4 of the Most Disappointing Movies of 2022 Are Nominated for Best Picture Oscars (Plus My Personal List of Best Movies of the Year)
One is terrible, two are meh, and one never lives up to its pedigreed potential.
Peanuts character Charlie Brown said it best: “In all this world, there is no heavier burden than great potential.” Each year hundreds of movies are released and audiences are aglow with anticipation of watching stories that illuminate, uplift, or just thrill us. (Just ask Nicole Kidman.) Few succeed in living up to that burdensome potential—a potential fueled by enthusiastic trailers that promise more than most films deliver. And yet, a handful manage to rise to the top by balancing insight and entertainment, intellect and emotion, technical skill with soulful will. Those are the movies the Academy Award is tasked with nominating for Best Picture of the year.
But the reality is that the Academy is an organization of people in the movie business and the Oscars are a major tool in promoting movies around the world. For mid-budget movies, a nomination can be worth an extra $20 million and a win could add another $10 million (“How Much Is That Oscar Gold Actually Worth?”). Voters have a financial or friendship interest in which movies win and that can affect their voting. A big-budget movie employs hundreds of members of the Academy, so its success can create more jobs. That’s the only explanation for why some of the films on the list were nominated this year.
You’ll notice that my title says “disappointing movies” not “bad movies.” Only one of the nominations was actually bad. The other three on my list weren’t bad, they were just misfires that tried to take a giant leap for moviekind, but only managed one small step before stumbling. Sadly, that’s 40% of the Best Picture nominations that don’t deserve to be on the list.
I love movies of almost every genre. It doesn’t take much to get on my good side because I go into every opening credit with a childlike faith that movie will be good. Even when all the reviews pan it, I still hold out hope it will be good. And if that movie is just okay, that’s often good enough for me. I’m satisfied. But when it comes time to measure the best movies that we are able to produce—the Best Picture of the Year—my expectations rise and the criteria is more exacting.
After I discuss the disappointing nominations of this year, I’ll leave you with a brief list of the movies I most enjoyed and which one I think should win as Best Picture.
Full disclosure: Top Gun: Maverick is not on my list of disappointing movies because it didn’t disappoint. But I also don’t think it deserved to be nominated because it’s basically a really good popcorn movie that doesn’t strive to be anything more. I’d watch it again before any of the movies on my “disappointing” list, but we shouldn’t pretend that just because a movie was fun and exciting, it’s a Best Picture. That distinction should be reserved for movies that at least try to offer insight and depth. To misquote poet Robert Browning, our reach should exceed our grasp, Or what's a Best Picture Oscar for?
Also, I haven’t yet seen Triangle of Sadness, so I have no opinion on the movie.
Avatar 2: The Way of Water
(I originally commented on this movie in my Dec. 14, 2022 Substack.)
Avatar: The Way of the Water is like looking at the most beautiful gowns ever made—but hanging lifelessly on a wire hanger in a .99 store. I wanted to like the movie—I really did—because I have to be committed in order to sit in those small movie seats with my legs crunched up for over three hours! Unfortunately, my knees did not forgive me.
When the first thing most people talk about is the special effects, then you know something went terribly wrong. We can praise the innovative techniques all we want, but that is no replacement for the barrenness of the story, the thinness of the characters, and the blandness of the dialogue.
Director and co-writer James Cameron’s sequel to Avatar (2009) was thirteen years in the making, but already feels dated. We can start with the most obvious: it’s an hour too long. I say this as a moviegoer who likes long films (sorry, knees), but only if the story justifies the length. This one does not. Most of the scenes showing the family assimilating to life with the water tribe are boring and unnecessary. They didn’t have to be, but they are because the film cares more about wowing us with visual effects then giving us characters that aren’t stereotypes.
I like stories that blend genres, but this doesn’t blend so much as jump around with no transitions. It’s an action film, then a teen dramedy, then Jaws, then a pseudo-spiritual/environmental lesson (spoiler: We’re all connected to Nature), then an homage to Titanic. Yes, all this could have been mixed together to create something wondrous, but sadly it just goes through the motions, like a Valentine Day dinner for a couple wanting to break up.
There’s an old-fashioned ‘50s vibe to the plot. Mostly, the men are strong, silent, and manly, the women emotional and spiritual. Dads bond with sons, mothers with daughters. Most of the conflicts result from the children disobeying the parents—again and again. The dialogue, the plot, and the characters are all woefully predictable. I had more of an emotional reaction to Thing being injured in Wednesday than to anyone in Avatar.
Be prepared for three hours of eye-rolling and head-shaking.
There are some movies that, as you’re watching, you keep thinking, “I should really be liking this more than I do.” The acting is excellent, the subject matter interesting, the characters bold. And yet…
After all, Tár was selected Best Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, London Film Critics' Circle, and the National Society of Film Critics. It was selected as Best Picture of the Year by more critics than any other film released in 2022. It must be good, right?
And yet, Tár is unbearably bland, pretentious, and a bit smug about its own self-importance. While it feigns deep insight into the dark psyche of the artist—chief conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett)—it’s actually mostly soap-opera melodrama. Despite Tár’s passion for conducting and her tremendous success, she is intellectually and emotionally shallow, a sexual predator, and morally compromised. As such, I’m watching two and a half hours about someone I don’t care about go through an inevitable and predictable fall that echoes numerous movies before it. She’s basically a less interesting version of Mad Men’s philandering, work-obsessed Don Draper.
The typical defense of such movies is that we aren’t supposed to like the protagonist—that’s the point. I agree. There are many great movies about characters who are unlikable. The difference is, we must be compelled by their journey, despite their flaws. Usually, that means there is some sort of redemptive quality that makes us root for them to change. Or we are just fascinated by the originality in which their story is presented (A Clockwork Orange, Joker).
Here are some excellent movies about music and art that have depth and are riveting: Whiplash, Five Easy Pieces, Grace of My Heart, and Nashville. Three of them feature unlikable, selfish protagonists, yet they are compelling.
I do enjoy stories that explore the significance of art in shaping society and in inspiring individuals. I also like stories that explore the struggles artists go through finding their voice and their audience. But this movie is not that story. It is a Brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in another bird’s nest so the foster birds can raise it. Tár creates the impression that it’s got important themes and artistic weight, but in reality, the audience is providing all that because they’ve been tricked by the shiny egg-like appearance.
I may not have Nicole Kidman explaining why we come to the movies, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t subscribe.
(I originally commented on this movie in my July 6, 2022 Substack.)
I feel about Elvis the way I feel about most biopics of musicians: it will do until a good one comes along. That’s because these movies often are so rigidly formulaic that it’s like going on a blind date that turns out to be someone you dated once in high school 20 years ago—and they haven’t changed a bit. You already know everything they’re going to say—every joke, every anecdote, every everything. And the only reason you stay is that the band playing on stage is really good.
That’s the movie Elvis. The only reason to stay is the vibrant and energetic music. When Elvis sings, the movie bursts into glorious technicolor. The rest of the time: black-and-white meh. Basically, the movie is nothing more than a bland delivery system for the tasty soundtrack, like a gallon of white rice with only a couple tablespoons of delicious curry tikka floating on top.
Musical biopics generally fall into two categories: those that end tragically (The Doors, Bohemian Rhapsody, Judy, Sweet Dreams, La Bamba) or those that end in redemption (Rocket Man, Jersey Boys, I Walk the Line). Movie-makers prefer the tragic endings because there’s built-in pathos: They died young because they were chewed up and spit up by their own ambition and the soulless vampires in show business.
Director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom) is known for his elaborate musical productions and creative visuals but in Elvis much of that creativity is like bedazzling sweat socks with sequins. The effect is to call more attention to what’s missing: substance, developed characters, earned emotion. Ironically, Luhrmann also directed The Great Gatsby, which he desperately tries to cross-pollinate Elvis with. Instead, all he does is dress up a skeleton script in The Great Gatsby themes, march it through three acts, and claim the gravitas of illuminating the dark side of The American Dream.
Nope. The lights are still out.
A major creative mistake was to tell the story from the point of view of Elvis’s corrupt manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Hanks is a terrific actor who never fails to deliver a first-rate performance. It’s not his fault that having his huckster character as the narrator means we have to listen to the pontifications of a character without wit, humor, intelligence, or insight. He is merely the embodiment of capitalistic venality at its worst. Yes, he made a fortune exploiting an impressionable Elvis, but that doesn’t make him interesting.
The biggest mistake was to treat Elvis’s story like a generic one-size-fits-all tale. Their determination to hit every music biopic trope left no room for the individual—or the artist—that was Elvis. Instead we get a bland carny’s pitch: Watch the movie. Buy the soundtrack. Get the t-shirt.
Elvis deserved better. He helped bring Black music to White audiences which, though there was definite cultural appropriation happening, still helped lift Black recording artists to popularity with White audiences. Sun Records, which was Elvis’s first major recording label, was founded by Sam Phillips for the purpose of exposing America to Black artists playing rhythm and blues (code for Black music). To keep Sun Records afloat, he added White performers like Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. Without Sun Records and Elvis whetting the appetites of mainstream youth, Motown Records and Marvin Gaye might not have been as successful.
I’m not a rabid Elvis fan. I like some of his songs. I appreciate what he did for rock ‘n’ roll. I understand his enormous influence on pop culture. Thanks to Elvis getting his polio vaccine on camera, millions of hesitant teenagers chose to also get vaccinated. He broke new ground and released a lot of pent-up teen angst into the atmosphere. He paved the way for the Beatles and all that followed.
I mourn an enormous talent lost too soon (he was 42). I also mourn that his story wasn’t told better. They definitely had the right actor: Austin Butler is amazing. His performance is nuanced, riveting, and joyful. But he’s pedaling as hard as he can on a rusty bicycle with a broken chain.
I know something about being portrayed on film (see my article on Winning Time). I don’t expect factual accuracy, which is nearly impossible, but I do expect some attempt at a truth about the person that transcends the facts. Here the filmmakers seemed to be channeling Col. Parker: Give the suckers what they want—a shabby satin pillow with Elvis’s image—not a work of art befitting the subject who gave us art.
He deserved better. We deserved better.
The Lost Potential
Steven Spielberg is a true artist. He has a vision and he has the technical skills to bring that vision to life. Mostly. Yes, his famous hits like Jaws, the Indiana Jones movies, E.T., and Jurassic Park are all wonderfully entertaining. But in Bridge of Spies we see Spielberg at his artistic best, balancing theme, character, and plot with powerful suspense and emotional tension. Even when he isn’t totally successful—as in The Fabelmans—I appreciate the artistry and the effort. So, even though this isn’t one of the best movies of the year, I’m not mad that it’s on the list, just disappointed. Pedigree has its privileges.
By now, everyone knows that this movie is about Spielberg’s own life as a young boy growing up with a straight-arrow dad and wildly self-indulgent mom while discovering his passion for filmmaking. Everything here should work: the direction is tight, the acting impeccable, the setting filled with nostalgic charm, the young boy delightful. The scenes when young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) makes his movies are the most enjoyable. The scenes in which Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) emotes dramatically are numbing.
Like Tár, The Fabelmans (could that title be any more on the nose) is about how art saves both the artist and the audience from the chaos of life by shaping and giving it some meaning that we can see through the smoke and debris. The scene with Judd Hirsch as the lion-taming uncle offers a powerful monologue about the joys and terrors of being an artist. And the final scene in which David Lynch plays the notorious director John Ford, offering film advice to Sammy, is poignant and memorable.
Yes, there are a lot of very good moments, but they don’t all add up to a very good movie. The potential is certainly there. But the focus on the mother and her influence on Sammy is repetitive and cliched. Sometimes, we aren’t the best ones to tell our own stories because we can’t get enough distance to see the bigger picture. That’s what happens here.
Kareem’s List of 2022’s Best Movies
My list is not one of solely Oscar-worthy movies, though some are. My list is comprised of the movies I most enjoyed watching, regardless of their genre, box office success, or star power.
Oscar Worthy (in order)
Everything Everywhere All at Once. I couldn’t love this movie any more than I do. It’s energetic, original, fun, and touching. There is nothing predictable about this movie. Although it shows you an entertaining action story about multiverses with one hand, the other delivers an emotional and insightful journey of a mother-daughter relationship.
Banshees of Inisherin. Who knew such a modest set-up could produce such an emotional and intellectual wallop? This allegory about friends suddenly falling out mirrors our own social divisiveness and the destruction it causes. The writing is exquisitely precise and poetic.
Women Talking. Based on a true story, this is a bold movie in that it is all conversations among a group of Mennonite women discussing leaving the abusive community. It is also about faith and how the women evolve from blind faith in the authority of men to an understanding of what they think faith should mean. Compelling, intelligent, and unforgettable.
She Said. On the surface, this appears to be a journalistic drama like All the Presidents Men and Spotlight. It follows two women journalists as they uncover the Harvey Weinstein story of sexual abuse. But what makes this movie unlike them is that it is more about their determined and smart investigation and how they approached their jobs as women. Because of that, there are fewer plot twists and more scenes in which they support each other as well as interact with the women who’d been abused. Turns out, that approach was much more interesting than the traditional plot-driven approach.
Pure Entertainment (in no order)
Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Nicholas Cage plays a version of himself: an actor of great talent who has fallen professionally and personally who is so strapped for money that he hires himself out for a millionaire’s party. This action-comedy is so much fun that you will hope for a sequel.
The Menu. This suspense film stars Ralph Fiennes as a super-chef seeking revenge on those who have abused his art—himself included. It’s clever, funny, and horrifying. Only the ending is hard to swallow.
Vengeance. Written, directed by, and starring B.J. Novak, this dark comedy/mystery is a delightful surprise. Basically a fish-out-of-water story of a New York disaffected writer suddenly thrust into small town Texas life, Vengeance delivers social satire while also giving us a pretty solid mystery. Ashton Kutcher is especially effective as the wisdom-dispensing local.
Barbarian. I’m not a huge horror fan, but this movie about a young Black woman (Georgina Campbell) staying at an Airbnb-type rental has a lot of exciting twists and turns. It’s nice to see an everyday Black woman character morph into an action hero. Justin Long as a Hollywood director provides comic relief and questionable morals. Scary, funny, and satisfying.
RRR. This big-budget period-piece movie from India is filled with stereotypes and melodrama. But if you can disregard the silly political posturing, you’re in for an exciting and thrilling movie brimming with over-the-top action and an amazing dance sequence (which I’ve posted twice already).
Bullet Train. Brad Pitt plays a hitman coming back to work after a soul-searching sabbatical. Unfortunately, his new namaste attitude is not met by the train full of killers he must face. Terrific action scenes and lots of humor make this pure entertainment from start to finish.
I admit, I haven’t seen every movie that’s been released, so I’m not claiming this is a definitive list. These are just the ones I really enjoyed—and I hope you will too.
You’re a great critic. Period
video break for the comments section.
Reservation Dogs - Best TV show no one has seen -- Please watch this. Funny , poignent, makes you laugh and cry -- SO WELL Done. Peabody award, Gotham award, etc.