The Cathode Ray Mission: Best of 2022

Jake Dihel
25 min readJan 24


As far as movies go, 2022 was definitely one of the years of all time. We saw a few really remarkable Hollywood blockbusters amid a largely desolate crop of IP building, some intriguing independent outings, some old masters returning for a couple final laps (4 movies on this list directed by someone 75 or older!), a further fragmentation between theatrical exhibition and streaming, and a continued decline of the middlebrow space; in other words, the shape of the year is about what I expected it to be. Here then is a brief outline of my ten favorites from the past year.

But first: I am only a human being that also works a full-time job, so I was not able to make it out and see everything that I wanted to. RRR was a revelation to many that I unfortunately was unable to catch during its limited local theater run; fortunately though, it, along with White Noise, The Banshees of Inisherin, Elvis, and Ambulance are movies that I have an interest in seeing that are readily accessible to me on various streaming platforms (Likewise, Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep series is on HBO, but that introduces another debate of semantics over whether short TV series should be considered in this conversation. Not interested in that, sorry!). Some that I want to see, like Inu-Oh, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Pacifiction, Walk Up, Armageddon Time, Aftersun, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, The Cathedral, and Showing Up are less accessible at the moment. For some of those it’s a matter of missing their theatrical window, but most are festival products that are seeing American exhibition in the coming months; whether they come to me locally is another question, but there are ways around that. Everything Everywhere All At Once was beloved by many, but everything about it feels like nails on a chalkboard to my sensibilities, so instead of sitting down and hoping to be pleasantly surprised, I will simply not subject myself to it, and the same goes for other notable fare that I don’t care about like Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion, Blonde, Saint Omer, and Women Talking; these could be great movies, and I trust that some of them are, I just know my own interests well enough to not prioritize any of them.

#10. Tár (dir. Todd Field)

Tár emerged from the festival circuit as an unlikely lightning rod of attention. Between the breathless adulation heaped on it and the (almost too) perfectly modulated contemporary topics broached in the film, it became one of the favorite topics of online movie discourse in the latter part of the year, even more unexpected considering the lack of build-up to its release and director Todd Field’s absence from the director’s chair for 16 years. Nevertheless, Tár was at the tip of everyone’s tongue for a hot moment. I have to say, though, that much of the discussion that has formed around this movie is of little to no interest to me. Much has been made of how it interfaces with the #metoo movement, depicting as it does an incident that fits right in with any of those examples of power and status being wielded for abuse, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than a simple pro- or anti- stance. Likewise, there’s been reason to approach the diegesis of the film with skepticism, some people postulating that the third act is a fantasy or that one of the background characters is a literal ghost haunting the movie; however, I think that these efforts, as oddly intriguing as they might be, are sort of a dead-end of internet puzzle-solving (it’s no coincidence that Stanley Kubrick, the internet’s favorite director, was a sort of mentor for Field early in his career and remains a clear point of reference). The movie plays a lot more straightforwardly than I think people want to believe—even if some of its referentiality and strategic ellipses do credibly suggest something deeper than what’s onscreen, I have a hard time imagining the film’s meanings suddenly expanding in ways that are not already evident in what’s presented.

Enough of that business, though. Tár is something that has become exceedingly rare in American mainstream filmmaking, a performance showcase bolstered by intelligent, deliberate direction. Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár is a pitch-perfect conveyance of a particular kind of insulated high-culture type: cloyingly agreeable to her more moneyed peers, singularly commanding to her orchestra, exhibiting a swinging-dick kind of intellectual braggadocio in public that curdles into petulant running-up-the-score when her position is challenged by someone she deems of a lower status (see: her dressing-down of the Julliard student). Of course this is all a performance-of-a-performance—Lydia is a fabricated identity of Linda Tarr, an effort to mask whatever perceived handicaps her social class may inhibit her with. The source of the questions of interpretation stems from the film’s largely subjective narrative viewpoint, keying in on Lydia’s POV to chronicle her slow downfall. If there’s something that I do take issue with, it’s in Field’s decision to keep the film almost purely subjective. A little more of a remove from Lydia at certain points would, if not necessarily clarify all the questions the film raises about its own convictions, then display the sharpness of the satire a little more. Aside from that, though, I respect Field’s methodical approach. Most of the film plays out in long, largely static dialogue scenes highlighting Field’s careful, clinical compositional eye as well as the quality of writing and performance. When he does choose to go for formal fireworks, as in the Julliard long take scene, it’s marvelous.

Overall I think I come out on this one a little colder than the consensus, but I still think it’s a tremendous piece of work and find it reassuring that such an intellectually stimulating movie can still find a market today and get this kind of attention.

#9. Top Gun: Maverick (dir. Joseph Kosinski)

Legacy sequels have been all the rage lately as Hollywood has tried to squeeze every ounce of blood from the stone of established IP. Maverick stands as actually one of the first in that trend, with production starting as far back as 2017 but due to extenuating circumstances around the pandemic it hasn’t hit theaters until this past year. And what a hit it was.

Maverick follows the continuing adventures of Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, around thirty years after the conclusion of the first Top Gun. I, along with seemingly almost everyone that holds Maverick in high esteem, have no love for the original film. Tony Scott was a true artist, and he elevated the rote military propaganda material into visual beauty, but the movie, contra it’s leading character, just felt like it played it too by the book. Maverick does too: it hits basically the same beats as the original, albeit with a much stronger ensemble selling it. So why is it so good? Not to besmirch the talents of Tony Scott, but I think Kosinski directs the action of this a lot better than the original. The spectacle is overwhelming, moreso than almost any film this year—cinema is uniquely qualified to convey speed visually, and the sheer speed and force of the technology on display is utterly jaw-dropping, to the point that you would be forgiven for letting the DoD off the hook for funding Hollywood blockbusters (kidding, kidding). I should also add that I saw this in theaters when it came out; I think this played a significant part in my response to the action, as I truly can’t imagine it playing the same if I watched it on the TV in my living room. It’s a movie that needs to be seen big, and Tom Cruise understood that, citing the need to distribute it theatrically as one of the reasons it was so delayed during COVID. His bet paid off too, Maverick was until very recently the highest grossing film of the year and the second highest grossing film of the pandemic era.

Narrative formulas become formulas because they work, and there are few formulas as historically effective as the Hollywood blockbuster formula. Maverick accomplishes it with flying colors, a tremendous mix of action and sentimental drama that ends up as maybe the most purely pleasurable movie of the year. But aside from its technical skill, I think what takes this over the top is the big man himself, Tom Cruise. Maybe this is my own sentimentality coming to play here, but there’s something very stirring about seeing this movie and seeing it succeed. I have no special personal affinity for Cruise as an actor, but I think he represents something that we’ve seen recede over the past decade in Hollywood filmmaking, which is the movie star. I don’t want to turn this into a Marvel screed, that conversation has been had ad nauseum, but I’ll use the Marvel movies as reference here. One of the things that the success of Marvel has done is displace audience affinity away from performers or directors, the people that make the movies, and onto the characters and properties; look no further than the Black Panther sequel grossing over $800 million without the actor who established the title character in the first movie. “Movie stars” as they used to exist are no longer, with the most notable exception of Tom Cruise. In Top Gun, Cruise was a young actor still trying to establish his larger place; in Maverick, Cruise is an icon returning to an old stomping ground, he has a gravity and control that would have been impossible to wield in the earlier film. The metatextual layer to his performance is clear as day, as he embodies not only the fictional role but one looking historically outward, a reflection on his own past as well as the uncertainty of a future of movies without Tom Cruise. There’s certainly downfalls to the star system, and Cruise himself clearly has an enormously narcissistic image of himself as the guy who will save movies, along with a psychotic drive to kill himself doing his own stunts, but I find the ambitions of unchecked actor/producer egos to be far more artistically compelling than the calculations of lawyers and corporate entities.

#8. Benediction (dir. Terence Davies)

Terence Davies is one of the great living filmmakers, and Benediction is his latest work, continuing his recent trend of historical dramas, this time taking the life of the gay British poet Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden in a stunning performance. Davies has made a career out of wringing heartbreak and melancholy from the British condition, taking an autobiographical approach in his Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes, but more recently attending to the lives of others. Sassoon is a natural fit for the director, his life being marked by the trauma of the Great War and his own sexual repression and the regret and alienation that stems from that, though Davies approaches this with a lighter touch than his previous films (though all his films are heavy, I find that the grace of his technique and sensitivity of perspective prevents them from ever really entering into sadistic or miserablist territory). This is without doubt the funniest film Davies has made—the milieu of gay aesthetes naturally lends itself to bitchy teasing and barbed insults, jokes that drip with poison. But this cattiness gradually reveals itself to mask an incredible fear of death and loneliness. One of the most torturous scenes shows one of Sassoon’s lovers, a youth-obsessed actor, finding him decades later and attempting to reconcile the sour note they left on, only to be rebuffed by a wholly unmoved Sassoon. If this scene has the feeling of a sentencing to death, the rest of the older Sassoon’s scenes feel like a prolonged walk to the gallows; the entire weight of a life spent dreadfully, irrevocably unfulfilled appears to almost visibly crush down on Peter Capaldi, playing the poet as an old man. Even so, we come to understand that Sassoon is one of the lucky ones—he found a wife, had a son, and has a celebrated legacy. These things will never be enough to fill the hole inside of him. A lot of his contemporaries won’t come close to that kind of contentment.

Part of what is exciting about Benediction is in the way Davies molds his established style to a new form of digital filmmaking. Few things in life are as sure of a bet as a Terence Davies montage sending chills down your spine, but where they used to be done in the realm of dissolves and coordinated camera movements, in Benediction occur with computer graphics. It’s an evolution on his previous style so that instead of montage playing out on the totality of the image, it’s now separated into different planes, often a static foreground and montage background. The resulting effect is somewhat disorienting at first but profoundly moving, situating the subject (most often Sassoon) against the literal history informing his past and occurring around him. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before in digitally assisted filmmaking, and to come from a 77 year old is nothing short of amazing.

#7. Jackass Forever (dir. Jeff Tremaine)

The funniest movie of the year, and one of the funniest maybe ever? Jackass has meant a lot to me over the years, catching the censored cuts on cable proved to be a formative influence on my sense of humor from middle-to-high school. Hard to find anything funnier than some guys getting hit in the balls in spectacular fashion. So I say with some basic level of authority that Jackass Forever is the best movie of the series. Similar to the legacy sequel thing mentioned above, there was some natural concern that this entry would be a little toned down, what with the crew being older and it having been over a decade since the last movie came out. Reader: it is not toned down. The quality of stunts and jokes is more consistent than it’s ever been, and there are some high highs (the “Silence of the Lambs” bit had me in actual tears the first time I watched this, and it wasn’t the only one). The inability of Bam Margera to participate in this one is certainly regrettable, but what comes through stronger here than ever before and elevates Forever beyond just a simple highlight reel of gags is the tangible feeling of brotherly love that everyone involved has for each other. The new cast members fit like a glove, and everyone here just seems so sincerely happy to be back together, it’s an infectiously joyous energy that really feels like meeting back up with old friends after a long time apart. Very, very few movies can compare to that feeling.

#6. EO (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski)

Another return of an elder statesmen, EO sees the 84 year old Skolimowski making his first film since 2015 and only his fourth film in the past thirty years. I’m unfamiliar with Skolimowski’s prior work or Polish film in general, so I can’t identify how EO fits in, but on its own terms it’s a wholly unique and riveting piece of work. Drawing clear inspiration from Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthasar, EO also follows an eponymous donkey around on an inexplicable sort of odyssey, but where Bresson strove to draw a metaphorical relation between the suffering of an animal and the historical cruelty of mankind, Skolimowski reaches for more abstract aims. This is where it gets difficult to actually write about the film: what EO seems to be attempting is to translate the subjectivity of an animal into cinematic, technological terms. Eo, the donkey, travels across the continent on a series of episodic encounters with different people and situations in a manner that feels like he is dipping in and out of different films—a scene at a highway rest area where the truck driver transporting him is killed by what appears to be a criminal unit leads immediately into a seemingly disgraced priest picking him up and bringing him back to his mother’s chateau in Italy, where a tense argument obliquely suggests some kind of sexual impropriety on the priest’s behalf, possibly with his mother. These glimpses of people are intriguing, but they are an ancillary concern; Eo, unattended at the chateau, just leaves out of the open gate, and the film leaves with him.

Beyond the film’s structural prioritization of the animal’s consciousness and movements, a fascinating bridge is formed between cinematic technology and the representation of a similarly non-human subjectivity. Drone cinematography plays a big part in this, most notably in a terrifying nighttime escape sequence made up of rushing ground-level drone shots and foreboding offscreen gunshots, culminating in a blood-red sky and an ominous 360-degree rotation in the face of a windmill. It’s hard to intellectualize what is happening here, but the same goes for most of the movie, which actively resists intellectualization in favor pure sensory texture. And, as a personal appreciation, the film also resists the parade of abuse and cruelty that many animal-centric films opt for. I’ve grown increasingly squeamish at prolonged animal cruelty in movies, and so I’m glad that Skolimowski is smart enough to realize that fictionally torturing a donkey for ninety minutes is in most cases more effective at immiserating the audience than creating sympathy for the creature, not that sympathy is necessarily a goal of EO. Regardless, it’s one of the most unique and captivating movies of the year.

#5. Avatar: The Way of Water (dir. James Cameron)

Look, I know that it became trendy at some point in the decade-plus since it came out to pretend that Avatar was bad or that nobody gave a shit about it, but there’s no shame in admitting that it was actually good, hence the all-time biggest box office numbers. The Way of Water is the follow up after thirteen years that seemingly nobody was really asking for but that has really taken hold of public imagination in a way that blockbusters haven’t for a long time, and is a staggering improvement over the first film in almost every way. Yes, it is pretty much a rehash of the first movie’s story, except instead of a human acclimating to the world of Na’vi it’s a family of Na’vi acclimating to a different tribe. Part of why it succeeds so much though is because James Cameron is one of the great Hollywood guys. He’s been knocking out classic blockbusters since Aliens in 1986, if anyone knows how to hit this formula with utter perfection, it’s Cameron. Nothing here is anything you haven’t seen before, but the mix of committed performances, classical editing, and sure-handed direction take the strong bones of the screenplay into an eminently enjoyable product for the entire gargantuan runtime. Describing it this way does it a disservice, though; this is not just an exercise in competent craftsmanship. The entire middle passage of the film is a virtually plotless stretch of one visually stunning tableau after another, where the Sully family tries to learn the way of water, make friends with whales, get into fights with bullying teens, and generally just vibe out in the ocean. It’s easy for attention to wander through these stretches—this is a feature, not a bug. And it’s followed by a jaw-dropping extended action climax of unbelievable carnage, arguably the thing Cameron is better at than anyone in Hollywood today, that also ties together the film’s main emotional and dramatic threads in a way that only someone that’s perfected this kind of thing could do.

Now, the one thing that you have certainly not seen before are the images themselves. On top of being the uber-capable Hollywood auteur that he is, Cameron is also one of the most experimental, visionary technicians we’ve ever seen. Avatar created new boundaries for digital filmmaking in 2009 that the industry has largely failed to meet; most big budget Hollywood filmmaking these days is done in front of green screens and in computer labs, but even with over a decade since it came out you would be very hard pressed to find any CGI that looks nearly as good as Avatar does (this is mostly because of the obscene amounts of time and money afforded to that project that your quarterly tentpole films simply are not afforded, but it’s also because, as mentioned above, Cameron is a real deal director that understands filmmaking and how to translate cinematic techniques into a nontangible mode). The Way of Water is, at this point, just lapping the field. I think there’s a valid perspective that all these resources are being spent to create a facsimile of a world when the real world is just right there, but I also think that if someone has the ambition and means to build a fictional world pixel by pixel, then there’s no harm in letting them take that crack. The Way of Water simply disintegrates the uncanny valley—quite frequently, I was thinking about how every computerized critter and person looks so startlingly real, that their faces are so seamlessly emotive and the environment is so naturally reactive to their presence, that this basically constitutes a man-made miracle.

One of the main reactions to the announcement of the Avatar sequels was a sort of confusion. The first movie was so singular, it wrapped itself up neatly and seemed to only exist at its own time. I think our general perception has been warped by the method of Hollywood production since then, with a focus on franchise-building and IP development over making a big stand alone feature, that to return to a movie that seemed to start and stop without any of the suggestions of franchising was totally unnecessary. To which I would say: yeah, maybe! We don’t need four sequels to Avatar, but we also don’t need movies in general. I once was a skeptic, but am now a believer in Cameron’s bizarre ambitions, and I plan to watch the rest of these movies in IMAX 3D as soon as they come out.

#4. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

I already wrote about this when I first saw it earlier in the year, so I’m not going to rehash everything about it. The short and long of it is that it hasn’t diminished at all in my view since then, and it hasn’t been far from my thoughts over the past year. As far as contemporary depictions of alienation are concerned, I think very little can compare to the particular kind of Internet-induced loneliness this explores, the deeply complex play between performance and reality that comes to take over the lives of those who live primarily through the mediation of a screen to such an extent that they don’t even realize how deep they are. I’m very excited for Schoenbrun’s next film.

#3. Crimes of the Future (dir. David Cronenberg)

As should be obvious at this point if you’ve read some of what I’ve written here, I’m an easy mark for Cronenberg. He’s simply the best. The news of a new feature after eight years away was understandably the source of a lot of personal excitement, but at a certain point I started getting worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment, that Crimes would never be able to meet the enlarged expectations I had developed for it (a Cannes premiere that was positive but not the sensation I was hoping for got me more anxious than I would care to admit). I was, of course, a fool to doubt the master—not only did Crimes meet my expectations, it surpassed them in ways that I never anticipated it could, and stands not only as one of the best of the year but as a late highlight in Cronenberg’s career.

Much like Tár, Crimes of the Future is stealthily one of the funniest movies of the year. Cronenberg is making his return to some of the genre sandbox that he started out in and helped establish, as has been arguably the most publicized element of the film, but he’s doing so in a more arch, stylized way, less concerned with wringing the horror out of the scenario of bodily mutilation and biological evolution that he’s drawn up (and has done plenty of times to this point), more focused on letting these ideas play out onscreen in the fusion of image and discourse that has come to define Cronenberg’s style. A man who has surgically added ears all over his body and sewed his eyes shut is not so much spectacle himself as he is a jumping off point for a discussion on artistic performance, what’s the difference between art made opportunistically to chase trends and art made for the sake of art. As could be gleaned from this point, Crimes is also Cronenberg’s most personally reflective film. In the past his presence has been relegated to abstractions, but this is a movie about an artist at a crossroads late in his personal and professional life amid a changing contemporary landscape, and specifically what the artist in question feels he needs to do to feel like he still is doing something worthwhile. There have been a lot of premier “late style” films in recent years as some of our greatest living directors have entered firmly into old age territory, but Crimes is one of the greatest of that group, and one of the best depictions of being an old artist that I can remember seeing.

This self-reflective side of the movie is only one aspect of a very complex film, with a lot to say about politics, social repression, gender and sex, performance, ecology, evolution and technology, etc. Summaries would do it no good, and having only seen it once back when it hit theaters in the summer, I’m just not equipped to get into all the juicy details. But it’s something that I’ve thought about all year, and I can only imagine that it will only get better with age.

#1b. The Novelist’s Film (dir. Hong Sang-Soo)

I know this is a cop out, but I do have a genuinely hard time choosing between these top two movies, so I’m going to let them share the title. First up: Hong Sang-Soo is one of the biggest discoveries for me in the past year of watching movies. He’s been directing since the late ’90s, and has recently reached new prolific heights in the past decade, averaging almost two movies per year (a new one has already been announced to premiere at Berlinale in February). Having seen a sizable amount of those, I’d also wager that this is the highest quality stretch that Hong has put together, including some of my all time favorite movies, but this is where a discussion of any individual Hong film gets kind of tricky. You could pull a scene from two different Hong movies, they could be years apart from each other, and beyond some superficial qualities you would be forgiven for assuming they were from the same movie. Hong is in the midst of developing a 25 year long project of stylistic rigor where cinematic elements, actors, and story beats have become so uniform that they essentially constitute one long, single piece. Much of the pleasure of watching a new Hong movie comes from confronting the variations: they are almost all light dramedies of contemporary Korean artist-types; they will all feature romantic mishaps, bumbling asshole men, MANY long conversations held over food and alcohol, and scenes that generally unfold in single takes. It’s the small things that make them distinct, a zoom here, a reversal of POV there, a tonal shift where one wasn’t expected, and so on. What seems unremarkable to someone that is maybe starting out on Hong might be of seismic significance to someone that has seen a dozen of his films.

So with that said, there’s not a lot I can really offer here about The Novelist’s Film that will highlight what makes it special. Hong is teaming back up with the always excellent Kim Min-Hee along with his newest muse Lee Hye-Young (Kwon Hae-Hyo fans: don’t worry) who plays a novelist that is just kind of moving around and meeting some new and old acquaintances. She meets an actress (Kim) and gets an idea to make a short little movie with her to try and rejuvenate what she perceives to be her deflating creative senses. Not much more than that happens, but what we get is maybe the most purely graceful Hong has ever been. A lot of his prior works are marked by a certain cynical outlook—they were about men reminiscent in some ways of Hong himself and they often ended with them realizing they knew nothing about themselves or the world around them or, if Hong was feeling even less charitable, they would still be ignorant of their own ignorance—but here we see Hong softening up more than I would say he ever has. Part of what’s interesting about assessing Hong’s body of work is how easy it is to read his own personal outlooks into it; for example, 2017–18 (a timeframe including 5 features) sees some of his bleakest and most pessimistic films come out, and any small amount of digging will make it obvious as to why that is—this is when the media coverage of his affair with Kim Min-Hee and battle for divorce really dominated his life. Due to how off-the-cuff they are, every one of his movies is a sort of heat check on how Hong is feeling at that time in his life, and The Novelist’s Film suggests a deep peace and satisfaction with his current state, most of all a tremendous amount of love for Kim. The eponymous film-within-the-film is one of the great moments of Hong’s entire career: a short handheld walk through the park in beautiful color (contrasted to the black and white of the rest of the film) with Kim picking flowers off the ground, and a whispered “I love you” from behind the camera. A profound realization seems to have come to Hong that great art, or even just personal contentment, does not need to arise from imposing a sense of purpose and structure onto the world, that simply existing in its beauty and with those you care about is all that’s needed.

#1a. The Fabelmans (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I don’t know why, but I always feel the need to preface my adulation for this movie with the disclaimer that I am not a crazy huge fan of Spielberg (though I also qualify that qualification with saying that I haven’t seen most of what’s considered his best stuff). Obviously it’s impossible to love this art form and not respect Spielberg’s mastery of it, but beyond that kind of technical appreciation I’ve found myself unmoved by a lot of what he’s made. Even as recently as last year, West Side Story was a handsome if mostly unnecessary exercise that didn’t fully click, even as I saw a lot of people I follow online singing its praises. Hearing word that he was making an autobiographical movie about how he started making movies, I was naturally interested and excited, but I didn’t know what to expect from it. What I ended up seeing was one of the most complex, brutally ambivalent dissections of the will to moviemaking that I’ve ever seen.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think many people have really figured out how to process Fabelmans. Most have seemed to settle on it being a “love letter to the movies,” that vomit-inducing phrase, and the marketing has emphasized that perspective (Michelle Williams’s terrible line reading of “Movies are dreams!” is going to forever be burned into my brain). The movie opens how one would expect in that case, as the young Sam Fabelman is taken to the cinemas and is extremely shaken by the train crash he sees onscreen in what would end up as a formative experience for the future director. From there, Sam undergoes an on-and-off infatuation with filmmaking that becomes relentlessly knotted up in his fears and desires, subdued psychosexual impulses, Jewish-American anxieties, and most of all a need to control the elements of the world that are normally out of his reach, amid the foreground of a collapsing marriage between his parents. This all sounds like the makings of a heavier, more unsettling film, but the classic bildungsroman template that encases it adds an unexpectedly Brechtian element to the workings that would not be out of character in one of the great Douglas Sirk melodramas, John Ford westerns, or, maybe most directly, Brian de Palma thrillers.

Much like Cronenberg, I’ve made my admiration of de Palma known in this space—of that circle of New Hollywood directors, of which Spielberg was included, de Palma fascinates me the most. And, as antithetical as their outlooks appear to be, this is Spielberg’s most de Palma-esque film: even excluding the centerpiece scene of Sam editing his family camping movie that pays obvious homage to Blow Out, The Fabelmans is obsessively occupied with the mechanics of filmmaking as a series of constructed perspectives, and it’s particularly concerned with those acts of construction. We get some scenes of adolescent Sam (I should add, played by Gabriel LaBelle in a shockingly impressive performance) fooling around with his friends and making movies, where we’re witness to the genius of young Spielberg’s directing intuition in how he simulates grenade explosions, gunshots, blood spray, etc. More interestingly, though, we get scenes of the unintended/unconscious effects of turning the artistic eye towards recording reality, and how reality can be warped by that act of perception. The camping movie is where Sam becomes aware of his mother’s infidelity, glimpses in the backgrounds of shots of her and Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen) stealing kisses and getting a little too close for ‘just friends’. He finishes the movie anyway, and leaves those details out of the final cut; nobody is any the wiser until he confronts his mother about it. Even more interesting than that is the prom scene: Sam is tasked with recording the senior beach party at his school, where he makes a movie to show the class out of a lot of shots of his antisemitic bullies, the school athletes and hotshots, looking alternatively pathetic and heroic. In the latter’s case, the bully in question, Logan, is struck by a deep confusion at seeing his representation onscreen, essentially a god created by a kid that he’s spent a lot of time making miserable, and confronts Sam in the hallway afterwards, asking him “Why did you make me look like that?” Sam responds that he doesn’t know why, he just knew it would make for a better movie. There’s a lot to unpack within their interaction and the movie that inspires it (not least of which being how it seems to recall Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Olympia) but key to it is the unsettling, vaguely sinister idea that the person behind the camera can control what the world will see you as. There’s much ado in the film about the burdens of the artist in revealing truth to those around them, but what Spielberg understands is that this truth will never be unmediated, what we might consider to be “truth” in art is an extreme act of manipulation. That understanding is tremendous and scary, and it keeps Sam forever at a distance from his loved ones (make no mistake: despite the cheeky final scene and all the historical implications contained within, this movie does not resolve with a happy ending).

So Spielberg made a movie about how making movies is a perverse exercise in control and that the life of an artist is one that will never reach spiritual fulfillment out of necessity. It’s also the first movie I’ve watched in a long, long time that has stoked the flame in me and really renewed my passion to try and make movies. Watching this had me actively thinking about making plans to move out to Los Angeles and get into Hollywood, I don’t know if anything has ever struck that kind of chord with me (maybe the aforementioned Blow Out, coincidentally enough, but that would have been more of a “wow this is awesome I want to do this” type of impulse than anything deeper). Is this maybe the wrong takeaway to have from the movie I described above? I don’t think Spielberg is trying to discourage anyone from making movies but he’s being honest about the ambivalence that comes with it, follow at your own risk, more or less. If it doesn’t speak to you, I get it. It hit me in a way like nothing else this year.



Jake Dihel

recreationally writing about movies and other media