In last year’s top 10, I remarked that we’d eventually look back on 2021 as a significant transition year in the history of cinema. Well, allow me to expand (and slightly hedge) on that proclamation: we’ll look back at 2021 and 2022 as significant transition years. I look at 2022 as the year the bill finally came due. Studios frantically reassessed their business models as streamers learned of the terrors of interest rates; most movies released the old-fashioned way underperformed because those same streamers so drastically changed viewing habits. Even if you tuned out the endless number of bad headlines, I’m sure you stumbled across four heinous acts that David Zaslav carried out.
Still, I find a lot to be optimistic about. Even with a few slight months of releases, the year rounded into form nicely, delivering plenty of strong films — many from younger generations of filmmakers — that point to a bright future for cinema, whatever shape it may take.
Before diving in, my sincerest apologies go out to Hit the Road, No Bears, The Quiet Girl, Girl Picture, Saint Omer, Return to Seoul, any of the works released this year by Hong Sangsoo, and all the other highly praised films from the year that I couldn’t make time to watch. Listen, even lowly critics like me have a life. We can’t get around to everything!
With that mea culpa out of the way, here are my favorite films of the year:
The “Very Solid Movies That Deserve Some Type of Recognition for Their Craft” Group
The Woman King
Three Minutes: A Lengthening
All My Friends Hate Me
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
Emily the Criminal
Stars at Noon
The “I Really, Really Like These Movies But There Are Slightly Better Movies Out There” Group
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Decision to Leave
All That Breathes
The “Impossibly Tough Omissions That Might Be in My Top 10 if You Asked Me Tomorrow” Group
Top Gun: Maverick — Big planes go zoom.
The Banshees of Inisherin — Twisted Shakespearean tragedy with a side of Guinness and the fellas.
The Eternal Daughter — More sneakily devastating work from Joanna Hogg. She’s turning into one of my favorite working filmmakers.
Happening — Audrey Diwan’s abortion drama often feels like a horror film. The camera is always on Anamaria Vartolomei’s shoulder, and you can never look away. In many ways (and not just the most obvious ones), it feels way too real.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery — Look, everything that Daniel Craig says in that goddamn Kentucky Fried Detective accent just makes me laugh, I’m sorry.
Pleasure — Somehow, Ninja Thyberg’s staggering directorial debut painstakingly explores the LA porn scene without passing judgment on the individuals in it. Sofia Kappel’s performance is the best of the year that no one is talking about.
Mad God — Of all the passion projects that would not have existed without streaming services opening up their coffers, Mad God is one of the few I’m most happy exists. What a brilliantly strange and demented stop-motion vision from Phil Tippett.
RRR — An action epic so loud and silly that every American counterpart looks like something out of the mumblecore subgenre. It’s a contemporary standard bearer for what true, no-holds-barred spectacle should be, and an example of how most American blockbuster filmmaking has lost its way.
Jackass Forever — Just a bunch of dudes being dudes. Who doesn’t love that?
Everything Everywhere All at Once — What’s left to say about this one? It immediately feels like it’s been embraced as a modern classic, and for good reason. I’m curious what a rewatch would do for my appreciation of it: the hype cycle for EEAAO has been so drastic and fierce that I find myself possibly underrating it now to compensate for the intense amount of love for it.
Enough throat clearing, here’s the top 10:
What’s a top 10 list without a little chaos?
Damien Chazelle’s possibly career-killing trash epic is gross, vulgar, stupid, and self-indulgent in about a hundred different ways, but MAN do I love it! It’s 190 minutes of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights but with the frenetic editing style of a teenager’s TikTok, hellbent on choking you out from the second elephant diarrhea splatters on a poor man’s face in its opening moments.
Does everything in it work? Oh, most definitely not. Diego Calva and Margot Robbie’s characters are entirely defined by their ambition, an all-too-common trait in similar rise-and-fall structures. Brad Pitt’s performance has a certain emptiness that suggests another actor might have done it better. Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li’s characters probably deserve their own movies so they’re not as tacked on here.
But through it all, Babylon remains an era-defining, apocalyptic work, marking the logical endpoint for movies about movies and…maybe the artform?!?!?! It’s both unintentionally hilarious and kind of brilliant (in a galaxy brain sort of way) that one could read Babylon‘s jaw-dropping ending as a wake for the medium. Or, it’s a celebration of all the wonderful, life-changing moments the industry has made despite its depravity. Or, maybe it’s a deeply cynical critique that the industry continues to hide all of its dirty laundry just out of frame. OR! Film is always on the verge of dying and we need to sprint to the closest mountaintop and scream its praises with enough sustained energy so that someone else can eventually make their own epic about Hollywood decades down the line. However you read it, you can be sure Damien Chazelle fucking LOVES Singin’ in the Rain.
Even when it doesn’t work, it does so with such conviction that it makes every bit so much fun to discuss. More movies should strive to divide on a massive scale.
#9: After Yang
There’s something so refreshing about a movie that knows exactly what it is at all times. After the best opening credits scene of the year which includes multiple families taking part in a virtual dance competition in shiny jumpsuits, the characters in After Yang hardly ever raise their voices above a whisper. Kogonada is never hurried in his second feature, softly moving from scene to scene as Collin Farrell’s Jake reckons with the impact his robot Yang had on his family, especially his daughter.
After Yang has recognizable sci-fi musings on what it means to be human, but it slyly changes those ideas to not focus on the difference between humans and AI, but the blurring line between the two. Additionally, Kogonada welcomes you to consider the impact all things can have — whether they have consciousness or not — and when technology may inhibit or enhance our relationship with everything around us.
Importantly, Kogonada doesn’t lead After Yang to any clear conclusions, allowing the viewer to sit with it and ponder those things on their own. And perhaps drink some tea while they do so.
#8: Crimes of the Future
When the teaser trailer for Crimes of the Future dropped, it seemed like David Cronenberg’s first film since Maps to the Stars was going to be one of his most vile films yet. In practice, it’s more of a hangout movie. Just replace layabouts smoking weed with people growing new organs and eating toxic waste.
It was initially an accident, but there’s something funny about having Crimes of the Future come on the heels of After Yang in this top 10. Both are formless, experiential tales about a near future in a post-human world, each concerned with how people will adapt to their surroundings. For Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tenser (yet another incredible Cronenberg name), his inexplicable ability to grow new organs due to some sort of climate disaster has turned into his performance art.
There’s a lot of richness under Crimes of the Future‘s odd conceit, and I admire how relaxed the entire presentation is. Other than creating an intriguing world out of the climate crisis, it’s a fantastic analog for the desire for bodily autonomy and the policing against it. I argue it’s one of the best movies about our current existential fears.
It’s also really funny. Give me more of Kristen Stewart as a squeaky, surgery-obsessed horndog.
Above it all, it’s fantastic just to have Daddy Cronenberg back.
#7: Neptune Frost
So much of the cinema in recent years has been iterative. More movies are meta, and more movies are meta about being meta. Sometimes the mix works well; other times, it feels like a snake continuing to eat its tail. I find myself wishing for filmmakers to take the next step, for the form to move into its next stage. It’s great that so many talented filmmakers can create their version of a previous auteur’s classic, but when will filmmakers start creating their own language?
Obviously, this ask is a little unreasonable, but Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s Neptune Frost is one of the very few to answer the call. It’s one of the few movies I’ve watched where I feel like I don’t have the vocabulary to fully articulate what it is. If I were to take a stab, it’s an anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, Afrofuturist, queer, intersex, musical, fever dream? I think?
Neptune Frost is a major head-scratcher, but it also has clear and powerful ideas about Black culture and the future of Black cinema which are entirely removed from current systems. They’re so palpable and strong that you’re entirely willing to give yourself over to this fascinating vision, and totally willing to forgive it when it feels like it’s held together (quite literally) by Elmer’s glue and Scotch tape.
Plus, one of the main characters wears a computer keyboard jacket, and it’s fucking awesome.
#6: Armageddon Time
My vote for the most misunderstood film of the year goes to James Gray’s Armageddon Time. In a time when most of his contemporary filmmakers are mining their childhoods for syrupy, nostalgia-driven time capsules, Gray’s vision of his childhood is resentful and honest, one where forced cultural assimilation destroyed lives and created the Trump family. There are no winners here. Just losers and those who lose it all.
For as thorny as Armageddon Time becomes, unlike your Green Books of the world that do everything in their power to absolve every white character of their wrongdoings, Gray doesn’t imbue any of his characters with a sense of moral superiority. Every character standing in for his family is culpable, and their fight to protect themselves means harming others. The amount of fatalism in each interaction is quite stark; even when things are good, you know it won’t stay that way.
All of Gray’s films seem to have a delayed appreciation. I imagine that Armageddon Time won’t be any different.
Margaret Brown’s stirring documentary is a tremendous illustration of how the sins of the past continue to persist. In Africatown, Alabama, residents have made it their mission to pass down the story of the Clotilda, an illegal slave ship in which a man named Timothy Meaher brought their enslaved ancestors to the states years after the country made it illegal. It’s a history many have worked tirelessly to hide or discount.
Seeing the researchers discover the ship is overwhelmingly emotional, but Brown correctly focuses on the individuals in the town, the lengths they went to keep their heritage alive, and the damage caused by Meaher and his direct descendants in the area. Similar to the other documentary on this list, Descendant is a powerful reminder of what storytelling can achieve.
Before Nope, Jordan Peele had already established himself as a premier image maker. Something seemingly as simple as a frisbee falling perfectly on a circle on a beach blanket can stir the mind in Us, or the sunken place in Get Out can captivate and immediately move to its second life as a meme. However, for as much as he had done for modern horror iconography in just two films, I’d argue Nope is his best effort yet.
Much of that comes from Peele’s questioning of image-making itself. Nope is often wrestling with our perverse desire to be subsumed by tragedy, to run towards and be entranced by car-crash-esque occurrences rather than interrogate why that might be the case. It’s a stroke of genius for a talented director to make their first spectacle movie about just that. In doing so, Peele made a movie that is full of bravura setpieces and thought-provoking subtext. He also continues to be incredible with actors, getting two dynamite performances from Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya.
It’s also worth mentioning how weird Nope is at times. Despite being positioned as one of the few mainstream auteurs that can draw a crowd, Peele doesn’t shy away from throwing a few oddities into the mix or tossing in narrative threads that initially create a sense of whiplash. It’s all part of the plan, and I truly admire that.
#3: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Although much of it is made in good faith, I often bristle when films are described as “of the moment” or “thematically daring.” Because, well, most of the time, they aren’t.
And then there’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which is one of the few movies to actually deserve those signifiers and more. Laura Poitras’ portrait of Nan Goldin’s fight against the Sackler family for their role as proliferators of opioids across the country is one of the finest examples of activist art of recent memory. Goldin’s tireless fight against the Sacklers is mirrored by her many pictures from years as a photographer, many of which depict friends and colleagues who were victims of the AIDS crisis just a few decades ago. The juxtaposition is a stark reminder of how injustice doesn’t go away but merely changes shape.
Equally important, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed points to how art can help to preserve humanity that institutions seem all too keen to forget. If Nan Goldin has her way, we’ll remember every single face.
Many have compared Todd Field’s virtuosic work in TÁR to that of Kubrick, and you can totally see it in the visual and thematic detachment. Plus, anything that gets people talking about Eyes Wide Shut and Nick Nightingale again is absolutely fine by me.
However, I immediately thought of Paul Thomas Anderson’s more austere works. There’s so much of Daniel Plainview in Lydia Tár. She’s the next in line in cinema’s rich history of fascinating character studies of morally bankrupt people exploiting every possible angle to rise to power in their field. For Cate Blanchett, Tár is the career-defining role in a career that was already full of them. It was such a stroke of genius for Field to place Tár in the classical music world, effectively drawing a straight line connecting the old and the new, and how taking lessons of the past to heart ultimately sets her dramatic downfall in motion.
And like PTA’s more restrained work, I’m convinced TÁR will morph into something more openly hilarious upon repeat viewings. Tár’s exploits are riddled with the driest of dry laughs…and also Blanchett prancing around like an insane person while playing the accordion. Field understands the absurdity of spending such a long time in such a perverse person’s head, culminating in its last shot that magnificently releases all the tension the film had built up over the previous 150 minutes.
I haven’t been this excited about a debut film in… who knows how long. Charlotte Wells’ beautiful Aftersun will shatter your heart into a million pieces, and leave you thinking for ages about the moments that cracked it.
Ostensibly a small-scale story about a dad named Calum (a deeply, deeply moving Paul Mescal) taking his daughter Sophie (an equally moving Frankie Corio) on a Turkish holiday, Aftersun‘s lingering impact only grows the further you get away from it, turning its simple construction into a haunting meditation on the ways in which we remember the people that leave us, and the inability to figure out the reasons why.
We see it only in brief flashes, but that feeling haunts a grown-up Sophie. The film suggests she often goes back to the camcorder footage of the holiday, looking for some kind of answer, but there isn’t any. Wells offers plenty of hints — it’s clear Calum is struggling and doing whatever he can to try to hide it from her — but never divulges the details. What is it that made Calum leave Sophie’s life for good? Did her mom cut off visitation rights? Did he commit suicide? Or did they simply lose touch? Is there anything in the footage or her memory of the holiday that points her to an answer? You’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter. All you know is that this was their last time together, and the gnawing lack of closure has forever affected Sophie.
Paul Mescal performs with the grace and emotional depth few actors can possess. (You best believe I have Paul Mescal season tickets now.) As for Frankie Corio, there hasn’t been a child performance this good since Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. The pair is marvelous together.
Charlotte Wells’ direction and Blair McClendon’s editing are pitch-perfect, offering enough of a picture for full emotional investment but not too much as to overplay the film’s hand. There’s so much beauty in Aftersun, and it’s even more amazing that it’s complemented by air-tight editing that doesn’t sap scenes of their naturalism, nuance, or opacity. Aftersun is one of the few movies to capture the aching beauty of memories, how we’ll bend them every which way to reach a satisfying conclusion, and how devastatingly open-ended they can remain.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on my top 10 movies of 2022? Comment down below!
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