NBP Film Community Award Nomination voting is happening until February 11th. As a result, now is a good time to reveal my favorite films of 2022. You’ll see some through-lines in my list of the Best Movies of 2022. There are a couple of autobiographical memory pieces, one from a newcomer and one from an old master, where dreams, memory, and movies (often via recording device) in some way intersect. There are blockbusters of the personal kind by filmmakers who were given a blank check to chase their passions and hoped we would too. There are the triumphant returns from artists we missed for too long and whose work carries the promise we won’t wait so long again. But the most significant connection may be that each movie on this list is gloriously cinematic, capturing what it has to say through the qualities most unique to movies: sight and sound. It is not that low-fuss aesthetics or talky movies can’t be cinematic, as many are. But in a period where the future of the medium is sometimes in doubt, the movies that flex the possibilities of true cinema in some way –– rearrangements of image and sound in just the correct pattern to create a one-of-a-kind experience, regardless of scale or subject, were often the ones that resonated with me the most.
But first, runner-ups: There’s Michael Bay’s “Ambulance,” one of the most formally inventive (and fun) movies I’ve seen in years. Bay takes Michael Mann’s experiments with the hyperreal quality of digital cameras to an even further extreme with drone shots he throws around L.A. like boomerangs. I really loved “The Eternal Daughter,” Joanna Hogg’s gothic mother-daughter drama with some of the spookiest haunted house imagery of the year. The final shot of Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future” comes to my mind often, and I smile whenever I think of the tiger bonanza in the middle of “RRR.” And finally, a shout-out to “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a movie that made me laugh so hard it physically hurt minutes before I cried at googly-eyed rocks. I’m still trying to figure out how the Daniels did what they did.
Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2022:
Jordan Peele’s latest is a pop-cinema explosion of genre love, metafiction, and philosophy, a spectacle about spectacles as impressively difficult to categorize as it is delightful to watch. Not as socially incendiary as “Get Out” or as scary as “Us,” “Nope” is both Peele’s most cerebral movie and probably his most fun. It is a richly thematic anime-western remix wherein almost all its ideas are expressed visually. The main plot is both straightforward and jagged: two siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) try to capture an enormous flying alien on film for profit. While nearby former child star and theme park owner (Steve Yeun) is up to no good, each disparate element carries with it a history and meaning. Peele empowers his audience to infer and connect. “Nope” didn’t thrive in theaters but quickly found a second wind at home with frequent viral tweets celebrating Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography (the shot of a farmhouse in a downpour of blood getting particular attention) or arguing if the two main storylines actually connect. Twitter may not be real life, but it was a joy to see popular discourse celebrating something besides capes and cowls, especially for such a singular big-screen vision. Peele invokes everything from the erased history of Blackness on film, the humane treatment of animals, IMAX, and the Baudrillardian commodification of trauma, to the first alien creature to evoke Lovecraft, “Jaws” and “Evangelion” at the same time. Peele may have teased the guy who said he was the greatest horror director of all time, but if he keeps making movies like “Nope,” he may well become one of them.
Writer-director Romain Garvas’ scintillating political action-thriller “Athena” feels classical and contemporary all at once. The fuse for Garvas’ feature debut is a staggeringly complex seven-minute “oner,” lit when his camera starts at a press conference on the alleged murder of a boy by police. From there, the camera breaks into a fire-bombed police station getting raided, escapes into a gateway van, tracks back into a housing complex mid-ride, then literally ascends in the air, revealing an army of protestors waiting for battle. What is so impressive isn’t just how Garvas passes his camera from camera operator to camera operator like it’s an Olympic Torch but how intuitively he conveys the political and personal turmoil of his story in cinematic terms inside one bravura sequence. “Athena” is a from-the-headlines family tragedy writ large, following how the surviving siblings react after their youngest brother is beaten to death, allegedly by police. What makes “Athena” remarkable is how Garvas takes a story that feels urgent now and tells it through multiple modes of storytelling from different periods of history, expressed primarily through incredible camerawork and staging. With long tracking shots that shift in style on a dime, Garvas’ thriller can feel like a verite docudrama, a Greek Tragedy, and/or a post-9/11 war movie. But in one stunning sequence, the action transforms into a makeshift medieval battle, with militarized police scaling ladders like they’re Uruk Hai at Helm’s Deep. With “Athena,” Garvas tells a cautionary tale of anger, grief, and political combustion, reminding us that today’s conflicts are as ancient in origin as they are sadly ongoing, and he does it all through the language of movies.
8. Fire Of Love
They say the more specific the story, the more universal its power. That is certainly true of “Fire of Love,” Sara Dosa’s almost experimental documentary about Katia and Maurice Krafft, two volcanologists who are in love. And, as Miranda July’s divisive narration tells us right at the beginning, they also died on the job. Through the Krafft’s archive of blazing 16-mm footage, Dosa’s molded what almost feels like a tragic sci-fi love story, following two explorers on a far-away planet, capturing with equal part awe and terror of the planet’s volcanic activity. The most astonishing fact about “Fire of Love” is that it’s all real. It’s astonishing because of how dangerously close the Krafft’s get to (many) volcanos mid-eruption, but also because of the footage itself, filled with more heart-pounding spectacle than most big blockbusters. “Fire of Love” shows nature’s beauty and violence in all sizes and shapes. Close-ups of tiny sparks from a nearby volcano blast on screen like fiery confetti, and gurgling lakes of lava slither through the smoke. And then the major eruptions themselves, nature’s answer to the atom bomb, are captured as great explosions of almost mythic intensity and destruction. These images take on an almost abstract visual beauty, echoed by July’s narration, using these moments to ponder man’s relationship to nature in an existential sense. At one point, she reads of the Kraffts: “the truths, the fragments, the questions, they wonder what forms and reforms the world. To these mysteries, they long to get closer.” At times, “Fire of Love” feels less like a BBC nature documentary than a Herzogian visual essay, asking profound, often humbling questions about nature itself. To Dosa’s credit, she perfectly balances charming footage of the Krafft’s with those lofty cosmic ponderings, making a beautiful love letter to these quirky but bold scientist explorers and what their lives can teach us.
7. Avatar: The Way Of Water
James Cameron is still the king. “Avatar: The Way Of Water” recalls the grand sweep and sincerity of early adventure movies with a level of immersion only possible with the hallucinatory realism of Cameron’s cutting-edge CGI wizardry. After thirteen years of anticipation, but mostly of doubt, Cameron delivered another of his epics. This time a surprisingly intimate one, blending achingly beautiful vistas and kinetic action alongside a family drama of some complexity. Cameron celebrates the power of an image to move us. He understands what many have forgotten, that plot isn’t a substitute for awe, and how when made with care and skill, awe is incredibly personal. This is why the drama in “Avatar: The Way Of Water” is expressed less in dialogue than in monumental action. It’s the way reckless boys swoop into the wreckage of a train heist or how we come to know a son’s loneliness by the way he bonds with a Tulkun, an abandoned space whale named Payakan whose human-like eyes carry genuine sorrow. “Avatar: The Way Of Water” might be Cameron’s most personal movie, offering up his experiences (and probably his failures) as a dad to tell a story of generational divide and toxic fatherhood. Cameron told the press he based Jake (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) children off his own family, and it shows, centering the conflict, often between fathers and sons, as a driving element of the plot. The final hour of “Avatar: The Way Of Water” is a cinematic symphony of air, land, and sea, a remarkable battle sequence of crab-mecha, water-kaiju a ship’s sinking ala “Titanic.” It is a masterpiece of visual excitement and lucid staging, a victory lap of Cameron’s career, blending elements of “Terminator 2” with “The Abyss” and “True Lies.” What makes the near-perfect finale of “Avatar: The Way Of Water” so emotionally gripping is how Cameron anchors his powers for action with his heart-on-your-sleeve sincerity, a beating heart drama between parents and their children, and how far they’ll each go to protect the ones they love.
6. Decision To Leave
The most sweepingly romantic movie of 2022 might also be the deadliest. Sensual, mysterious, and beautifully photographed, Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave” is the latest in a chain of “Vertigo” riffs, each filtering Hitchcock’s noir classic through a range of different styles. These movies often embody the decade they were made; De Palma’s masterpiece “Body Double” is pure 80s kitsch-sleaze, while Verhoeven’s erotic thriller “Basic Instinct” mainlines 90s camp. Park’s solution might be more elegant: “Decision to Leave” brings “Vertigo” into the 21st century by focusing the story around modern technology. Cell phones, surveillance monitors, and electronic recording devices are not only essential plot elements; their gizmo-circuitry ultimately become literal metaphors of how desire can be codified and captured. Park’s always been a master of maximalist style (think of Park’s iconic dorm-room classic “Oldboy” or his recent “The Handmaiden“), but with “Decision to Leave,” he finds an inviting ease to his storytelling. Anchored by two extraordinary performances by Park Hae-il as the detective and Tang Wei as the murder suspect and femme fatale, Park uses the familiarity of the surface plot to his advantage. There is a relaxed, unhurried pace that gently lures you into its web of dreamy, noxious longing. Increasingly over the course of the movie, characters imagine themselves in imagined spaces: to be close to another person, at a crime scene, in a bedroom, on a mountain, or by the sea. By the extraordinary climax, the divide between plot and visual metaphor collapses, a tone-poem of gorgeous pulp poetry.
Amazingly assured for a feature debut, Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun” is a soul-burning memory piece that is intimate and honest. Wells’ semi-autobiographically follows a young father (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter (newcomer Frankie Corio) on a resort vacation in Turkey. Soon, we begin to understand concerns of class and disappointment as father and daughter attempt to close the disconnect in their relationship. There’s a disarming frankness in how Wells depicts her characters, from how Mescal’s Calum and Corio’s Sophie joke around, more like siblings than a father and daughter, to the status of their mental health. Wells dramatizes Sophie’s first signs of depression, just as we see the fatherly disguise Calum uses to hide his own start to crumble. In one particularly heart-rending moment, Calum tells a scuba instructor: “Can’t see myself at 40, to be honest. Surprised I made it to 30.” “Aftersun” knocked me out. Like some of the movies by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wells’ takes an elliptical, fragmentary approach––often intercut with videotape footage from the trip––that creates the sensation that you’re dipping into a pensive, where the moviemaker’s memories start to feel like your own. For instance, Wells nails the precise confusion one feels at age eleven, a transitional age on the cusp of adolescence, no longer feeling like a “little kid” but not yet aged up to be a cool teenager. I saw so much of myself in Corio’s performance, and in Mescal’s too, but even more, I recognized the pain of two people wanting to fully connect and not quite knowing how and the half-life that lingers knowing you never could. Simple in set-up but complex in feeling, “Aftersun” will stay with me for years.
4. The Banshees Of Inisherin
No other movie from 2022 grew more in my mind than Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Best described as a buddy break-up movie in the shadow of the Irish Civil War, McDonagh uses a silly plot of two squabbling Irish men as a sly stage to explore themes around god, death, donkeys, and despair. Fourteen years after “In Bruges,” McDonagh (finally) reunites with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and the results are wonderful. There’s a rare alchemy that kindles when these three men collaborate. It’s the Irish in them, for starters, with a shared heritage that lets the performers work in step with McDonagh’s light and dark dialogue. Their facility for balancing on-brand jabs towards the English with classically Irish gallows humor is a pleasure, if for no other reason than how effortless and authentic they make it. Likewise, McDonagh lovingly recreates 1920s rural Ireland, a lived-in natural wonder that feels honest to its place and time. We’re invited into the quaint rituals of daily life; the afternoon walks to the pub, the sound of fiddle-playing, or the caring for farm animals (best brought inside when one is sad). For McDonagh, it’s that very quaintness that is key; the smallness of Pádraic and Colm’s lives feels relatable, giving uncommon weight and credibility to the festering darkness of the soul that roils beneath the surface of their smiles and pints. The banshees no longer scream in Inisherin, or maybe they do, but now in the whips and howls of off-camera rifle shots, an ever-present reminder that death’s hand is waiting for us all.
3. Top Gun: Maverick
At times, “Top Gun: Maverick” feels like a dream. Joseph Kosinski’s legacy sequel to the 80s classic is the perfect blockbuster, a Tom Cruise aerial action movie so attuned to the classical machinery of story structure, plot, and character that it has the mathematical precision of an aeronautical blueprint. These are story fundamentals rarely done well in the age of Disney, but they might have a machine-like coolness if not for the startling emotional power in the specific, mature story being told. In the air, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a jaw-dropping done-for-real aerial spectacle. But on the ground, it’s a surprisingly mournful meditation on aging, confronting your mortality, and how to prepare for what comes after. There are dozens of lines of dialogue that, in some way, reference death. Moving on. Letting go. Headed for extinction. Time is your greatest enemy. This interest in life’s passing is also visual: with Claudio Miranda’s crisp digital cinematography, the alien landscapes and soft lighting make the world of “Top Gun: Maverick” feel quietly surreal. Sometimes the storyline takes on the emotional logic of the dream scenarios in the final season of “LOST” or the “The Sopranos,” as if every situation and plot beat were metaphysically curated to help Maverick confront his emotional wounds. Everything from Maverick’s conversation with Iceman (“it’s time to let go”) to his relationship with Rooster is to prepare Maverick to breach the sound barrier of some kind of spiritual “beyond.” “Top Gun: Maverick” didn’t become a box-office sensation despite these themes; it was because of them, reminding audiences how powerful spectacle, story, and theme can be when they fly in perfect formation.
2. The Fabelmans
Widely marketed as a love letter to movies by way of Steven Spielberg’s childhood, “The Fabelmans” is mostly something else, something more singular, heart-wrenching, and wise. With the help of co-screenwriter Tony Kushner, Spielberg has made a deeply personal, often profoundly moving domestic drama about parents, divorce, and how art and life can intermix in uncanny ways. We first see him as a child. We see that a lightning strike of inspiration came when one of the great American artists of our lifetime decided to make movies, not because of a film but because it came to him in a dream. And more precisely, a nightmare. “The Fabelmans” is so powerful because it charts with shocking emotional honesty what range of experience it took to forge the wunderkind who made “Jaws” before age 29. Bad dreams, heartbreaking discoveries, high school bullies, Catholic girls too hot on Jesus, and a messy, probably traumatic relationship with his loving parents. And, of course, his camera. Sure, it’s impossible to see “The Fabelmans” without thinking of “Jurassic Park” or “Saving Private Ryan,” but the film’s power goes beyond the knowledge of what young Sammy Fabelman becomes. Instead, Spielberg found in his own experience the opportunity to tell hard truths not about himself but about everyone. In one surprising thematic thread, Spielberg and Kushner suggest the virtues of selfishness, asking what we owe others versus the happiness we owe ourselves. We only have one life. In some ways, “The Fabelmans” is as morally probing as “Munich” or “Lincoln,” here asking questions of love, ambition, and art instead of state and policy. But also about dreams, how movies are dreams, and what strange magic can turn a regular bully into a movie god who looks like he can fly. “The Fabelmans” is Spielberg’s most truth-telling movie, not because he tells the story of his childhood, but because of what we can learn from it.
After a 16-year absence, acclaimed writer and director Todd Field returns to the screen with the most exquisitely slippery movie of 2022. “TÁR” is a delicious enigma, both a kind of psychological thriller set in the world of #MeToo and a dry comedy, depicting the fall from grace of EGOT-winning conductor Lydia Tár (a career-best Cate Blanchett). “TÁR” is a colossal achievement, taking on a multitude of mine-field topics (Lydia, in her words, is a “U-Haul lesbian”) and offering easy answers on none. Field is interested in the ethics of art, who can create it and how we should consume it, but mostly in power, how it’s abused and cultivated, twisted and exploited, and what it feels like when the glass armor of a carefully tempered image starts to shatter. We come to see how Lydia’s curated a public persona that emanates intelligence, wit, and “genius,” and the house of cards that enables it to thrive. In a smart flourish, the movie opens with the full credits, reversing the flow of power from bottom to top. But also, like “In the Bedroom” and “Little Children,” Field smuggles a sort of genre B-movie into the machinery of prestige drama, here with the grace notes of gothic horror. Alleged misdeeds reappear like ghostly apparitions or maybe just as emails, increasingly surreal hauntings that grow in number and strangeness over time. “TÁR” is a masterclass in stylistic control, with meticulous long takes and chilly cinematography that focus on hard lines and shape, amplifying the feeling of disturbance when we hear distant screams or music books vanish in the night. Field and Blanchett have done such a convincing job of fully immersing us into Lydia’s unreliable point-of-view; there’s been debate about whether parts of “TÁR” take place entirely in Lydia’s head. The answer misses the point. With a sense of play that betrays the seriousness of Lydia Tár herself, Field’s created a cinematic riddle so strong I’ve still not met two people who share the exact same reading. Next time, hopefully, Field won’t wait so long to provide us with another.
What do you think of my list? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. You can see Next Best Picture Editor In Chief Matt Neglia’s top 10 list here, Josh Parham’s list and Ryan C. Shower’s list here. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2022 as we say goodbye to the 2022 film year. Voting for the NBP Film Community Award Nominations is currently underway and can be voted on here until February 11th.