Tobey Maguire as James McKay in “Babylon.” Paramount Pictures/Paramount Plus

Cinema today is in chaos.

Theater chains are imploding. Studios are scrambling. Streamers are desperately trying to win subscribers and claw back the ones who have left. The answer, clearly, is more comic book movies. Unless it’s horror. Or boomer nostalgia. No, it’s “Cocaine Bear”!

As the screenwriter William Goldman famously said about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” The movie business has always been an enterprise driven more by fear and instinct than no-fail formulas. But something shifted in 2022, when the uncertainty and destabilization that has pervaded the industry migrated to the movies themselves. Filmgoers who ventured outside the reassuring familiarity of an old-school action flick like “Top Gun: Maverick” were likely to feel bombarded with stories that felt bloated, digressive and almost pathologically discombobulated.

And those are just the Oscar movies.

In “Elvis,” best actor nominee Austin Butler barely managed to fight his way through Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic, hyper-edited jumble of images and needle drops to deliver a surprisingly affecting portrayal of pop idol Elvis Presley. Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” up for awards in production design, costumes and music, played less like a valentine to 1920s Hollywood than a scattershot, jittery example of the very debauchery it chronicled. “Triangle of Sadness,” Ruben Östlund’s sharply honed critique of wealth inequality and the vagaries of sexual power, went erratically off the rails in a surreally extended sequence in which the dining room of a luxury yacht became a slipping, sloshing vomitorium. Even the year’s most tightly self-contained movies, “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Tár,” veered into unhinged territory, with their protagonists – played by Brendan Gleeson and Cate Blanchett, respectively – turning feral when their ferocious defense of artistic purity was threatened.

Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Quan Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” A24

If 2022 had an urtext, though, it was “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which with 11 nominations and a clutch of influential guild awards is the presumed front-runner for best picture. Written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (known as “the Daniels”), “Everything Everywhere” lived up to its name with breathtaking audacity, plunging its main character – a laundromat owner played by Michelle Yeoh – into successive alternate realities within a bizarre, ever-ballooning multiverse. Frenzied and meticulous, openhearted and self-impressed, cosmically wise and sophomorically jejune, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” became a sleeper hit last year, thanks in large part to repeat viewings among young audiences, indicating a generational shift in movie culture that has finally infiltrated cinematic grammar itself.


That grammar has ballooned long past the 100-minute, one-and-done classics of the 20th century. Filmgoers have been putting up with overlong films for a while now, but 2022’s best picture crop was a tush-tingling doozy: A rough calculation comes up with an average running time of 2 hours and 40 minutes, meaning that it would take more than a day to slog through all 10 best picture nominees.

Adam Driver as Jack in “White Noise.” Wilson Webb/Netflix

Length isn’t everything, of course: Back when we looked at our wristwatches instead of our pocket computers, “The Godfather” clocked in at just under three hours and felt like it flew by. The 3 hours, 12 minutes of the latest “Avatar,” on the other hand, moved like so much Pandoran primal ooze. The problem with last year’s films – the frustration and alienation that many viewers felt but couldn’t quite articulate – was a lack of discipline that was less a matter of unfettered artistic expression than self-indulgence and incoherence. Not just the Oscar pictures but movies like “Amsterdam” and “White Noise” fell into this category as well: brazenly ambitious swings that, for all the obvious personal passion behind them, seemed to forget the fundamental cinematic value of audience comprehension – and, not incidentally, pleasure.

The reasons for the disconnect are both structural and psychological: Gone are the days of tyrannical studio moguls who routinely ordered directors to cut 40 minutes from their movie or else; where studios exert that kind of control now is mainly with comic book franchises and other IP-dependent vehicles, wherein fan service must be provided with metronomic regularity through a series of preordained character beats and plot twists. Meanwhile, streamers have courted directors like Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay by giving them free rein for their visions – with tedious and completely bonkers results, respectively. (Netflix announced last year that it was no longer dedicated to the business model of throwing money at marquee names and hoping for the best, instead focusing on “bigger, better [and] fewer” films.)

The effect of streaming has been twofold: Filmmakers have been just as seduced by bingeable series and podcasts as the rest of us, and they clearly envy the rabbit holes and endless second acts that make those mediums so addictive. But with few traditional guardrails to keep directors on track, the results of their formal experiments can often feel less like challenging but accessible deep dives than watching someone get high on their own supply.

Pull the lens back, though, and the movies’ current state of derangement isn’t just understandable. It might be inevitable.

Although we had already seen movies that were made during the COVID lockdown, 2022 might have been the first year dominated by films that were conceived and created amid the ructions of the past five years, dislocations that included not just a global pandemic but the murder of George Floyd, polarization that exploded into insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and a dizzying number of mass shootings, natural disasters and civic breakdown, micro and macro. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was just one of several recent movies that have centered on the idea of the multiverse, at a time when escaping into a parallel world could not be more attractive. In the era when the “big lie” and QAnon conspiracy theories have gained traction amid rapidly disintegrating social trust, it’s no wonder that a wobbly sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy has seeped into the country’s cinema: What’s careening out of control on screen barely scratches the surface of the incomprehensible mayhem that is real life right now.


Much as the movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s reflected baby boomer anxieties – brought on by the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and coming of age amid the conflagrations of the time – today’s are steeped in generational shifts and conflicts. With the boomers’ hegemony over pop culture and politics finally beginning to recede, millennials and Gen Z are bringing their symbolic systems to bear on a medium that has proved nothing if not elastic over the past 100 years.

Whereas touchstones like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” took their grammatical cues from the French New Wave and documentary cinema verité, films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Nope” – another big hit of 2022 – are pulling from sources including but not limited to Pixar movies and video games, martial arts films and superhero blockbusters, “Jurassic Park” and M. Night Shyamalan. What might strike older viewers as narratives so disjointed that they’re virtually unwatchable make perfect sense to spectators whose attention spans have been molded by the continuous YouTube scrolls and quick TikTok hits.

Stephanie Hsu as Jobu Tupaki, a.k.a. Joy Wang, in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” A24

It bears noting that most of this year’s best picture nominees aren’t millennials or Gen Z-ers: They’re members of the generation that is beginning to understand, if dimly, that their control over the culture is no longer absolute. Interestingly, almost every movie on the list is about trauma, whether it’s the environmental destruction of “Avatar,” the ravages of war in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” parental separation and immigrant identity in “Everything Everywhere” or sexual violence in “Women Talking.” (In “The Fabelmans,” even perennial optimist Steven Spielberg revisited his youth through the pain of his parents’ divorce and the antisemitism he endured as a teenager.) Of the most talked-about movies in 2022, only “Top Gun” emerged unscathed, its perfectly vague triumphalism unsullied by an actual villain (the country that Tom Cruise’s pilot goes after remains pointedly anonymous) or a legible political stance other than “America, hell yeah.”

That tidiness no doubt accounts for much of “Top Gun’s” appeal, even if it’s looking less and less likely that conventional appeal will put the film over the top on Oscar night. If the zeitgeist exerts its inexorable pull, it’s more likely that a messy, genre-flouting film that whipsaws between boldness and shallow excess, genuine sincerity and confrontational kink will take the evening’s highest honors. In times as unnerving and overdetermined as these, pure chaos might be the only rational response.

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