Best of 2022: As great a cinematic year as any in recent memory

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The Banshees of Inisherin — Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
The Banshees of Inisherin — Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It always kills me a little inside when someone has the gall to say a given year "wasn't a good one for film." I hate being an absolutist about anything, but I can state with total certainty that this is never true. Maybe you were disappointed in what you happened to watch from January to December, but that doesn't for one second mean the entire 365-day period was a bad one for film.

The reality is that it is impossible to watch every film that comes out each year. There is just way too much material to sort through, and no one person could ever hope to get their eyes on the majority of it. If you felt the year was bad, it's only because you didn't step outside your comfort zone to experience stories of every genre and in a variety of languages.

To put it simply: There is great stuff released every year, and 2022 was no exception.

I watched 308 films for the first time in 2022, and 145 of those were released this past year. That's honestly a little lower than my normal average, as I'm typically right around 200 or so new releases. But it's still a solid number, and I found more than enough to fall in love with, and quite a few I firmly believe will grow to become treasured classics over the coming decades.

The Fabelmans — Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures  

While the theatrical experience did bounce back, it's still safe to say that the combination of COVID-19 and the explosion in streaming options still put a significant dent in the types of pictures audiences were willing to head out of the house to see. The biggest story of 2022 was undeniably the colossal success of Top Gun: Maverick, while the saddest one continued to be the relatively disappointing grosses for high-profile, adult-skewing titles like The Fabelmans, Babylon, Three Thousand Years of Longing, Bones and All, and Tár.

There were exceptions, including the word-of-mouth success of the enjoyably inventive multiverse comedy-drama-action-science fiction-martial arts-romance hybrid Everything Everywhere All at Once. The female-driven historical action epic The Woman King also did well at the box office, and both films are considered to be relative shoo-ins for several Academy Award nominations when they're announced on January 24, 2023.

Comic book adventures like The Batman, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Thor: Love & Thunder all met with predictable success, while others like Black Adam and Morbius notably underperformed. Sequels like Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions: The Rise of Gru prospered, star-studded actioners like Bullet Train did just well enough to justify their production budgets, and a trio of romantic comedies (Marry Me, Ticket to Paradise, and the $100-million domestic hit The Lost City) reminded everyone that seasoned movie stars like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Jennifer Lopez can still sell their fair share of tickets when appearing the right property.

Horror continued to be the easiest path to theatrical success. From legacy sequels (Scream) to new ideas (Smile) to self-financed, self-distributed viral sensations (Terrifier 2), almost every month saw a "scary movie" play to an enthusiastic audience. Ti West and star Mia Goth managed an inventive one-two punch with X and Pearl, the wickedly perceptive foodie satire The Menu left viewers hungry for more, and the killer Airbnb abduction saga Barbarian took people down a gruesome rabbit hole chock full of surprises. The list goes on and on.

LGBTQ+ representation in major studio fare took center stage in Fire Island, Bros, Spoiler Alert, and a pair of animated Disney titles, Lightyear and Strange World. Sadly, even though reviews and overall audience reaction were relatively positive, none did especially well during their theatrical runs: Fire Island sadly went straight to Hulu, and even Lightyear, with its $118-million domestic gross, was seen as disappointing. Worse, it is likely Hollywood will learn the wrong lessons, blaming each title's ticket-selling shortcomings on that aforementioned representation and not on any storytelling, marketing, or release strategy missteps that may have occurred.

Other movies from this past year that stood out: James Cameron showed he's still got the Midas Touch behind the camera, Avatar: The Way of Water printing money as it sailed past $1 billion in worldwide grosses in less than two weeks. Netflix scored its first box office hit with Glass Onion even though it inexplicably kept detective Benoit Blanc's second mystery in theaters for only seven days when it could have dominated ticket sales for an entire month. Hulu and Disney rejuvenated both the Predator series and Clive Barker's demonic tale of cenobites and sin with Prey and Hellraiser to much acclaim, but that neither title got even a moderate theatrical release doesn't make a lick of sense.

Back to Netflix for a moment: Other than the success of Glass Onion, the streaming giant went big on its continued bid to jump-start new franchises, and whether things worked out as anticipated is anyone's guess. Why? It's impossible to know what does and does not do well on the service. But the idea that Netflix can keep spending hundreds of millions on splashy — and instantly forgettable — star-studded programmers like The Grey Man, The School for Good and Evil, and Slumberland cannot be profitable, and that makes the streamer's announcement it's going to try to "end" password sharing in 2023 understandable, if still not any less stupid.

There's so much more we could talk about including Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, Disney+ mining its parent studio's vaults to ruinous results (Hocus Pocus 2, Pinocchio, and Disenchanted), and Shudder and IFC Films joining forces to release some of the year's most critically successful thrillers (Watcher, See No Evil, The Innocents). Heck, we haven't even dug into Warner Bros. erasing an entire, nearly completed DC comic book title (Batgirl) out of existence, all for a tax write-off. But those items and so many other tales will have to be left for another day.

It all goes to show that 2022 was as terrific a year in cinema as any in recent memory, and I won't hear any word otherwise.

The following is a handful of my favorite films of 2022. Lists like these are always subjective and will unquestionably change over time, and that's exactly how it should be. But as a snapshot of how I feel as of December 26, this is as spot-on as I can get. Without further ado:

Top ten of 2022

1. The Banshees of Inisherin (dir. Martin McDonagh)

Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures  

Friendship doesn't last forever in writer-director Martin McDonagh's hysterically heartbreaking Irish tragedy. The setting may be the Irish Civil War of the early 1920s, but the themes and emotions remain universally relevant, while stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan turn in four of 2022's best performances.

2. The Eternal Daughter (dir. Joanna Hogg)

Photo courtesy of A24  

Tilda Swinton does double duty as reserved filmmaker Julie Hart and her quietly introspective mother Rosalind, and the Academy Award-winner has never been better. Writer-director Joanna Hogg crafts a melancholy tale of introspection, memory, and family that lingers in the heart long after the film itself has come to an end.

3. Turning Red (dir. Domee Shi)

Photo courtesy of Pixar  

Domee Shi's wondrous animated marvel is a celebration of friendship and family, all of it centered on a teenage girl going through an unexpected transformation when her hormones and emotions go into overdrive — she transforms into a giant red panda! An absolute delight from start to finish, Turning Red is one of Pixar's best.

4. Pearl (dir. Ti West)

Photo courtesy of A24  

Ti West and star Mia Goth craft a prequel to their grindhouse throwback X and deliver a bloody delight that's both a celebration of classic Hollywood and a devastatingly shocking descent into psychologically fracturing terror. Goth gives a performance for the ages: her final monologue is an absolute barnburner that's out of this world.

5. We're All Going to the World's Fair (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

Photo courtesy of Utopia  

A primal creepypasta whose disquiet digs under the skin, filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun's masterful debut heads to the surreal corners of online discourse, clasps its cold, clammy hands on the viewer's jugular, and then refuses to let go. Newcomer Anna Cobb is magnificent.

6. Glass Onion (dir. Rian Johnson)

Photo courtesy of Netflix  

Daniel Craig returns as eccentric detective Benoit Blanc for a new murder mystery, this one involving a group of "disruptors" led by charismatic billionaire tech mogul Miles Bron (Edward Norton). Funny, suspenseful, inventive, and intelligent, this crowd-pleasing, eat-the-rich cultural satire from Rian Johnson doesn't pull a single punch. Janelle Monáe gives an understated but tremendous supporting performance that, like almost everything else in this triumph, is far more than initially meets the eye.

7. All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Edward Berger)

Photo courtesy of Netflix  

This powerful new take on author Erich Maria Remarque's antiwar masterpiece is a hypnotic, gut-wrenching journey through no man's land that chilled me to the bone. Director Edward Berger's eye-popping WWI adaptation delivers shattering, character-driven mental anguish and unimaginable psychical trauma. The hellscape of war has seldom been depicted with such unrelenting clarity.

8. Three Thousand Years of Longing (dir. George Miller)

Photo courtesy of United Artists  

Mad Max impresario George Miller's adaptation of author A.S. Byatt's 1994 short story "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" is a dreamy, visually resplendent tale of romance, loss, and intimacy that confidently pulls at all the melodramatic heartstrings. Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba burn right through the screen.

9. Top Gun: Maverick (dir. Joseph Kosinski)

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures  

Possibly the year's most inexplicably marvelous major Hollywood studio tentpole, director Joseph Kosinski and star Tom Cruise's legacy sequel to 1986's Top Gun is so stratospherically entertaining the film starts at Mach 10 and then refuses to slow down from there. While it's still a feature-length commercial for the US Navy, great is still great, and Top Gun: Maverick is as one-of-a-kind great as they come.

10. Bones and All (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

Photo courtesy of United Artists  

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet set the screen ablaze as two lost souls who search for a human connection and find it comfortably nestled in the icy warmth of one another's arms. The only problem? They happen to be cannibals. Luca Guadagnino's adaptation of Camille DeAngelis' novel is a perceptively complex examination of identity, gender, and sexuality all in revolt, an austere adventure and hauntingly personal road trip overflowing in gory twists and tear-jerking turns.

Twenty-five more (because I can)
Avatar: The Way of Water (dir. James Cameron), Bodies Bodies Bodies (dir. Halina Reijn), Catch the Fair One (dir. Josef Wladyka), Close (dir. Lukas Dhont), Crimes of the Future (dir. David Cronenberg), Decision to Leave (dir. Park Chan-wook), Emergency (dir. Carey Williams), Emily the Criminal (dir. John Patton Ford), Everything Everywhere All at Once (dir. Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan), The Fabelmans (dir. Steven Spielberg), Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (dir. Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson), Hellraiser (dir. David Bruckner), Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul (dir. Adamma Ebo), Marry Me (dir. Kat Coiro), Kimi (dir. Steven Soderbergh), The Menu (dir. Mark Mylod), Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (dir. Anthony Fabian), Prey (dir. Dan Trachtenberg), Nope (dir. Jordan Peele), Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (dir. Joel Crawford), RRR (dir. S.S. Rajamouli), The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (dir. Tom Gormican), Women Talking (dir. Sarah Polley), X (dir. Ti West), You Won't Be Alone (dir. Goran Stolevski)

Five favorite documentaries
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (dir. Laura Poitras), Bad Axe (dir. David Siev), Cow (dir. Andrea Arnold), Fire of Love (dir. Sara Dosa), Sweetheart Deal (dir. Gabriel Miller, Elisa Levine)

Ten favorite pre-2022 discoveries (because digging into the cinematic vault is fun!)
Arise, My Love (1940) (dir. Mitchell Leisen), The Baby (1973) (dir. Ted Post), Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962) (dir. Sidney Hayers), Chicago Confidential (1957) (dir. Sidney Salkow), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian), Edge of Darkness (1943) (dir. Lewis Milestone), Merrily We Live (1938) (dir. Norman Z. McLeod), Righting Wrongs (1986) (dir. Corey Yuen), That Certain Age (1938) (dir. Edward Ludwig), The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) (dir. Henry Hathaway)