Of all the things in all the world, I am often grateful most for the drifting away from my own life and becoming part of another when watching a really good film. You know, when you forget where you are, and who you are, and for a blissful couple of hours are in another’s world.
Like every year, 2022 provided its share of movie riches. This year I watched 77 films (thank you, Letterboxd) and was happy to be back amongst the tribe of those happiest with their faces backlit from the light emanating from a giant film screen in a theater.
Every year I say that it is hard to pick just the top ten or fifteen films, and yet it is truer with the passing of each year. So as before, here is a list of the films this year that turned on something within me: with anger, with intellect, with wonderful oddity, or just with giddy high-altitude entertainment.
Honorable Mentions: I do want to acknowledge some other films this year that I truly enjoyed. A call out to the goofy but smart, under-the-radar charm of CONFESS, FLETCH, the cool-witty vibe of the Jane Austen contemporary adaptation that is FIRE ISLAND, the intelligent, brave two-hander that peaked too early in the year: GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE, the sweetly grounded Cinderella charm of MRS HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, the visually arresting, brutal and relentlessly dogged THE NORTHMAN, the most striking and well-realized Indian film I saw this year, PONNIYIN SELVAI, PART ONE (sorry, RRR), the big-eyed but ultimately wistful wonderment that was THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF SOLITUDE, the artful twisting of horror expectations in SPEAK NO EVIL, the stealthy look at race in a film slyly disguised as a high-school comedy: EMERGENCY, the late-career Adrian Lyne concoction that is equally weird and libidinous, DEEPWATER and the unfairly maligned DONT WORRY DARLING.
However, here are the fifteen films that I most want to celebrate:
1. TAR: this film reminded me what cinema should be, and how we have so lost our way. At once, unapologetically cerebral, ruthless, and crafted with precision, TAR engages us with all the questions that gnaw on us in 2022. With a career already as storied as that of Cate Blanchett, it says something to claim that this might yet be her finest achievement. The film is smart for as much information it withholds from the viewer as what is given to us. Just as in real life, where we contend with questions around privilege, abuse of power, sexual misconduct and the scrutiny of public gaze with incomplete information. We almost never know the full truth.
2. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN: This was the funniest film I saw this year, and also at the end the most heart-rending. While the film is ostensibly about a simple friendship between two men (played by Colin Ferrell and Brian Gleason) wherein one suddenly decides one day that he wants to terminate the friendship, it could be about any type of relationship. Have we not all dealt with individuals in our life who mean well, but will just not take no for an answer? Also, what do you do when one person in a relationship wants out and the other doesn’t. Writer-director Martin McDonaugh takes this premise and runs with it to the extreme with his characteristic flair for absurd and unexpected violence. Also this film that is nominally about the sundering of the friendship between these two men is perhaps in reality only a stealth setup to actually tell the story of the character of Ferrell’s sister, played wonderfully by Kerry Condon.
3. EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE, ALL AT ONCE: What more is left to say about this film at this time. Yes the film’s title is apt, it is indeed about seemingly a hundred things at once, and the first hour appears so gonzo as to seem that the directors, The Daniels, have no plan in mind and are just throwing things at the screen randomly to see what sticks [BULLET TRAIN also suffers from the same misperception]. But through all of the craziness that unfolds on screen, there IS a plan, there is a method to the madness. And a message as old as the hills, about the need for tolerance and the value of family over all else. The mile a minute leaps in the film also afford the filmmakers to pay quick homage to so many other films. Perhaps none as wistful and lovely as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it section set in Hong Kong that venerates the woozy romanticism of Wong Kar Wai films, principally, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. That this little film, released in February is holding up strong late in the year and is at the forefront of every discussion about the best films of the year speaks to how indelible an impact the film has had. That and the fact that this film finally gives Michelle Yeoh the opportunity to prove once and for all that she is a film god.
4. ARMAGEDDON TIME: There is something about the pandemic that has made many top-end filmmakers look back upon their childhoods and to make films that look back upon their time growing up. Kenneth Branagh did this with BELFAST, Sam Mendes with EMPIRE OF LIGHT, and most recently Steven Spielberg with THE FABLEMANS. But of all these films looking back at a specific place and time when these directors grew up, ARMAGEDDON TIME from James Gray is perhaps the most emotionally honest and effective. Based in the eighties when he was growing up as a teen in New York in an immigrant family, James Gray presents the entire film I think, as an apology. As we transition from kids to adults we are also growing up in terms of moral rigor, and the ability to take stands on issues political or otherwise, and we are developing the confidence to speak up. With the giddy energy of a teen that doesn’t always allow for full understanding of social, moral or racial issues, Gray failed to stand up for a friend when he was a child, and this film is his mea culpa. I do not think he is asking us to absolve him of what happened, but just document those events. And to his great credit, Gray is not afraid to show himself and his family with all their imperfections, with a brutal honesty that puts this film ahead of others in this genre.
5/6/7. The Kill-The-Rich trilogy of TRIANGLE OF SADNESS, GLASS ONION and THE MENU. What good fortune to have, not one, not two, but three intensely entertaining films come to us this year, all about the indulges of the uber-rich. And as broad and on the nose as all three films may be in dialing up their satire of the gruesome excesses of the wealthy, the great satisfaction they deliver in seeing them get their comeuppance cannot be denied.
TRIANGLE OF SADNESS the latest from the wily provocateur that is Ruben Ostlund, offers a nasty, if heavy-handed skewering of the privileged aboard a small luxury-ship. And then in a smart second act sees the fates and the power dynamics gleefully flipped when the ship collapses and a few seek refuge on an island. Featuring one of the most daring, and wait-what-just-happened endings of the year, this one will have you leaving the cinema vigorously debating. As the better films tend to do
GLASS ONION: in another year, this would easily have been my top film of the year. Rian Johnson pulls off another delicious Agatha Christiesque whodunit by retaining the beats from KNIVES OUT but opening it up to more hijinks, more commentary, and more visual candy. When you have a murder mystery set on an island owned by a tech bro, you just know that the super-privileged have their comeuppance served steaming on a hot platter. Add to that some uncanny casting (hello Janelle Monae, why aren’t you a major star yet?) that eschews high voltage stars for more apposite casting, and you have a true charmer on your hands.
THE MENU: this one is yet another film about a group of superrich invited to a private island. The upper echelon chef who owns the island wants to deliver not just the ultimate in experience in food, but something a little more transcendent. With a script that always leaps a few steps outside the viewer’s grasp, and a premise that at its core is so absurd that you cannot do much else than shrug your shoulders, this is a glitzy piece of undeniable entertainment. Plus committed performances from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Anya-Taylor Joy, Nicholas Hoult and Hong Chau never hurt a film.
8. DUAL: Riley Stearns has been quietly making dryly absurdist films for the last few years and we are ignoring the intricate world-building of this smart filmmaker at our own risk. If you were already a fan of his THE ART OF SELF-DEFENCE from 2019, then you will find his latest just as hard to resist. Consider the premise of DUAL. Learning that she has a terminal disease a woman arranges to have a clone made to outlive her. Only she somehow prevails over her disease and now there’s two of her, which the cloning company will not allow, and now she has to fight herself to the death so that only one remains, thereby restoring order. Like a quieter Yorgos Lanthimos, Stearns sticks by the absurd rules he has created to deliver a smarting thriller that will long stick with you.
9. CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH: This shouldn’t work; it reads like a crank ‘em by the numbers indie film script. But writer/director Cooper Raiff has an earnestness that you either buy and settle in with or roll your eyes over; it was the former for me. The screenplay has a specificity that rings true and the characters never stray from who they are for an easy laugh. A paid for hire bar/bat mitzvah party-starter builds an unusual rapport with the mother of an autistic girl. See what I mean? This film made me smile the whole time I was watching it and I am learning that Dakota Johnson may be one of our great stealth actors.
10. CORSAGE: One of the films last year that just didn’t work for me was SPENCER, a fictionalized imagining of a weekend late in the life of Lady Diana. I found the film shrill and exhausting and overly affected. CORSAGE this year attempts a similar approach and comes out aces. It is a fictionalized accounting of the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Anachronistic, stylized and often a wishful-thinking revisionist, feminist take on the life of the real empress, the film is an attempt to do a biopic through a punk-rock lens. As played by Vicky Krieps, this empress is exhausted from the role of just the royal clotheshorse and wants more: more men, more political authority, more agency. I can see why this take on a historical figure may upset Austrian traditionalists looking for a onscreen adaptation faithful to real life. But like Sofia Coppola in MARIE ANTOINETTE, the filmmaker Maria Kreutzer here is more interested in capturing what might have been the inner life of this historical figure through a resolutely modern lens.
11. THE INSPECTION: Write about what you know, they say. And first-time writer and director Elegance Bratton tells a story based on his own experience as a lost man who enrolls in the Marines and must contend with being a gay Black man at boot camp. The film lives by the grays it creates; this is not the by-the-books retelling of homophobia in a training regiment that you might expect. The writing is nuanced and fluctuates back and forth between the lead (played by Jeremy Pope) dealing with the physical requirements of the boot camp and his emotional setbacks. Of particular impact are the few but sharply abrasive interactions between Pope’s character and his mother, played by Gabrielle Union. This is a coming of age film with uncommon honesty that never settles for pat, unrealistic resolutions.
12. THE WONDER: This film lives up to its pedigree, and it is a shame it hasn’t gained more awards traction. Based on the book by Emma Donoghue (writer of THE ROOM), directed by one of our most consistently adventurous directors Sebastian Lelio, and starring the best-in-her-generation Florence Pugh, the film is about a puzzle that needs to be solved. During the 1850’s, an English nurse is sent to a small Irish town to investigate the ‘miracle’ of a young girl who is able to survive without eating. As she spends more time with the girl and her immediate family, the nurse is convinced there is a scientific reason why the girl is able to survive without food. Part detective story, part commentary on the eternal clash between faith and scientific reason, and part angry indictment of predominantly men’s spaces that will not let a woman in, this is a well rendered piece of work. Special bonus: the opening and closing shots which economically convey the magic of moviemaking itself.
13. HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL. This film from first time director Adamma Ebo is structured as a mockumentary and saves its indignation for the very end. It is a funny yet scathing look at the institution of the megachurch in southern United States. In its telling of the fictional account of a pastor and first lady of one such megachurch trying to recover from a scandal and build back their congregation, the film offers, finally, a great opportunity for Regina Hall to demonstrate how good an actor she can be when given the chance. The film has been criminally overlooked for its controversial subject, but gives us that outsider view of the hypocrisy that pervades most religious powerhourses today.
14. EMILY THE CRIMINAL. Aubrey Plaza is almost always hired to play the smartest person in the room, the one who will cut you down with the slyest, driest retort. But we ignore her versatility at our own peril. When given the opportunity, she can pull off complex characters with easy gait; see the criminally overlooked BLACK BEAR from last year alone. Now this year EMILY THE CRIMINAL gives Plaza a lead role that she chews up with ace commitment. Plaza plays someone crippled by student debt who slowly embarks on at first small, then large jobs that function outside of legal propriety. Each job puts her in greater mortal – and moral – danger, and the film smartly depicts how difficult it is to pull out of a criminal setup once you are already a part of it. For a small independent enterprise, this film gave me more anxiety in my theater seat than any other this year. The action is tightly written and constructed to play out dangerously in real time. In our minds, we repeatedly beg the lead character to walk away, to not make another bad decision. Even as we fully know that we too would lack the luxury of moral fortitude if faced with the same circumstances as the lead character.
15. BULLET TRAIN. Is this the most misunderstood film of the year? Based on a Japanese manga of repute, all this film wants to be is a lark, a giddy piece of entertainment that would win the admiration of Tarantino. The plot is complex web of players and killers and too smart for this own skin hustlers whose lives cross-connect on the bullet train of question. The labyrinthine plot especially in the first hour where characters and their motivations are thrown at you in rapid succession has turned off many viewers. TOP GUN: MAVERICK came in a close second, but BULLET TRAIN was the film that gave me the giddiest joy in my theater seat this year. Is the plot too complicated? Are these characters impossibly smart? Do they talk with the sort of rapidfire wit that is entirely unrealistic? Yes, yes, and yes. But we go to the cinemas fully aware of the make-believe we are going to see on screen. Sometimes it is good to just to embrace the artifice and go along for a hyper-violent, fast paced ride. Also of note, I believe that years/decades from now, people will look back on the current time as the finest hour of Brad Pitt’s career. Ever since he has embraced the supporting character role, he has been doing work that most other actors lack by way or charm or effortless cool; see also Pitt’s solid turn in BABYLON.