With 2022 almost in the history books, there’s a danger it will be known as a disappointing period for cinema. Driven by a narrative consumed by fluctuating box office grosses and depressed stocks, studios, streamers, and independent distributors alike are nervous about the future, and film industry prognosticators are all too happy to declare that moviegoing as we know it is dead.
Baloney. 2022 was one of the strongest years for film, right up there with 2019 and 2010 as great times for movie lovers. Whether domestic or foreign, big-budget studio tentpoles or low-budget indies, films in 2022 could be as diverse and rewarding as an alien invasion western (Nope), a meditative study on fatherhood and memory (Aftersun), a rockabilly biopic of one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived (Elvis), and a sexed-up French costume drama about the dangers of “fake news” (Lost Illusions). The only downside to this wonderful year is that it had to end at some point. The following is a list of the top 10 films of 2022 and a runner-up list that could’ve easily been in the top in a weaker year.
2022 was a banner year for horror films, with Scream, Barbarian, Smile, and Speak No Evil resonating with critics and audiences alike. The best of them was X, Ti West’s stunningly simple take on the slasher subgenre. There’s not much to X: a group of good-natured pornographers want to film a movie on a remote farm, and are picked off one by one by their jealous elderly landlords. Yet like the great horror movies of the ’70s that it shamelessly evokes like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, X has an underlying subtext that’s there if you want it: the horror of old age, the joy of being sex-positive, the lingering trauma of the Vietnam War, just take your pick.
Yet West doesn’t forget that this is still a slasher film and unlike recent elevated horror movies, he delivers the bloodshed. Throats are cut, eyes are poked out, and, in a memorable scene, a character meets her unfortunate end in the jaws of a hungry crocodile. One of West’s secret weapons in elevating this mayhem into art is lead star Mia Goth, who pulls double duty here as the cocaine-consuming porn ingenue Maxine and the murderous and still horny old lady Pearl. Coupled with her work in the inferior prequel Pearl, Goth gave three performances to remember in 2022, all in service to West’s vision of sex, death, and the hunger for fame in America’s desolate heartland.
You can stream X on Showtime.
2022 was also kind to the mystery genre, which captivated audiences on both the big and small screens. The second season of The White Lotus offered more satirical digs at the rich and bored class (and would’ve been No. 1 on this list if it were a seven-hour movie) while two films, Glass Onion and Confess, Fletch, drew inspiration from two ’70s mysteries.
Glass Onion cribbed from 1973’s The Last of Shelia, borrowing its central idea (a rich man invites his friends to a secluded location) and expanded upon it to comment on the rise of the tech tycoon and idiot culture. Daniel Craig is at peak form as the loquacious dandy detective Benoit Blanc and the ensemble cast, particularly Kate Hudson as a ditzy influencer, is terrific. You can sense the writer/director, Rian Johnson, having the time of his life creating his latest puzzle box, and that feeling is infectious.
Glass Onion is available to stream on Netflix.
The shaggy spirit of Robert Altman’s superb New Hollywood mystery The Long Goodbye informs Confess, Fletch, a criminally underrated movie that got a botched theatrical release in September. Jon Hamm finally gets a big screen role that’s worthy of his talents, and he leads a pitch-perfect cast of fine character actors like his Mad Men co-star John Slattery and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden.
Fletch‘s comic pleasures are so quick and slight, you may miss them, but if you look closely and have patience, you’ll be rewarded with a sly suspense yarn that’s destined to become a cult classic. At long last, after two failed attempts in the ’80s, Hollywood finally got Gregory Mcdonald’s slippery sleuth right; it’s just a shame no one was around to see it.
Confess, Fletch can be streamed on Showtime.
What seems like a stunt quickly becomes something richer and deeper in Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, which is more than the genre exercise it appears to be. Starring Tilda Swinton in dual roles as both an elderly mother in declining health and a daughter distracted by writer’s block and a lingering sense of guilt, the film takes place in a largely empty hotel surrounded by ever-present fog and mysterious noises in the dead of night.
Ostensibly a horror story, The Eternal Daughter is essentially The Souvenir, Part III (the prior two of which were relatively straightforward autobiographical pictures) as it’s revealed the real terror is less what’s outside and more about internal conflicts that rise to the surface. Hogg, unlike most other directors, knows the value of silence, and in using everyday sounds like the ticking of a clock or the hum of a machine to evoke both mystery and dread.
The movie is that rare mixture of a pitch-perfect gothic story combined with an undercurrent of emotion that, once revealed, makes the movie more intimate and rewarding than expected. See it once to marvel at its filmmaking and then watch it again to appreciate what it’s trying to say about art, autobiography, and the inescapable failure of trying to capture the essence of a loved one who is already gone.
The Eternal Daughter is available to watch on Prime Video.
A great kitsch film about the greatest of all kitsch performers, Elvis did the impossible: it made the King human again. Only Baz Luhrmann, that great lover of kinetic pop culture, could have made this picture work, and work he does. With his usual partner Catherine Martin (who designed the sequin-festooned costumes and also oversaw the production design), Luhrmann gives a whirlwind tour of America from the ’50s through the ’70s as he follows Elvis’ rollercoaster career of rises, falls, and cheesy comeback specials.
At the center of this 20th-century pop party is the relatively unknown actor Austin Butler, who had the difficult task of looking, acting, and sounding like Presley without descending into cheap parody. Miraculously, he pulls it off, and the film ends up being more moving than you might think. The genius of Luhrmann, and what makes Elvis stand out among other music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody, is that he shows Presley slowly being commodified into a piece of cheap Americana. The tragedy of Elvis isn’t that he died an early death; rather, it’s that he was turned into a brand as recognizable and disposable as Coca-Cola.
Elvis is available to watch on HBO Max.
When Nope was first released in July, there was just a hint of disappointment from critics and audiences alike. It wasn’t quite the hit that Jordan Peele’s two previous movies, Get Out and Us, were, and it didn’t immediately receive the same uniform acclaim either. Yet six months later, time has already been kind to Nope, and with good reason: it’s a terrific blockbuster, made with such skill, intelligence, and grace that it almost leaves you breathless.
In telling the story of the Haywood siblings and their efforts to capture (in more ways than one) the flying alien Jean Jacket, Peele is able to work in many genres at the same time: a sci-fi film that updates the Spielbergian sense of awe in humans experiencing a close encounter of the dangerous kind; a Western that comments on the death of heroism; a domestic drama about a brother and sister who have grown apart; and a Hollywood film about how the star system uses and abuses its minority creatives.
Credit Peele, and the fantastic one-two punch of lead stars Daniel Kaluuya (never better as the mostly silent cowboy OJ) and Keke Palmer (whose live wire energy made her Em one of the year’s best characters), for making this stew of genres so entertaining and provocative at the same time. It was the best time I had at the multiplex.
Nope is available to stream on Peacock.
2022 had a number of movies about what it felt like to grow up in 1960s America. While Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans received more critical attention, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is gentler and better. Linklater trojan horse’s his ode to late ’60s Houston with a plot so inconsequential he barely bothers with it: a teenage boy is selected by NASA to pilot their spaceship to the moon after building it too small for its intended occupants (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins).
Of course, this never happened, and Linklater doesn’t really try to convince you that it did. Like his great movies Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Everybody Wants Some!!, he’s more interested in capturing the rhythms of what life was like back then: the sense of danger and pleasure in riding in the backup of a pickup truck barreling down a highway; the mundane beauty of a Texas suburb at dusk; and the lazy conversations siblings have as they sit on a couch watching television. In utilizing rotoscope animation to tell this story, Linklater brings the fantastical and the banal together, creating a warm portrait of a childhood that looked to the stars for beauty and found it years later through memories.
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is available to stream on Netflix.
What does a French adaptation of a 19th-century novel by Honoré de Balzac have to say about our present? Turns out, quite a lot. Unjustly ignored by critics and audiences earlier this year, Lost Illusions is a terrific film about a young country bumpkin poet in 1820s France who moves to Paris to try to succeed in high society and the brutal newspaper industry that traffics more gossip than fact. You can guess what happens from there: sex, scandal, and lots and lots of drinking.
We’ve seen this type of costume drama before, but never done so well and so alive. The director, Xavier Giannoli, evokes the stink and mud of Paris’ crowded streets just as well as he does the quaint drawing rooms of France’s upper class. It’s an intoxicating tour of a lost time and place, one that the director connects to our own with a brutal depiction of how “fake news,” both two centuries ago and in the present, can ruin not just one man, but a democratic society that is more fragile than one would like to believe.
Lost Illusions is available to stream on Mubi via Prime Video.
In Aftersun‘s first hour, nothing much happens. Sometime in the mid-90s, a young father (Calum, played by Paul Mescal) takes his pre-teen daughter (Sophie, played by newcomer Frankie Corio) on a vacation in Turkey. They take turns exploring their hotel, with Sophie swimming in the outdoor pool with slightly older teens while Calum practices Tai chi. You sense that something isn’t quite right (why does Calum secretly cry when his daughter isn’t looking? Why do we see visions of an older Sophie dancing alone in a crowded nightclub?), but there’s nothing on the surface to suggest that there isn’t.
That’s the quiet brilliance of Aftersun, which is that rare movie that relies on patience and trust to achieve its powerful cumulative effect. The director, Charlotte Wells, is honest about the tricky subject matter she’s dealing with, so she doesn’t cheapen the feelings of loss and anger she invokes. If I’m being deliberately vague here, it’s because the beauty of the movie (which features some of the year’s most original and striking cinematography) lies in one’s own discovery of it. It’s a gut-punch of a film, one that will not only devastate you but will cause you to never hear Queen’s Under Pressure the same way again.
Aftersun is available to stream on Prime Video.
Breaking up was never so hard to watch as it was in The Banshees of Inisherin. On a random morning in 1920s Ireland, Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decides to end his close friendship with Pádraic (Colin Farrell). There’s no reason given other than he just doesn’t want to be friends anymore. And to show how serious he is, Colm promises to cut off one of his fingers if Pádraic dares to speak to him again. It’s only a slight spoiler to reveal that Pádraic has a big mouth, and Colm is a man of his word.
This simple setup allows Martin McDonagh, the writer/director, to dig in and launch questions about social, familial, and political kinship. Is it enough to be simply a good person? And does one need to aspire to be something better to live a full life? This is film writing at its best — subtle, layered, and deep with meaning — and film direction at its most invisible and unobtrusive.
McDonagh lets his words and actors shine, with particular kudos to the main acting quartet of Farrell (charming and infuriating as the sad-eyed Paddy), Gleeson as the grumpy Colm, Kerry Condon as Farrell’s put-upon (and fed up) sister, and Barry Keoghan, who is outstanding as the pathetic and tragic village idiot. The Banshees of Inisherin isn’t afraid to ask the Big Questions; that it does so with such assurance and comedic flair (yes, this is a comedy) makes it the best film of 2022.
The Banshees of Inisherin is available to stream on HBO Max.
The best of the rest, in no particular order: Decision to Leave; Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio; Watcher; Women Talking; Turning Red; All Quiet on the Western Front; The Pale Blue Eye; Vengeance; Speak No Evil; and Emily the Criminal.