a 14-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes, said Tara Brady in The Irish Times. The story revolves around Suzu, a 17-year-old high school student who’s unremarkable but for her extraordinary singing voice – which she can’t bring herself to use in public. At school, she isn’t a big hitter socially, until she signs up to “U”, a virtual world “pitched somewhere between Instagram and The Fifth Element” that allows its users to live as idealised avatars. 

In this metaverse, Suzu is reborn as Belle, “a pink-haired, singing beauty” who becomes an overnight sensation. The film’s best scenes are not the “riotous tableaux” that play under her J-pop ballads, however, but “the blushmaking adolescent exchanges, the family concerns”, and even, in a late plot twist, a powerful (but delicately handled) dramatisation of childhood abuse. 

This finely observed, gorgeously animated sci-fi fairy tale is one of director Mamoru Hosoda’s best to date, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Long “enthralled by abstract digital spaces”, he has created here a twinkling metaverse that “overawes you through sheer volume of lunatic detail”. And though the plot owes much to Beauty and the Beast, the film’s exploration of “our online-offline double lives” is entirely fresh. 

Belle’s central message is a powerful one, said Simran Hans in The Observer – that the closer our online personas capture who we really are, “the more powerful” they become. All in all, this is anime to swell the heart.

20

Biopic

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

“Ours is not a country – and thank heavens for it – in which a company called Praise The Lord Television could ever grow into a mighty broadcasting network,” said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail. Yet in the US, PTL was once the fourth-biggest TV network behind NBC, ABC and CBS. This “unexpectedly moving” biopic tells the story of the couple behind PTL, Tammy Faye Bakker (Oscar winner Jessica Chastain) and her preacher husband Jim (Andrew Garfield). “An evangelical Barbie and Ken,” they started from the bottom with a puppet show, and gradually gained a cult TV following, convincing viewers that “the more they gave, the more God would love them”. But their “gaudy temple came crashing down” in 1987, when it emerged that Jim “had been misappropriating funds, even using some to pay off a church secretary who alleged he had raped her”. 

This is without a doubt “Chastain’s movie”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Her Tammy Faye is an “inflatable doll of grotesque, martyred femininity”. With a “chirpy, aw-shucks manner” and a tan “the colour of a basted turkey”, she’s a fake “through and through” – like one of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art pin-ups “blown up so large you can see the dots”. Chastain is on “fabulous” high-octane form here, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, and well matched by Garfield; but it’s all a bit “one-note” with the “constant smiling and ‘God told me he wants...’”. And no amount of brilliant hair and make-up can make up for the shortcomings of the script. Tammy Faye is portrayed as a woman who was “seemingly blind” to the wrongdoings around her – and that’s a pity, because “the wrongdoings are what made the Bakkers interesting”.

21

Drama

Operation Mincemeat

This tale of wartime derring-do is the sort of film to watch “with your dad on a Sunday afternoon, before or after Ice Cold in Alex”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Based on a book by Ben Macintyre, it recounts a British operation to conceal the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen star as the two intelligence officers who led the mission, which involved obtaining the corpse of a Welsh man, putting it into the uniform of a Royal Marine, loading it with bogus “top secret” papers about a planned invasion of Greece, and dropping it in the Mediterranean. Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and starring not one but two Mr Darcys, the film is well performed and “highly enjoyable”. 

This is a well crafted, “handsomely mounted” film, which painstakingly recreates the look and feel of wartime London, said Geoffrey Macnab in The i Paper. The acting, too, is “heartfelt and strong”; aside from the two leads, we also have Simon Russell Beale as Churchill, Johnny Flynn as the young naval officer Ian Fleming (“a few years away from writing his first Bond novels”), and Kelly Macdonald, who features in a romantic subplot. “What the film lacks, though, is any real sense of dramatic upheaval or surprise.” In essence, this is the story of an “elaborate prank”, and once the officers have dropped the decoy body into the sea, they have little to do but “wait for the Nazis to take the bait”. 

Madden had a huge amount to cover in a two-hour film, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph, and the pacing is a little off, with drowsy sections in the middle, a rushed third act and an awful lot of exposition along the way. It’s a pity: it’s watchable, but could have been done better.

22

Animation

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped animation, set in 1969, is a low-key but “evocative” story of childhood loosely inspired by the writer-director’s own, said John Nugent in Empire. It is narrated by Jack Black as the adult version of protagonist Stanley (Milo Coy), a dreamer who lives in the suburbs of Houston, and whose father is employed in an admin job at Nasa. Like everyone else, Stanley is obsessed with the forthcoming Apollo 11 Moon mission, but in his account of that year, there was another, secret Moon landing days before it, a test run for which Nasa agents recruited him as the astronaut. The reason: they’d “built the lunar module a little too small”, meaning that only a child could fit inside it. The rotoscope technique involves tracing over live-action film footage, and results in a “strange, hyperreal aesthetic” which is well suited to this film’s blending of reality and fantasy. 

With “shrewd storytelling judgement”, Linklater makes Stanley’s “lucid dream” only a small part of what is otherwise an “overwhelmingly real”, but more or less plotless, account of a 1960s childhood, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. His memories of the era are “curated with passionate connoisseurship” – “the ice-cream flavours, the TV shows, the drive-in movies, the schoolyard games, the parents, the eccentric grandparents, the theme park rides, the neighbours, the prank phone calls”. 

Linklater has made some “dire” films since Boyhood, his 2014 “masterpiece”, said Kevin Maher in The Times, but Apollo 10½ is a triumphant return to form. Rich with observational detail and saturated in “loving” references to the music, movies and television of the period, “it feels as significant an American memoir as Little House on the Prairie”. 

23

Horror

The Northman

“You should really put in some kind of training before submitting yourself to this Viking Braveheart,” said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. An adaptation of the Norse folk tale that inspired Hamlet, the film is “a beast” – a “grunting, howling, gore-soaked tangle of blood, muscle and vengeance” that is both “incredibly violent and magisterially strange”. The tale revolves around Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a prince who, as a boy, watched his uncle (Claes Bang) murder his father before carrying off his mother (Nicole Kidman) and seizing the throne. Amleth flees overseas but returns to the kingdom as an adult, transformed by the intervening years into a hulking Viking “berserker” with a “heart of cold fire” that is now bent on revenge. “The film feels not so much shot and edited as dropped from the sky by ravens and beaten into shape in a smithy.” I loved it.

The Northman has been proclaimed a “masterpiece”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, but I can’t see why. “Yes, it looks magnificent”, but there’s little more than “muscle and machismo” to Skarsgård’s role – and how this film “escaped with only a 15 certificate is beyond me”. 

It is violent, said Kevin Maher in The Times, but it is also rather silly. Director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) takes his “Scandinavian beefcakes” so seriously, there are moments when the film lapses into “risible camp”. “Sleep well, night blade,” was the line that got me giggling, and after that, it was hard to stop. Other inadvertently funny bits are Amleth’s romance with a “sassy slave” played by Anya Taylor-Joy, and the cast’s sing-songy accents. The film is a one-note fiasco, a “foam-flecked depiction of cartoon machismo” from a director who should have known better.

24

Drama

True Things

The British writer-director Harry Wootliff’s “well-liked” 2018 debut Only You centred on a couple experiencing fertility problems, said Leslie Felperin in the FT. Her second feature, the “woozy, intoxicating” True Things, adapted from a novel by Deborah Kay Davies, charts a rather more troubled relationship, involving a “destructive erotic obsession”. 

Kate (Ruth Wilson) is a middle-class benefits officer with “a barely hidden wild streak”. She is dissatisfied with life and already in trouble for persistent lateness at Margate’s job centre when one of her clients, a “sexy bit of rough” with a prison record (Tom Burke) asks her out for lunch. Within hours, they’re having sex in a car park. She refers to this nameless man as “the Blond”, and is soon mad about him. But it seems the hunger is all hers and, with terrible inevitability, he starts taking advantage of her infatuation. 

For Kate, the romance is a “delusion” and an “addiction”, and there is an “element of insanity about it – “nightmares, hallucinations, clawing open an abyss”, said Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. “The cinematography nudges us boldly to the brink with rain on the lens”, and the editing becomes “fragmentary”. But throughout, what really “rivets” is Wilson’s performance. Kate is a mess, yet Wilson succeeds in making her peculiarly relatable. 

Burke is good too, skilfully lending the Blond an air of “old-world romanticism”, said Clarisse Loughrey on The Independent. But the problem with the film is that he is still too obviously a cad, making it hard for us to identify with Kate. And though there are intriguing hints that her obsession is a rebellion against the social expectations she faces as a woman in her 30s, this idea remains underexplored.

25

Thriller

The Outfit

“If, like me, you’re a fan of old-timey gangster flicks, this twisty, enjoyable new film starring Mark Rylance is probably going to scratch that itch,” said Christina Newland in The i Paper. The film is set in 1950s Chicago and features “warring mobs, shoot-outs, rats and double-crosses galore”. The action itself is limited to one location: a tailor’s shop in which Rylance, known to customers as “English”, plies his trade. A former Savile Row cutter, he now makes suits for local gangsters. 

When Richie (Dylan O’Brien), the son of mob boss Roy (Simon Russell Beale), appears in the shop one night, bleeding from a gunshot wound, English is caught in the middle of a gang war that turns his shop into a temporary mob HQ. The script is superb, and while the visuals are bland and some of the cast a little uneven, the story is “sure to keep viewers enthralled”. 

“You can wait for a great Mark Rylance performance all year long and then – like double-decker buses – two come along,” said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. The actor was “sublime” as an amateur golfer in last month’s The Phantom of the Open, and he’s “mesmerising” in this crime thriller, too. From the first few frames, as we watch him “brew a pot of tea, oil his shears and begin cutting fabric”, you can tell the role was “tailor-made” for him. 

Yes, Rylance is on “quietly compelling” form, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, but his performance doesn’t save this play-like film from its many flaws. For one thing, the plot twists “struggle to convince”; for another, there are simply “too many British actors playing American”. Debut director Graham Moore’s “single-set thriller” is a “brave experiment”, but sadly it’s one that “doesn’t altogether work”.

26

Drama

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande has been much hyped “as the film in which Emma Thompson gets her kit off”, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday. But before the actress lets her “dressing gown slip” in this “amusing, revealing and really quite sexy” film, there is an awful lot of talking – so much so that at times, it feels more like a “single-set stage play” than a movie.

Thompson plays Nancy, a widowed former RE teacher who never had good sex with her husband, and so decides to pay Leo (Daryl McCormack), a handsome Irish escort, to supply it. The film mainly takes place in the hotel room where they meet. Some of it stretches credibility, but Thompson is a such “class act” that it’s “definitely worth a peek”.

Written by comedian Katy Brand, “this is a riveting film and an important one”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Older women are usually cinema’s “least developed characters”, and it’s “practically unheard of” to see one strip off, let alone list the various sexual positions she’d like to try.

There is “genuine chemistry” between the leads, and some “wonderfully comedic moments”, such as when Nancy says that she’s resigned to never having an orgasm. “It’s not a Fabergé egg, Nancy,” Leo replies. “People have them every day.”

I’m afraid I wasn’t greatly charmed, said Donald Clarke in The Irish Times. Yes, the film celebrates “sexagenarian sexuality”, but it’s a bit too proud of its “supposed braveness”, and the characters are all rather familiar. Nancy is the “sort of handbaggy Silly Billy” that Thompson could play in a coma, while Leo is “absurdly decent, articulate, understanding and patient” – qualities that “few humans outside the New Testament” show in such abundance.

27

Drama

Playground

Playground “captures exactly what it feels like to be seven years old and starting a new school, which is another way of saying it’s the most panic-attack-inducing film of the year”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Many of the events it depicts are “fairly ordinary”; the Belgian film’s power lies in Maya Vanderbeque’s “heart-lurchingly plausible” central performance as Nora, a troubled new pupil who must learn to negotiate school life. 

Vanderbeque acts with “the kind of pristine psychological integrity that would make Daniel Day-Lewis drop his cobbling kit”, and director Laura Wandel capitalises on this by making the film mainly from the child’s point of view – so that older pupils “loom” up before her, grown-ups are little more than “disembodied legs”, and the din of the schoolyard resembles that of a “war zone”. Owing to a “brief, appropriately frightening moment of child-on-child violence”, Playground has a 15 rating, which is a pity as younger audiences would surely benefit from watching “such a striking depiction of pre-teen life”. 

“Sometimes cinema is at its most potent and engrossing when it’s stripped down to the essentials,” said Wendy Ide in The Observer. This “uncomfortably powerful” film is a case in point: at little over an hour in length, with lithe, handheld camerawork and no score, it takes a “piercingly insightful” look at the “semi-feral pack dynamic of childhood”, without labouring the point. 

The “Hobbesian, tooth-and-nail universe of the playground” has seldom been portrayed “so indelibly”, said Tom Shone in The Sunday Times. Occasionally, Nora turns to adults for help, but the film shows she’s on her own; as its French title (Un Monde) suggests, school is “a world unto itself. A beautiful film.” 

28

Horror

Men

“All men really are the same” in this Wicker Man-style folk horror film from Alex Garland, said Mark Kermode in The Observer. Garland, the author of The Beach, who also directed the intriguing sci-fi oddity Ex Machina, has concocted “a playfully twisted affair” set deep in the English countryside. The excellent Jessie Buckley plays Harper, the survivor of an abusive relationship who escapes to a “dream country house” to recover. The house is owned by Geoffrey, a “Tim Nice-But-Dim” character, who like all the men in the village – from the smarmy vicar to the unsympathetic police officer – is played by one actor, Rory Kinnear, “deftly” slipping between identities. The plot takes a sinister turn when a menacing figure appears to Harper in a deserted railway tunnel. As the film proceeds, Garland “throws caution to the wind” and unleashes horror upon gruesome horror.

Men wants “to be a social thriller for the ages; a Get Out for women”, said Charlotte O’Sullivan in the London Evening Standard. “It almost succeeds.” But at exactly the point where “it should begin to be unbearably tense, it begins to unravel”. It’s unclear whether all the male characters are figments of Harper’s imagination, or whether they represent a real threat. Either way, the film doesn’t really do justice to the “horrible realities” of violent misogyny. 

It never quite makes sense of its “startling central conceit”, agreed Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Kinnear’s multifaceted performance is “unnerving and outrageous”, but there are also moments of “not-entirely-intentional silliness” here: Men almost feels like an episode of The League of Gentlemen without the jokes. The actors, though, are very good, and there’s much to enjoy “as the movie builds to its freaky finale”.

29

Comedy

The Duke

I could probably watch this old-fashioned comedy caper “all day every day for the rest of my life,”, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Directed by the late Roger Michell (of Notting Hill fame), it recounts the notorious theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in 1961, and stars Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton, the idealistic taxi driver from Newcastle who claimed to have committed this audacious crime.

The film is “wonderfully funny”, but “thoughtful and tender” too; if you don’t find Bunton – the “ordinary fella prompted to do an extraordinary thing” – wholly “loveable” from the off, I’ll “refund your ticket”.

This warm and witty film has the “zing of a classic Ealing caper”, said Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph. Broadbent and Helen Mirren, who plays Bunton’s wife, have rarely been better. And while the film is unafraid to “go broad – one stirring sequence is scored to the hymn Jerusalem, for goodness’ sake” – it touches on serious themes (about how, for instance, institutions should serve the people who fund them); and its subtlety “often catches you off guard”.

There are moments when it ladles on the “working-class nobility” a bit thick, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail: we see Bunton standing up against racism, and being sacked as a taxi driver for waiving a war veteran’s fare; but Broadbent “keeps it real at every turn, and manages a passable Geordie accent to boot”, while Mirren, who does frumpy and downtrodden as well as she does elegant hauteur, is a “superb foil”.

Although she is often exasperated by her “placard-waving husband”, we never doubt the depth of their love. For what proved to be his swansong, Michell has given us a truly “lovely film”.

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