The year 2022 comes to an end displaying multiple celebrations of filmmaking, with Oscar winning directors taking surreal, warm, fanciful, and hedonistic looks at their profession.
At the top of his field in terms of previous successes, Steven Spielberg celebrates his roots in The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical look how movies open a world beyond middle class mundanity for one young boy. Capturing family conflicts and connections—a skill he previously demonstrated in E.T. and other films—Spielberg shows no doubts about the unifying force and power of film. Exploring many issues common to families, The Fabelmans feels grounded and low key, likeable, connectable, and easy to grasp.
Fond feelings surround the purveyor of movies when American Beauty’s Sam Mendes makes a theater the title character in Empire of Light. Set in the 1980s when elegant movie houses still existed, Mendes lets the setting bring together a small group of people who deal with different issues and conflicts ranging from racism to mental illness. Biting off more than needs chewing, Mendes holds it together with a superb cast headed by Olivia Coleman. Coleman’s warm smile and nuance of expressions generate a complex woman full of surprises. Though writer/director Mendes boasts plenty of successes as a filmmaker himself, he pulls from other aspects of his past, only marginally touching how movies might change someone’s life.
In contrast, Birdman’s Alejandro González Iñárritu finds a downside to making movies, torn about honors bestowed by the film world in Bardo which he subtitles A False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Using a documentary filmmaker as his narrative stand-in, Iñárritu sees opportunity to both revel and abhor the international spotlight brought on by awards and recognition. A bit of the “poor me, I’m rich, famous, and talented” attitude sets in, mitigated by valid questions and explorations of serious issues. These include his sense of heritage after damaging his roots in Mexico and feeling unable to solidly grow new ones anywhere else. A nightmarish discussion with conqueror Hernán Cortés atop a
mountain of bones cleverly solidifies Iñárritu’s inventive quest to resolve unresolvable issues.
Elements of self-questioning and justification creep into Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a name synonymous with many eras including the early days of Hollywood. Extended and exuberant orgy scenes plus a descent into a hellish labyrinth set the tone, though ultimately, the La La Land director insists on the importance and relevance of movies by (justifiably) using Singing in the Rain as an example of cinematic glory. Rather than love letter to Singing in the Rain or any other specific movie, Babylon feels like someone’s crazed dream that might justify a therapy session or two. Vivid, colorful, striking, and fascinating with massive sets, ear grabbing music, and front-line stars like Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, Babylon goes all out with top quality production,
All three films showcase directorial flair and visual superiority and ultimately reach a similar conclusion: movies inspire, frustrate, fascinate and dominate. And out there somewhere now, another movie will push yet another kid on to making one critics get to review in years to come.