2022: The year in reviews

Themes of memory and identity mark a movie year with a large number of notable directorial debuts and a raft of over-the-top spectacle, but not much in the way of notable religious themes.

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

The movie year 2022 was a year of memory and identity, with one film after another exploring how memory both gives us access to our past, to our roots, and also distorts and obscures the past. At least five notable films (including three of my favorites) are from filmmakers drawing on childhood memories of their parents. In three of the five, prominent filmmakers — Steven Spielberg, James Gray, and Sam Mendes — have made the most personal film of their careers; in the other two, memories of parents is a subtle but ultimately crucial theme in the film itself. One of the year’s best animated films is both formally and thematically an exploration of how we recreate the past in the act of remembering, while a quiet sci-fi movie explores themes of memory and identity in a story of artificial intelligence, loss, and grief.

Looking over the films of 2022, I’m also struck by how many excellent films are feature directorial debuts: a father-daughter hangout movie (Aftersun); a wounded-warrior drama (Causeway); a stop-motion gem (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On); a queasy foray into schoolyard bullying (Playground); an enigmatic courtroom drama (Saint Omer); a Holocaust-shadowed documentary (Three Minutes: A Lengthening); a rowdy animated coming-of-age movie (Turning Red). Another film, the crowd-pleasing horror movie Barbarian, was the director’s solo feature debut. (One of those didn’t make my top films lists, but it was close.)

Many of these films are low-key, even contemplative in tone, but 2022 also had its share of over-the-top, maximalist spectacle: the blockbuster mega-sequels Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water; Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed Elvis; the ostentatiously excessive Glass Onion; the sprawling Telugu-language epic RRR; and, perhaps most of all, the multiverse-spanning kung-fu mother-daughter melodrama Everything Everywhere All at Once. Next to these powerhouse entertainments, the likes of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever look dull and paltry. (Matt Reeves’s The Batman doesn’t look paltry, but I need to see the sequel before I can form a proper opinion of it. I haven’t seen Black Adam and I’m okay with that.)

Maverick is the epitome of doing as much as possible for real in front of the cameras, while Avatar 2 is the epitome of creating as much as possible that couldn’t possibly be done in front of cameras. Both succeed brilliantly and I’m glad for both.

Of these, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water were each in a way the pinnacle of opposite approaches to moviemaking: Maverick is the epitome of doing as much as possible for real in front of the cameras, while Avatar 2 is the epitome of creating as much as possible that couldn’t possibly be done in front of cameras. Both succeed brilliantly and I’m glad for both.

2022 wasn’t a great year for notable religious themes. There’s Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, about Mennonite women grappling with their beliefs while coming to terms with the reality of serial rape in their community. There are Catholic images and themes in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio and The Banshees of Inisherin. The Terence Davies biography Benediction, about the English war poet Siegfried Sassoon, acknowledges his late conversion to Catholicism up front, as briefly as possible, before putting the whole topic of religion aside. (Instead it focuses mainly on his complicated sexuality, which included relationships with a number of men before marrying and having a son.) Then there are pagan themes in The Northman and Turning Red. (For a recent year with stronger religious themes, see 2019.)

Nor was it a great year for family fare. Not to undersell the gently winning Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a great film for open-minded families. On the other side of the spectrum is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, which I loved but might be a bit much for some families. After that, though, there were a few computer-animated offerings I liked — DreamWorks’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish; Netflix’s The Sea Beast; Pixar’s Turning Red — but nothing that demanded to make even my Runners-Up list. I saved a slot in Honorable Mentions for one of them, and ultimately picked the one that felt the most personal. (Puss in Boots is inventive and fun, but it’s also got a pretty corporate vibe, while The Sea Beast revisits a theme just as familiar as Turning Red with considerable panache in the first half, but the second half is a letdown.)

January has been a difficult month for me, and this list arrives quite a bit later than usual. At this point most of these films are familiar from other people’s lists, and a few notable absences stand out more glaringly. (Despite the matchless skill and clear depth of feeling that Spielberg brought to The Fabelmans, I didn’t find it an involving or illuminating work. And, while I was far from unmoved by Everything Everywhere All at Once, the recurring sex-toy theme alone was enough to put me off.)

Following my break from precedent in 2021, I’ve decided again not to rank my Top 10 films. Like the Runners-Up and Honorable Mentions, this year’s Top 10 is alphabetized. Even the assignment of films into the Top 10 or Runners-Up is almost arbitrary; the Runners-Up is virtually as good a list as the Top 10. The Honorable Mentions list is different — I’m more willing to acknowledge a notable film in that list even if it has some issues — but even that list includes mostly top-notch films. (Also like 2021, the banner image includes one film from each of the three lists to avoid an appearance of an implicit Top 3.)

Anyway, of all the 2022 films I’ve seen so far (and I’m acutely aware that, even now, I’ve missed some big ones), these are the ones that most stood out to me. As always, your mileage may vary.


SDG’s Top 10 Films of 2022 (unranked)

  • After Yang
    South Korean-born American filmmaker Kogonada’s follow-up to his 2017 debut Columbus has a similar hushed, humane tone, despite taking place in a sci-fi future in which realistically human-like “techno-sapiens” are a normal part of life. After Yang is about a family consisting of a couple (Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith) who adopt a Chinese daughter and provide her with a virtual big brother named Yang (Justin H. Min). As the title suggests, it’s a story of loss and grief; it’s also about questions of identity, belonging, and meaning. Despite echoes of Steven Spielberg’s dark fairy tale I., there’s no dystopian, cautionary vibe; the world is what it is, and human beings are what they are. Teens and up.
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
    Martin McDonagh’s simplest, most minimal drama is also his most universal and compelling. Magnificent performances from Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson as estranged friends in a tiny, remote Irish island community in the 1920s bring great humanity and pathos to a nearly pitch-black comedy about dire words and horrific actions, single-minded passion destroying its own object, self-destructive violence between brothers stemming more from stubbornness and pride than any substantial issue. The cultural setting is low-key Catholic — everyone goes to Mass, Gleeson’s character goes to confession, and a statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the road to town — but it’s a story of evangelical counsels misconceived and damnation freely chosen, almost, though not entirely, without a hint of grace. Mature viewing.
  • Broker
    Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda offers another deeply empathic exploration of marginal family life, this time traveling to South Korea for a drama involving a young mother who abandons her infant near a church with a baby box, two church workers who run a black-market adoption scheme with babies stolen from the baby box, and two detectives on the trail of the baby traffickers. In cross-examining one another, Kore-eda’s characters raise larger questions: When one of the detectives asks the young mother why she would have a child she can’t raise, she counters, “Is killing him before he’s born less of a sin?” Kore-eda, though, offers understanding and compassion to all his characters, whatever their choices. Teens and up.
  • The Eternal Daughter
    It would be misleading, if not entirely so, to say that Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter is a ghost story in a similar way that Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is a time-travel story. The two movies have more in common with each other than either does with the conventions of the genres they invoke; each explores the mysteries of the mother/daughter bond and the relationship of place and memory in ways that play with genre conventions. In Petite Maman, mother and daughter are played by identical twin girls; here Tilda Swinton has dual roles as a filmmaker and her elderly mother visiting an exotic 18th-century Welsh country house hotel to celebrate the mother’s birthday. The hotel seems haunted by something, but what? Are places ever really haunted, or just people? Teens and up.
  • Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
    A twee concept from a series of quirky, stop-motion animated YouTube shorts unexpectedly deepens emotionally and philosophically in Dean Fleischer Camp’s feature debut, a mockumentary about an anthropomorphic, talking hermit-crab shell. Blurring fiction and reality, Camp again plays the documentarian filming Marcel and works the previous Marcel shorts into the narrative, in the process touching on documentary ethics, the ambiguous nature of online celebrity, and Camp’s real-life divorce from Jenny Slate, who voices Marcel. The blend of gentleness, silliness, and invention is at times reminiscent of Miyazaki, with a dash of Jim Henson in the self-aware humor and puppety humanism. It’s one of those cinematic gifts you can’t quite believe exists. Kids and up.
  • Playground
    If Belgian filmmaker Laura Wandel’s feature debut, set in the ruthless political world of elementary school and the schoolyard, feels remarkably like one of the spiritually aware social dramas of the Dardenne brothers, it’s for good reason: Not only are the Dardennes an important influence for their compatriot, Luc Dardenne mentored Wandel in the screenwriting process. Much of the movie is spent looking over the shoulder of 7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) as she struggles to comprehend the way her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) tries to negotiate the boundaries of safety and sadism. Where the Dardennes’ movies often turn on face-to-face encounters; Playground turns on embraces, first as a desperate defense against the harshness of the world, and then as a selfless response to it. Teens and up.
  • RRR
    This past year, my favorite superhero movie isn’t from Marvel or DC; my favorite three-hour spectacle is not Avatar: The Way of Water; and my favorite musical is not Elvis. The “more is more” aesthetic of Indian cinema has rarely if ever been more stupendously realized than in Indian filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language blockbuster RRR. Blending outsize action set pieces, enormous production numbers, romance, bromance, and violently over-the-top battle sequences, it’s a mythic work of historical fiction about British imperial oppression and the imaginary adventures of two real-life Indian revolutionaries, Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan). Indian cinema famously tends to run long because Indian audiences want their money’s worth in spectacle and showmanship, and Rajamouli more than delivers. Older teens and up.
  • Tár
    There are various ways of reading Todd Field’s dazzling, virtuoso tale of a celebrated orchestral conductor and composer named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett in a performance of tremendous power and control), a brilliant artist and a supremely manipulative, toxic, almost wholly transactional human being. Tár has a same-sex partner (Nina Hoss) and a young daughter, but uses her power and prestige to gain access to less powerful women. The film can be understood as an acutely observed #MeToo story; as a critical appraisal of cancel culture; as a jeremiad about cultural decline; as a psychological drama about guilt and fear. After multiple viewings, I think from the opening shot the film leans into the last construction. It’s a portrait of an abusive personality haunted by secret sins: haunted by guilt, perhaps, or at least by fear of exposure and fall from grace. There are other hauntings as well, some more literal than others. Rich, layered, and erudite, it’s a film that seems to me more likely than any other this year to reward rewatching. Mature viewing.
  • Top Gun: Maverick
    Tom Cruise’s third-act self-reinvention continues with an improbable sequel so spectacularly entertaining that it almost makes the original movie better retroactively. Perhaps the ultimate expression to date of Cruise’s obsessive drive to bring as much reality as possible to big-screen spectacle, the film places viewers, along with Cruise and his young costars, in the cockpits of F/A-18s in flight — the ever-pitching horizon and the telescoping landscape seen all around them (and reflected in their helmet visors) — and, if this doesn’t require viewers to go through boot camp and flight school, learning to tolerate escalating g-forces ranging from zero (freefall) to 8 g’s (up to 1,600 pounds of pressure),we can viscerally appreciate that the actors did. It’s also a film about Cruise’s original bad-boy hotshot ultimately shouldering father-figure responsibility and committing to one special woman. Teens and up.
  • Women Talking
    If Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s historical novel (inspired by a heinous serial rape case in a Mennonite community in Bolivia) has an unfamiliar setting, the nature of the conversation is recognizable and relevant in more than one way. The abuse of religious authority and social structures to facilitate sexual abuse is one theme — but another, equally notable, is the knotty, personal project of rethinking religious ideas without necessarily rejecting or discarding them; of seeking new ways of articulating and appropriating belief while dissociating them from problematic or pernicious cultural entanglements. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand and others play women of limited horizons who have never heard words like “deconstruction,” but, whether or not viewers accept that controversial term, the process we see these women undergo is often a necessary one. Mature viewing.

10 Runners-up (unranked)

  • Aftersun. Charlotte Wells’ debut film might make an interesting double feature with Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter. This one is a father-daughter road trip, and the parent-child relationship is again seen through the eyes of the adult daughter. 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on holiday in Turkey with her father Calum (Paul Mescal). Low-key and slight of incident, it’s a largely naturalistic drama punctuated (in a way not entirely unlike Tár) with surreal hints that something else is going on. Teens and up.
  • Armageddon Time. James Gray’s sharply observed drama focuses on a brief friendship between two sixth graders in Queens, Paul (Banks Repeta) and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), in 1980. Paul’s family is Jewish and comfortably middle-class; Johnny is Black, and his background is sketchier in multiple senses of the word. Despite their differences, they’re drawn together by forces including mutual antipathy for their hostile teacher and a mutual love of space travel. But other forces ultimately drive them apart in ways that leave a lingering wound of guilt and shame. Older teens and up.
  • Avatar: The Way of Water. James Cameron returns to Pandora in grand style, and his fantasy worldbuilding is infused with love for and understanding of the natural world, and the effect is sublime, instilling genuine awe and wonder. Notable themes include the importance of family bonds and the contrast between the hero’s responsible, protective fatherhood and the swaggering, domineering villain’s caricature of masculinity. Cameron’s faults as a filmmaker may be incorrigible, but what he does well, he does better than anyone else. Teens and up.
  • EO. Riffing on Catholic filmmaker Robert Bresson’s celebrated Au Hasard Balthazar, Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski’s latest follows the sufferings and occasional moments of peace of a wandering donkey who bears witness to man’s inhumanity to inhuman creatures as well as his fellow man. Where Bresson’s masterpiece offered, in the words of Jean-Luc Godard, “the world in an hour and a half,” EO offers both less and perhaps more than that; where Bresson shows us the world with Balthasar, Skolimowski shows us, as much as possible, the world through Eo’s eyes — though in both films the donkey’s own inner world remains unknowable. Mature viewing.
  • Glass Onion. Daniel Craig is back as Southern gentleman detective Benoit Blanc in Rian Johnson’s gleeful, savagely satiric follow-up to Knives Out. In place of the first film’s conventional murder-mystery mansion household setting and dysfunctional family, Glass Onion is an exotic excursion into the world of the 1%, with a dream cast including Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., and Kate Hudson. Edward Norton is hilarious as a grandiose tech founder, and Janelle Monáe gives a deceptively layered performance in a complex role. The finale goes off the rails for me, but the ride is enormous fun. Mature viewing.
  • Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio. Pace lovers of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, Pinocchio is for me Del Toro’s first cinematic fairytale really redolent of the enchanted Faerie realm Tolkien described in “On Fairy Stories.” To be sure, it’s a very different story than Carlo Collodi’s morality tale, which emphasized Pinocchio’s innate naughtiness and originally ended with the wayward puppet’s execution by hanging! Collodi’s story was about the virtues of obedience and hard work; Del Toro’s story, set during the rise of Italian Fascism under Mussolini, highlights the dangers of conformity and the virtues of defiance. Older kids and up.
  • Living. Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s existential drama about a somnambulant Japanese bureaucrat awakened to life by the discovery that he is dying — remade in English? The very idea seems anathema. Yet in screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born British author of The Remains of the Day, director Oliver Hermanus has an ideal adapter, while in Bill Nighy he has a quintessentially English counterpart to Takashi Shimura’s iconic character. It may be Ikiru lite, but it’s still one of the year’s most rewarding movies. Teens and up.
  • No Bears. Possibly the final cinematic act of resistance to the Iranian government from Jafar Panahi, who a dozen years ago was banned from filmmaking, and now, half a dozen elliptically powerful films later, has finally been imprisoned, No Bears is perhaps Panahi’s most eloquently absurdist expression of defiance, frustration, and helplessness. Like other recent films, No Bears blurs fiction with reality, and, indeed, fictional reality with fictional fiction. Teens and up.
  • Saint Omer. Documentarian Alice Diop’s feature debut is based on a 2016 trial that she attended of a Senegalese student in Paris convicted of murdering her baby, a crime she acknowledged committing but for which she had no explanation, blaming witchcraft. The case as it plays out onscreen is a kind of mutual cross-examination of two cultures by one another: liberal, pluralistic, Western secularism and traditional West African folk Islam — a cross-examination complicated by the fact that the defendant (Guslagie Malanda) is a well-educated philosophy student who speaks cultured French. Mature viewing.
  • Three Minutes: A Lengthening. Dutch filmmaker Bianca Stigter’s directorial debut is a mesmerizing forensic documentary about the Jewish community of Nasielsk, Poland shortly before Nazis deportation, working from three minutes of 16mm home-movie footage filmed in 1938 by a Polish-born immigrant from New York touring Europe. The discovery of the footage — rewound, freeze-framed, run backward and forward, zoomed in, filtered, and so forth — leads to an extraordinary effort to identify the hundreds of people glimpsed in a few thousand frames. It’s a powerful glimpse into a vanished world and a deeply humane act of honoring the dead. Teens and up.

10 Honorable Mention (unranked)

  • All That Breathes, a simultaneously depressing and inspiring Hindi-language documentary about brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad, natives of New Delhi who run an outfit called Wildlife Rescue that recovers and rehabilitates black kites and other raptors adversely affected by the city’s environmental toxicity. Kids and up.
  • Apollo 10½: A Space-Age Childhood, Richard Linklater’s nostalgic, semi-fanciful reverie about growing up in Houston during the Space Race, with rotoscoped animation serving as a formal metaphor for the reconstruction of memory. Teens and up.
  • Barbarian, an inventive horror movie that benefits from a canny sense of misdirection, a bonkers narrative structure, and just the right level of humor without ever tipping into horror-comedy. Mature viewing.
  • Elvis, Baz Luhrmann’s typically grandiose ode to the King of Rock and Roll, with a larger-than-life performance by Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in weirdly ingratiating villain mode as his self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Older teens and up.
  • Good Night Oppy, a winsome, bittersweet documentary about NASA’s 2003 Mars exploration rover project directed by Ryan White and narrated by Angela Bassett. Kids and up.
  • The Northman, cinematic poet of the past Robert Eggers’s gonzo take on Hamlet by way of immersion in the cultural, moral, and spiritual world of the Vikings, with committed performances from an extraordinary cast including Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, and Anya Taylor-Joy. Mature viewing.
  • Prey, an inventive Predator prequel set over three centuries ago in the Comanche Nation in the northern Great Plains, with Amber Midthunder and Dakota Beavers as resourceful Comanche hunter siblings, from 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg. Mature viewing.
  • Return to Seoul, Davy Chou’s gently revelatory character study of a free-spirited, South Korean­–born adoptive daughter (Ji-Min Park) of French parents who on a whim visits her native land for the first time, embarking on an unexpectedly epic journey in search of her roots and identity. Mature viewing.
  • Turning Red, Domee Shi’s messily personal, Chinese-Canadian coming-of-age story that complicates its magical, metaphorical tale of life with a domineering mother by exploring the way that generational baggage is handed down from parent to child. Older kids and up.
  • The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 19th-century historical-fiction action movie starring an indomitable Viola Davis as the leader of the so-called Dahomey Amazons or Agojie, the all-female military force of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. Mature viewing.
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