The standouts from our first proper year back at the cinema.
When the pandemic kicked into high gear, coinciding with my Dad’s paralysing motorcycle accident which left him in intensive care for months, I fell out of love with movies. In truth, this wasn’t entirely a result of outside forces demolishing my mental health to a degree where most of my days were spent laid about the house in varying states of undress moping to music. I’d been growing somewhat disillusioned with the movie landscape through 2019, seeing my passion for the medium drift away, combined with a continued stonewalling of my efforts to make a viable career out of writing about them. The pandemic just expedited my realisation that movies were no longer something I cared about as passionately as I used to.
I didn’t take this so great at first, primarily because every other facet of my identity was also in the midst of uncertain change. Even when regular theatrical releases came back in the second-half of 2021, with them a raft of highly-acclaimed features that all of the critical class couldn’t stop fawning over like they were Michael Patrick Porkins in the Baby of the Year contest, I feared that something was broken in me. Did I just not like movies anymore? Sure, I wasn’t completely bereft of those lightning strike “I fucking love movies” reactions – of the non-written–about ones, shout-outs to The Mitchells vs. The Machines and The Matrix Resurrections for being 2021’s best films by far – but they were so few and far between, and the films I was seeing in between weren’t inspiring any strong feelings either way, that I worried I was the problem. Had I finally become so jaded that I don’t really care anymore about this medium which was otherwise a core part of my life for going on a decade?
Whilst I can’t say that 2022 fully dispelled these notions in me – perhaps no greater evidence being that it is now late-April 2023 and I’m only just getting around to posting this list – the uptick in my writing output over the year should hopefully indicate I’m more at peace with my relationship to movies. My tastes have changed, my appetite for movies is different than it used to be, and I’m getting less pressed when movies don’t click with me. I’m even trying to be much chiller about movies I’m not a fan of but everyone else can’t shut the fuck up about, rather than passive-aggressive smug dunks online designed to kill the vibe like SNL’s Debbie Downer. That’s what we call growth, folks! Having cinemas back for a proper uninterrupted year, enabling me to craft a routine again over going out at least once a week (usually), undoubtedly helped too. It’s still harder for me to lose myself in a film at home than it is in a cinema, so I remain grateful for those being a refuge from the world’s problems for a few hours at a time. They’re less expensive than gig tickets.
Accordingly, my favourite films of 2022 were either big screen experiences or best designed to work in the simultaneous communion and solitude of a cinema. The films that I can distinctly remember the deep-seated feelings which raced through me upon first viewing. The awe-inspiring horror of witnessing an otherworldly being unfurl its true nigh-incomprehensible form. The group catharsis of watching a dam of repressed abuse finally explode forth to rain consequences down on those who got away for too long. The giddy thrill of a title card promising metal-ass shit and promptly delivering in spades. Or just the simple pleasure of watching a man walk headfirst into a pan whilst everyone around you is dying with laughter. I’m not sure I’d call 2022 a great year for film, but it was one that reminded me why I have a literal wardrobe full of Blu-Rays and I’d call that success enough for now.
It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, even in the truncated form of this piece, but the old rules still apply. Any film released in the UK in 2022 that released in the US in 2021 is not eligible, though that only affects Mamoru Hosada’s stunning Belle. Any film released in the US in 2022 but opened in the UK in 2023 due to release window disparity bullshit, however, is also ineligible cos are we really still doing this, movie industry? That means no Babylon, no Till, no Women Talking, no Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, no Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, and no Broker despite all being enough to have pushed me back up to a Top 20 were they to have released on time. Lastly, can’t add what I haven’t seen and I haven’t seen a lot. Still getting back into the swing of things.
Other than my Top Film of 2022, which leads off the list, these are in alphabetical order so do not read anything into the ranking. I took long enough getting round to making this thing, let’s not complicate or overwork something I’m mainly doing to get the routine back. Let me know what your favourite films of 2022 were below and I’ll aim to get 2023’s list out by February 2024.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
Star: Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu
Ever since the pandemic shuttered the film industry, I’ve been missing those experiences. You know the ones. The ones where you come out of a movie like some kind of evangelical who’s received a blessed touch from a higher power, electrifying and intoxicating, that it becomes the only thing your brain can think about for weeks on end. They were already drying up before outside circumstances hastened the drought, but especially after coming back they feel so much rarer than before. A movie industry trapped in an IP ouroboros lacking soul.
Or, perhaps, the reserves of such experiences had been cleaned out by DANIELS for Everything Everywhere All at Once, since their masterpiece of a sophomore feature is an almost non-stop barrage of moments designed to make a viewer exclaim “CINEMA!” in pure wonderstruck awe. Glorious inventive absurdism with a film-geek’s magpie eye for combining disparate references and genres into a maximalist package which – for all the hotdog fingers, butt-plug trophies, bagel black holes, and decade-late Ratatouille parodies – explores real sincere feelings of loneliness, alienation, nihilism, and disappointment shot through a pure hopeful heart. Few pieces of media so far this decade have managed to conjure up an image as richly-moving and profound in meaning as Everything does with just two googly-eyed rocks sat overlooking a desert’s cliff-edge.
For all of its weirdness and initial efforts to utilise that absurdity as a defence mechanism, DANIELS’ film is the definition of accessible earnest popcorn cinema. A movie with culturally-specific details out the wazoo and an all-you-can-eat buffet’s level of ideas flying from all angles, yet one with a universality and focussed scale required to frequently reach moments of true transcendence. That’s not even getting into the career-best performances from Michelle Yeoh, who puts on both a complete retrospective with the many Evelyns and also demonstrates that her emotional range still has many untapped stars to explore; Ke Huy Quan, in his full first performance for two decades and almost stealing the entire damn film; and Stephanie Hsu, with the definition of a star-making breakout performance. These are the movie experiences I live for and nothing else in 2022 was in the same multiversal cluster as Everything.
Brian and Charles
Dir: Jim Archer
Star: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey
We are in an age of mega-budget VFX-sweatshop spectacle fare designed to pull you into alien worlds and make you fully believe the unreality on-screen with the highest-possible fidelity. So there is something to be said for the fact that one of 2022’s most immediately believable characters is very obviously a man wearing a cardigan over a cardboard box with a mannequin head stuck on-top whose voice is an old-fashioned speak-and-spell. James Cameron blows the GDP of multiple small island nations in a failing effort to make me care about the Na’vi; but Jim Archer, David Earl and Chris Hayward only need a shoestring budget and some tremendous physical acting to make me fall in love with Charles Petrescu. That’s the appeal of Brian and Charles in a nutshell. A quaint, wholesome, low-key, and deeply-felt labour of love to misfits, community and kindness with a wonderfully singular sense of humour, distinctively Welsh sense of place, and characters I just want to hug all-day.
Decision to Leave
Dir: Park Chan-wook
Star: Tang Wei, Park Hae-li
If the logline “police procedural Phantom Thread directed by Park Chan-wook” doesn’t make you want to immediately jet to the nearest cinema, then I fear you just don’t like movies very much. The South Korean master remains one of the few filmmakers out here flying the flag for erotic dramas, and his latest treat is another darkly-funny and unconventionally-romantic tale of mutual obsession and unfulfilled desire. Working off the mirrored structure that Chan-wook excels in, given a grand fairy-tale noir score by Jo Yeong-wook, and lensed with relentless style by Kim Ji-yong, Decision to Leave is one of those movies where even the most mundane of conversations are thrilling to watch. And that goes doubly for whenever stars Tang Wei and Park Hae-li share the screen, both actors radiating heat even if their characters aren’t quite able to understand or communicate precisely why they feel that way. The dance of mutual manipulation the pair share, mentally drawing intimate pictures in their minds which Kim Sang-bum’s sharp editing makes the viewer complicit in, culminating in a brilliant ending that absolutely makes the movie as a whole. The cinematic landscape at large, particularly the suffocatingly chaste one we’re currently stuck in, needs more people like Chan-wook making movies.
Dir: Rian Johnson
Star: Janelle Monáe, Daniel Craig, Edward Norton
The man so often charged with being needlessly complex – of, that worst of all crimes, “subverting expectations” – plays it straight down the middle. I get why that’d rankle some people since the mystery in Glass Onion really is that easy to guess, even if that is the point. But this allows Johnson to dial up the social and class satire inherent in all the best old-school mystery works to 11 in a manner which feels zeitgeist-capturing and still rich with additional depth for all the film’s insistence that the surface is what’s really important. Sure, it’s not as perfect as Knives Out, a little more in on its own joke this time. But when the filmmaking is this assured, this tight, this FUN, I struggle to really complain. The wit is rapier, the acting from everybody is riotous – Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Henwick on the background pinch-hitting are standouts – the pacing is tight, the payoffs no matter how obvious are electric. It should be written into international law that Benoit Blanc films get a mandatory cinema release. The infectious joy my screening all shared together, everybody in near-screen-drowning hysterics at certain beats, is like few others I’ve had in 2022. Popcorn filmmaking at its finest.
Dir: Jeff Tremaine
I’ve written a fair bit about Jackass Forever over the last 13 months. I’ve explained why Jackass still has appeal where decades of YouTube-based imitators have fallen obnoxiously flat. I’ve gone into detail about the film’s exemplary usage of editing that should’ve been award-nominated. I’ve made claims that “Silence of the Lambs” is the funniest comic setpiece of the decade so far (claims I still stand by). Each time, I worry that I’m overthinking it or spoiling the joke. Fact of the matter is if you don’t find the sight of Dave England bouncing a pogo stick on Ehren McGhehey’s cup-“protected” nutsack equal parts hilarious and wince-inducing, then we don’t got a lot to say to each other. This was my first time getting to watch a proper Jackass film in the cinema and I wouldn’t trade the pure serotonin of that experience for anything.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Star: Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya, Steven Yeun
Get Out and Us were immediate hits. Movies whose themes (in the former) and thrills (in the latter) were evident from the very jump. NOPE is more of a grower. Jordan Peele’s third feature has a lot on its mind – a damning indictment of humanity’s demand for spectacle, the dehumanisation inherent in trying to milk wild creatures for fun and profit, the history of Black excommunication from the film canon, trauma tourism, familial neglect and its after-effects – all heavily entangled together. And the movie wrapped around this, about an alien spacecraft taking residence in the California desert, is more of a slow-burn character piece with horror elements than either of Peele’s prior pictures, like if Jaws operated at even more of a menacing simmer than the rollercoaster it eventually transitioned into. Paradoxically, this is the kind of grower that’s still immensely satisfying on a first watch thanks to Peele’s industry-best command of tension and release, Hoyt van Hoytema’s impeccable day-for-night shooting, Keke Palmer & Daniel Kaluuya’s unconventional yet magnetic lead turns, and a majestic final act. Three-for-three, baby.
Dir: Robert Eggers
Star: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman
Oftentimes, you give an acclaimed indie auteur a blank cheque to cash in, you get a potent lesson in why having limits is a good thing or the auteur’s voice gets lost within the necessary push towards more mainstream filmmaking. With The Northman, his third feature, Robert Eggers was given a blank cheque and he made the best film of his career so far. A muscular, gorgeous, mythical, adult epic of the kind studios used to be so adept at churning out, yet with the historian’s eye for period detail and moral ambiguity that has come to define Eggers’ work. Battle sequences that induce audible winces in even the most jaded of viewers. Landscapes that inspire awe and sets so full of muck and toil that they are designed for big-screen immersion, courtesy of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Alexander Skarsgård finally working as a straightforward leading man supporting a movie on his chiselled back by putting in the most physical and intense performance of the year. A movie that ends with a naked swordfight in the middle of an erupting volcano. It makes no financial sense to do so, since this bombed out badly in theatres, but I hope Eggers keeps being given blank cheques for just a little longer.
Dir: Maria Schrader
Star: Carey Mulligan, Rooney Mara
There were many, many ways that Maria Schrader’s dramatization of the investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct could’ve gone horribly wrong. It is a testament to her deft empathetic touch as a filmmaker, screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s focus on allowing the victims to regain some semblance of control in their narrative balanced alongside the portrayal of an industry cowed into complicit submission, and soulfully vulnerable performances from the ensemble cast that She Said avoids all of them. Perhaps the most urgent, gruelling, and (eventually) bittersweetly cathartic entry in an ongoing wave of cinema examining patriarchal society’s misogynistic treatment of women and protection of abusers. It’s also the one with the softest touch, willing to linger in the silences both ominous and pained, reckoning with the lasting trauma without tipping over into misery porn, always laser-focussed on showing why we need to continue the fight. It is the farthest thing from an easy watch on this list, but it may be the most vital. I will never forget exiting my screening of this at London Film Festival to find all of my female friends in states of devastated sobbing release.
Dir: Domee Shi
Star: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Wai Ching Ho (voices)
It is a genuine crime that Pixar’s best film since Inside Out went straight-to-Disney+ whilst the frustratingly ok Lightyear was the film that got a wide theatrical release. Even if you want to set aside the incisive examination of second and third-generation Asian-Canadian immigrant culture, the perfectly-captured sense of time and place (turn of the millennium high school), the most immediately lovable cast of characters in a Pixar flick since the Parrs, Rosalie Chiang’s breakthrough lead turn, those amazing 4*TOWN songs… OK, there are a lot of things worth praising about Turning Red. But, if nothing else, I’m annoyed that I couldn’t experience that delightful, bouncy, ultra-expressive, characterful animation on the biggest screen possible! The snap, the slight elasticity, the sparkle in every character’s eyes tells you so much about them, is the source of so much amusement, and keeps to the Pixar house style whilst still being specific to this film. You’re telling me a film that looks like this was only good enough for home streaming but the weirdly grey and washed-out tint of Lightyear demanded a cinema screen? Fuck outta here!
The Woman King
Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Star: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s excellent historical epic is how old-fashioned it feels. Was it really so long ago that this kind of swashbuckling, character-centric, tactile blockbuster used to be the norm? Where setpieces came second to engaging interpersonal drama? Archetypal characters granted depth and total emotional sincerity that they rise above and become compelling? A cast allowed to frequently be wrong with a need to grow and change from those flaws? Sets that have a distinct tangibility to them and action which is weighty and satisfyingly intense? A movie unafraid to dive headfirst into heavy themes – like the culpability of certain African tribes in the transatlantic slave trade and their efforts to move past and atone for such actions (even if the historical accuracy in-film is dubious at best) – in an accessible manner that sees them through to the end, rather than shoving them into a corner the second they risk derailing the fun? Is… is this all allowed? Are blockbusters still capable of doing this?
Turns out: yes, at least if you’re Gina Prince-Bythewood. The director’s recent career resurrection has revealed her to be highly-adept at this kind of throwback blockbuster filmmaking and, with the Netflix-y hands which restrained The Old Guard from true greatness now nowhere in sight, The Woman King is a thrilling showcase of what she can do. It’s been an absolute age since I’ve seen a third act crest into view and felt my blood rush with total glee over what’s about to happen like it did here. And, in keeping with those old-fashioned blockbusters, this thing is a veritable fountain of Movie Star-making performances running on limitless resources of charisma; Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, being backed up by John Boyega and a commanding Viola Davis. They don’t make ‘em like they used to? Sometimes, they do. Let’s maybe let that happen a little more often.
Callie Petch don’t rap circles round fools, they do figure-8s.