The 2022 EMOs

I don’t know what it was about this year in particular – maybe it’s that I actually kept up with most of the movies that I was really interested in, maybe it’s that it was actually a really darn good year with a lot of varied, interesting and flawed movies, with little that stood above the pack in any really obvious way – but dear lord am I tired of the discourse and have never more glad that I’m not regularly writing reviews and trying to keep my finger on the pulse of criticism or whatever anymore.

Here are a bunch of things that I liked and found funny about the movies of 2022! Enjoy! Or skip it! I don’t know!

Top 10 of 2022

  1. Nope
  2. Benediction
  3. Tár
  4. Women Talking
  5. Stars at Noon
  6. RRR
  7. Decision To Leave
  8. Petite Maman
  9. Everything Everywhere All At Once
  10. The Eternal Daughter

Best Director:

  • Terence Davies, Benediction
  • Claire Denis, Stars at Noon / Both Sides of the Blade
  • Todd Field, Tár
  • Joanna Hogg, The Eternal Daughter
  • Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave
  • Jordan Peele, Nope
  • Sarah Polley, Women Talking
  • S.S. Rajamouli, RRR
  • Céline Sciamma, Petite Maman

Best Acting Ensemble:

  • Armageddon Time
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Benediction
  • Confess, Fletch
  • Funny Pages
  • Nope
  • Tár
  • Triangle of Sadness
  • Women Talking

Best Lead Performance:

  • Juliette Binoche, Both Sides of the Blade
  • Cate Blanchett, Tár
  • Sterling K. Brown, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
  • Jessie Buckley, Men
  • Austin Butler, Elvis
  • Viola Davis, The Woman King
  • Idris Elba, Three Thousands Years of Longing
  • Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Regina Hall, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
  • Cheryl Isheja, Neptune Frost
  • Daniel Kaluuya, Nope
  • Vincent Lindon, Both Sides of the Blade
  • Jack Lowden, Benediction
  • Amber Midthunder, Prey
  • Keke Palmer, Nope
  • Margaret Qualley, Stars at Noon
  • Tilda Swinton, The Eternal Daughter
  • Tilda Swinton, Three Thousand Years of Longing
  • Tang Wei, Decision to Leave
  • Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All At Once

Best Supporting Performance:

  • Gillian Anderson, The Pale Blue Eye
  • Jessie Buckley, Women Talking
  • Zlatko Burić, Triangle of Sadness
  • Peter Capaldi, Benediction
  • Hong Chau, The Menu
  • Carly-Sophia Davies, The Eternal Daughter
  • Claire Foy, Women Talking
  • Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Anthony Hopkins, Armageddon Time
  • Nina Hoss, Tár
  • Kate Hudson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
  • Judith Ivey, Women Talking
  • Sophie Kauer, Tár
  • Rory Kinnear, Men
  • Lashana Lynch, The Woman King
  • Brandon Perea, Nope
  • Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Benny Safdie, Stars at Noon
  • Matt Smith, The Forgiven
  • Ben Whishaw, Women Talking

Best Original Screenplay:

  • Cheung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wood, Decision to Leave
  • Julia Cho, Domee Shi, Turning Red
  • Terence Davies, Benediction
  • Todd Field, Tár
  • James Gray, Armageddon Time
  • Joanna Hogg, The Eternal Daughter
  • Owen Kline, Funny Pages
  • Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Jordan Peele, Nope
  • Céline Sciamma, Petite Maman

Best Adapted Screenplay:

  • Joel Kim Booster, Fire Island
  • Claire Denis, Christine Angot, Both Sides of the Blade
  • Claire Denis, Andrew Litvack, Stars at Noon
  • Adamma Ebo, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
  • Greg Mottola, Zev Borow, Confess, Fletch
  • Sarah Polley, Women Talking
  • Guillermo del Toro, Patrick McHale, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Best Cinematography:

  • Jeff Cutter, Prey
  • Nicola Daley, Benediction
  • Ben Davis, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Eric Gauter, Stars at Noon
  • Rob Hardy, Men
  • Florian Hoffmeister, Tár
  • Luc Montpelier, Women Talking
  • Kim Ji-yong, Decision to Leave
  • Claudio Miranda, Top Gun: Maverick
  • Ed Rutherford, The Eternal Daughter
  • Anisia Uzeyman, Neptune Frost
  • Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nope

Best Score:

  • Michael Abels, Nope
  • Carter Burwell, The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Hildur Guðnadóttir, Tár
  • Hildur Guðnadóttir, Women Talking
  • Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, Top Gun: Maverick
  • M.M. Kreem, RRR
  • Tindersticks, Both Sides of the Blade
  • Tindersticks, Stars at Noon

Best Editing:

  • Erin DeWitt, Owen Kline, Funny Pages
  • Christopher Donaldson, Roslyn Kalloo, Women Talking
  • Helle le Fevre, The Eternal Daughter
  • Julien Lacharay, Petite Maman
  • Kim Sang-beom, Decision to Leave
  • Guy Lecorne, Stars at Noon
  • Nicholas Monsour, Nope
  • Paul Rogers, Everything Everywhere All At Once
  • Monika Willi, Tár

Best Scene:

  • Disabled, Benediction
  • Louisiana Hayride, Elvis
  • Locker confrontation on prom night, The Fabelmans
  • Faith mime, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
  • Jupe remembers Gordy’s rampage, Nope
  • Naatu Naatu, RRR
  • Bheem’s surprise attack on Gov. Scott’s party, RRR
  • Olga’s apartment, Tár
  • closing credits, White Noise

Most ’90s: Marry Me

Egregiously Not ’90s Enough: Hocus Pocus 2

Probably Better When Projected Soundlessly On The Wall In A Metal Bar: The Northman

No Jokes, Just Fight/Donate: The Janes

Maybe (Maybe) Fifth-Best Class Satire of the Year: The Forgiven

Longest You Have to Wait Before You Get To The One Bit Everyone Won’t Shut Up About: Pearl

Most I Wanted A Script To Be a Person So I Could Punch It In the Face: Harry Melling introducing himself as “E.A. Poe…..Edgar A. Poe” in The Pale Blue Eye

First Time I Have Ever Seen a Movie “tl;dr” Itself In Its Title: Men

Saddest Anime Boys (Like Actually): Belle

Possibly The Most Convoluted Act of Copyright Violation In Cinema History: See How They Run

New Gnarliest Counterpoint To “Animation Is For Kids”: Mad God

Most Undeserving Of Unfortunate Real-World Relevance: White Noise

Literally The Least Trustworthy Creature To Walk The Earth Since The Serpent In Eden, Elvis, What Are You Doing: Tom Hanks in Elvis

Straight-To-Streaming Dump That Most Deserves A Big Screen Revival: Prey

Best Rom-Com Featuring Bowen Yang In A Historically Queer Beach TownReleased in September: Bros

Most Inaccurate Depiction Of Content Moderation Practices: Kimi

Best OAAA (Obligatory Annual Austen Adaptation): Fire Island

Weirdest Casting Flex: Cate Blanchett, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio

Hardest Its Fans Will Argue That It Is Not Exactly The Movie On The Poster When It Is, In Fact, Exactly The Movie On The Poster: The Fabelmans

Best Use Of Chekhov’s Gator: X

Special Achievement In Mimicking A Particularly Connecticut Flavor Of Politician: Kathryn Hahn, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Most Visibly Affected By COVID Restrictions: Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.

Most ’00s: Turning Red

Best Dick Metaphor Death: The Woman King

Most Online, For Better And For Worse: The Menu

Most Ideas Compressed Into The Least Amount of Time: Wendell & Wild

Widest Apples-To-Oranges Disparity Between This And Any Other Movie On This List: Neptune Frost

Most Boston: Confess, Fletch

Quickest I Have Switched From Interpreting A Movie As Satire To Socialist Realism: Triangle of Sadness

Too Few Minutes Of Idris Elba And Tilda Swinton Flirting: Three Thousand Years of Longing

Sweatiest: Funny Pages

Best State-Sponsored Action Propaganda Since Chapaev: Top Gun: Maverick

Better Of The Two Instances This Year That A Prominent Male Jewish Director Made Us Watch His Movie Instead Of Going To Therapy: Armageddon Time

Jean-Luc Godard Memorial Award For The Most Cartoonishly French Film Of The Year: Both Sides of the Blade

Lifetime Achievement Award For Colin Farrell’s Eyebrows: The Banshees of Inisherin

Weakest Wi-Fi: The Eternal Daughter

Best Alternative To Actually Doing Your Taxes: writing EMO jokes about Everything Everywhere All At Once

Least Creepy Twin Children: Petite Maman

Best Prison Food: Decision to Leave

Heaviest Lift By The “Inspired” Bit Of “Inspired By A True Story”: RRR

First But Hopefully Not The Last Time That A Claire Denis Movie Inspires A Taylor Swift Album: Stars at Noon

My Most Uncanny Movie-going Experience Of The Year, Thanks To The Two UMass Bros Who Showed Up Late, Drunk, And Preceded To Loudly Ask Each Other Every Five Minutes What The Women Were Talking About: Women Talking

Better As A Movie Than As A Thinkpiece: Tár

Probably The Closest We’ll Get To A Terence Davies/RuPaul Collab: Benediction

Film Of The Year For Archivists Who Feel Smug About Knowing How To Correctly Pronounce “Muybridge”: Nope

A Year with Mubi

Still of Bill Paxton from Kathyrn Bigelow's film "Near Dark"

Like every other average movie/TV viewer, I’ve slowly accumulated a pile of subscription streaming services over the years while chasing the (impossible) dream/promise of being able to watch any given movie at any given time. At this point I think the tally stands at: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Discovery+, Apple TV+, AMC+, Paramount Plus, and even, don’t judge me, the Lifetime Movie Club. (I’ll regularly use Vudu for rentals to fill in the gaps, while I still maintain a futile, not-particularly-principled “stand” against both Disney+ and Amazon Prime and will pursue any titles exclusive to those platforms via…other…means)

Of course, as an aspiring cinephile I remain frustrated (in the abstract) by how that lineup leaves a ton of independent, foreign, and otherwise obscure back-catalog material out in the cold and/or subject to the tax-evading whims of the major media companies. So I’ve also dabbled in the past with the late, beloved FilmStruck and its spiritual successor, the Criterion Channel, but had to concede, after multiple years of mindlessly watching the monthly debit to my bank account fly by without ever seeing the Janus Films logo, that my at-home viewing habits and the everything-all-at-once-pile-of-tiles model of most streaming video services, including Criterion, do not gel easily with art-house fare. Given the opportunity – out of thousands of undifferentiated options – I am highly likely to default to comfort food sitcom reruns over a passed-over Céline Sciamma joint.

Unless – unless! There is something to force my hand. Which is why I have always been intrigued by the model of Mubi, with its highly curated, explicitly rotated selection of titles. But for whatever reason (perhaps the assumed FOMO of missing out on films before they rotated out of the service and “wasting” my subscription, as was my usual experience with FilmStruck/Criterion), I never dived in until finally gifted a one-year subscription for Christmas 2021. Thinking back over the year of movie-watching (read: forced to choose whether to re-up the subscription with my own cash), I was moved to reflect and write up a bit both about the particular delights of some of the films I encountered but also on the general experience of Mubi, which I must say does stand out somewhat from the crowd.

Now, Mubi no longer strictly holds to what I recall was their original model of only having 31 titles available at any given time, with one film added and one cycled out of rotation every day, giving you only a month to watch any given entry; having gradually expanded their role as distributors and producers over the years (including recently acquiring The Matchstick Factory), there’s a fair bit of back-catalog material, largely from foreign studios, that, much like every other streaming service, appears to be available exclusively and in perpetuity (or at least for the lifetime of whatever contracts have been signed behind closed doors). And while their rotating carousel still highlights one curated new addition every day, many if not most of the titles seem to stick around for considerably longer than a month, giving one plenty of time to build up a languishing pile of unwatched titles.

That said – it was a revelation to see how slowing down the content spigot to a controlled trickle affected my follow-through on actually sitting down and watching a bunch of movies that I’m certain I would have scrolled right past on any other service. Rather than facing that wide-open, intimidating, impossible question of “What do I want to watch?” and being met with a deluge of new, old, and stale recommendations, it limited the question, every day, to simply: “Do I want to watch this movie?” If the answer was yes, I could tap an icon on my phone to add the title to my watchlist, and likely within a few weeks, left to my own devices for an afternoon or evening, I would indeed sit down and watch the damn movie (the giant, glaring “LEAVING IN 14 DAYS” countdown banner that appears in the app over titles that are about to leave is also an incredible motivator and piece of UI/UX design that definitely succeeded several times in kicking my ass toward a film that I had otherwise left ignored for too long). If the answer was no, then no harm nor foul – the question would pop up again tomorrow, and the very act of picking and choosing felt worthwhile, relieving the worry of whether I was getting “my money’s worth” from the subscription.

Running down the final tally of 24 films that I watched over the course of the year, an average of 2 movies per month may not seem like much in our maximally-extracted-value culture, but I can only emphasize again how I almost certainly never would have picked these particular films out of the lineup on HBO Max, Hulu, or any other mainstream service (one especially – in fact my favorite, top-rated Mubi watch of the year – is notoriously difficult to find on any streaming service and prone to random and extended disappearances given its peculiar rights situation, so that was an especially delightful find). Even with the films I didn’t end up liking very much, the ability to finally catch up with and cross off indie sleepers or foreign titles that I’d missed in years past, to explore the lesser-celebrated nooks and crannies of favorite genres or filmmakers, to challenge myself with repertory or eccentric picks without necessarily having to trek out to the local indie theater in the midst of a still-raging pandemic; I felt the closest I ever have to recapturing my film studies spirit since leaving New York City five years ago.

So! If this style of engaging with movies appeals to you (or so does the following list of movies themselves – though keep in mind this is essentially my double-curated personal watchlist, and there were many other directions I could have gone with what Mubi made available!) – I can’t recommend Mubi enough. I don’t know that I will bring back this particular blog format next year (it would probably be more worthwhile to revive the full ERPs – Ethan’s Repertory Picks – and fold Mubi watches into that, but I lack the energy to pull that off at least this time around) but I do very much look forward to continuing to explore in 2023!

Top 10:

  1. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
    • I bothered nearly everyone I know around October to add this to their Halloween/spooky watching rotation, but truly I feel like Bigelow’s neo-Western/vampire mash-up would hold up well no matter the time of year. I’m 100% convinced Near Dark would be more highly revered in the ’80s genre/cult classic canon if it was more widely and easily available: the cast is chock full of Cameron favorites doing their thing (Bill Paxton! Lance Henriksen! Jenette Goldstein!), on top of a unique, scuzzy, but occasionally incredibly/woozily romantic vampire story that just happens to erupt in satisfying squib-happy violence from time to time. Never quite seen anything like the way the intro scenes (with Adrian Pasdar’s hapless cowpoke accidentally stumbling into a drifting pack of monsters) is shot, scripted and staged.
  2. Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018)
    • Petzold is a blind spot for me, but I could see what folks are on about minutes into this curious, timeless anti-fascist affair. I have to say, I’m a sucker for a director that knows how to unsettle the viewer with long shots, and Petzold keeps you on that knife’s edge between languor and excruciating anxiety that one glimpses (even when not, uh, escaping political persecution and execution) in the in-between from departure to destination.
  3. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)
    • I’m entranced by nearly everything Panahi does, including his less-ballyhooed pre-arrest films; this was no exception. An extraordinary, heart-breaking depiction of class division, with an unforgettable, half-silent performance from its troubled lead; finally seeing this added quite a bit of context and flavor missing from the extended piece of This Is Not a Film that reflects on the making of Crimson Gold. Very glad to have filled in this gap in the Panahi filmography.
  4. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009)
    • Everything I loved about Call Me By Your Name – the perfect control sliding up and down the scale of romanticism, sensuality and eroticism; the delicate homages to Visconti melodramas – without, uh, the bits that are less fun to engage with. Plus, swap Timothée Chalamet for Tilda Swinton! Who doesn’t win here?!
  5. The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
    • Speaking of homages – what an audacious and careful recreation of a particular kind of B-picture that quite literally hasn’t been made in decades. Forget the third-wave/postmodern feminist (re)analysis of witchcraft, male/female relationship dynamics, spiritual communities, etc. – this one’s a (welcome) challenge just to sift and sit through a style of image-making that got tossed out by the American New Wave.
  6. Rodents of Unusual Size (Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, 2017)
    • A documentary that promises to enlighten the viewer on the history of nutria (yes, the giant, invasive rats) but cleverly zags to become an extremely moving and intimate portrait of blue-collar Louisiana. Certainly the most surprising cry I had in movie-watching this past year.
  7. Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012)
    • Just a rollicking, tense, terrifically-executed crime thriller. Alllllmost starts to overstay its welcome with maybe a twist or two too many and the extended third-act shootout, but To’s style and a great pair of lead performances keep things propulsive from start to finish.
  8. Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners (Shola Lynch, 2012)
    • A simple, but fierce and enraging overview of Davis’ activism and particularly the criminal case made against her for abetting the armed takeover of a Marin County courthouse in 1970. Lynch knows she has the best tool available to tell this story – Davis herself – at hand, so largely sits back and lets one of the most thoughtful and engaging public speakers of the past 50 years guide the tale.
  9. White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014)
    • I’m not quite sure what to take away from this film besides the most virulently, violently pro-animal rights stance this side of a Greenpeace protest; there is a fable-like quality to the story that I suppose one could map on to the dynamics of any oppressed group or minority of your choice, but it frankly felt like a stretch to me. But it’s certainly the source of some of the most startling, vivid movie imagery I’ve seen in some time, all the more incredible (in the literal sense) that it was managed in a humane environment to match its pro-dog ethics.
  10. Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983)
    • A cliché I’m sure, but Beresford’s Tender Mercies is unsurprisingly, well, tender! It is really quite wild to me now with this added context that Jeff Bridges and Crazy Heart picked up so much acclaim for doing uhhhh like no joke the EXACT SAME MOVIE only 25 years later. But that’s neither here nor there – Robert Duvall and Tess Harper are both lovely here, and Horton Foote’s screenplay engages with the obvious connections between country music and southern/Texan Christian culture vis-a-vis thematic obsession with addiction, recovery and redemption that feels like a lighting rod few other Hollywood (or even indie) films have dared to touch.

Also watched:

  1. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2017)
  2. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
  3. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)
  4. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)
  5. This May Be the Last Time (Sterlin Harjo, 2014)
  6. Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, 2017)
  7. The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh, 2017)
  8. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (Eli Craig, 2009)
  9. Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)
  10. Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998)
  11. Love Affair (Leo McCarey, 1939)
  12. Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2020)
  13. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, 2013)
  14. Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999)

Le Carré Adaptations, Ranked

I recently read John le Carré’s Silverview, a water-tight little gem of a novel that is a fitting and poignant cap to the author’s storied career. It reminded me of a long-abandoned pet project that I began a number of years ago (before the Park Chan-Wook Little Drummer Girl series was even announced, I think) but never got over the finish line: to watch, rank, and write up every filmed adaptation of le Carré’s work, whether movie or TV series.

Well, I finally tracked down and powered through some of more obscure BBC adaptations (not to give any spoilers, but some have been clearly forgotten for a reason). The gap between starting and finishing my project does mean it has now unfortunately been some time since I visited some entries and my keenest analysis has perhaps faded from memory. On the other hand, perhaps that assisted with the ranking – letting those movies with the strongest and most lasting impression rise to the top. In any case, much as I love le Carré’s grimy, shifty landscape of sallow-faced operatives and creaky back rooms, I’m not particularly inclined to start all the way over, so here we go. From the bottom to the top:

16. The Looking Glass War (1970)

One of the earliest adaptations takes the lowest spot by virtue of being so utterly, completely, transcendentally forgettable. I suppose in a meta way, The Looking Glass War is actually the most authentic depiction of the faceless men that le Carré held so dear; but let’s be honest, that kind of authenticity is not really the reason we read books or watch movies. I struggled to recall a single detail of the plot here – Wikipedia tells me something about a Polish emigré dropped back into Eastern Germany to retrieve photographs, which is certainly plausible and standard le Carré fare, though Christopher Jones makes for a rather less-plausible Pole. I remember a young Anthony Hopkins being mildly interesting in a too-brief supporting turn, but otherwise this is entirely boilerplate material elaborated to much greater effect by both le Carré and his adapters elsewhere.

15. A Perfect Spy (TV, 1987)

One of le Carrés most sprawling and ambitious novels (the only, to my recollection, to attempt to actually cover a character’s lifetime) gets a listless and overlong “mini”-series. On the page, Magnus Pym is a cipher, his loyalties at any given moment as much a mystery to the reader as to those around him – forced to visualize this in five episodes’ worth of low-budget closeups, Peter Egan can pretty much only summon this inscrutability via blank stares and incomprehensible, paradoxical actions (not even taking into the account the whole two episodes/hours spent in Pym’s childhood and teenage years). Meanwhile, the day players are pitched all wrong, dominated by over-the-top, Law and Order-cameo-type theatrics that are so very wrong for le Carré’s tone and which pretty much every other entry on this list avoids. The one bright spot is Ray McAnally as Magnus’ rapscallion father Rick.

14. The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

A wonky film, though one nominally wouldn’t expect much from some of le Carré’s worst source material (a fact that made one of the later entries on this list such a pleasant surprise). The Little Drummer Girl is possibly his most outrageous plot, much closer than usual to the romanticized Ian Fleming-type spy stories that le Carré supposedly hated. So the filming style here – utilitarian and sparse, barely a notch up from the BBC productions, probably intentional to match their reputation and audience expectations of a “le Carré” work – actually clashes horribly. Diane Keaton is terribly miscast as Charlie, clearly very much a woman in her mid-30s when the character does not work at all if a day over 20 (and look, I adore Diane Keaton, but the idea of giving this part to a non-Brit is madness). It’s a shame, especially since Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s Mossad controller is the kind of insane casting that inexplicably *does* work. But the movie just winds up a string of baffling choices cobbled together to little point or effect.

13. Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Another attempt whose greatest sin is blandness. It very much feels like some producer wanted to piggyback on the recent successes of other contemporary adaptations higher on this list, with little enthusiasm or perspective behind the particular story; an IP grab for the art house (clearly evidenced by the hedged, tacked-on coda to one of le Carré’s most brutal endings). But, it’s shot slickly enough, and the cast is uniformly solid if unremarkable. You expect the standout to be Stellan Skarsgård, teed up to chew the scenery as Dima,the flamboyant Russian money launderer looking to sell out his oligarch clients, but in true le Carré fashion that kudos actually belongs to Damian Lewis, both catching and deflecting the eye as Hector, the MI6 investigator caught between manipulating his agents and being manipulated by his political superiors.

12. A Murder of Quality (TV, 1991)

An oddity in le Carré’s oeuvre, starring his most famous character but completely transplanted from “the Circus” to a mystery plot more in line with something from Inspector Morse or Ms. Marple. As long as your expectations are suitably adjusted, this TV movie becomes a perfectly serviceable way to pass the time – Joss Ackland was the proto-Skarsgård of scenery-chewing, Denholm Elliott plays an agreeably rumpled “Detective” Smiley, and you get a fun flash of young Christian Bale. The ceiling is quite low here, but at least it doesn’t trip.

11. The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I had generally positive memories of this one from the early aughts that drained considerably the moment I realized/remembered that *Brendan Gleeson* was meant to be playing a Panamanian. Still – the central relationship mostly lands: Geoffrey Rush makes for a great le Carré scoundrel in the Rick Pym tradition, and Pierce Brosnan is a savvy bit of casting (though he was clearly so bored and/or over-eager to flip his heroic Bond persona that his Andy Osnard comes off as a rather un-le-Carré-ish cartoon villain). The scenes with the two together, bringing out the worst in each other, spiraling out to the great detriment of themselves and those around them, are propulsive amid an otherwise by-the-books thriller. Rush’s visions of his mentor Uncle Benny, gleefully and eccentrically played by Harold Pinter of all people, are so jarringly shot by John Boorman that I still can’t quite decide if they work as part of the film’s darkly comic tone or detract by hitting the node too hard.

10. The Russia House (1990)

Another former Bond paradoxically bringing star-power sheen to le Carré’s galaxy of normies, resulting in a thriller too conventional to reflect the author’s unique voice but that still largely delivers on the genre’s pleasures. Unlike Brosnan, Connery need make no attempt at all to subvert his established persona; his curmudgeonly charisma is a fine match for a reluctant spy (it’s really the bit where he’s a *book-seller* that’s a stretch). Do I buy Michelle Pfeiffer as Russian? No. Do I care, because ’90s Michelle Pfeiffer was and remains a national treasure? I do not. Unremarkably shot, but the twisty plot keeps one engaged.

9. The Deadly Affair (1966)

Catch me on a different day and I could swap around this film and either of the previous two on this list. But today I rank it top in the trio for Sidney Lumet’s elevated direction and James Mason’s sweaty, disheveled take on Smiley (sorry – “Charles Dobbs”), wallowing in perhaps the character’s lowest moment. It’s also unabashedly European – Simone Signoret! Maximilian Schell! Harriet Andersson! – in a way the other two aren’t that just better retains that classic, Cold War-fueled le Carré simmer. Quincy Jones’ moody jazz score and D.P. Freddie Young’s washed-out, foggy color palette are subtler pleasures than some of the bolder work higher on this list, but pleasures nonetheless.

8. The Night Manager (TV, 2016)

If we were ranking based on pure entertainment value, The Night Manager might have come in tops, but that just seems wrong and counter-intuitive for a le Carré list. Unabashedly sexy, over-the-top, all tension and sensuality and romantic settings and daring capers – I mean, there’s not an anticlimax in sight here! You can almost hear the Broccoli family second-guessing whether they should break Daniel Craig’s contract and offer Bond to Tom Hiddleston on the spot. The everyman-turned-accidental-spy is a classic le Carré setup, but Susanne Bier’s series never bothers to address what such an astoundingly handsome and charming man as Hiddleston is doing as a night manager of a hotel in the first place. Instead she just lets a murderer’s row of actors – Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki – absolutely go to town on a spy romp with little to no reflection on the human cost of the craft *at all*. “Joes,” they’re not.

7. Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

On nearly the perfect flip side are the two BBC Alec Guinness-led Smiley adaptations: all unflashy, workman-like execution of a story done to quiet perfection. Smiley’s People is the lesser of the two less through any fault (or really any kind of difference) in the production than it’s just not quite as good a story – Karla’s downfall has always just been a *little* too pat/quick for me even in the book, though it’s certainly in keeping with le Carré’s insistent de-romanticizing. In any case, Guinness is all you want him to be here in his return to Smiley: more of the same phlegmatic, droll demeanor and hyper-competent machinations. His rapport with Bernard Hepton’s peculiarly jovial Toby Esterhase is a particularly welcome addition to this one.

6. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

My word, was anyone ever better suited to play a le Carré protagonist than Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hangdog’s hangdog? Even his talent as one of cinema’s great swearers comes into play here, in a denouement where Hoffman’s thwarted operative lets loose a thunderous “fuck” that has stayed with me for years and in many ways feels like an eruption *on behalf* of every other le Carré lead, too professional to ever do it themselves. Anton Corbijn’s highly composed, clinical style and visuals feel right for latter-day, post-Soviet le Carré – all glass and marble and computer screens, a reminder that the tech-infused, “modern” iteration of espionage and surveillance remains as cold as the Cold War ever was.

5. The Little Drummer Girl (TV, 2018)

I mentioned before that this is one of le Carré’s wonkiest, most outrageous plots, making it an absolutely inspired course correction to hand a second attempt at adaptation to Park Chan-wook. Completely eschewing the dust and fog and chipped paint that usually defines le Carrés underworld-in-plain-sight, Park (as he ever does) goes full-tilt aesthete, packing the frame with flowing dresses and saturated color and sumptuously-decorated sets, right down to a woozy, romantic set-piece staged on the steps of the goddamn Parthenon. No one is hiding behind blandness and mediocrity here – instead, the series piles on layer after layer of artifice, a fitting match for Charlie, the aspiring actress trying on political loyalties and ideology like a new bathing suit. Florence Pugh was the breakout start here for good reason – she balances confidence, naivete, insecurity, yearning, curiosity, boredom, all the pieces necessary to make this story work at all. Elsewhere, Michael Shannon is as solid as to be expected (not as unhinged as you might expect, as a latter-day Kinski), and Alexander Skarsgård is miscast (just, stop with signing up northern European men to play Mossad agents, I’m begging you) but not disastrously so.

4. The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz won the Oscar (not undeservedly) for her turn as the crusading activist Tessa, but it’s really Ralph Fiennes’ finely-calibrated, devastating turn as Justin Quayle, the naive and passive diplomat who gradually uncovers a web of political corruption and pharmaceutical greed, that sticks with you. Fernando Meirelles’ style and tone, vibrant and melancholy in equal measure, is a great match for the material, one of le Carré’s saddest and starkest in its depiction of the impact of the games played by the global elite. In his postscript to Silverview, le Carré’s son Nick Harkaway speculates onhis father’s hesitancy to publish such a near-complete manuscript, landing on its unflinching and arguably unkind depiction of the wheel-spinning of tradecraft – in Harkaway’s eyes, a sharper critique of the utter pointlessness of professional espionage than most of le Carré’s other works. I don’t entirely buy or agree with this argument, and The Constant Gardener is a big reason why – no one playing inside the system comes off well here, and I think the movie does an excellent job of documentary-influenced exposure of injustice without overly preaching or losing the messy character arc at its center.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV, 1979)

In many ways the ur-text of le Carré adaptations and the one most of the entries ranked lower are largely trying to copy in one way or another. For many, Alec Guinness defined George Smiley, and this series at large stands as the best example of adapting le Carré’s uncanny ability to make art with shades of beige. I can’t really find any particular fault with that assessment – the paranoid languor of Smiley’s methodical search for a mole in MI6’s highest circles is the author’s master work, and the BBC series is as dutiful and attentive to le Carré’s text as his lamplighters are to the arrangements of a dead drop. Procedural/narrative television still rarely hits this level of genre satisfaction so squarely.

2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

It’s fascinating, particularly considering how so many folks looked to copy the BBC Tinker Tailor on both TV and film, the ways in which the *actual* first le Carré adaptation – Martin Ritt’s movie, coming only two years after the breakout novel and preceding even the actual writing of the Karla trilogy – continues to stand alone. The only adaptation to be shot explicitly in black-and-white, such a literal realization of le Carré’s shadows and grays could’ve whacked viewers over the head with visual metaphor,but by god it plays, Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas trapped in the purgatory of a cover story, probing and poking for the way out of his self-imposed captivity with no way of knowing whether he’s headed for escape and reward or just an even worse fate. Le Carré’s plots often hinge on what is not said between his characters, but Ritt’s film has some of the best, sharpest dialogue in any of the adaptations, particularly in the scenes with Burton and Oskar Werner dueling back and forth, the movie just sitting back and letting them sink into the rhythm and tension of each interrogation. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is really worth seeking out if the extent of your le Carré knowledge is one or both versions of Tinker Tailor.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I mean, I don’t even know where to start. Tomas Alfredson’s film exceeded all my expectations for another take on Tinker Tailor (how could you top Guinness?) and gets better every time I re-watch it and notice another subtle detail or precise edit. It seemed an impossible task to condense the twisty narrative, full of divots and red herrings, down to a two-hour film, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s script succeeds precisely by throwing too much detail at the viewer in too little time – the effect is a fog, a blur of names, faces, and obscure lingo with little guidance until the very end on *which* of these details is actually important. That’s what elevates Smiley as a character in the books – his ability to sift through the noise and the haze and see the threads, the true intentions at play behind seemingly unconnected symptoms. I do hesitate to declare Gary Oldman a better Smiley than Guinness – the former is clearly still indebted to the latter – but he certainly finds his own spin on it, taking the veteran spymaster’s monkishness to the extreme. I recall, at the time of the movie’s release, my mother compared Oldman’s performance to a lizard gradually waking up from a cold-blooded stupor, and the metaphor is bang-on: that is exactly what Smiley is in this story, a camouflaged leviathan stirred, inexorably, out of retirement. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Colin Firth stand out, but there’s not a note wrong in the grizzled bunch – and Alfredson comes up with several shots and set-pieces that reach an instantly iconic distillation of le Carré’s mood and tone as no other adaptation has. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the interrogation of David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase on an airport runway,a propeller plane growing ever, anxiously closer in the background via a flattened, distorted lens; but there are others, like the menacing freight elevator at the Circus, or Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr zipping around shipping containers in a sports car with his doomed lover/mark). If you don’t vibe with this movie, I can’t help you – best to avoid le Carré altogether.