Go Big or Go Home: The Best Films of 2022
For me at least, 2022 felt like a turning point in the world of movie-going. Though COVID-19 and its multitude of variants remain an ongoing (and likely indefinite) concern, the proliferation of vaccinations and treatments have made, for many of us, a return to normal routines much more plausible. This includes theater excursions, and while theatrical exhibition is neither dead (see, e.g., the success of Top Gun: Maverick, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Avatar: The Way of Water) nor fully out of danger (major chain Regal Cinemas just closed another 30+ theaters), this year felt indicative of the potential for a much more healthy balance between theatrical and streaming presentations.
Personally, I saw a significantly higher percentage of my favorite movies of the year in theaters when compared to 2021 and (especially) 2022. This of course begs the question of whether that means I liked movies I saw in the theater more or whether I just saw more movies in the theater, period, but ultimately it doesn’t matter: I’m a firm believer that a good movie is a good movie regardless of screening format, and while the theatrical experience is a special one (and one we need to keep alive!), more than anything I just want people to see movies, of all shapes and sizes, however they can. With that in mind, here are my favorites from the past year:
When you watch a lot of movies every year, you can very easily fall into the trap of assuming you know what a given film is going to be, sight unseen. Such was the case, embarrassingly, with Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature Nanny, which (on its way to winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) had been described with enough “elevated horror”-esque buzzwords that I figured I would see the film’s story and thematic beats coming a mile away. But I was happy to eat crow when it became clear that Nanny had little desire to wallow in the dreary and overwrought metaphors that have permeated the genre as of late. Beautifully shot and anchored by a wonderfully compelling performance from Anna Diop, the film is more character study than anything else, using its horror trappings to accentuate and energize in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the richness elsewhere. I’ve found that my final spot on these lists often goes to a late-in-the-year discovery, and Nanny is a more than deserving work.
9. Avatar: The Way of Water
Thirteen years. That’s how long it’s been since James Cameron made a movie — 2009’s Avatar, which itself had ended a twelve-year drought by the filmmaker and taken over the mantle of highest-grossing movie ever from his previous blockbuster and Oscar-winner, Titanic. Over the ensuing decade-plus, we’ve heard rumors every few months about what was happening with the Avatar sequels, but it had gotten to the point where it almost seemed impossible that anything would actually be released. But released it was, and as of this writing Avatar: The Way of Water sits at a healthy #6 on the all-time highest-grossing list. Much has been made of the technological aspects of this film (motion capture: incredible; 3D: the best I’ve ever seen; high frame rate: still doesn’t work), but what resonates for me — someone who preferred it in 2D, regular old 24 frames per second — is how it stands as a pure example of sincere and sensational blockbuster filmmaking. You can laugh a bit at some of Cameron’s dialogue, sure, but there’s no winking, no self-aware embarrassment — it’s a huge movie, with epic setpieces, but one that’s content to linger in the quiet moments and wear its heart on its sleeve. Plus, Sigourney Weaver plays a teenager: what’s not to love?!
8. Everything Everywhere All At Once
I saw Everything Everywhere All At Once in the week following oral surgery, which was simultaneously a wonderful and terrible decision. On the one hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a more electric theatrical environment: the crowd in San Francisco’s AMC Kabuki was losing its collective mind, particularly a man in the lower rows who kept shouting how this was the greatest movie he had ever seen. On the other, the constant smiling and laughing really did a number on my poor mouth. Ultimately a worthy trade-off — directing duo Daniels and their fantastic lead trio of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu deliver an exuberant, moving, and uproarious piece of maximalist filmmaking on a modest budget. There’s plenty to talk about with Everything Everywhere All At Once, but what has stuck with me most is how well it does homage. Too often you see a laziness in which filmmakers assume merely alluding to something audiences will recognize is sufficient; Daniels not only go further, but in two different directions with their references: absurdist, as in their send-ups of 2001 and Ratatouille, and deeply reverent, as in their extended tribute to director Wong Kar-wai. The entire film is a treat, but for those of us making and reading lists like the one on this page, it’s hard not to be taken with parodies this loving.
7. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Documentaries rarely make my year-end lists of favorites — a personal failing, but my response to the form tends to skew towards admiration rather than passion. Both sides of that spectrum apply to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Laura Poitras’ incredible portrait of artist and activist Nan Goldin. I knew little of Goldin, but by the film’s end I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of both her brilliance and her bravery. Using Goldin’s work and her words, Poitras takes us inside the life of a woman who has seen the best and worst life has to offer and captured it through her lens for all the world to see. In many ways it would pair well with The Fabelmans: when you have a photographer’s or filmmaker’s eye, your gift can also be a curse, and it becomes up to you how to do the most you can with that double-edged sword.
6. Both Sides of the Blade
Speaking of double-edged swords… All joking aside, to me it’s a major oversight that the film community at large appears to be sleeping on the fact that Claire Denis — one of our greatest and most fascinating living directors — released not one but TWO movies this year, both of which are complex, thorny, and quite good. But while Stars at Noon feels like the kind of movie that might have suffered from being misunderstood, setting it up for a critical reevaluation down the road, the truly excellent Both Sides of the Blade seemingly just came and went, vanishing into the ether with barely any fanfare. Working with familiar players Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, and Grégoire Colin, Denis weaves a complicated and cynical — yet ultimately oddly hopeful — picture of adult relationships and how they fall apart. With three actors at the top of their games (Lindon in particular turns in a mesmerizing performance), Denis is in full control of her craft and despite how immediately forgotten the film might feel right now, Both Sides of the Blade stands — in my opinion — as a top-tier work in a storied career.
5. The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh: Welcome Back. After a brutal up-and-down awards cycle for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the acclaimed playwright turned screenwriter-director returns with his best film to date. Harrowing, deeply sad, and yet truly funny, McDonagh’s particular blend of tragedy and comedy serves this story — of a man whose best friend one day just stops talking to him — incredibly well. Metaphorical, allegorical, historical: the layers are all there, ripe for picking over for thematic and cultural resonance, but the beauty of the film is that it can be taken purely on its own terms with a borderline absurdist scenario that’s grounded by one of the year’s best performances (Colin Farrell) and accompanied by three others (by Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan) that in any other movie might be able to make the same claim. But not enough can be said about Farrell, one of my all-time favorite actors, who is having a banner year (he’s both quietly wonderful in After Yang and beautifully gonzo in The Batman) and seems poised to potentially have his moment in the Oscar sun — playing a simple man who wants to live a simple life, Farrell sinks into his role with compassion and intelligence, using cinema’s greatest eyebrows to their fullest effect to generate audience empathy at every turn. But regardless of what happens in March, his work here seems destined to live on as an example of how to make a deceptively difficult role look easy.
4. Top Gun Maverick
I spent a lot of time this year thinking about the career of Tom Cruise, and I was far from alone as seemingly the entire country found itself susceptible to the charms and the thrills of Top Gun: Maverick. And here’s the thing — it shouldn’t have worked! Though we may be in the heyday of the legacy sequel, the long-gestating follow-up to a popular and arresting but deeply of-its-time ‘80s blockbuster felt like a potential cursed prospect: Cruise’s star has waxed and waned, Val Kilmer’s health has prevented him from gracing our screens much in recent years, and director Joseph Kosinski at this point simply doesn’t have the same level of cachet as the late Tony Scott. We shouldn’t have doubted; Maverick surpasses the original Top Gun in nearly every regard as the filmmakers craft something close to the platonic ideal of a modern blockbuster. Veterans and up-and-comers both have their time to shine, humor stems from authentic characterizations, the action is clean and exciting, and the film is paced to perfection. But the same key principle elevating The Way of Water can be applied here as well: though Maverick very much is a self-aware piece of cinema, that awareness doesn’t take the form of winking, “we’re in on the joke” deprecation; rather, it understands the essence of what makes a movie star and — more importantly — what makes Tom Cruise a movie star. Despite being wrapped up in a glossy package, Maverick presents Cruise with the opportunity to be more emotionally vulnerable than he has in years, maybe even decades, and he fully delivers — even though the ultimate lesson of the movie might as well be “Tom Cruise: Still the Best.” But you know what? Fair enough.
Perhaps the biggest and best surprise of the year was the word-of-mouth sensation that was S.S. Rajamouli’s Tollywood epic RRR. Admittedly a novice when it comes to Indian filmmaking, I had little idea what to expect when I sat down at my local AMC last April, but when the credits rolled after three hours of pure, unadulterated cinema, I was quite literally shaking with adrenaline and promptly texted half the people I know about the potential for a life-changing experience. Fortunately that seemed to be a common occurrence among those early viewers, and RRR fever quickly swept the nation, culminating in a best original song nomination last week that hopefully (please, I’m begging) means that superstars Ram Charan and Jr. NTR will be gracing the Dolby Theatre in March with a live performance of “Naatu Naatu,” the year’s most exhilarating setpiece. The not-so-secret secret to RRR’s success is that like one of Stefon’s famous clubs, it has everything. Megawatt superstars conducting a charm offensive? Check. Incredible musical numbers? Check. Romance? Check. Bromance? You know it. An understanding that visual effects are only limited by one’s imagination? 100%. Using tigers and motorcycles to murder hundreds of cartoonishly evil British colonialists? HELL YEAH. It’s the one movie this year that I’ve recommended to every single person who has asked me what they should watch, and it’s on Netflix as we speak. What are you waiting for?
Yes, it’s been meme-ified to death at this point, but I for one will not complain about the broad exposure of Tár. An honest-to-god masterpiece from writer-director Todd Field (who I desperately hope won’t go 15+ years between movies again), Tár stands as this year’s most impressive Rorschach Test of a movie — from “cancel culture” readings to dream sequence theories, Field’s film works as a thematic chameleon, shifting and deepening upon reflection and subsequent viewing. Anchored by a stupendous Cate Blanchett performance that rivals her work in my beloved Carol, Tár entrances and beguiles, building tension while maintaining a dryly comedic tone that pairs almost improbably with the dramatic narrative. In fact, Tár manages to be not only one of the smartest movies of the year, but the funniest, leaving the best joke for last in a final shot punchline that left me in absolute awe. Lydia Tár may not be real, but with a film like this she may earn the grand consolation prize of artistic immortality just the same.
1. The Fabelmans
It’s hard to find new things to say about Steven Spielberg, arguably the most famous director on the planet and — for my money — one of the all-time greatest. It feels like opinions on the now late-period master are all over the place at this point, though many of the criticisms I see are the same ones he’s faced throughout his entire career: Too schmaltzy? Too sensationalist? Style over substance? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but The Fabelmans, a nakedly autobiographical work, crystalizes for me the notion that Spielberg is a much more complicated and canny director than he sometimes gets credit for (even though, to be fair, accolades are one thing the man isn’t short of). The marketing positions The Fabelmans as the latest navel-gazing entry in the long “love letter to the movies” run by established auteurs — and yes, you’d be hard-pressed to not come away from the film a little teary-eyed. But running underneath the surface is a substantial streak of, if not full-blown cynicism, caution and regret. Spielberg smartly doesn’t try to wave away his prodigious talents, instead making a point of the downsides of artistic genius — not in the “woe is me, look how tortured I am” sense, but through a more subtle and complex presentation of how the ability to see the world so naturally through a cinematic lens might be weaponized, intentionally or not. Like most Spielberg movies, it’s wildly entertaining, achingly emotional, and simply looks and sounds better than almost anything else, and to top it all off, I predict in a decade or so we may be talking about it as the definitive example of the movie about making movies. Oh, and just in case we weren't convinced, he goes ahead and gives us one of the best, most crowd-pleasing endings in recent memory. The Fabelmans may have more on its mind than "the magic of the movies" but it sure as hell reminds us that yeah, movies can be pretty damn magical.
Honorable Mentions: Benediction, Decision to Leave, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Fire Island, Mad God, The Northman, Return to Seoul, The Woman King, Women Talking