Three years after the pandemic broke out, things––including moviegoing––are finally starting to feel normal again. It would have been an even more joyous occasion if only 2022 has yielded a stronger crop of films to offer those rushing back to theaters.
Of course many, many good films came out in the last twelve months; great ones too––entertaining, informative, artistic works that anyone would be doing themselves a favor by checking out. But films that make you go for the M(asterpiece) word, that you know right away would be top 10 material? Not that many by my count. Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, for example, is super fun and features awards-worthy performances from Zlatko Buric and Dolly De Leon, although I’m not sure if it will go down as a vintage Palme d’Or winner. Also premiering at Cannes, Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. and Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave wow with their stern intellect or stylistic flourish, but can’t seem to reach the heights previously achieved by their makers. Ditto Hirokazu Kore-eda with Broker.
I think Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children is really well made and, powered by Virginie Efira’s rich, understated performance, explores subtleties of interpersonal relationships with honesty and empathy. The same can be said about Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning starring Léa Seydoux and Oliver Hermanus’ Living led by Bill Nighy, although all three somehow still lack that certain je ne sais quoi to elevate them to undisputed greatness.
Ari Aster wasn’t there to save the day, but I was glad to find his brand of folk horror in Kevin Ko’s cult-themed faux documentary Incantation and Alex Schaad’s fantasy drama Skin Deep. The former is a delicious creep-fest that weaponizes a mother’s love, the latter successfully illustrates the essence of queer identity using the simplest plot device. Robert Eggers’ The Northman takes a while to get going, but when it wades into horror territory, it’s a gloriously wicked sight to behold. Mark Jenkin also delivers the chills with Enys Men, a visually stunning if narratively slight eco-frightener.
In terms of blockbuster filmmaking, Nope is pretty dope. Jordan Peele may not have a Marvel-sized budget at his disposal, but he managed to stage spectacles with a grandness of scale that’s nearly unrivaled this year. Avatar: The Way of Water is not the most ingeniously written thing you’ll have seen, but it does showcase mind-blowing technology and proves James Cameron can still direct an action sequence like nobody’s business. Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front does nothing to reinvent the (anti-)war film, but on a technical level it’s superbly rendered top to bottom.
Then there were the quirky little films that offered outsized delight. Not everyone will vibe to the curious beat of Nicolette Krebitz’s A E I O U: A Quick Alphabet of Love, but I was totally charmed by its contemporary, devil-may-care romanticism. Owen Kline’s Funny Pages doesn’t feel quite complete to me, but the individual characterization is striking and the comedy kills. Gastón Solnicki’s Vienna-set A Little Love Package dazzles with heart-stoppingly gorgeous imagery, even when it’s barely trying to tell a story. And of course there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once by The Daniels, a film fully committed to a crazy vision that’s literally all over the place but captures the sheer overwhelmingness of modern-day existence with much humor.
Finally, the biggest net loss to the cinematic landscape since the pandemic era continues to be the lack of quality output from China, a country that used to feature prominently in competition lineups at A-list festivals as recently as five years ago. The fact that we’re missing out on new works by world-class auteurs in their prime like Bi Gan, Lou Ye, Jia Zhangke, Vivian Qu, among many others – potentially due to censorship-related reasons – is incredibly disheartening. What a waste.
Now, on to the favorites.
Coma (Bertrand Bonello)
Good Luck to you, Leo Grande (Sophie Hyde)
The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh)
Elvis (Baz Luhrmann)
Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)
10. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski)
Kosinski’s nostalgic actioner is escapist entertainment at its sleekest and most expertly crafted. With remarkable efficiency, it sucks you into basic conflicts that suddenly seem life-and-death and, before you know it, you’re flying at Mach 10 with Tom Cruise as Lady Gaga sings in the background. Meanwhile, the illusion of adventure is made complete by the wizardry of cinematography, sound, editing, and choreography. Pretty astonishing how something so deeply unsophisticated can turn out so thoroughly satisfying. A pure thrill.
9. The Wonder (Sebastián Lelio)
A search for truth collides with the need for salvation in this mysterious yet revelatory tale about the stories we tell ourselves. Lensed with enchanting splendor by Ari Wegner and evocatively scored by Matthew Herbert, Lelio’s intense costume drama teases something supernatural as it confronts questions that couldn’t be more human. In bringing Emma Donoghue’s vividly imagined world to life, the film also highlights the fierce, never-more-compelling screen presence of Florence Pugh, a performer in full command of her expressive prowess.
8. Axiom (Jöns Jönsson)
This year’s most fascinating character study is about an ordinary guy you couldn’t pick out from a crowd. He lies. From that one personality trait Jönsson built a film that’s as slippery and unpredictable as its protagonist. Smartly refraining from providing background or motivation, the shape-shifting drama/comedy/thriller keeps you on your toes throughout as you try to figure out someone who’s quite literally blank, portrayed with impenetrable poise by Moritz von Treuenfels. Even when you can’t tell if it’s about a slacker, clown or sociopath, this profile gets under your skin.
7. Aftersun (Charlotte Wells)
Like a bruise spreading and deepening slowly after impact, this father-daughter-drama makes itself felt over time. Told with the looseness and lightness of something remembered, it grows on you almost imperceptibly, until pangs of melancholy and regret hit when you finally understand what you’re seeing. Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio both gave moving, naturalistic, performances. The writing impresses with the abundance of intimate, character-building details, rendered alive by Wells’ subtle, emotionally charged direction.
6. Pacifiction (Albert Serra)
In his typically strange, wildly unrestrained ways, Serra realized a 165-minute fever dream set in French Polynesia that’s somehow about everything and nothing at all. Is it a séance for the ghosts of colonialism? A metaphor for the environmental apocalypse? The expression of an all-consuming existential dread? With plot, structure, coherence thrown out the window, you’re left to contend with the raw allure of images alone, and it exhilarates. Those who let the breathlessly atmospheric pictures wash over them and just take in their drunken beauty shall be duly rewarded.
5. Close (Lukas Dhont)
Dhont’s sophomore feature offers no narrative or stylistic fireworks, but it captures feelings so fine and true they speak directly to your human core. The story about two boys whose friendship is on the cusp of change radiates tenderness even as it quietly indicts a climate of internalized queerphobia. Thanks to the outstanding ensemble led by Eden Dambrine, an uncertain glance, a searching look, an evasive shake of the head all take on meaning that kids don’t yet have words for and adults struggle to express. Devastating, eloquent in all that’s left unsaid.
4. Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Raiff)
Genuinely sweet and stealthily wise, Raiff’s early-adulthood romantic dramedy is a nuclear attack of feels. With dialogue that finds poignance in the familiar plus a sprinkling of the voodoo magic that is Dakota Johnson, the minutely observant writer/director reflects on life’s fleeting moments of connection and lands every beat. As abused as the idea of “kindness” has become, it’s downright miraculous for a film with such unabashed outpour of goodwill and love to not only survive the cringe test but coolly call bluff on all the cynicism in the world.
3. Bones and All (Luca Guadagnino)
An arthouse-horror hybrid that romanticizes young love while showing real teeth the way only Guadagnino knows how. In addition to supplying sweaty, blood-stained moments of tension and depicting an innocent, almost defiant pursuit of happiness, this improbably beautiful film transcends its genre DNA to address loneliness, otherness with heartbreaking sensitivity. The entire cast, including a couple of scene-stealing bit players, is ace. Taylor Russell and Mark Rylance, in particular, absolutely slay. Fearless, boundary-pushing work all around.
2. TÁR (Todd Field)
The surprisingly harsh tone of its epilogue aside, Field’s portrait of a maestra brought down by hubris is so close to faultless it intimidates. With near-mathematical precision that recalls a Bach tune, the film carefully maps out a brilliant, prickly, haunted mind. By never denying Lydia Tár’s intelligence nor apologizing for her rage, Cate Blanchett delivers a larger-than-life performance that’s exactly the right size for the part. Less a cautionary tale than an icy, captivating look at art versus artist and the sacred headspace of a genius as she self-destructs.
1. Saint Omer (Alice Diop)
Great cinema reveals mysteries of the human condition as no court of law can. This infanticide drama examines two women through a prosecutor’s sharp, mistrusting eyes, only to conclude on a note of mercy and motherly understanding. It’s a piercingly insightful investigation of the female experience that exposes justice as an oft-simplified notion. Both lead actresses are sensational. Diop blends the observational focus and authenticity of documentaries with the fanciful touch of fiction to hypnotic effect, marking her as the year’s single most exciting newcomer in narrative filmmaking. This one deserves the M word.