A spoiler-free look at general trends, the films and performances of the year, and the film that best represents our cultural moment.
The greatest accomplishment of The Fabelmans, a film I liked that moved me much more than I expected, is the convincing presentation of truisms – clichés, even – about film. It looks us in the eye with a straight face and tells us movies are magic. They’re more real sometimes than the physical world around us. Film, as an artistic medium, can change lives, change cultures. And they can also “just” thrill and enchant, “simply” astound and delight. Spielberg would know, having over decades enchanted millions with awesome spectacle while also reaching through to the heart of what moves us.
This holistic, sincere view of film is pleasantly reflected in this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, as well as in the greater 2022 canon. It’s pointless to say there’s something for everyone because hundreds of films come out every year; of course there is something for everyone. What’s notable instead, for me, is how many films were for anyone. My personal tastes – as you’ll find below – skew towards the arty and subtle, but with only a few exceptions the best and most acclaimed films this year were movies I’d recommend without a second thought. There are films that lean heavily toward wonder and spectacle or nuance and detail, but many, many films manage to gratify all our movie-consuming parts – our head, heart, eyes, ears, even our loins.
I have enough evidence from this year in film not to be worried about the state of movies. Yeah, things are changing and trends are emerging, and not all of them are good from my perspective. But film is always changing, and changing rapidly. It’s one of the world’s newest art forms, and in much the same way flight has advanced incalculably since Kitty Hawk, so too have motion pictures. But film is also stable; the core elements are still necessary for success. And there are still artists – more than ever – committed to telling all kinds of stories, of expressing all kinds of ideas, through that medium. What does give me anxiety is the public’s capacity to sit still for two hours and concentrate on one thing, but that is for another essay.
You’ll find a few different things below: a few general trends I’ve noticed, my top ten films of the year, my favorite performances of the year, and my film of the year (the film that best represents this year). Please read on. If doing so convinces you to watch even one film you wouldn’t have otherwise, I’ll be satisfied.
Are good action movies a thing now?
Action movies are well-represented both on my top ten and the Best Picture nominees. Action films are generally judged according to the conventions of their genre, but this year presented a number of films that transcend the genre. This is encouraging for me as someone who has complicated feelings about violence in film, and as someone who would like to Trojan Horse some great movies into big box office and streaming numbers. If we can continue each year to get a handful of big-budget action movies with great writing and performances built on powerful ideas, that will be for everyone’s good.
Babylon is nominated for several technical awards but not Best Picture because of bad writing. Women Talking is nominated for Best Picture despite not being nominated for not much else because of good writing. Technologically, the greatest achievement of the year is Avatar: The Way of Water, but it’s not going to win Best Picture because the writing is just fine. In short, the year showed once again that writing is one of the most distinguishing factors in film. Surprising no one, I love this aspect of film, and I love the diversity of writing styles that are receiving attention and acclaim. Writing, like all aspects of film, continues to evolve, but it also remains remarkably stable. It remains one of the few aspects upon which a film’s entire success can ultimately hinge.
We all just want to love and be loved.
It is sometimes possible to identify some sort of thesis emerging from a year of film, and this is what I’m going with for 2022. Maybe that’s too easy, as so much art for so long has focused on different forms of love and longing, but I think this year it was especially striking. Here’s an incomplete list of 2022 films that are, fundamentally, about human connection: The Banshees of Inisherin, Petite Maman, Aftersun, The Whale, Women Talking, Tár, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Bardo, The Worst Person in the World, The Quiet Girl, The Fabelmans. Each of these films is about other things, too, but at their core they are full of love and longing, an intense, usually mournful cry to be seen and understood and to go through life with other people, even just one other person. I don’t think this is a coincidence. It’s part of our reckoning with the pandemic, with our social media addiction, our increasing political polarization, our segregated cities, our climate in crisis, our democracy weakening. Information is more available than ever, but the truth remains elusive. What is the simplest, most basic human response? Hold onto the ones you love, and never let them go. And what, then, is perhaps the most basic, most visceral fear? That we might fail to hold onto them, or that we will never get the chance – to love and lose, or never love at all.
Top Films of 2022 (kinda best + kinda favorite = Top)
OLI: Broker, The Fabelmans, the last 30 minutes of Top Gun: Maverick, Worst Person in the World, The Stranger
10. The Woman King. One of the most surprising films of the year, The Woman King is totally engrossing. As the best sword-and-sandal films do, it operates well at the political and personal level, being as much about the journey of its heroes as it is the stakes of the warring peoples. The characters are three-dimensional and rendered in fantastic performances, the action sequences are harrowing and thrilling, and the world created is entirely convincing. It feels like an authentic period piece, but with a modern sensibility and swagger that props up some of the key moments and themes. Do you like Braveheart? Gladiator? You’ll like The Woman King.
9. The Banshees of Inisherin. The risk run with black comedies / tragicomedies is leaving out any heart and sincerity. So too with satire. But Banshees evades both traps. The premise is as overt as the commentary, being a film about a ridiculous row between two former friends and the violent conflicts that have divided Irish people for hundreds of years. Maybe in less capable hands this becomes a plodding political allegory or a basic far-fetched comedy, but the sincerity of McDonough’s off-beat writing style and the commitment from the actors makes it a cutting (pun not-intend #iykyk) study of the absurdity of conflict, the randomness of human interaction, and the tragedy of a life without love. If you’ve ever lost a close friend for reasons you don’t fully understand, you’ll know how true to the mark this absurd movie actually is. And it’s not much of a step to see how the pettiness of our personal interactions balloons into larger political rivalries. And what’s more ridiculous, really? Hating people we know, or hating people we don’t?
8. RRR. This movie kicks ass. It’s not often a film earns a three hour runtime, but RRR absolutely does, using all that runtime to tell a complex and compelling story, construct iconic characters, and revel in set pieces both musical and violent (and sometimes both). It is cleverly subversive, especially for a movie that turns it up to 11 at every opportunity (except for there being no sex, but there are so many shockingly hot people in this movie that I think it checks that box too). This is kind of what we go to the movies for, isn’t it? To see a thrilling story, to see things we’ve never seen before, to be inspired, to be moved, to see thinly-veiled homoeroticsm swaggering about in sweaty masculinity? So, yeah – it rocks.
7. EO. This movie’s ass kicks. Get it? Because it’s, you know, about a donkey? I’ll show myself out. No, but seriously, this movie also kicks ass, just in a totally different way from RRR. It’s understated and meditative and beautiful, and I kinda wish I had [redacted #iykyk] before watching it for maximum impressionistic vibes. It’s clever to use a donkey – an animal we often use for insulting comparisons, despite the fact they’re really just hard-working ugly cute horses – as a way to show how stupid, stubborn, and animalistic humans can be. EO, the donkey, is so strikingly human, but also so refreshingly not human. He is bothered by cruelty, and seeks love, and desires freedom, but he holds no prejudices, is so unbounded by rules and decorum, eschews culture and norms, has no sense of time or obligation. The takeway for me is double-edged: EO is so much like us. And we are so unlike him. EO also has some of my favorite shots from the year
6. Nope. I’m baffled by this film’s exclusion from the Oscars. Jordan Peele is, in his third feature film, becoming more nuanced in his societal critiques but also more over-the-top in his spectacle. His symbolism continues to operate at multiple levels, and he is already one of our most capable creators of iconic images. Think about how many shots and scenes from Get Out are part of our popular film lexicon – he’s doing that again in Nope, even if it didn’t have the same cultural impact as Get Out. Perhaps it’s not a horror movie, but there are some horrifying moments that are very effective. Also effective are Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer – more on them soon.
5. Petite Maman. Maybe this is me being a little extra, but I legitimately love this film from Céline Sciamma. As in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma does so much with so little, but whereas that film rested on the performances of two grown women, this one rests on two young girls. The film is so sweet, so aching, so lovely. Portrait feels like there was some small part of Sciamma that said to herself, “I’m going to make a great film.” And she did – it’s one of the best films ever made, easily in my personal Top 10. Petite Maman feels like she said, “I’m going to make a movie I like.” Not every great movie has to set out to be the best thing ever. Sometimes they can just be good on their own terms. When a master filmmaker does that, it’s refreshing and gratifying.
Okay, we’re into the top four, which are on their own level.
4. Aftersun. Speaking of doing the most with the least. This film is so poignant in its ordinariness. It’s a family drama about divorce, coming-of-age, and the love between father and daughter without anything especially dramatic happening. What could be more ordinary and yet more profound than your daughter holding up a video camera and asking “What did you want to be when you grew up?” To be that father faced with that innocent question, to be that daughter not understanding why he can’t answer. (Also, shout-out to 90’s and 00’s dads who spent all their family outings and vacations with a video camera). Aftersun is as tender as it is mournful, and it is a joy to see a film that finds the beauty and the weight in the everyday.
3. Women Talking. Okay, yes, the film is basically just, well, women talking. And yes, that talking often takes the shape of long speeches. But I was totally absorbed in this film from start to finish. The writing builds the complexity of this debate – to leave, to do nothing, to stay and fight – that the women in this male-dominated religious sect have throughout the film. These are the conversations behind the simplicity of “he said, she said,” the thorny terrain women must navigate simply by being women in a world where men are given inherent power and privilege. The ensemble cast performance is astonishing, and the tone and mood of the visuals are so consistent and beautiful in their austerity. Women Talking is necessary cinema.
2. Tár. More to come on this film in later sections, but for now: this is a masterpiece on every level. Many viewers have categorized it as a tough sit, and while I see where they’re coming from I don’t at all agree. This is the film from the year that you have to watch on a relaxed evening with the lights turned down and a glass of wine. Put your phone away and turn the volume up a little. It’s breathtaking.
1. Everything Everywhere All at Once. Can we all please quit overthinking this? Can we please stop pretending we’re tired of this movie’s inevitability? This is one of the greatest films ever made, and we should celebrate it every chance we get. I really mean that – this is easily the best film of the year, and it is an all-time great film. There are very few films that can ever boast this range of action, heart, humor, and big ideas. Fitting that a film about the multi-verse should hold so many truths all at once. Many of us are tired of multiverse content, but it feels so fresh, so well thought out in this film that it doesn’t bother me. It may end up being a sort of final word on the subject – how could anyone do it better? Yes, it’s chaotic and disorienting and an all-out assault on the senses, but it is all anchored by some of the simplest, most fundamental aspects of drama. This is a story of a mother’s love for her daughter. And then it is so, so much more on top of that. The Daniels were insane to try to put so much into one movie, but their gambit paid off. This is a singular accomplishment.
Performances of the Year (in no particular order)
Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once). It was time for Michelle Yeoh to really have her moment, and it’s a shame this performance comes in the same year as Cate Blanchett in Tár. She is asked to do a lot as she is essentially playing many variations of one character while still maintaining the core of the Evelyn we meet at the beginning of the film. Changed as she is by the end, we know it’s the same person we met two and half hours earlier. Michelle Yeoh been an icon – this just solidifies her legend status.
Cate Blanchett (Tár). In her first scene, a long medium shot of Lydia waiting off stage to begin her public appearance, Cate Blanchett shows us who this person is while hardly saying a word. The performance never relents – everything she does, everything she says, all of it is a perfect embodiment of this character, captivating and intimidating and beautiful. Blanchette is one of the most recognizable actors in the world and start to finish this is Lydia Tár. True genius.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer (Nope). The brother and sister at the center of Nope are opposites in a lot of ways, and while Kaluuya is the star, the film – like the characters’ horse-handling business – doesn’t work without Palmer’s exuberance, humor, and overall cool. Kaluuya is doing Kaluuya things. For my money, he took the Best Actor Alive title with Judas and the Black Messiah, and he’s done nothing to lose it here. In Judas, his charisma was at a 10/10, but in Nope, his character is completely and totally lacking in charisma. He’s just a quiet, regular guy, but through his performance Kaluuya channels that subdued temperament into the kind of cool that has marked many great Western characters (and this film essentially turns into a Western as he becomes an Eastwood-like hero).
Everyone in The Woman King (especially Viola Davis Lashana Lynch). Speaking of best actors alive. I had no idea this was a role Viola Davis could play, and oh my goodness does she play it. It’s everything Russell Crowe does in Gladiator, and there’s this one moment where one of her comrades throws her a weapon that I actually think might be a subtle nod to that part in Gladiator where Maximus gets on the horse and Juba throws him a sword…but also it’s just cool when people throw each other weapons. Lashana Lynch is a revelation. The supporting cast is great, but her very physical performance, from the subtle facial expressions to the athletic fight scenes, is special. Lots of epic films with large casts struggle to make us really connect with the supporting characters. One scene with Lashana Lynch and I was 100% team Izogie.
Everyone in Women Talking (but especially Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, and Kate Hallett). The movie just doesn’t stand a chance without great performances, and these three – representing three different generations of the colony’s women – are the best in my eyes.
Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr (RRR). Both men exhibit acting chops, but this is really about the astounding physicality of their performances. It’s like if Keanu Reeves also sang and danced in the John Wick movies. Their chemistry together is also pure joy, and they are both, so, so very hot.
Mark Rylance (The Outfit). This is a pretty neat thriller and I definitely recommend it, but it’s probably B-movie fodder without Mark Rylance being in his bag start to finish. The acting overall in this film is a little suspect – I think partially due to writing and direction – but Rylance carries every scene even without having a lot to work with. I’d like to see this movie recast with A-list performers all around him to see what his performance would look like then, but it might not actually be that different. He hits all the right notes and doesn’t miss a beat.
All the donkeys (EO and Banshees of Inisherin). Every once in a while an animal is so good in a movie you swear they’re really truly acting. Shout out to all the donkeys who brought EO and Jenny to life. And also the donkey in Triangle of Sadness, who really didn’t deserve to die like that. Rich people are the worst.
Colin Farrell (Banshess of Inisherin). All four of the nominated actors (and the donkey (and the dog)) in this film are excellent – really excellent. But Farrell’s performance is my favorite. Some of his lines in this scene are just perfection. Actually this scene is a good showcase for all four actors. Farrell is convincing as a character who is pretty dumb and pathetic, but is also, at his core, nice. Some movie stars play an everyman and it doesn’t quite work – Farrell has mastered it, and he’s doing it again here.
Renate Reinsve (Worst Person in the World). You’ll spend the first ten or fifteen minutes being like “Okay, that’s actually Dakota Johnson, right?” But make no mistake, Reinsve is not just the Norwegian version of an American starlet. She’s one of the best young actresses in the world, someone who owns every single scene, who you just want to watch. I said in 2020 I was buying all the Manon Clavel. I’m doing the same for Renate Reinsve. Please let this be just the first of many high-profile performances. She’s electric.
So, what is the film of 2022?
I enjoy selecting “the film of the year” by considering which of the year’s most excellent films best represents this cultural moment in America (I chose Mank in 2020).
The obvious choice might, again, be Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I think that is both a little too broad and a little too narrow. Broad, because how can a movie about everything be specific to one year, and narrow because in general it seems older audiences don’t respond to the film quite the same way. I think most Millennials think their parents spend too much time on their phones, but even if they are it is not usually the same sort of dizzying engagement with thousands of channels of content that characterizes the way Millennials and Zoomers/Gen Yeet interact with their devices.
Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m not picking EEAaO, though there’s a strong case for it.
The film of the year is Tár. Yep, a film about the world’s foremost conductor of classical music is the film that captures the cultural moment of 2022.
Lydia Tár is a regular person. An impossibly beautiful, supremely talented person, but a regular person. When we meet her, she has already ascended to the top of her art and profession. She is in a place where she now – because of her talent and hard work and accomplishments – has power and control. She controls the musicians as they play, her baton giving her control over time itself. She can choose which musicians to hire, which colleagues to fire, and who gets the big solo. She has a dedicated assistant who will do everything for her, including edit her Wikipedia page for the most up-to-date information on her accomplishments. She keeps up her health by ordering salads, going for long runs, and constantly sanitizing her hands. She threatens the child who bullies her daughter, and is clearly the one in control in her relationship.
Power corrupts, of course. Lydia abuses that power, sometimes to devastating consequences. And so her power and control begins to unravel.
Lydia is not so much a cautionary tale as she is a reflection of human nature. But it’s more than that; not only are we like Lydia, we want to be.
Professionally speaking, from good honest blue collar jobs to corporate white collar workplaces to “purely” artistic endeavors, we are all conditioned to gain more power and control. Ours is a society built on the basic idea that you can and should advance yourself through hard work, and the higher you climb you are afforded more power and control and – crucially – less accountability, regardless of increasing responsibility. The film is, then, a critique of capitalist society, but it goes a step further to include pursuits we (and when I say we I especially mean liberal people who read The New Yorker and maybe create art of their own) would like to consider exempt from capitalist impulse. Classical music is one of the most beautiful things humanity has ever created, and even it is not free to operate for its own beautiful sake. It too is a rat race. And time and again, we find those who have risen to the top of any profession – athletes, business people, politicians – are so susceptible to abusing that power.
America in 2022 has intensified our pursuits of power and control. No matter who is in the White House, the basic message of the opposition is that they are taking away our freedom (read: power and control). That’s really it. When someone has a bumper sticker that says “Let’s Go Brandon” or even just “Fuck Joe Biden” (let’s hear it for the party of family values) it seems to have very little to do with specific policies; rather, it’s a general sentiment that we can’t live life the way we want to because this person – these people – are stopping us. And of course sometimes those people are in fact stopping us. No matter who we elect, they aren’t ever actually doing all that we want them to. Because that would be hard, and now that they’re in control they don’t have to do hard things if they don’t want to.
Our collective response to the powers-that-be, then, is to find some other way to find power and control, both professionally and personally.. Start a business or a podcast. Get a tattoo or a piercing. Subscribe to the services you want, watch your shows when you want to watch them. Hover over your child as you send them to school. Wear a gun under your coat. Take that gun into a school. Our lives are increasingly tailored to suit our control in every possible way.
Post-pandemic, aren’t we – like Lydia – all a little more maniacal about our health? Aren’t we all a little more conscious of the way time is ticking away? When a new relationship is just a swipe away, how likely are we – really – to cede any control to our partners?
In this cultural moment when we are increasingly desperate for power and control, maybe we can understand better than ever how we might act if we actually got what we wanted. If you rose to the very height of your profession, might you sleep with whoever you wanted? And if in so doing you crossed some lines, made some mistakes, really deeply hurt some people, might you be a little indignant when people came asking questions?
Again, it’s not just that we are all Lydia Tár – it’s that we want to be.
And yet. I believe Lydia is trying at times to be a good person. I believe she is trying to bring beauty into the world. What a weighty place to be, where what you love to do is beautiful, and in your pursuit of that beauty you do very ugly things. When has that ever been more relatable than now?
The film of 2022 is Tár.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria