TEXAS, USA — “Are the movies back?” I asked that very question this time a year ago, albeit with my tongue planted firmly in cheek in recognition of something as true now as it was then: The potential for cinematic discovery is always ripe, so long as you know where to look.
Yet looking back at the last 12 months, you’ve be forgiven for thinking 2022 made the question exciting again—made it roar like a soaring jet, an exploding volcano, a vicious Viking raid. Its best cinematic offerings spanning the spectrum of genre and even forging ahead on diverging paths of innovation, 2022 did what all good movie years do: Remind us why we love the medium while elsewhere challenging us with wondrous new potential.
Established masters like David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg and Johnny Knoxville added to their legacies; young storytellers like Charlotte Wells and Jane Schoenbrun laid the impressive first bricks to their own. All throughout the year international filmmakers showed that buying into different kinds of stories will always yield new treasures and, in other corners, the impossible was made possible. Yes, Virginia, an “Avatar” sequel did come out this year.
Below are my picks for the best films from a rich, varied year in cinema.
25. “Babylon” (dir. Damien Chazelle)
It’s grotesque. It’s passionate. It’s ridiculous. It’s sumptuous. It’s elegiac. It’s celebratory. It’s glorious. It’s vainglorious.
The history of film is all of these things. It would stand to reason, then, that “Babylon” – a 189-minute epic that finds “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle dunking his squeaky-clean reputation into a vat of puke and revealing a visceral diagnosis about the bargains Hollywood has and continues to make with itself – would be all of these things too. Starring Margot Robbie and Diego Calva as a pair of outsiders purporting to find themselves by assimilating into the organized chaos of filmmaking, “Babylon” isn’t out to romanticize movie-industry pursuits. Instead, it zeroes in – with controlled abandon and elephant-defecating vulgarity – on those who have been grinded out under the machinery of miracles. It swings for the fences after gluing itself to the bat.
In theaters now.
24. “Barbarian” (dir. Zach Cregger)
In the middle of a stormy night, a woman arrives at her Detroit Airbnb to find it already occupied by another guest.
That’s as far as I dare to go with plot specifics re: “Barbarian,” Zach Cregger’s endlessly surprising and structurally playful horror movie about the spectrum of monstrosity. A film in which you’re liable to both peer through your fingers and burst into incredulous laughter, “Barbarian” signals a relatively fresh-faced filmmaker whose comedy bonafides – Cregger was one part of the Whitest Kids U Know – pays large dividends when it comes to escalation and payoff, much like comedy-alum-turned-genre-mainstay Jordan Peele. The exhales come often in “Barbarian.” Almost as often as the shrieks.
Streaming on HBO Max.
23. “Descendant” (dir. Margaret Brown)
You’d do well to get “Descendant,” a South by Southwest standout, on your Netflix queue. Told with an immediacy that makes it accessible but threaded with relevant questions about who gets to have the final say on history, this documentary chronicles a recent search for the last known slave ship and serves as vital examination of how closure for one person represents the continued burden for another. Not all quests for answers are created equal, “Descendant” shows, and not all answers yield the same catharsis.
Streaming on Netflix.
22. “The Banshees of Inisherin” (dir. Martin McDonagh)
For all its simplicity, the fictional island of Inisherin is a versatile place, cinematically speaking. Its intimidating cliffs measure up to Middle-Earth’s grandeur, its tiny shacks would make excellent horror film territory and if a Jane Austen adaptation has never made romantic use of this locale’s endless fields of green, the next one surely will.
It’s up to the people occupying this hunk of rock at any given time to decide what kind of place it is to be; whether to tremble at gathering stormclouds or eagerly anticipate the rainbow that will eventually form. That makes it a rather perfect arena for English writer-director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” a firebranded and fiendish entertainment whose absurdly simple setup – the sudden breakup of two lifelong chums, played by two actors at the top of their game in Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson – attempts to show how tragedy is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a grimly funny exercise in twisting the audience’s sympathies right back around on themselves, set in a place where daily routines are so dry that a stray spark could prove cataclysmic.
Streaming on HBO Max.
21. “Turning Red” (dir. Domee Shi)
Pixar’s best movie since pre-pandemic times is a necessary harbinger of where the iconic animation studio might go from here. Namely, towards franker stories that may have been beyond its imagination in 1995, bolstered by a collision of animation styles and a frenzied energy that feels like director Domee Shi suggesting that the best way to grow up is to loosen up. It’s likely that no Pixar adventure has ever moved this fast before, which bodes well for a brand that apparently doesn’t intend on slowing down anytime soon.
Streaming on Disney+.
20. “Bad Axe” (dir. David Siev)
There’s nothing David Siev shied away from capturing in “Bad Axe,” a lockdown-era documentary project that he didn’t know would become his full-length debut until after his immigrant family was forced to question the meaning of the American Dream in rural, Trump-backing Michigan. “Bad Axe” finds Siev capturing the instability of the pandemic along intergenerational and political faultlines, even turning the camera on himself to expose the tensions between telling your family’s story and shining too bright a spotlight.
More than just a defining document of a pandemic that is almost behind us, it’s a startlingly candid and immensely moving showcase of how familial interrogation and understanding can help us move forward.
Available to rent on VOD platforms.
19. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (dir. Daniels)
You’ve got to hand it to the pair of Daniels behind A24’s biggest movie ever: They delivered on the superlativity of its title, and accomplished it while giving two beloved actors the roles of their lives.
Committed performances from Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan – one of them a mainstay in cinema over the last two decades, one of them capitalizing on a long-awaited return – are just two reasons to give in to the universe-hopping frenzy that is “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Among the others: Ride-or-die gags, fight scenes featuring fanny packs, a story riffing on everything from “The Matrix” to “In the Mood For Love,” and the derring-do to turn its kaleidoscopic conceit into a genuinely thoughtful story about possibility, worth and redemption.
Streaming on Showtime.
18. “Hit the Road” (dir. Panah Panahi)
By inviting us to witness the quotidian dynamics of its on-the-road family while obfuscating ostensibly important narrative information – where are we actually heading? Why does everyone feel so tense? What’s with Dad’s cast? – Panah Panahi’s funny and specific yet approachable feature debut serves as a resounding reminder that it’s about the journey, not the destination. That the journey is increasingly molded by its mystery as “Hit the Road” goes on amounts not to gimmickry, but the grace of watching a family attempt to make every moment count before the inevitable arrives.
Streaming on Showtime, and available to rent on VOD platforms.
17. “Top Gun: Maverick” (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
Like the actor playing him, legendary naval pilot Maverick is restless, unpredictable and always tipping into the next gear. That “Maverick” itself is carefully constructed, clean-cut and rather formulaic goes to show how fun American blockbusters can occasionally still be when they make the compromise to thrill their audiences in the moment rather than tugging them along for the future. Will there be a “Top Gun 3”? It may be on studio heads’ minds, but it’s the furthest thing from ours upon leaving the theater.
"Maverick" is a display of dudes-rock cinema finding the fountain of youth, complete with intergenerational reckonings between fathers and sons, training montages set to “The Who,” and a reminder that there will always be a will and a way when it comes to Tom Cruise. This is a years-gone-by follow-up done right not by making excuses for how much time has passed before a sequel, but by embracing it.
Streaming on Paramount+.
16. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” (dir. Laura Poitras)
Both an inspiring account of David-versus-Goliath activism and a portrait of an artist compelled to lift up marginalized people through her work, the newest documentary from Laura Poitras accomplishes a difficult feat – locate the base terrain upon which her subject, photographer Nan Golding, has embarked on ostensibly disparate paths – and does so with a grace worthy of Golding as she stages protest against the opioid-peddling Sackler empire.
But there’s grit here, too; so deeply does Poitras embeds herself into Golding’s ongoing mission that you sense just how massive it is, and just how formidable her conviction must be in turn. In the process, Poitras reveals that artistry and activism have much more in common than merely a few letters.
Now out in some theaters.
15. “Armageddon Time” (dir. James Gray)
Who are we? How did we get here?
James Gray’s searing coming-of-age drama looks back on his 1980s upbringing with the scrutiny and worldly awareness that is only possible in hindsight, revealing that what gives those questions urgency is the timelessness of a more important one still: What can we possibly do?
Anchored on the friendship between a young white New Yorker and his Black classmate – but intentionally unfolding through the former’s constricted point of view – “Armageddon Time” shows how the mechanics of privilege leveraging itself between America’s socioeconomic rungs manifests in even the most youthful of exploits. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway are excellent as the well-to-do parents for whom casual cruelties come from a place they’re not ready to confront, while a grandfatherly Anthony Hopkins counterbalances their acidity with the wisdom of someone who’s seen enough to pass down his own truth. In “Armageddon Time,” Gray suggests the rapture isn’t a sudden event to anticipate but a cataclysm that’s been occurring since before we were born.
Available to rent on VOD platforms.
14. “Fire of Love” (dir. Sara Dosa)
A spectacular documentary from filmmaker Sara Dosa and an explosively convincing argument for the genre’s potential, “Fire of Love” is forged from stunning footage collected by Maurice and Katia Krafft, French partners in life and in their passion for studying volcanoes. The movie is informative but also speculative; for two volcanologists whom we see eagerly approaching eruptions in matching red beanies while everyone else runs the other way, there’s only so much we can hope to understand about their enthusiasm. Dosa embraces that mystery with an excitement that measures up to the otherworldliness of what they witnessed. More than simple biography, it’s a love story. More than mere nature documentary, it aligns itself with the ambiguous elements of myth. The Kraffts’ story is worthy of the big screen even before they discover a mutual love for all things volcanic.
Streaming on Disney+.
13. “The Eternal Daughter” (dir. Joanna Hogg)
Maybe Joanna Hogg is done with exploring her filmmaking origins through the onscreen surrogate of Julie Hart, who we first met in the “Souvenir” duology. But if her haunted, single-location postscript “The Eternal Daughter” is any indication, Hogg still has much to share about the volatile intersection of cinema and memory—and an increasingly foggy view of a life that’s given itself over to cinematic fiction.
Boasting sound design as immaculate as its cast is scarce (including Tilda Swinton as both mother and daughter, an ingenious flourish that makes the film hit all the harder), “The Eternal Daughter” plays like the eerie, Gothic cousin of fellow 2022 standout “Aftersun.” Both are about the ghost stories we form in our minds over time, and though the latter film occupies a spot further up this list, “The Eternal Daughter” takes a more classical form imbuing it with a heartbreak entirely its own.
Available to rent on VOD platforms.
12. “Mad God” (dir. Phil Tippett)
There are movies whose narratives keep you guessing, and there are movies whose moods you sink into. “Mad God” belongs to a third tier, one populated by movies whose baked-in dread only sinks in further the harder you try to forget about it.
Conjured up piece by piece, nightmarish frame by nightmarish frame over a period of 30 years by visual effects titan Phil Tippett – known for his work on “Jurassic Park,” “RoboCop” and “Starship Troopers” – “Mad God” is the kind of project that could only have been undertaken by, well, a mad god. Offering little in the way of a story and even less of any semblance of catharsis, “Mad God” instead channels an ethos of wicked, dastardly, apocalyptic madness into a cinematic Sistine Chapel of stop-motion technique, detailed puppetry and splattercore nastiness. It has to be seen to be believed. Best wait at least 45 minutes after you’ve eaten.
Streaming on AMC+ and Shudder.
11. “Saint Omer” (dir. Alice Diop)
Not straying far from her documentarian roots, Alice Diop’s marvelous narrative debut wrestles with the dangers of insular perspective in an arena that ensures the most carefully crafted argument will win out, and not always the right one. Set mostly in a French courtroom and directed with a frankness that slowly tightens like barbed wire, “Saint Omer” centers primarily around two women: Laurence, accused of infanticide in a high-profile case, and Rama, the novelist who plans to write a book about it.
Defying the convention that courtroom dramas need be shouty affairs, Diop instead shows how quietude betrays complicity and biases burn brightest when they’re finally confronted. Listen closely, and you can hear the identity Rama’s worn as a mask shattering.
Releasing in early 2023 following an awards-qualifying run.
10. “RRR” (dir. S.S. Rajamouli)
Don’t run, don’t walk to the action-fantasy Cirque du Soleil that is “RRR”; leap to it. An Indian movie about fictional heroes and piggyback-riding friends battling British oppression in the 1920s, “RRR” – aka, “Rise. Roar. Revolt” – is a kaleidoscope of genre, packing elements of Western, buddy comedy, musical, thriller, mystery and revisionist history into 180 glorious minutes.
To say “RRR” is lively undersells it. The movie – whose first half features a palace ambush by ferocious jungle animals, a stupendously choreographed battle between one man and a thousand others, and the most giddily satisfying musical number since Anthony Ramos dreamed about winning a $96,000 lottery – exists to electrify, and does it enough to jolt us out of the middling MCU-era standards we’ve passively accepted when it comes to our superheroic epics. It’s a 10-course meal of a movie, one that never forsakes its character work amid the spectacle.
Streaming on Netflix.
9. “After Yang” (dir. Kogonada)
Kogonada’s revered and reverential debut, “Columbus,” embodied a cinema of mood. His triumphant follow-up, “After Yang” – about a family of the not-too-distant future and their malfunctioning robot companion – sees the video essayist-turned-filmmaker making the leap into a cinema of ideas without betraying the graceful filmmaking that made “Columbus” so unique.
At its melodically crafted core, “After Yang” tackles familiar genre questions – what makes us human? What confirms our agency? What legitimizes our desires? – with spectacular spiritual poise. Kogonada confronts the enormity of these questions not just with low-key confidence, but with the savvy to weave cultural considerations, an unusually textured vision of futuristic domesticity and a quiet sense of the divine into his script-flipping drama. It’s a viscerally empathetic film, and one that features the most thought-provoking and philosophical conversation about the qualities of tea I can ever remember a movie brewing up.
Streaming on Showtime and available to rent on VOD platforms.
8. "Anaïs in Love” (dir. Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet)
Riveting, ravishing and running off the energy of the titular 20-something sprinting to catch every spark of life before it fades away, “Anaïs in Love” plays like the twitchy cousin to last year’s “The Worst Person in the World.” While that latter movie unfolded in chapters, Anaïs (played by Anaïs Demoustier, in one of the year’s most impressively exhaustive performances) barely pauses to acknowledge the relationships that go up in flames before she’s indulged in her next whim. Suffice to say, both protagonist and film find a new key when she finally stumbles upon something worth investing in, ultimately proving few things in the movies are as satisfying as seeing unstoppable forces swoon over immovable objects.
Streaming on Hulu.
7. “Decision to Leave” (dir. Park Chan-wook)
A hotshot young detective falls for a woman suspected in her husband’s death in Korean maestro Park Chan-wook’s latest, laying the foundations for a saga as visually dazzling as it is emotionally astute. That Park’s first movie in six years turned out to be more gorgeous than gruesome might feel contradictory, given that the filmmaker has heretofore forged a legacy in the blood of his early-2000s revenge thrillers before cementing it with 2016’s deliciously twisted “The Handmaiden.”
“Decision to Leave” boasts comparatively little blood and pretzeled plotting. But in opting to spin a story whose soulfulness matches up to his characteristically virtuosic craft, Park internalizes the dizzying thrills we expect from his movies—imbuing “Decision to Leave” with a dark heart that might leave you as shaken about your hopes for its protagonists as they are.
Streaming on Mubi.
6. “Crimes of the Future” (dir. David Cronenberg)
In which the godfather of body horror takes a scalpel to that which has fascinated him all along and lets the beauty, hypocrisy and epiphany spill out in gloriously strange detail. David Cronenberg makes a (literally) fleshed-out return to the subgenre that made his surname a synonym for all things icky, reflecting not on the terror our bodies are capable of so much as our obsession with finding meaning in the fleshy abstract of a synthetic world.
Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux are can't-look-away captivating, but it's Kristen Stewart who has rarely been a more beguiling presence; caught between the bureaucracy of regulating freshly harvested organs and her infatuation with the wily performative antics of Mortensen’s living petri dish, she’s the perfect avatar for a human race too busy defining its heart of darkness to take its own pulse.
Streaming on Hulu.
5. “Aftersun” (dir. Charlotte Wells)
For all the ways we like to say that cinema is an expression of personal experience, very few films have managed to so exquisitely conjure the misty qualities of memory itself like Charlotte Wells’s “Aftersun”—the way recollections of times past can comfort and haunt, or leave us shaken over the inability to tell the difference. Amorphous but weighty, slippery but specific, Wells’s movie about a father-daughter getaway at a surftown resort initially plays like a collection of candid observations before you start to see the picture – and the agony – through the static of a few days spent in paradise. Movies, like experiences, may have finite runtimes. But this one continues to imprint itself on the heart long after its seismic finale, once it’s been shattered with an all-time needle drop that ensures you won't listen to a particular Queen hit the same way ever again.
Now out in some theaters.
4. “Return to Seoul” (dir. Davy Chou)
It takes all of a few minutes – and one or two “What-is-she-doing?” choices – for first-time actress Park Ji-Min to grab firm hold of your attention as Freddie, a Korean-born woman who returns home after a lifetime in France with adopted parents. Over the following two hours of this shapeshifting drama about identity and individuality, both actress and director endeavor to twist your impression of her every which way, enticing us to diagnose her compulsion while reckoning with the truth that whatever decision she makes – should she contact her real parents? Should she abandon her pursuit? – opens new avenues for regret. It’s a magnificent film as unpredictable as it is universal, and well worth your attention when it releases for U.S. moviegoers in early 2023.
Releasing in early 2023 after an awards-qualifying run.
3. “Nope” (dir. Jordan Peele)
That Jordan Peele would go on to be three-for-three in his filmmaking career might not be surprising given the boldness of “Get Out” (recently named one of the greatest movies of all time by the decennial Sight & Sound poll). What is a bit surprising is that it took him only three movies to come all the way back around to turning a skeptical eye to his new artistic space itself—cinema’s evolution, cinema’s priorities, cinema’s contradictions. That “Nope” interrogates its horror/adventure/thriller parameters in the same stroke as it conjures up some of the most awe-inspiring images of any 2022 blockbuster makes for a paradox worthy of the movies themselves. Peele’s latest affirms him as a risk-taker and cements him as a craftsman, but also reveals him as a filmmaker out to do everything but take his success for granted.
Streaming on Peacock and available to rent on VOD platforms.
2. “Tár” (dir. Todd Field)
As imminent as a symphonic crescendo and as deliberate as a musical conductor’s hands, Todd Field’s “Tár” exhibits its filmmaking mastery through pure severity. Chronicling the slow-onset downfall of a fictional maestro (dazzlingly portrayed by Cate Blanchett), it’s a text ripe in its rewatchability and richly fertile in the thematic ground it covers—namely, the machinations of power and the casual ferocity of ego.
It’s also, more pointedly, a character study of an abuser we would not want to spend one minute with. The paradox proves a meaningful one for Field, “Tár” and you, dear movie-watcher, to pick through over the course of 160ish brisk minutes. It’s a movie that welcomes interrogation, not for the sake of chortling at the audience but to engage in conversation with them about the kinds of dynamics we might prefer to hold at a distance, lest our own assumptions come under question as well.
It helps that “Tár” is simply a thrill to watch, its psychodrama trappings forged with magnetic performances, a medley of disarmingly funny scenes and the satisfaction of being in the hands of a director who will only further reward you the closer you look.
Available on VOD platforms.
1. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)
At the heart of writer-director Jane Schoenbrun’s indelible, horror-adjacent feature debut is a radical empathy for a generation that has grown up through pixelated screens and the blinking dots of online chatrooms. Preoccupied less with clear narrative trajectory than resembling the sensation of sinking ever-deeper into an unpredictable corner of the internet, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” uses the language of bring online – low-def graininess as first-draft candour, dreamlike ASMR as comforting dialect, the repeated use of a never-been-more-ominous buffering icon as visual ellipsis – to blur the line between author and participant to the point that a protagonist who was first our proxy becomes a new source of ambiguous fascination, and of horror.
Anna Cobb is fearless in her movie debut. Her performance as Casey, a lonely teenage girl embarking on a mysterious online role-playing game, is psychologically nimble, pulsing with the recognition that taking up residence in the nocturnal online means setting the infrastructure of identity aflame. Alex G’s score evokes the playful ghostliness of a moment in history riding the line between instantaneous community and inevitable mistranslation. And few recent movies have found such richness in the inherent limits of independent filmmaking as this one, which sees Schoenbrun making ingenious use of sparse settings and extraneous details left implied.
It all amounts to an unforgettable story about the transitory nature of contemporary life. “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” provides a glimpse at the medium’s future by looking so closely at the digitally obsessed now, and affirms how the abyss of the internet is at once liberating and terrifying in its infinity.
Streaming on HBO Max.
Honorable mentions: "A Love Song," "Apollo 10 1/2," "Avatar: The Way of Water," "A Wounded Fawn," "Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths," "Benediction," "Bones and All," "Both Sides of the Blade," "Emily the Criminal," "The Fabelmans," "Fire Island," "Glass Onion," "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande," "The Innocents," "Întregalde," "Jackass Forever," "Master of Light," "Navalny," "The Northman," "Playground," "Saloum," "The Sea Beast," "Speak No Evil," "Three Minutes: A Lengthening," "Till," "The Woman King," "Women Talking."