It's time once again for HMC's traditional Boxing Day round up of the year. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about 2022 was the dearth of big budget studio product, which led to the welcome appearance (and persistence) of lower budget properties that otherwise might not have had a big screen outing in the UK. Thus it was that art house movies like TRIANGLE OF SADNESS and Paul Verhoeven's BENEDETTA found themselves in multiplexes screening next door to William Brent Bell's very entertaining ORPHAN:FIRST KILL, A24's equally fun BODIES BODIES BODIES and even The Foo Fighters in STUDIO 666.
All of the above were worth catching but what follows is a list of ten films that I believe deserve extra special mention. As always the rules stay the same - each film has to have been shown in the UK for the first time as either a cinema release, festival screening, disc release or on a streaming service. Big budget major studio successes don't get a look in because everyone will already know about them, and the same goes for movies like the delightful EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE and the terrific THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, both of which have enjoyed huge deserved success and which I bet you already know about.
Before all that, and all in fun, we have the regular yearly feature that I know quite a few look forward to, and that's the worst of the year. This year, because of the situation described above some even made into the multiplexes, but even Idris Elba battling crappy CGI in BEAST or the weapons grade gothic rubbish that was Jessica M Thompson's THE INVITATION have not made it onto this list, because they just weren't entertaining in the right Bad Film way. The following three, however, definitely were:
The Worst Films of 2022
3 Birdemic 3: Sea Eagle
I had no idea there was even a BIRDEMIC 2 so thanks Mayhem Film Festival for putting me right on that count. Writer-director (and likely everything else) James Nguyen sent a video introduction to his latest effort, which proved he had learned nothing since first waving a camera in the general direction of some actors and then superimposing some terrible bird CGI over the top seemingly randomly back in 2010.
Make no mistake, BIRDEMIC 3: SEA EAGLE is a work of such staggering incompetence, such monumental ineptitude, that it might actually be worse than the first film in the franchise. If an eight year old was told to make a film about climate change as a homework assignment it would likely be more cohesive, more relevant, and quite possibly better acted. During one segment three pigeons wander into the background and so stilted is the dialogue from the actors, and so stultifying and unnecessarily prolonged is the scene, that your attention becomes riveted on these three birds in the middle distance just doing random pigeon stuff. Because random pigeon stuff is more interesting than BIRDEMIC 3. By the time a nightclub singer launches into his third full length song for the leads to dance to in an otherwise empty bar you'll know if you want to stick with this one or not. Probably not.
2 Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman
Creeping out onto UK Netflix at the beginning of the year, here's one that will make fans of cinematic bad taste think they've died and gone to heaven, because who doesn't want to see Cobra Kai's Tori married to SAW's Jigsaw in a biopic so misguided it will remind you at worst of those direct to VHS "erotic thrillers" of the 1990s and at best of the most melodramatic episodes of 1980s US soap opera Dynasty? Peyton List needs a bit more practice walking downstairs in heels while delivering loony dialogue as she's a bit wobbly at both, while the climax is so Brian de Palma meets CAPE FEAR meets Dynasty (again - this time the one where Joan Collins & Linda Evans battled it out in the swimming pool) that I foresee this one being shown in Bad Film Clubs for years to come. Drinking games include downing a shot every time you feel the need to shout "Use your karate!" or whenever there's the suggestion of Ms List triggering a SAW trap.
How could anything else be in this year's number one spot? Michael Flatley's feature debut as writer, producer, director, star and, one presumes, hat adviser to himself, is a film that shouldn't be watched by anyone. It's a film where nothing happens at all, a film where the most exciting bit is a sequence where Mr Flatley takes one hat off only so he can put a different one on. That scene brought the house down with the packed Bristol audience we saw this with only because Nothing Else Happens In This Film. The best way to describe the story is as a terrible ripoff of CASABLANCA. One 'major' scene is a complete steal from the poker game in CASINO ROYALE but gets everything so wrong that in the future film schools will run the sequences from both these movies alongside each other to demonstrate the jaw-dropping contrast between film-making skill and the absence thereof. It's a spy thriller with no action, no suspense and no dancing. Eric Roberts plays the villain and it's sad to see how his career has declined since the days of SHARKTOPUS. Everything is topped off with a climactic fight scene between Flatley and the villain that takes place behind a van so you can't see anything. Only Michael high-kicking birds out of the sky in BLACKBIRDEMIC could be worse. Or better, depending on your tastes.
Right! That's enough of the bad stuff (stop writing down those titles at the back). Let's have a look at what I thought was worth recommending from 2022:
10 Crimes of the Future
One youtube review site dared to put this at the top of its 'worst of the year list'. Oh these young people writing about film, don't they know that David Cronenberg is and always has been obsessed with body horror? And now there are no exploitation producers reigning him in or art house producers suggesting he adapt a well-regarded literary novel instead, so here we are with an undiluted mass of Cronenbergian ideas. These range from a child whose gut has evolved to digest plastic to Viggo Mortensen's grotesque tumour performance art in which he's aided by Lea Seydoux as his performance surgeon in a role turned down by Natalie Portman. Thanks Natalie, because Ms Seydoux manages to make some scenes in a Cronenberg film erotic in a way I think it will be difficult to equal, let alone beat.
CRIMES OF THE FUTURE is by no means Cronenberg's best, however. On the plus side, it's like having all the elements that made each of Cronenberg's early pictures unique and memorable all in one place. It's a film that, more than any other he's made, is all about his body horror obsessions - beauty contests for the insides of bodies, tumours as an art form, designer cancers, etc. Much of the dialogue involves the discussion of fascinating philosophies and science fiction concepts, but there are problems with pacing with no sense of urgency and little purpose, to the extent that it's quite the surprise when the end credits start. Don't get me wrong - there are moments and scenes and concepts of utter genius in CRIMES OF THE FUTURE & it's definitely worth watching, probably more than once. As a result it's not Cronenberg's best work, but it may well be his purest.
There was quite a mixed response for Andrew Dominik's BLONDE, with the bad reviews most likely coming from the same kind of people who hated Pablo Larrain's superlative SPENCER, another film about an almost impossibly famous young woman trapped in an artificial world from which there seems to be no escape. Whereas the Larrain film felt like Pete Walker does THE SHINING, Andrew Dominik's take on the Marilyn Monroe story is distinctly Sadean with Ana De Armas' Marilyn a Justine-type central character thrown from one terrible exploitative situation to the next, there to be used and abused, and no matter how hard she tries to deal with everything it all just gets worse. Mark Kermode has described BLONDE as less a film about Marilyn and more a horror film about fame & I'd certainly agree with that. Clocking in at a bum-numbing 167 minutes it's way too long and it's all a bit too one-note intensity-up-to-11 throughout, but there are enough moments of genius here and a palpable sense of steadily mounting insanity-inducing horror to warrant its inclusion.
A low budget British art house horror from Alex Garland, which ticked plenty of my boxes including gorgeous (but threatening) English countryside setting, old country house, a lovely old church made sinister, terrific 1970s Play For Today-style ‘work it out for yourselves’ approach, uniformly excellent performances and occasionally displaying a wicked sense of humour. Mr Garland is a horror fan and so I’m sure it was intentional to have seasoned BritHorror enthusiasts point at ‘that’ scene near the end and say ‘Hang on a minute, is that a tribute to XXXX?’. I have my own reading of what it was all about but this one’s open to plenty of interpretation. If I was Mr Garland I would be delighted by how uncomfortable some of this is, and you’re an art house horror fan MEN is a must see.
7 The Northman
A big budget, widely distributed Universal release that didn't do very well, and just in case you gave it a miss here I am prodding you to see it. Robert Eggers' latest is a rich, raw, beautifully imagined epic and watching it you can feel the influence of Boorman's EXCALIBUR, John Milius' CONAN THE BARBARIAN and even Polanski's MACBETH in its depiction of brutal, challenging lives lived out against an unforgiving landscape, with a heavy dose of the mystic mixed in. The plot is pretty slight (and pretty standard) but it's Eggers' visual imagination and feel for the period (or perhaps more how we think this period really should feel) that makes this one an immersive experience that's best watched on the big screen. Out of all the films on this list, THE NORTHMAN is the one I feel the most sorry for. Given a budget way beyond what it could hope to make back it will now be used by Hollywood et al as the example of why films like this shouldn't be greenlit in the first place. Contrary to those bus adverts, this isn't today's GLADIATOR, it's today's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), another multi-layered, carefully made fantasy epic that didn't do well financially and was labelled a failure for many years. Therefore it's up to us, genre fans who understand and appreciate this very fine example of epic fantasy, to keep talking about it so that it gains its deserved classic status.
6 Strawberry Mansion
In 2035 your dreams are taxed, each item you dream about being assigned a value and a percentage of that being charged to you. Preble (co-writer and co-director Kentucker Audley) is a dream tax assessor charged with auditing Bella (Penny Fuller) who lives in a remote house in the country. All her dreams are recorded on VHS tape ("around 2000 of them") despite the format having been made illegal for the last seven years. As Preble starts to go through the tapes (and enter Bella's dreams) he starts to receive strange messages that seem to suggest his love of fried chicken and fizzy drinks might not be entirely voluntary.
Very low budget and shot on what looks like 16mm, STRAWBERRY MANSION is nevertheless packed with creativity, ranging from imaginative model shots to stop motion animation to some excellent masks. The film's quirky style is reminiscent of the films of French director Michel Gondry while its subject matter will remind fans of classic SF literature of the works of Philip K Dick and also Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth.
5 Unicorn Wars
Brace yourself for this one, and not because it's an animated film about teddy bears and unicorns. Or rather because it is, but in the most violent, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking way possible. Care Bear-style teddies are in a religious war with unicorns with the ultimate intention being to drink the blood of the last unicorn and thus bring back God. UNICORN WARS starts as quite amusing but quickly becomes gruelling and disturbing, as one might expect from a movie whose director claims his influences are APOCALYPSE NOW, BAMBI and The Bible. A lot of unicorn blood and teddy bear guts get spilled in this unique twisted animated feature, and all of us who watched it on Mayhem's Saturday morning animation slot came out looking as if we'd been hit over the head with an especially heavy board. You have been warned.
4 The Retaliators
It's been a long time since I've been on the edge of my seat at the cinema, but THE RETALIATORS reminded me what it's like to watch something genuinely intense and thrilling on the big screen. A mild-mannered pastor's 17 year old daughter dies as a result of a drug deal gone wrong. Some time later a detective tells the pastor he has caught the man responsible and can offer him one minute alone with the killer before (presumably) turning him over to the authorities, an opportunity the detective himself was apparently given in a different situation ten years ago. And then things get really quite extreme and take directions which will surprise you. THE RETALIATORS feels like a hard-boiled neo-noir directed by Joe Begos, and it's the direction that really makes this one work, such that by the time you get to the utterly insane climax, instead of shaking your head at the absurdity of the situation you're absolutely immersed in it.
3 The Menu
Getting a pleasingly wide distribution (it's still playing in some cinemas) Mark Mylod's THE MENU reminded me a lot of 1960s / 70s Euro exploitation gems - everything from the gothics of Antonio Margheriti or Mario Bava to the glossy Harry Alan Towers pictures of the mid 1970s. A bunch of Rich Superficial People get invited to a flamboyant, over the top isolated retreat (castle / mansion etc etc - here it's an island restaurant) where a Mysterious Host (Ralph Fiennes here) presides over the increasingly uneasy evening. Anya Taylor-Joy gets the Rosalba Neri / Barbara Steele role and her exchanges with Fiennes are an absolute joy. John Leguizamo gets his best role in an age as a movie star whose career is on the wane, and credit's also due to Nicholas Hoult who does so much great stuff with the character he's been given that I'd happily watch the film again just because of him.
The best film at London's annual Frightfest event was this tiny budget piece of very clever and creative science fiction. In the late 1930s two sisters invent a machine that can see into the future. The first thing it shows them is David Bowie singing Space Oddity and how can you go wrong after that? When World War II breaks out they use their machine to predict bombing raids and thus save thousands of lives. But their actions have other effects they haven't reckoned with, leading to Germany winning the war and the cultural face of both Europe and the world being forever altered.
Andrew Legg's remarkable, prescient and terribly clever film was shot in hand cranked grainy black and white 16mm film in 4:3 aspect ratio but if it's showing near you (release date is apparently February 2023) don't miss it and expect to be blown away and profoundly moved by this one.
1 The Feast
Enjoying a multiplex release throughout the UK earlier this year (is it the first Welsh language film to do so?) and just released on Blu-ray, THE FEAST is a quite magnificent piece of Welsh horror. At a modern but remote house in rural Wales a dinner party is being planned, at least in part with the intention of further developing local mining activities. But the ancient land has had enough and has supremely gory, gut-churning endings planned for each of the party's attendees. Writer-producer Roger Williams has proudly stated that he and director Lee Haven are big horror fans, and that they wanted to create a Welsh horror aesthetic more closely aligned with European sensibilities, citing the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN as examples, and the Mabinogion as a literary inspiration. To an old EuroHorror nut like me THE FEAST felt a lot like Joe d'Amato adapting Arthur Machen. A hit at last year's LFF and released in the US last year, THE FEAST's UK release was delayed but now it's finally possible to see what is very definitely my favourite film of the year.
And that's it for another year, one in which I hit 1000 reviews, something I never thought would happen when I started House of Mortal Cinema all those years ago. As always thank you to everyone who has clicked and read and enjoyed, thanks to all the PR companies who keep me supplied with review materials and all the local cinemas who know me and Mrs Probert almost as well as the local restaurants we go to afterwards do. Thanks also to all the festival organisers, now getting back into the swing of things at last, thank goodness. There are plenty of goodies sitting on the review pile (including THE HARBINGER which I somehow managed to miss at every festival it played at). In the meantime have a great New Year and HMC will be back in 2023.