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Friday, December 08, 2023
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The 2022 movie showdown

Hard-hitting critical analysis of recent films. Not.

I went through films released this year, found spurious connections between them and pitted them against each other. Let’s go.

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ vs. ‘The Menu’: Weird, existentialist food

Without spoiling anything, I think it’s safe to say that “The Menu” has a wide array of eclectic dishes — with an increasingly abstract definition of what counts as a meal. Each dish is made with care by master chef Ralph Fiennes (whose character name I didn’t bother to look up) and his militant kitchen of assistants. However, the dinner is less of a gig for Fiennes and more of an existential crisis. Throughout the evening, the food prompts chef and guests alike to ponder the unique significance of food, the consequences of complete dedication to one’s craft and their own mortality.

An impressively profound meal, for sure. But can any of it compare with “Everything Everywhere All At Once?” 

Let me answer that question with a question. Have you ever had a so-called everything bagel and thought, “There just aren’t enough toppings here?” If so, you’re in luck because “Everything Everywhere All At Once” has an actual everything bagel. That’s right: a bagel with everything in the universe on it. Except because it has everything in the universe on it, it’s causing the universe to collapse in on itself.

The bagel represents the dark side of nihilism: the crushing weight of the fact that nothing matters, there’s no meaning to anything and we might as well all just get sucked into some cosmic poppy seeds. The only way to stop the bagel, as it turns out, is positive nihilism: Because nothing matters, we can create our own meaning about anything. We can care about whatever we want to care about. We can realize that poppy seeds just aren’t that good. Heavy stuff for a bagel.

Ultimately, I have to give “Everything Everywhere All At Once” the nod. It’s hard to compare with literally everything, after all.

Here’s a discussion question for the class: How would Ralph Fiennes (okay fine, Julian Slowik, I looked it up) react to the everything bagel? His whole shtick is creating food that reveals profound truths about the world. Would it reinvigorate him with passion for his craft? Destroy his self-esteem and cause him to quit his job forever? Stop his existential crisis? Accelerate it? Food for thought.

See what I did there?

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ vs. ‘The Northman’: Shirtless men

I’m going to say it: Miles Teller is overhyped. I know, I know. I can hear you asking why I would say something so controversial yet so brave.

To be fair, I am not the target audience. But as far as white boys of the month — or, in Miles’ case, possibly the year — go, we as a culture can do much better. He’s an eight, at best. There are rumors of him being frustrating or downright hostile to work with on set. And that mustache looks like one of the fake adhesive ones I thought were the funniest things in the world when I was nine years old.

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In Teller’s defense, he has delivered some good performances. He was great in “Whiplash,” in “The Spectacular Now” (which you haven’t seen but you should) and, of course, as himself in “Project X.” But if acting prowess were the criterion here, I’d be seeing a lot more TikTok thirst traps of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Compare Teller’s beach football to Robert Eggers’ Viking epic “The Northman.” It has murder. It has revenge. It has stunning cinematography, beautiful settings and historically accurate guttural chanting. It even has a delightfully weird performance from Nicole Kidman of AMC ad fame. 

But, most importantly for our purposes, it follows a frequently shirtless Alexander Skarsgård as he pillages his way through Europe to avenge his father’s death, culminating in a naked swordfight on top of an active volcano. It’s a brutal, testosterone-filled look at what “Revenge of the Sith” might have been if George Lucas had read “Macbeth” instead of “Dune.” It doesn’t get better than that.

Honorable shirtless mention goes to this year’s “Bros” for a profoundly awkward sex scene. And there’s still another entry in this category I’ve omitted. But to sustain my love for Taika Waititi, I’m going to pretend “Thor: Love and Thunder” didn’t happen.

‘Do Revenge’ vs. ‘Honor Society’: Twisty teen revenge flicks co-starring an actor from 'Stranger Things'

This is a tough matchup, because the more I think about it, the more I realize that these are basically the same movie. There’s a very real chance that the two get remembered as so-called “twin films” like “The Truman Show” and “Ed TV,” “The Prestige” and “The Illusionist” and “Despicable Me” and “Megamind” (of which the clear showdown winners are “The Truman Show,” “The Prestige” and “Megamind,” respectively).

When it comes to tone and style, the two films have the same philosophy: female-led, scheme-filled teen movies with an edge. Each one feels like someone took a Disney Channel original and added just a couple pinches of sex, drugs and queer representation. Both films are equally fun as they argue that sometimes women’s rights are less important than women’s wrongs.

But what about our beloved “Stranger Things” actors? Maya Hawke and Gaten Matarazzo each shine in their roles as they remind us that nerds can be morally ambiguous too. Although I can’t help but think that both films could be much more easily resolved with a well-timed bone-snapping sacrifice to Vecna. That’s my kind of revenge, at least.

That leaves us with the twists. Here, I have to give the edge to “Honor Society.” “Do Revenge,” while entertaining, feels somewhat disjointed at times, and the tonal shifts aren’t always as compelling as they could be. “Honor Society,” on the other hand, flows like butter throughout. Even though I had the major twist spoiled for me, the ride was well worth blowing my seven-day Paramount+ trial.

On the flip side, “Do Revenge” wins best line delivery of the year for Sophie Turner informing us that she does not, in fact, do cocaine.

“Men” vs. “Bodies Bodies Bodies”: Gaslighting

Forget “Halloween” or “Hereditary.” Horror films “Men” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies” recognize that the real horror in today’s society is rampant gaslighting, specifically by men. Pete Davidson’s character in “Bodies Bodies Bodies” argues that the word “gaslighting” is used so much that it’s lost all meaning. But maybe it’s used so much because it happens so much. Luckily, both films offer a viable solution to male gaslighting: deadly violence.

“Bodies Bodies Bodies” is a great movie, as I detailed in my recent review (read it, why don’t you?). But when people die in the hurricane party mansion, they stay dead. Is there a man gaslighting you? Just smash his head in with a kettlebell weight or push him down the stairs and he’s gone.

In “Men,” however, the men just keep coming. Get rid of one and you get harassed by another, each time bearing the face of Rory Kinnear. All you did is go from being gaslit by a police officer to being gaslit by a vicar, a mini-incel or a monstrosity that takes the form of your dead husband.

When it comes to the raw volume of gaslighting, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and “Men” are evenly matched. But when we consider interminability, “Men” has the clear advantage. Just don’t ask Alex Garland what any of it means, because he won’t tell you.

“Nope” vs. “Everything Everywhere All At Once”: Big black Holes consuming stuff

Yes, I’m talking about the everything bagel again. Daniels are geniuses, okay? 

It’s hard to write anything here without it sounding like a sexual innuendo. The words “suck” and “hole” will do that to you. But let’s talk about the relative creativity of each film’s signature suck hole.

I’ve covered the suck hole of "Everything Everywhere All At Once" already. It’s definitely creative. When you think about it, though, there are some holes in the whole hole logic. Why exactly is the bagel sucking things? Any bagel enthusiast worth their salt will tell you that the toppings go on top of the bagel, not in the hole in the middle. If it truly is an everything bagel, then the everything that it sucks should go on the whole bagel, not through the bagel hole.

The suck hole in "Nope" is much more mysterious. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s … a mouth? While more restrictive in its sucking than the bagel — it can only digest organic matter — I’d argue that the sucking in “Nope” is more creative. Jordan Peele delivers a delightfully bizarre alien life form that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen. So even though the suck hole in “Nope” sucks less than the suck hole in “Everything Everywhere All At Once” on the whole, I’m inclined to say that the suck hole in “Nope” sucks a little less than the suck hole in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” But neither suck hole sucks, because they both suck so much.

“Bullet Train” vs. “RRR”: Stylized action, Asian setting, venomous snakes, bromance

“RRR” has cooler action, cooler set pieces, cooler snakes and the best bromance of the year. Next category.

“Turning Red” vs. “Three Thousand Years of Longing”: Humans morphing into larger, less human beings

If you squint hard enough, these movies are two sides of the same coin. “Turning Red” tells the story of a child reaching a crucial step in the path to adulthood, whether or not you see it as the blatant menstrual allegory it is. “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a somewhat fairytale look at older characters’ yearning for the passions of days past. But the films are also two sides of a more Kafkaesque coin, which proves to be the ruin of many a piece of furniture.

Despite disappointing viewers who wanted a children’s movie about pubescent K-pop stans to talk about 9/11, “Turning Red” is a solid entry into the Pixar canon. It’s a heartwarming story about a 13-year-old girl’s journey to self-acceptance after realizing that strong emotions cause her to turn into a giant red panda. You know, everyday stuff.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a much more difficult movie to pitch. My best description is that it feels like a bedtime story for adults, wherein an ancient genie recounts his life to the skeptical scholar who inadvertently released him from his bottle. That’s not the follow-up I expected from the director of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but both films are united by George Miller’s clear love for expansive set pieces and for the power of visual storytelling. The film is dreamy, smooth and a non-stop pleasure to look at. If not for my desensitization from years of listening to ASMR videos while doing homework, I might have fallen asleep in the theater. But somehow that’s a compliment.

It’s hard to compare a fuzzy red panda to a millennia-old djinn. What are we measuring? Size? Cuteness? Capacity for destruction? But when we consider how integral each one is to their film’s respective plot, there’s a clear winner. 

When the massive djinn is first released from the bottle in “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” he’s comically squished within a hotel room. But it doesn’t end up signifying anything beyond Miller’s love for CGI. The djinn soon shrinks down to a more manageable size and spends the rest of the film just looking like Idris Elba. 

In “Turning Red,” however, Meilin’s frequent transformations are kind of the whole point. Turning into a panda means growing up, coming to terms with who she is and figuring out how to find a harmonious relationship with her family. Meilin’s life as a panda is representative of universal struggles that teenagers face: feeling out of place in their own body, among their peers and in the world around them. So the point goes to “Turning Red” for more fully utilizing the concept of metamorphosis.

I suppose “Men” fits into this category as well. Let’s not get into that.

“The Batman” vs. “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”: Songs from iconic rock bands

I’ll finish things off with two of the biggest movies of the year.

Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” showed us what a truly great superhero film can look like in the age of extreme superhero saturation. Reeves deconstructs the figure of Batman while also returning the character to his hard-boiled comic roots. The film blends a compelling crime story, evocative cinematography and worldbuilding and meditations on what it means to be a hero, creating quite possibly the best iteration of Batman to date.

Meanwhile, we have Rian Johnson, who revitalized the mystery genre with his 2019 hit “Knives Out.” Now, the master expectation-subverter is back with a sequel that isn’t quite as good but remains solidly entertaining. Trading an autumnal New England aesthetic for an early summer on a billionaire’s private island, “Glass Onion” allows its terrific cast and intricate murder plot to outshine some pacing and structural issues.

But we’re not here for actual criticism. Let’s get to the rock music.

Just as “Knives Out” shares its title with a Radiohead song, “Glass Onion” borrows a metaphor from the Beatles’ “White Album.” It’s a perfect title, really: you immediately know what it means, especially if you’ve seen Daniel Craig’s Oscar-worthy doughnut hole monologue from the original film. There might be a lot of layers to the plot, but ultimately, it’s transparent and can be smashed through with one fell swoop.

Here’s the thing, though: the song doesn’t show up until the credits. It’s a good metaphor, but the song usage amounts to little more than the Leonardo DiCaprio finger-pointing meme (or, if you prefer, the Ron Howard Arrested Development line) when you realize “Hey, that’s the name of the movie!”

“The Batman,” on the other hand, had “Something In The Way” by Nirvana in the trailer before the movie was even released. The song choice has already primed you for Robert Pattinson’s emo version of Batman by the time you walk into the theater. He’s moody. His hair is a mess. He broods in corners. He wears dark eyeliner. Does he even talk to a woman the entire film? Besides Catwoman, that is. I value two hours and 56 minutes of my life more than I do figuring that out, so I’m going to leave that as a rhetorical question. But my point stands: “Something In The Way” is perfect for Reeves’ film.

Wrapping Up

That concludes this year’s showdown. And surprise: This whole article was actually just a mass movie recommendation. All of these movies are great, and you should watch them. You won't be disappointed, unless you hate fun, cinematic brilliance and shirtless men.

If you just can’t get enough movie takes, feel free to follow me on Letterboxd @goplayoutside. And with that shameless plug out of the way, that’s all I’ve got. Happy holidays, and happy viewing. 

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