When it’s time to round up thoughts on 12 months of movies, where do you start? Anyone can make a list of favorites – after 25 of these, I’m proof. But there’s a desire to seek a larger context, to find common themes. Similarities across an art form can reveal a shared cultural moment, a collective consciousness of the day.
Or, they can just be coincidence. (I have to cover my bases here.)
Yet, themes did emerge in 2022. It was a year of eating the rich – or watching them puke uncontrollably – in Triangle of Sadness (on a yacht, then an island), The Menu (a restaurant on an island), and Glass Onion (a mansion on an island).
It was a year of personal, childhood stories, the most visible being Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Both of these awkward, award-primed films have better global counterparts: the exquisite Aftersun, the supernatural The Innocents, the delicate The Quiet Girl, and the troubling Playground. That last one, a French film about grade school bullying, is worth a watch just to see an entire movie from a kid’s visual POV.
If we stopped here, the nine films above make up a decent 2022 recommendation list – even the most misguided of the bunch, The Fabelmans, has its treasures. But, expanding the scope to everything I’ve seen this year, here are my choices for the 10 best films of 2022:
My top pick for 2022 is both life-affirming and terrifying. French writer-director Audrey Diwan adapts the novel from Nobel winner Annie Ernaux about her teen pregnancy in the 1960s, when abortion in France was illegal. Diwan gives Happening a color and warmth that feels nostalgic, as a group of close school friends grow into womanhood together; the flipside is the dark horror of one girl trying to end a pregnancy. The ambitious, studious Anne (a note-perfect performance by Anamaria Vartolomei) finds herself in clandestine conversations and secret, makeshift medical rooms where she’s forbidden from yelling in pain. With her impending adulthood in the balance, she’s a girl forced to treat her own healthcare as an illicit act. It’s obvious to say Happening is as relevant as ever – it’s also an exceptionally well-made film.
Here’s the recollection of another girl, a preteen on vacation in the 1990s with her divorced dad. Scottish director Audrey Wells’ first feature is a stunner, full of little details that make up our memories, some seemingly unimportant. Wells uses conventions that usually convey heavy plot twists, but don’t here. The result is tense, yet wistful. The performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio are simply beautiful.
3. The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) reunites his In Bruges stars for this small fable with more than a few surprises. On a little Irish island in the 1920s, Colm (Brendan Gleason) tells his pal Pádraic (Colin Farrell) he no longer desires his friendship and wants to be left alone. When sweet, “dull” Pádraic doesn’t get it, Colm threatens bodily harm – to himself – and McDonagh’s brilliant, humorous script gets brutally serious. Farrell’s performance, in a dream role if there ever was one, is my favorite of the year.
After recent roles in popcorn action movies and the occasional comedy, it’s a treat to see Jennifer Lawrence in a soul-bearing role she can own – opposite the fantastic Bryan Tyree Henry, no less. The pair become unlikely pals when she returns home to New Orleans as an injured war vet; he has plenty of his own wounds. They’re both excellent here, but Lawrence is sharp, real, and fearless, in this quiet first feature from Lila Neugebauer.
5. Decision to Leave
The best crime thriller of 2022 is the latest from Korean icon Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), a femme fatale epic that feels like a compilation of the things Park does best. A detective investigating the falling death of a mountain climber becomes obsessed with the case and the widow – and ends up focusing on the latter. There’s something interesting and exciting in every composition and around every corner, as Park’s near-excessive visual layers match the film’s psychological ones.
6. The Quiet Girl
In this delicate 1980s-set drama – another Irish gem – a girl is sent from her cold, crowded family to stay with relatives who show her care and warmth. Newcomer Catherine Clinch plays young Cait with impressive patience and control, slowly letting herself embrace the feeling of family, knowing she’ll lose it at summer’s end. Features a lovely performance by Carrie Crowley as the first adult to show Cait a true sense of respect and belonging.
7. Something in the Dirt
I really enjoy the loopy, supernatural films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless, Synchronic), ambitious tales about creases in both time and friendships. Something in the Dirt is their best – a chaotic, small-scale, COVID-era entry that both celebrates and mocks their genre. The filmmakers star as neighbors obsessed with recording an otherworldly event taking place in their cheap L.A. apartment building, but they’re completely inept. Doused in paranoia, complicated conspiracy theories and a thirst for fame, Something in the Dirt has all the markings of a Benson-Moorhead film, but is unexpectedly hilarious.
8. Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza effectively disappears into the title role, a woman with too few life options and too much debt, who discovers how lucrative illegal activity can be. The confidence of first-time writer-director John Patton Ford is a wonder – compact action, superb editing, palpable danger – matched by Plaza’s onscreen swagger. A super-tight fable for our time of impossible student debt, bad jobs, and overlooked women.
I think people didn’t know what to make of this tale of haunted halls of academia, in which creepy things happen to black women. Is it conventional horror? A racism nightmare? Commentary on higher education? Yes, all of it. Regina Hall gives one of the best and trickiest performances of the year, as a professor sensing generations of supernatural doom and treacherous matters of race. Writer-director Mariama Diallo tells us both are dead ends.
Say what you will about Netflix, but they’re the reason Americans found this 3-hour, grand operatic, megaton action drama (the acronym is “Rise, Roar, Revolt”). Director S.S. Rajamouli turns up his entire movie to 11, with jaw-dropping fight scenes, impossible feats of physical prowess, cuckoo special effects, and enough wild animals and explosives to fill 10 movies. The dance sequence (yes) involving our two heroes has the greatest onscreen energy of the year – and the song, “Naatu Naatu” is on the shortlist of potential Oscar nominees.
Other notables (in no order): Sundown, The Good Boss, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Playground, All that Breathes