Well, that was quite a year, wasn’t it?
Kenneth Branagh playing Boris Johnson and directing Belfast; Stormzy’s best album yet; the movie version of She Said, dramatising the New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein; the return to the West End of Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem; Joanna Hogg’s masterly sequel to The Souvenir; Lizzo’s Special; Emma Corrin in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reunited in The Banshees of Inisherin; Bill Nighy delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in the Kurosawa-inspired Living; stunning fiction from Ian McEwan, Hanya Yanagihara, Ali Smith, Jonathan Coe, and William Boyd; Daniels’ multiverse masterpiece Everything Everywhere All At Once; Arctic Monkeys’ The Car; William Gibson at last getting a screen adaptation worthy of his work in The Peripheral; Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy; Robert Pattinson as Batman; Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe; Austin Butler as Elvis; Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird; rival prequels to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones; the low-rent spies of Slow Horses; and so much else.
And now, ‘tis the season to sit back, relax and enjoy some quality viewing. Here, as a guide to the season of tinsel, twinkling trees and streaming, are twelve picks – one each for the twelve days of Christmas:
Avatar: The Way of Water (general release, 16 December)
When the original Avatar was released in the UK on 10 December, 2009, Gordon Brown was still in Downing Street; Barack Obama had not yet completed the first year of his presidency; Donald Trump was best known for hosting The Apprentice; the rebooting of the Star Wars franchise by Disney was still six years away; and Instagram, TikTok and the word “Brexit” did not yet exist.
All of which is to say: James Cameron has kept the world waiting a mighty long time for his sequel to the highest-grossing movie of all time, and a great deal has happened in the intervening 13 years. Not least of which is the heightening of the expectation that audiences bring with them when they go to see a film of this kind. Thanks in large part to the systematic colonisation of mainstream cinema by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the CGI techniques that Cameron pioneered are now standard popcorn fare.
So the journey back to Pandora, and the world of the tall, blue Na’vi, was always going to be trickier than the first trip. Back for the sequel are Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who ditched his human body for good in the original; Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who has raised a family with Jake since the first events of the first movie; Sigourney Weaver, the nature of whose reappearance I shall not spoil (her character in Avatar, Dr Grace Augustine, died when she sided with the Na’vi in their conflict with the human “sky people”); and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), also risen from the dead – pleasingly so, as his cigar-chomping villainy was one of the highlights of the original.
Amongst the newcomers is Kate Winslet, reunited with Cameron more than a quarter century after Titanic, as Ronal, warrior-leader with her husband Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) of the water-based Metkayina clan. In preparation for the part, she learned to hold her breath underwater for no less than seven minutes and 14 seconds.
Led this time by Edie Falco as General Frances Ardmore, the invading earthlings are back to wreck the Pandora ecosystem with all the pantomime evil of the military-industrial complex at its very worst.
The only way to experience Avatar: The Way of Water satisfactorily is on its own terms. Beyond its cogitations on family life and environmentalism, it is exactly what it promises to be: a dazzling technological spectacle, full of stunning aquatic mega-creatures and landscapes that owe as much to the world of gaming as to the language of cinema. It is the best fairground ride available to sky people all over the planet this Christmas, and – approached on that realistic basis, rather than as if it were, say, a Bergman, Tarkovsky or Wong Kar-wai movie – thoroughly enjoyable. Three further sequels are in the pipeline… although at the current rate of production, Avatar 5 won’t be released until 2061.
Litvinenko (ITVX, all four episodes)
David Tennant has had a good televisual year, co-starring, alongside Stanley Tucci, in Steven Moffat’s excellent Inside Man as a warm-hearted vicar drawn into a criminal nightmare (see Creative Sensemaker, 22 September).
Now, he returns in a much less whimsical role as Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned dissident, who successfully sought asylum in the UK in 2000, but was assassinated in November 2006 – poisoned by tea laced with the deadly isotope polonium-210.
As he feels his health fast declining, Litvinenko calls the police to his hospital room; knowing full well what must have happened, and how little time he has left (though he believed that he had been dosed with thallium, a toxin traditionally used by the KGB).
Tennant is terrific as the former spy who knows he is doomed, and, even as he lies bald and cadaverous in his bed, is determined that the detectives pursuing his case know as much as possible before he dies. The strong ensemble cast also includes Mark Bonnar as DS Clive Timmons, Neil Maskell as DI Brent Hyatt; and Margarita Levieva as Litvinenko’s widow, Marina.
The episode in which Hyatt and his colleagues travel to Moscow to interview suspects Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitri Kovtun is especially strong – conveying the menace, contempt and surrealism of the Russian government’s negligible efforts to cooperate. Almost ten months since the invasion of Ukraine, it is salutary to be reminded of this early warning that Putin intended to pursue dissidents wherever they were in the word; and that, by implication, he did not believe that the West would respond meaningfully. Levieva, who is Russian-American, has said that when she accepted her part in Litvinenko, she was “scared” of possible reprisal by the Russian autocrat. All credit to her, and everyone else involved in this fine dramatisation, for their courage in persisting with the truth.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix, 23 December)
Taking its title from a track on the Beatles’ White Album – which, we later learn, was also the name of a dive bar – Rian Joinson’s sequel to Knives Out (2019) is a joy from start to finish; firmly establishing Daniel Craig’s Southern detective Benoit Blanc as a digital-era Poirot with a dandy’s wardrobe to match (for starters: he wears a fez in the bath).
This time, Blanc is invited to the private Greek island of tech billionaire, Miles Bron (Edward Norton, as good as ever) for the annual gathering of his self-styled “disruptor” friends: Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn); former supermodel Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), who thinks that a “sweat shop” is where sweat pants are manufactured; YouTuber and steroid-fuelled men’s rights activist Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and his influencer girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline); scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr); and – awkwardly – Andi Brand (Janelle Monáe), cheated out of a fortune by her former business partner Bron.
Their host’s wheeze this year is a murder mystery game, with his guests each taking a role in a narcissistic drama. Needless to say, the game is quickly eclipsed by real-life foul play and Blanc has a proper case to solve – though one, as you might hope, with many twists along the way. Johnson’s panache as a director is matched by the fun that his leading man is having (Craig gives the impression that he enjoys playing Blanc much more than Bond). There is also a formidable roster of cameo appearances: Serena Williams; Yo-Yo Ma; Ethan Hawke; Hugh Grant; and – in their final screen performances, Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim (whose The Last of Sheila is a clear inspiration for Glass Onion). The movie’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Film (Musical or Comedy), announced on Monday, is richly deserved.
A Ghost Story for Christmas: Count Magnus (BBC Two, 23 December)
Christmas would not be Christmas without an adaptation by Mark Gatiss of one of the classic ghost stories of M.R. James (1862-1936). Last year, Rory Kinnear starred in The Mezzotint; to round off 2022, we have Jason Watkins as Mr Wraxall, a writer of travelogues and lover of foreign archives, who makes a trip in 1863 to a manor-house called Råbäck in the Swedish province of Vestergothland (the original story can be read here, though no home should be without its own well-thumbed collection of James’s inimitable tales).
Over dinner, he asks the owner of the house, Froken de la Gardie (MyAnna Buring) about her ancient aristocratic dynasty, and – especially – Count Magnus who in the early 17th Century ordered the construction of a special mausoleum. Wraxall’s inquiries reveal that Magnus was drawn to the dark arts and, according to legend, made the so-called “Black Pilgrimage” – recorded in a Liber Negri Peregrinationis – to the unrepentant city of Chrorazin, cursed by Jesus and said to be the birthplace of the Antichrist.
Magnus is supposed to have brought something or someone back from his journey into darkness. But what? And what price will Wraxall pay for his curiosity?
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (BBC One, Christmas Eve)
Charlie Mackesy’s enchanting story of a boy who meets and is consoled by three animals is one of the publishing sensations of recent years – a book that was spawned by enthusiasm on Instagram for his line drawings, became a source of comfort to many during the pandemic and has sold more than two million copies.
As Mackesy writes in his original foreword, pictures “are like islands, places to get to in a sea of words”. His drawings powerfully evoke E.H. Shepard’s illustrations of A.A, Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories, while the text – full of gentle aphorism – reads like The Wind in the Willows rendered by a Zen philosopher of profound emotional intelligence.
How to turn this into an animated film? Working with 130 artists in 15 countries, co-directors Mackesy and Peter Baynton have done a magnificent job of putting the story on screen, giving it a narrative arc without overshadowing the core simplicity of the book.
Jude Coward Nicoll voices the Boy, with Tom Hollander as the Mole, Idris Elba as the Fox, and Gabriel Byrne as the Horse. “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asks the Boy. “Help.” replies his new friend (who, it transpires, can fly).There’s a very good documentary on Mackesy, the book and the background to the animated version on BBC Two at 3:55pm on Christmas Eve – after which you can turn over to BBC One to see the film itself. Destined to become a seasonal classic on a par with Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman.
The King’s Christmas Broadcast (Christmas Day)
This year’s royal message – broadcast by tradition at 3pm – is not only the first to be delivered by the new monarch. It will also be the first televised Christmas broadcast by a King – all such messages having been confined to radio until Her Late Majesty the Queen made the move to the new medium in 1957 (you can see the broadcast here).
The first Christmas radio message was delivered, at John Reith’s invitation, by the King’s great-grandfather, George V live at Sandringham in 1932: the text written by none other than Rudyard Kipling (listen to it here). So it will be fascinating to see what, if any, changes Charles III makes to this festive tradition on its 90th anniversary.
In her final such message, his mother spoke of the loss of Prince Philip, his pioneering enthusiasm for environmentalism, the forthcoming Commonwealth Games and her own Platinum Jubilee. The King will, one can be sure, pay fulsome tribute to the Queen as she did to his father, and reflect upon the period of national mourning that followed her death on 8 September.
But what else? Royal semioticians and Kremlinologists will scour the recording for meaning – which photos are prominent, which absent? Which lines, if any, may be interpreted as a reproach (or an olive branch) to Harry and Meghan? And what hints might he drop about the form, content and tone of his coronation on 6 May? Whether you’re an ardent monarchist or a committed republican, this will be another historic moment in a year that has been positively stuffed with them.
Treason (Netflix, Boxing Day)
Sir Martin Angelis (Ciarán Hinds), chief of MI6, is lunching at his club with the president of the Supreme Court – to whom he shows a file of steamy kompromat that puts the unlucky judge entirely at the spy’s mercy. Suddenly: Angelis suffers a heart attack and is rushed to hospital.
Step forward his deputy Adam Lawrence (Charlie Cox, taking a break from playing Daredevil in the MCU) who, as the youngest ever C, must work out at lightning speed who is behind what appears to be an attempted assassination. Is the culprit his former lover and Russian spy – back on the scene in London – Kara Yerzov (Olga Kurylenko)? And how is the crisis entangled with the leadership contest to replace the Prime Minister, and the ambitions of Foreign Secretary Audrey Gratz (Alex Kingston)?
This five-part thriller, created and written by Matt Charman is ideal for binge-watching as you digest the turkey leftovers and organic mince pies. It has no pretensions to match the cerebral subtlety of le Carré (though Hands’s reliably excellent performance is a reminder of his terrific interpretation of Roy Bland in the movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Instead, it evokes the pacey intelligence of the much-missed Spooks and Berlin Station.
Though he looks young enough to be doing work experience at Vauxhall, Cox shines as the understudy spymaster, as does Oona Chaplin as his wife Maddy. With good reason, the final episode is strictly embargoed: definitely worthy of your time.
Mayflies (BBC One, 28-29 December)
To adapt a novel as justly acclaimed as Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies (2020) is a daunting task – but one to which writer Andrea Gibb and director Peter Mackie Burns prove more than equal. This two-part dramatisation explores friendship, reminiscence and mortality without slipping at any point into sentimentality.
Like the novel, it also moves back and forth between two time-frames: 1986 and 2017. Tully Dawson (Tony Curran), learning he is seriously ill with cancer, calls his best friend Jimmy Collins (Martin Compston), now a successful writer living in London, back to Ayrshire – to ask him a very big favour.
Their reunion sparks memories of an unforgettable trip to Manchester when they were teenagers to experience the now-legendary Festival of the Tenth Summer – at which the line-up included The Smiths, The Fall, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire and Happy Mondays. The deployment of music throughout is deft: from punk classics like the Skids’ Into the Valley to Chet Baker playing in Tullly’s mother’s bedroom at her care home.Compston and Curran are superb in the nuance they bring to scenes that are heavy with emotion but (not least because of Tully’s character) steer impressively clear of melodrama. Ashley Jensen is also excellent as Tully’s partner, Anna, who oscillates between towering strength and heartbreaking fracture as she urges him to live a little longer. The story’s governing principle is drawn from Antony and Cleopatra: “make death proud to take us”.
Triangle of Sadness (video on demand)
In May, Ruben Östlund won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the second time – joining the very select club of directors, including Frances Ford Coppola, Michael Haneke and Ken Loach, who have pulled off this particular double,
Triangle of Sadness, which takes its name from a phrase used by a character in the movie to describe the frowning zone just above the eyebrows, is divided into three very different parts. The first, a chamber piece in its own right, follows an argument between two influencer-models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) that is triggered by her assumption that he will pay for dinner. (Very sadly, Dean – who is excellent in the movie – died of a sudden infection in August, aged only 32).
In the second section, Carl and Yaya are enjoying a freebie cruise on a $250 million luxury yacht – and we move sharply into the realm of Robert Altman ensemble movies and European arthouse satire. Woody Harrelson is terrific as the drunken captain, Thomas Smith, holed up in his cabin, whose devoted Marxism becomes apparent when trouble strikes the vessel.
A British couple called Winston and Clementine boast of the fortune they have made from the arms trade – though they lament the financial pain they have suffered since the outlawing of landmines. Zlatko Burić is memorable as a mindblowingly cynical Russian billionaire, who delightedly takes on Harrelson in an ideological debate broadcast over the yacht’s tannoy. By this stage, the passengers are in a bad way, horribly seasick after a banquet of fussy food – leading to Rabelaisian scenes that make Monty Python’s Mr Creosote seem tame and are definitely not for the faint-hearted.In the third and final section, which riffs on Lord of the Flies, a marooned group from the yacht finds that its strict hierarchy is inverted in a context where practical skills are required above all else, and the Filipina “toilet manager” Abigail (Dolly de Leon) is suddenly all-powerful. Class, race, fashion, social media, cruelty, the wages of avarice: Östlund has plenty to say on all these themes, and more besides. To its final, intriguing moments, his film is never less than fascinating.
Lynch/Oz (video on demand)
In his celebrated 1995 essay on the director David Lynch, the late David Foster Wallace defines the word “Lynchian” thus: “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter”. That irony – the portal between the magical and the actual, and the crazy dynamics that arise when it is open – lies at the heart of this very watchable documentary by Alexandre O. Philippe.
As a way of exploring Lynch’s work, he zooms in on the director’s proud fixation with Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the connective tissue between this classic of American mythmaking and the career of one of the greatest auteur-directors of the past fifty years. And – to add variety and depth to the analysis – Philippe structures his own movie around a series of cine-essays by film-makers David Lowery, Karyn Kusama, John Waters, Rodney Ascher, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and movie critic Amy Nicholson.
If all this sounds abstruse, never fear: the comparisons between The Wizard of Oz and Lynch’s work – Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Twin Peaks in its various iterations – illuminates both in a way that captures the imagination and is a study in creativity in general, as well as a fiesta for film obsessives.Much of Lynch’s debt to Oz is explicit – red ruby slippers, heavy curtains, winds both real and imagined, looming facial presences, even names (Isabella Rossellini’s character in Blue Velvet is called “Dorothy”). But the connections between the two worlds are often more subtle, as Philippe’s contributors show, ingeniously so in many cases. The heart of the matter is that magic spawns magic, art generates art, and the creative mind cannot long stay moored in Kansas. As Lynch himself has put it: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz”.
Marie Antoinette (BBC Two, 29 December; all episodes, iPlayer)
Some things never change. “Is this good enough for Versailles?” says the young Austrian archduchess Maria Antoinette (Emilia Schüle), performing a cheekily flamboyant curtsy that is eerily similar to Meghan Markle’s Netflix performance.
And then the young princess is off to France to marry the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste (Louis Cunningham), and to provide the Bourbon dynasty with an heir. He is unwashed, burps and is interested only in hunting. His younger brother. Provence (Jack Archer) resents his position as the “spare”. Their priapic grandfather, Louis XV (James Purefoy), presides over court in a spirit of capricious autocracy – “Papa Roi”, usually accompanied by his maîtresse-en-titre, the courtesan Madame Du Barry (Gaia Weiss).
Created and written by Deborah Davis – whose screenplay for The Favourite (2018) was Oscar-nominated – this eight-part BBC extravaganza is quite something to behold. Filmed at the Châteaux de Fontainebleau and de Vaux-le-Vicomte, and Versailles itself, the drama of Antoinette’s early years as Dauphine is visually stunning – the costumes developed with the participation of Chanel and the settings invariably lavish. That said, there is much more to the drama, directed by Pete Travis and Geoffrey Enthoven than its exquisite mise-en-scène. The 14-year-old Antoinette is plunged into a vipers’ nest of intrigue, factionalism and personal rivalry that often reflects geopolitical positioning – “the dark, manipulative and misogynistic world of Versailles”, as Davis has put it. Antoinette is a quick study – but will she win over her utterly diffident husband? The King slices an allegedly aphrodisiac “love apple” for his reluctant grandson, telling him that “I’ve always found it best just to plunge in.” A more detailed account of Antoinette’s life than Sofia Coppola’s hyper-real 2006 biopic, this may yet blossom into a late Bourbon version of The Crown: very promising.
UNIVERSAL NOIR #1 (Indicator Blu-ray box set)
After five magnificent sets of film noir movies from Columbia Studios, Indicator now shifts its powers of curation to Universal with this limited-edition collection of six films, all making their UK Blu-ray premiere.
The stories are classic postwar noir, a moodily-lit canvas full of broken souls, femmes fatales, moral ambiguity, and corruption; featuring performances by Burt Lancaster, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Sterling Hayden, Edmond O’Brien, Gloria Grahame and Jeff Chandler.
There’s a lawyer drawn into the underworld (The Web, 1947); a conman who falls for the war widow he is meant to be fleecing (Larceny, 1948); a war veteran blackmailed into breaking the law (Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, 1948); the dark dealing of the baby adoption racket (Abandoned, 1949); a gangster sent back to Italy (Deported, 1950); and a police captain pursuing a suspected cop killer into Mexico (Naked Alibi, 1954).
As ever with Indicator, the extras are of the highest quality, as is the 118-page book that accompanies the box set. A perfect cinematic treat for the week between Christmas and New Year.
Do send us your own cultural recommendations for 2023 to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Creative Sensemaker will be back on Thursday, 5 January.
Have a very merry Christmas and a fantastic New Year.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy ITV, BBC, Netflix, Curzon Artificial Eye, Dogwoof Productions, 20th Century Studios/Universal, Getty Images