Saying that 2022 was a transitional year for movies would be a massive understatement. This was a year of highs and lows, of all-time flops and soaring smash hits, with not much in between. Studio pictures and auteur cinema alike suffered, as movie fans faced multiple disappointments ranging from underwhelming to disastrous. Time and time again, it seems like many of the year’s most highly anticipated films struck out with both audiences and critics. Who would have predicted that directors with the pedigree of Alex Garland, Damien Chazelle, Andrew Dominik, Alejandro G Inarritu, Noah Baumbach, Olivia Wilde, Taika Waititi, George Miller, David O. Russell, Florian Zeller, and Sam Mendes would all turn in sub-par work?
Then, there was the box office. Although there were some healthy signs of life from the likes of Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and new Minions and Jurassic World flicks, traditional theatrical releases still struggled to lure audiences back to the cinema. Both adult-oriented original fare and family-friendly animation seemed to be dead on arrival, from She Said and The Fabelmans to the shockingly poor performances of Disney’s Lightyear and Strange World (not to mention the franchise-killer that was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore). If the past year was any indication, theaters and major studios have an uphill battle as they try to increase their appeal in a crowded streaming marketplace. “I’ll catch it on demand in a month” seems to be the consensus around most releases these days.
Yes, there was a lot to be disappointed about in 2022, but those who sought out the good stuff were richly rewarded. My list of top films of the past year reflects the diversity, passion, and sheer chutzpah of both veteran filmmakers and rookies to take the ball and run with it, knowing their projects could stand out in a rather barren marketplace. And stand out they did! If these films are any indication, the movies still have a future worth getting excited about. Please enjoy my 20 favorite movies of 2022.
10. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Released during the pre-pandemic cinematic utopia that was 2019, Rian Johnson’s phenomenal twist on the classic whodunit, Knives Out, barely missed my top 10 (it wound up at number 11). This time, I couldn’t resist including its follow-up in the upper tier; Glass Onion was the one of the most wildly entertaining movies of the year. I regret that I didn’t get a change to see it with an audience during its limited Thanksgiving theatrical run, because I imagine seeing it in a crowded theater would have been a hoot. On the other hand, my nonstop cackling might have disturbed the other guests, so catching this on Netflix for free wasn’t such a raw deal either.
Watching Daniel Craig’s southern-fried detective Benoit Blanc ham it up with a stacked cast is an immensely satisfying experience, and the mystery at the center is yet another sly commentary on the haves vs. the have-nots. Glass Onion is so brilliant that even though it essentially copies the structure of the first movie, and I didn’t care one bit. Johnson’s crackling dialogue shines through yet again, and his camerawork and editing techniques are more assured this time around. But what really places the film on this list is the acting. From Edward Norton’s smarmy Musk-like billionaire to Kathryn Han’s neurotic politician, every actor takes the opportunity to relish their dialogue and make the most of their roles. A special commendation goes to Janelle Monae, whose Andi Brand is the emotional core of the film. She absolutely knocks it out of the park; few actors could make the pathway of a drop of hot sauce feel so gripping.
From its very opening shot, horror lovers know they’re in for a treat with Jordan Peele’s third directorial effort. Yes, Gordy the Chimp is outstanding, but he’s far from the only star in this rodeo. As with Peele’s previous films Get Out and Us, Nope is a gripping thriller that doubles as a clever commentary. This time, the target of Peele’s pen is the Hollywood machine as well as the insatiable demands of art, particularly on black artists who dare to push the status quo. Thankfully, Peele is adept at keeping the emotional through-line clear and concise. At the film’s center is the relationship between siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) as they struggle to keep their movie ranch open after the mysterious death of their father. The way they end up turning the spectacle of a UFO into a business opportunity is inspiring. There are a lot of fun character moments but make no mistake: this movie is still downright chilling. Several sequences are bound to sear themselves into your memory and haunt you while you sleep; however, I would hate to say much more for fear of spoiling the experience. With stellar acting, great effects, thought-provoking themes, and several incredibly designed movie monsters, Jordan Peele is 3 for 3 when it comes to crafting memorable thrillers that merit repeat viewings.
This tragically overlooked cyberpunk anime version of Beauty and the Beast is another winner from visionary director Mamoru Hosoda. This deeply moving, funny, and gorgeously animated story follows Suzu, a shy high school student who isolates herself from the world after the tragic death of her mother. But when Suzu enters “U,” a massive virtual world, she begins singing under the online persona of “Belle” and becomes a global sensation. When she crosses paths with an unbeatable cyber-criminal called “The Dragon,” an adventure begins that will force Suzu to confront the demons of her past and find her place in the real world.
The film deals with some surprisingly heavy themes, from grief and loss to domestic violence and abuse. But it’s all done with a soft and assured hand, making this PG-rated anime a great watch for families with older kids. It’s also a fun cautionary tale on the pitfalls of social media and online harassment/bullying, making it a valuable viewing experience for kids and adults alike. Most importantly, Belle is simply a beautiful and resonant masterwork, one that uses stunning visuals, unique designs, and memorable characters to create a world truly worth getting lost in. You’ll want to see it again the second it’s over.
7. The Batman
I had high hopes for Matt Reeves’ reset of the Dark Knight but following up Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed trilogy is no easy task. Thankfully, the film exceeded even my highest expectations. Robert Pattinson makes a terrific Bruce Wayne, one who is several years into his crime-fighting career but not exactly a veteran yet.
Reeves wisely avoids the well-trod origin story and focuses on the rising tensions in Wayne’s life: His strained relationship with Alfred (Andy Serkis), his connection to a mysterious thief (Zoe Kravitz), and his own inner darkness as he confronts the serial killer known as The Riddler (Paul Dano). The film is brooding and violent, but it’s not content to copy what worked in Nolan’s films. This is a much pulpier detective story, with lots of poring over clues, exposing corrupt politicians, and interrogating baddies for evidence. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have action—the fight sequences are brutal and balletic in a way that feels fresh and exciting. I think what really seals the deal for me, though, is Dano’s interpretation of the Riddler; he is deeply unsettling and will chill you to the bone at times. The film’s reimagining of the character, as an underground keyboard warrior with an army of online diehards willing to follow him into battle, is a brilliant move. It lends the film a timely moral clarity as a commentary on the dangers of alt-right social media movements.
Even at nearly three hours, The Batman flies by, immersing the audience in a very cleverly designed Gotham City and using performance, sound design, music, and cinematography to create an all-time great superhero story.
6. The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonaugh’s Irish oddity is either the most depressing or the funniest movie of the year. Maybe it’s both. Expertly toeing the line between dark comedy and Greek tragedy, McDonagh reunites with his In Bruges actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for a riveting disintegration of a friendship. Farrell and Gleeson are at the top of their game as Padraic and Colm, one simple and kind, the other deep and ambitious. One day, Colm simply decides that he no longer wants to speak to Padraic. He does not give a reason, for there isn’t one. He simply wants to be left alone. For the sociable Padraic, whose daily visits to the local pub are his lifeline, such cryptic reasoning is unacceptable. And so, we are treated to a verbal (and, eventually, physical) battle of wits, a clash between the bonds of simple friendship and the desire to leave a mark on the world.
The film is gorgeous to look at, practically a travel advertisement for the Irish countryside. It’s filled with terrific supporting players including Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. And its script is among the sharpest and wittiest of the year (I would welcome an original screenplay Oscar win for McDonagh). But the film is most memorable because it is knotty and dense, refusing to peddle anything resembling easy answers and instead allowing its characters and audience to ask probing questions and sit in uncomfortable truths. It is here that the film emerges as both bleak and resonant, not unlike McDonagh’s previous film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. We root for both men, because both are right, and both hold to their beliefs so firmly and consistently. It’s an often quiet and subtle film, but one whose complex themes ring out long after the credits roll.
Tar is, put simply, a damn good movie. Todd Field waited 16 years to direct another film after Little Children, and the result was well worth the wait. The brilliance of the film comes from its ambiguity; Field is careful not to judge Lydia Tar, the world-class conductor and composer whose personal and professional life begins to unravel after a credible accusation of sexual harassment comes to light. His script simply presents Lydia’s actions, both positive and negative, and the resulting consequences. The effect creates one of the most intimate fictional characters ever put on screen. Cate Blanchett plays Lydia with such a focused ferocity that I had a hard time believing that she is not a real person. The inclusion of references to the COVID-19 pandemic and real-life figures such as Adam Gopnik heighten that reality.
Tar is a true armchair-gripper of a film, one that leaves you breathless as you go back and forth between loving and hating Lydia. The film expertly depicts both the triumphs and pitfalls of fame, as well as the malignant pull of narcissism and the way it symbiotically feeds off celebrity. Tar is not the most enjoyable film on a story level; it’s emotionally brutal in a way few films can manage. But the pleasures, from Blanchett’s astonishing performance to the stellar music and cinematography, are more than worth the price of admission to experience this devastating masterwork.
Leave it to India to come along and make American action movies look pathetic. Seriously, I don’t envy anyone making an action epic after S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (which stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt). The Tollywood masterpiece is so breathtaking, so wild, so polished, and so entertaining that it almost defies categorization.
Creating a “what-if” scenario of the meeting and resulting friendship of real-life revolutionaries Rama Raju and Bheem, the film ups the scale of its battle sequences to a ridiculous degree. Want a man attacking a British colonial compound to rescue his kidnapped sister with a whole jungle’s worth of animals at his side? You got it. How about a man fighting off a literal sea of revolutionaries single-handedly using only his body and a baton? Sure. Ever seen a man grab a running motorcycle, throw off its rider and swing it around as a weapon? Me neither, until now.
Yes, RRR is spectacular eye candy, but it also features inspired dance numbers and songs (did I mention it’s a musical?) and the best cinematic bromance since Sam and Frodo. The film is filled with “how’d they do that?” jaw-dropping moments. I don’t know the answer, but I’m so very happy they did. There’s a reason everyone is talking about this movie. It really is that good.
3. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you are. To be honest, I was not particularly thrilled to see this movie. I thought it looked cute and funny, but also rather forgettable. My goodness, I was so wrong. Marcel is simply one of the greatest characters to ever grace a movie screen. His kindness, relentless optimism, and dogged determination will win over the hearts of even the most jaded cynic. I’m sad that no one went to see this movie, because it’s the rare film that feels truly, genuinely healing.
Marcel is brilliantly shot like a documentary, with director Dean Fleischer Camp playing himself as he captures the life of this unflappable mollusk and uploads the shorts to YouTube. Marcel lives a simple life with his Nana Connie, but after Dean’s internet videos take off, Marcel is rocketed to stardom. He decides to use his newfound fame to search for his missing family, who he and Nana Connie were separated from when he was younger.
The friendship that forms between Marcel and Dean is incredibly sweet, but Marcel is a fully formed character, not just a series of cute sayings or quirks. He gets angry and frustrated, his strong moral center clashing against the shallow celebrity culture he now finds himself swimming in. And yet, his optimism remains unshakable, and his journey to find his family will leave not a dry eye in the house. I looked around my theater when I saw the film, and every person I could see was absolutely bawling by the end of it. It’s that rare film that tugs all the heartstrings in just the right way, and it’s impossible not to be won over by Marcel and his awe and wonder at the world. I should also mention that Marcel and other found-object characters are animated in gorgeous stop motion, and the combination of animation and live action is truly one-of-a-kind. I’m so thankful that Marcel the Shell With Shoes On exists, and that’s the highest praise I can think to give a movie.
2. The Fabelmans
What a lovely film this is. Director Steven Spielberg uses his own family story as a jumping-off point for a love letter to cinema and all the varied influences that caused an anxious Jewish boy to pick up a camera and tell stories. As far as I am aware, most of the major beats of the narrative mirror Spielberg’s life directly, making for a deeply personal and emotional film.
Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a young man growing up in 1950’s Phoenix, Arizona. His family faces the trials of multiple moves, his father Burt’s (Paul Dano) practicality clashing with his mother Mitzi’s (a rapturous Michelle Williams) free-spirited artistry. After seeing The Greatest Show on Earth as a kid, Sammy gained a soon-to-be-lifelong passion for cinema. But the truth the camera reveals is not always one we wish to confront.
The camera is, in fact, a character in the film, as Sammy uses its lens to gain insight into himself and the people around him. The best scenes revolve around this dynamic: Sammy filming his mother’s impromptu dance on a camping trip or capturing footage that exposes the souls of his peers on a class beach trip. In a truly standout sequence, the camera swooshes around Sammy as he edits the camping trip footage, revealing a devastating family secret.
What elevates the film from “great” to “instant classic” is, for me, the relationship dynamics between the family members. Are they dysfunctional? Absolutely. But there is a quiet ease and grace they give to each other, even when they are angry or resentful. Sammy’s relationship with his mother is especially tender and heartbreaking, but it’s also a treat to see his father’s hard outer shell soften as the years go by. These dynamics are heightened thanks to wonderful performances all around. Even funnyman Seth Rogen has a great supporting part that will hit you right in the feels.
The Fabelmans is a tumultuous ride, but it never loses that trademark Spielberg warmth even in its most somber moments. Spielberg also uses his cadre of collaborators such as John Williams and Janusz Kaminski to help craft a masterful film that works on every conceivable level. Leave it to Spielberg to pay tribute to his love of cinema with one of his best movies.
1. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
Yeah, my number one film of 2022 is likely no big surprise. It seems like everyone is lavishing this film with the highest of praise, and far be it from me to refrain from joining in the chorus. EEAAO is simply an astounding masterwork, the kind of movie that excites you about the potential of cinema to do something truly original and memorable.
The film’s emotional anchor is Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a working-class Chinese immigrant who elopes to the United States with her husband Raymond (Ke Huy Quan). They open a laundromat and have a daughter named Joy, but it’s hard for Evelyn to shake the feeling that she is not living her best life. While attending a contentious IRS meeting run by the impatient inspector Deirdre (a very entertaining Jamie Lee Curtis), she is recruited by an alternate-universe Raymond to “verse-jump” into other versions of herself. Here, she uses their skills and experiences to combat the threat of Jobu Tupaki, an entity that can access all realities at once and threatens the stability of the multiverse.
That is a very brief summary of this bizarre and altogether wonderful trip. Directed by the duo known as The Daniels (whose previous film Swiss Army Man was an underrated gem), the movie expertly oscillates between high drama and their signature lowbrow humor. Expect hand-to-hand combat using dildos and people with hot dogs for fingers.
What makes the film perhaps one of the best ever made is the way it uses its chaotic multiverse traversal as a jumping-off point for a very intimate story about the fractured relationship between a mother and daughter and an exploration about what’s truly important in life. Each of the many universes Evelyn taps into are fully realized and even heartfelt (yes, even the hotdog finger universe is an emotional gut punch), and it’s this simultaneous mix of silly and sweet that gives the film its power. Through its boundlessly strange creativity, it has something to say about our place in the universe and our responsibilities therein. The concept of timeline branches is one that naturally invites introspection, as Evelyn wonders how her very average life may have turned out differently had she made alternate choices. The film takes that concept and runs with it; in fact, this version of Evelyn is so unremarkable, that she is the only one that can save the multiverse.
That’s a very prickly but ultimately life-affirming message: that a quiet, ordinary life well-lived can actually be a benefit rather than a liability. And I think Evelyn, as she comes to appreciate her husband and her daughter in ways she never had before, shows us how much extraordinary can come out of the ordinary. Not to mention, the movie has kick-ass action sequences and a consistently unpredictable and satisfying story that throws a lot at you but never feels exhausting. It’s a true landmark of a film, and one that people will be talking about for years to come. For all these reasons and more, it earns the title of my favorite film of 2022.
My 11-20 picks are:
11. The Northman
12. Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America/Descendant
13. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio
14. Decision to Leave
15. Top Gun: Maverick
16. The Woman King
17. Fire of Love
18. The Tragedy of Macbeth
19. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
20. All Quiet on the Western Front
Major blind spots (as of this writing): Aftersun, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, Hit the Road, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, All that Breathes, Bad Axe, Moonage Daydream, Benediction, Women Talking, Kimi, Till, After Yang, EO, Crimes of the Future, No Bears, Happening, Triangle of Sadness, She Said, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, White Noise, Thirteen Lives, and The Good Doctor.