A Snapshot of the Frontrunners

Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s Tár (2022)

Scan the list of members of the National Society of Film Critics, and you may come to the conclusion that while the NSFC doesn’t draw the sort of attention that the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association do, perhaps it should. Naturally, by the time the NSFC gathers for its annual meeting—weeks after the NYFCC and LAFCA have announced their awards—many of us have seen more than enough lists of the best films of the year. But over the weekend, fifty-four of the nation’s most prominent critics voted up a list of winners and runners-up that serves relatively well as a snapshot of the critical consensus on the best of 2022 before the floor is ceded to the industry, which will soon have its say via the guilds and the Academy.

Tár, written and directed by Todd Field, is the clear favorite, winning Best Picture, Screenplay, and Actress. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Lydia Tár, a stellar conductor brought down by hubris and a reckless pursuit of admiring ingénues, “proves so thorough, so multifaceted in its dimensions, so believable, that it defies even the films most programmatic intentions,” writes Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books. Blanchett clearly captures “the self-pity of a predator, the vanity of a predator, the narcissism of a predator.”

For Smith, Tár is a portrait of a Gen Xer’s midlife crisis in which a woman, willfully or not, refuses to recognize that the millennials she patronizes now write the world-making rules. Focusing on a scene in which Lydia takes an anxious young student to task at the Juilliard School, the New York TimesA. O. Scott, too, sees the central conflict as a generational one, but he’s also taken by “the essential uncanniness of Tár, which seems to call into question the nature of reality itself.

Charlotte Wells won Best Director for her debut feature, Aftersun, the first runner-up for best picture. Interviewing Wells for Sight and Sound, Adam Nayman notes that Aftersun, in which an eleven-year-old girl (Frankie Corio) takes a holiday at a Turkish resort with her troubled thirty-year-old father (Paul Mescal), is “a movie whose carefully chosen needle drops pull double duty as a temporal marker and internal monologue.” Wells discusses those needle drops with MUBI Podcast host Rico Gagliano. Mescal came in second in the NFCS race for Best Actor, and Nayman finds his performance “extraordinary” for “its evocation of a weakness that somehow exists in a place beyond judgement or understanding; his flaws are real and debilitating, but they accumulate into their own uneasy state of grace.”

Best Actor went to Colin Farrell for his turns in Kogonada’s After Yang and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which has just been named the best film of the year by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. McDonagh was the NSFC’s first runner-up for Best Screenplay, and Kerry Condon won Best Supporting Actress. Putting Banshees at the top of his list at the Daily Beast, Nick Schager calls this “comic-tragic account of a friendship’s end” a “personality-rich portrait of desolation, grief, and the push-pull between selfishness and kindness. It’s as shattering as it is hilarious, serving as a deft cautionary tale about the poisonous ramifications of casual cruelty.”

The winner and two runners-up for Best Film Not in the English Language are mentioned all up and down the NFCS list. “Is it a paradox that the flashiest, wildest, most heedless—in short, the most youthful—movie I saw this past year would be EO, written and directed by Polish octogenarian Jerzy Skolimowski?” asks J. Hoberman at the top of a fine and succinct primer on the director for the Nation. EO, this category’s winner, follows a donkey along what the New York TimesManohla Dargis calls “an astonishing and revelatory odyssey, a voyage that says much about both this one plaintive animal and our deeply unkind world.

Cowritten and coproduced with Ewa Piaskowska, EO was shot by Michał Dymek, who won Best Cinematography. Skolimowski recently told Nick Pinkerton in the Metrograph Journal that whenever Dymek “had some idea about making it a little more crazy or a little bit more unusual, I was always saying, ‘Go even further. Make it totally crazy, totally unusual!’ I was pushing him to do very experimental shots, which generally speaking DPs hate, because they risk getting out of focus or making some technical mistake, and then the blame would be placed on the DP, not the director. But because there was trust between us, we were going for the most crazy possible solutions.

One of the best recent pieces on the first runner-up, Jafar Panahi’s No Bears—also the second runner-up for both Best Director and Picture—comes from n+1 publisher and coeditor Mark Krotov. Arrested not long after completing No Bears and currently serving out a six-year sentence handed down along with a ban on filmmaking in 2010, Panahi plays a version of himself, a director struggling on two fronts. As he tries to remotely direct a film about a pair of Iranian exiles, he’s being drawn into a long-running feud between two families in the village where he’s essentially hiding out.

“Like his mentor and great influence Abbas Kiarostami,” writes Krotov, “Panahi has long been interested in the self-reflexive possibilities of cinema: his second film, The Mirror (1997), memorably unmoors itself halfway through, becoming an alleged documentary of its own failures. But it is in the post-ban half of his filmography that self-reflexivity has emerged as an essential concern—and an inevitable one, because according to his government, Panahi shouldn’t be making movies at all. He has continued to do so anyway, starring in four of the post-ban films and playing a key role in the fifth. The challenges to his own filmmaking capacities, meanwhile, have become Panahi’s central metaphor.”

The second runner-up for Best Film Not in the English Language was Decision to Leave, directed by Park Chan-wook, the first runner-up for best director, and shot by Kim Ji-yong, who came in third for Best Cinematography (just behind Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot Jordan Peele’s Nope). Tracking the perpetually thwarted romance between a detective and a woman he suspects has committed at least one murder, Decision to Leave currently leads the nominations for the Asian Film Awards.

Reviewing the film for Artforum, Phoebe Chen notes that “form is used to trouble feeling, blunting the lacerations of pathos, revulsion, and arousal, refusing its audience even the whiplash of a plot as it rips around a bend. The film’s real twist is the way Park fools us into searching for the wrong sensation: Like its detective protagonist, we gather shots soused in portent, taking close-ups as clues and willing their sum into lavish revelations, only to witness rituals of longing add up to nothing but quiet ruin.”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’s account of renowned photographer Nan Goldin’s efforts to hold the Sackler family, the makers and distributors of OxyContin, accountable for the opioid crisis, won best nonfiction film. At 4Columns, Melissa Anderson writes that the film charts Goldin’s “past and present,” following “a double-stranded, braided approach in which we see how her current-day activism is an organic extension of half a century living with and chronicling the vulnerable, the misfits, the outcasts.”

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