Whether it be the glittering green turrets of the Emerald City, the cozy gin joint known as Rick’s American Café or the austere, highly polished corridors of the Death Star, a well-crafted film location can become its own character, taking on a life and personality alongside the people and creatures who inhabit it.
The films of 2022 explored far-flung islands, multiverses, bullet trains and Old Hollywood. From a farmhouse in rural Texas to a dank basement in a Denver suburb, the films breathed life into many locations that are now as memorable as the stories they witness. Some films took us back to explore new parts of familiar locales, including Pandora, Wakanda, Gotham City and Woodsboro. Whether old or new, it was a year of rich environs and intimate hiding places.
We returned to a well-known place in “Top Gun: Maverick,” following Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) back to the pilot-training facility in San Diego. “Top Gun” may look different after 35 years, but each training sequence incorporates the uniqueness of the jets involved.
From the opening sequence in the California desert to the snowcapped mountains of a distant enemy’s country, these pilots find peace, comfort, and safety in the tight confines of a cockpit.
Where “Top Gun” pilots take the battle to the skies, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” tells the story of warriors on the ground in the 1820s West African kingdom of Dahomey. For a citizen of Dahomey, the invitation to join the all-female Agojie denotes honor and esteem. Many women find themselves at the palace, whether by their own choice or discarded by their relatives. Outside its grand gates, the Agojie are mysterious, revered and feared. As aspiring warriors train and prepare to fight slave traders from Europe and neighboring tribes, the Agojie find a home and family together within the walls of the palace.
Fighting a different, quieter war, “Women Talking” centers deep, urgent conversation within a community. At the heart of Sarah Polley’s adaptation, the women of a Mennonite village seek a way forward after a series of brutal, violent abuses and attacks. With limited time to debate their options, the women assemble in a barn for long stretches of discussion. They could meet in someone’s living room or gather around a kitchen table. Instead, the neutral location affords each participant equal footing. Every- one is free to speak her mind in ways she never has before.
As a barn is a place to keep life-sustaining grain or animals, this building serves as a place to protect the women who must choose whether to sustain the life of the community, or break free and forge a different path. The barn itself feels sometimes big and open, and at other times claustrophobic, depending on who speaks and what they have to say. The shifting perspective gives the sensation that the barn itself breathes, listens, and shares their fears and hopes.
Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), the titular character of “Tár,” maintains a place of simultaneous refuge and entrapment in Todd Field’s film. The celebrated composer lives in Berlin with her wife and daughter, though she keeps a separate apartment as a workspace and occasional hideout.
For Lydia, the second apartment is a space to indulge her creative passions, to block out distractions and other responsibilities. As her curated life becomes increasingly unsteady, so does the sanctuary of that space. Noisy neighbors, disembodied voices and an overall sense of imbalance encroach on her until there is no quiet place in all of Berlin.
Another tortured artist in search of refuge is the king of rock ’n’ roll in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” For those of us on the outside, Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) life was all glamour and excess. The truth was something more sinister and heartbreaking. We visit the haunts of Presley’s youth: His childhood home, hot spots on Memphis’ Beale Street and tent revivals where he found his voice. In many ways, it seems idyllic. What could be better than becoming the biggest rock star the world has ever seen?
As Presley’s public life becomes bigger and more decadent, culminating in a long-term residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, his loneliness and isolation become more palpable. Ensconced in a penthouse suite high above the Vegas Strip, the Elvis of Luhrmann’s creation doesn’t gaze out upon the town from an ivory tower, but from a prison. Trapped in a terrible contract, desperate to break free from the oppressive Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), the International Hotel is both the site of Presley’s captivity and the only place where he can do what he loves most: bring his music to the world.
The prettiest of places can become the most constricting of enclosures when two old friends are at odds. This is true of the fictional island where we find Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson) in Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.” With its verdant hillsides, picturesque seacliffs and windswept cottages and pub, Inisherin is the type of charming setting that comes to mind when we think of a simpler life. The people of this tiny island, across the sea from mainland Ireland, may not be wealthy, but they are content. But when Pádraic and Colm’s sudden dispute ripples across the island, Inisherin itself bears impartial witness to the feud. When Pádraic’s sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) has a chance to leave, she asks her brother to go with her. But he can’t do it. Not because he is trapped, but because Inisherin accepts him even when others do not.
Rian Johnson also introduced us to a living island, this time off the coast of Greece in “Glass Onion.” The title refers to the structure commissioned by billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) for the island, and shares a name with the watering hole that became a favorite meeting spot of the mystery’s core group of friends. Bron’s version is a flashy tribute to wealth masquerading as a symbol of progress. From its perch above Bron’s private island, the gleaming dome overshadows the humble beginnings it is meant to represent. The humble beginning in a now-shuttered bar where Bron first met the friends he calls his “Disruptors.” Though we only see that Glass Onion in a few brief flashbacks, it is so important to the Disruptors that it begins to feel like the one old friend who is missing from the reunion weekend. Bron’s glass tribute is quite literally an empty shell of the place it is meant to memorialize.
In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert use a small, family-run self-service laundry and an impersonal IRS building as the home base for their dizzying journey through a multiverse. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and her family face an audit with an agent named Deirdre Beaubierdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) just as the multiverse is about to collapse. It is fitting that most of the harrowing parts of Evelyn’s fight happen within the concrete walls of the Internal Revenue Service as she taps into other versions of herself to fight armies of public employees. In a carnival funhouse of obstacles, sight gags and strange dangers, the building itself seems to stage the attack against Evelyn.
On the other side of town, the Wangs’ laundry and the apartment upstairs brim with overstuffed bags of washing, winking and smiling with their whimsical, googly eyes. For Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the business is the dream that keeps his family together. For his wife, Evelyn, it is the place she ended up when nothing else worked out. Their frightening, chaotic adventure teaches both of them valuable lessons about their home and each other and particularly helps Evelyn find new appreciation for the little business that has given her so much.
The idea of a location as a character isn’t new, but many of the year’s films have taken us to places we want to get to know, not just to visit. It has been a year of self-reflec- tion and introspection, for people, and for places.