We asked ten contributors to pick three films from 2022 that they think everyone should see before making their top ten lists of the year. These are the choices of Clint Worthington.
One of the great joys and pressures of being a critic is that we just see so much in a given year. Between the hustle of festivals, new theatrical releases, and the flood of streaming-exclusive films that come out each week, it’s hard not to feel like old Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange,” eyelids pulled open in a Ludovico situation of our own making.
Every so often, one of those flickering images lingers in front of us, and it’s hard not to want to snatch it out of the air and show it to everybody. Sometimes, the viewing public already knows our joy: Films like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “RRR,” and “Nope” manage to find their way into peoples’ imaginations without our help. But it’s not surprising when some incredible, thought-provoking works pass through the sieve by sheer dint of their obscurity. And it’s so gratifying when you get the chance to champion those films, their scintillating ideas, and the hard-working artists who forged them.
The three films I’ve picked explore the ever-malleable nature of identity along three disparate genres: A documentary filmed entirely in VR, a folkloric tale of shapeshifters and witches, and a Lynchian ode to the changing tides of the country music industry. At first blush, they couldn’t be more dissimilar to one another. But check out at least one (or all three!), and you’ll make this critic happy.
“You Won’t Be Alone”
You’d be forgiven for seeing the trailer for Romanian director Goran Stolevski’s “You Won’t Be Alone” and dismissing it as just another riff on “The Witch.” But just like its mercurial main character, it’s a film that requires you to peel back the skin of its marketing to feast upon the tasty flesh beneath. Set in 19th-century Macedonia, Stolevski’s debut follows a young peasant girl named Nevena (Sara Klimoska, at first) kidnapped by the witch-creature (Anamaria Marinca) who lives in the woods outside her village. Not long after, she’s left to her own devices with nothing but this terrifying new gift and no understanding of the outside world.
What follows is nothing short of mesmerizing, a Grimm’s fairy tale soaked in blood and curiosity. Matthew Chuang’s shallow-focus 1.66:1 cinematography seeps us in the Malickian haze of Nevena’s journey, turning each flesh-ripping chapter in her path of self-discovery into a thing of perverse romance. Every few minutes, a new actor takes the mantle of Nevena’s “skin,” whether Noomi Rapace’s doomed mother or Carlota Cotta’s comely Boris, or the children (and men) she tries on for a bit. In so doing, she (and we) get a crash course in the joys and vagaries of humanity, in all the orgasmic highs and violent lows it entails.
“You Won’t Be Alone” cries out for a queer reading, with the innate fluidity of gender and expression its character experiences. And it requires more patience and rumination than you might be ready for. But few films entranced me at Sundance this year quite like this one.
Oklahoma-born Mickey Reece is no stranger to the surreal and deconstructive: Take 2017’s “Alien,” which reimagined Elvis Presley in a much different way than Baz Luhrmann did. Or last year’s “Agnes,” which starts as an exorcism picture before bravely veering off into a more contemporary, contemplative direction at the halfway mark. “Country Gold” takes those instincts as far as they’ve ever gone before, with Reece imagining a fictionalized meeting of the minds between two titans at the height of their respective country music careers: George Jones (Reece regular Ben Hall) and Troyal Brux (Reece himself), a gossamer-thin analogue for Garth Brooks at the height of his mid-’90s fame.
Jones has invited Troyal to Oklahoma for an intimate chat, something the latter takes as validation for his more focus-grouped, crowd-pleasing school of pop country. It’s not long after arriving, however, that he learns the true reason for Jones’ invitation: after their night together, Jones plans to cryogenically freeze himself so he can outlive his enemies and detractors. Before he goes, he wants to see what world he’s leaving behind for country music.
The ensuing odyssey is hard to describe and yet impossible to look away from, flipping between form and genre with Reece’s signature agility. Black-and-white indie-film hangout scenes turn into ink-sketch animations and groovy ‘70s crime homages as Jones tells tall tales of his life and Troyal struggles to keep up with him. But all these episodic jaunts float above a surprisingly melancholic story of two men at different ends of the mirror, wondering what about themselves is reflected in the other. What will they embrace? What will they reject? It’s offbeat and unpredictable in the exact way I love, and its end credits scene rivals “Pearl”’s for its jaw-dropping commitment to the bit.
If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, the connections we forge online can often be just as real to us (if not more so) than the ones we make in meatspace. Joe Hunting’s warm, inviting “We Met in Virtual Reality” is an ode to that principle, zeroing in on several folks who frequent the virtual-reality social networking space VRChat. There’s no point-and-laugh condescension to be found; sure, there’s plenty of space for mirth, but the netizens of VRChat would chuckle right along with you when their VR car overturns on a virtual freeway, or when Hunting pans over from a serious conversation about accessibility to reveal the other participant is Kermit the Frog.
What’s most magical about this doc, though, is the way it highlights how VR tests the boundaries of gender, geography, and accessibility. Communities, and even romances, come to life across the globe; bonds form around taking dance classes or learning sign language. A group of friends in anime catgirl avatars fuss over a glitzy VR wedding with all the anticipatory glee of the real thing. A late-film scene in which a deaf user signs an emotional goodbye to her brother (who died by suicide) in a virtual lantern ceremony brought me to heaving sobs.
There are undoubtedly more hard-hitting or complex documentaries about the virtues and vices of VR—the innate issues with consent or harassment that plague any online community. “We Met in Virtual Reality” focuses on the little pockets of joy people can carve out for themselves when freed from the constraints of their physical bodies. The avatars are mere clusters of polygons. But the people powering them (and the emotions they feel) are very real.