Despite the best individual promo efforts of once-upon-a-time power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who looked to lure audiences back to theaters with video stunts and a meme-worthy commercial, respectively, theaters continued to struggle in 2022. So did streamers, as they attempted to turn their business models profitable (2023 will be the year that ends password sharing). But one thing hasn't changed: there's still a bounty of great films to discover from a year of cinema at theaters and home.
The year saw plenty of films ready-made to grab awards gold with evergreen topics: love letters to Hollywood (Damien Chazelle's "Babylon"), coming-of-age films (the Belgian heartbreaker "Close," father-daughter story "Aftersun," Irish drama "The Quiet Girl," cannibal romance "Bones and All," the science fiction-tinged "Wyrm"), and three twofers that dealt with coming-of-age and movie love: Steven Spielberg's autobiographical "The Fabelmans," Patrick Read Johnson's autobiographical "5-25-77," and James Gray's autobiographical "Armageddon Time."
After viewing around 300 films this year, your Friendly Neighborhood Film Critic once again sat down to the daunting task of compiling a "Top 10 List," guaranteed to disappoint enthusiasts of one movie or another — heck, guaranteed to disappoint even me. Trying to identify the "10 best" films of the year bends objective standards to breaking: inevitably, any critic's Top 10 is a somewhat arbitrary list of favorites rather than a true proposal. So how did I come about the ten films below?
The final 10 had to be films that moved me, films that dazzled me, films that stuck with me, and/or films of near-universal sociopolitical import. A good Top 10 list has some variety: this one includes one documentary, one musical, four foreign-language films, and at least one certified epic. In the search for balance, and in an effort to limit subjectivity, I left out of the Top 10 some of my "personal favorites" of the year: the delirious documentary "My Old School," the aforementioned "Wyrm," French ode-to-theater "Lost Illusions," the profoundly moving documentary "Wildcat," and my inner-10-year-old's far and away fave, "The Batman."
Here, then, is my best effort to send you on a cinematic scavenger hunt into the nooks and crannies of the cinematic year to discover films to move you, enlighten you, and excite you with sight and sound. Clip and save this list. Post it to your fridge. Work your way through it. And let's meet back here next year for more. Happy viewing!
The top ten films of 2022
10. 'Neptune Frost' (on video-on-demand platforms, Blu-ray, DVD)
Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's high-concept, gender-fluid, musical allegorical science-fiction dreamscape contains a fiercely confident, hopeful vision of liberation from the ugliness of modern civilization. Set in Burundi and shot in Rwanda, this tale of workers mining the coltan that we use for our laptops and cell phones and cameras, and awakening to the resistance necessary to overcome exploitation, employs phenomenal costume design, hair and makeup, lighting and photography to create a dazzlingly colorful and truly special cinematic art piece.
9. 'Bad Axe' (on video-on-demand)
In his feature debut, David Siev turns his documentary camera onto his family and his hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan. That family — of Cambodian descent but grown in diversity through marriages and romantic partnerships — resembles most American families: the product of difficult immigration and assimilation, bonded by a family business and traditions, but divided over the wisdom of public political protest in a town all-too-typically marked by pandemic-exacerbated economic depression and racial tension. Deeply emotional and ultimately hopeful, "Bad Axe" speaks eloquently to our shared American moment.
8. 'EO' (in theaters)
This modernistic reboot of Robert Bresson's "Au hasard Balthazar" by octogenarian filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski ("Deep End") still stars an inscrutable donkey and puts forward a jaundiced view of humanity's runaway domination of nature, plowing forward until it dies. In a way, Skolimowski's version offers a purer version of the concept, less interested in any one human character or set of characters but rather doubling down on what an episodic structure can reveal about contemporary existence while consistently capturing and arranging arresting imagery.
7. 'Playground' (on MUBI and other video-on-demand platforms, DVD)
Childhood, such an important time in all of our lives, poses a creative challenge in accurately evoking it, due to generation gaps, commercial mandates and the delicate task of coaching young actors. Laura Mandel's "Playground," then, proves all the more precious in its immediacy, its immersion into a kid-sized world just halfway off the ground from the rest of us. An ensemble of gifted young actors navigates a story backwards engineered from a tragedy, to illustrate how the unthinkable becomes not only possible but inevitable.
6. 'Decision to Leave' (in theaters and on MUBI)
This superb neo-noir from Park Chan-wook ("Oldboy," "Snowpiercer," "The Handmaiden") cultivates a chilly elegance in telling the story of an insomniac detective (Park Hae-il) and the murder suspect (Tang Wei) who may be his femme fatale, his true love, or both. The romantic obsession that ensues ends up involving a kind of mutual voyeurism, conjuring comparisons to Hitchcock and, in particular, "Vertigo." Beautifully performed and photographed, with a surplus of fresh imagery, "Decision to Leave" is pure cinematic craft.
5. 'The Northman' (Prime Video and other video-on-demand platforms, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD)
Robert Eggers' wild and woolly Norse epic, not for the faint of heart, brims with mysticism and Jungian symbolism as its antihero (a hulking Alexander Skarsgard) doggedly pursues revenge. Through the power of directorial artistry and imaginative acting, "The Northman" transports us to an ancient, and thereby alien, warrior culture and spirituality and diction of epic poetry — a time and place when life was truly nasty, brutish, and short. Cycles of generational trauma travel through and culminate in visions both mythic and psychedelic.
4. 'No Bears' (in theaters)
Iran's greatest filmmaker again turns his camera on himself with the endearing, playful and unsettling metafictional narrative "No Bears." Jafar Panahi suffuses his latest with the joy of filmmaking and his gratitude at every opportunity to put into practice his well-honed craft. Panahi's cherishing of freedom is not merely theoretical: in July, Panahi began serving a six-year prison sentence in Iran for "propaganda against the regime." "No Bears" depicts the friendly and threatening sides of community, near a border that's just as dangerous as it is invisible.
3. 'Benediction' (on Hulu and other video-on-demand platforms)
The great English filmmaker Terence Davies takes on the life and loves of the great World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden and, later, Peter Capaldi), making of them a lyrical, spiritual masterpiece. "Benediction" proves vivid all around, in its imagery, its themes (the holy madness of unlucky love and the haunted, hard-earned nihilism of the "overeducated"), and especially its portrait of Sassoon, in a performance by Lowden that heralds a young talent on the order of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins.
2. 'TÁR' (in theaters and on video-on-demand, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD)
Writer-director Todd Field ("In the Bedroom," "Little Children") returns, after a 16-year absence, with a magnum opus about the fictional composer-conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett). Convincingly taking us inside the tony, antiseptic world of world-class symphonies, the elites who traffic in and around them, and the ordinary people caught up in their orbit, "TÁR" deals with the artist's temperament, as well as abuse of power and cancel culture. Field's insinuating approach, which slowly drifts from uber-realism into dreamlike psychosis, matches perfectly to Blanchett's searing tour de force.
1. 'Aftersun' (in theaters and on video-on-demand)
In an astonishingly confident feature directorial debut, writer-director Charlotte Wells explores the coming of age of an 11-year-old-girl (Frankie Coiro); the troubled mind, body, and spirit of her father (Paul Mescal); and their loving but frustrated relationship. It's a memory piece (seen in hindsight by the grown child in her mind and on digital video) of the father and daughter's Turkish vacation and, as such, deceptively simple. Yet "Aftersun" proves patient, subtle, intimate, and devastating, with visual language — and two brilliant performances — articulating what the characters cannot.
"Close" (theaters); "Lost Illusions" (MUBI and other video-on-demand platforms, Blu-ray, DVD); "Confess, Fletch" (Paramount+ and other video-on-demand platforms, Showtime); "The Banshees of Inisherin" (HBO Max and other video-on-demand platforms, Blu-ray, DVD); "The Inspection" (video-on-demand); "Saint Omer" (coming soon to theaters); "She Said" (Prime Video and other video-on-demand platforms); "Return to Seoul" (in theaters); "Nope" (Peacock and other video-on-demand platforms, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD); "A Love Song" (video-on-demand).
The bottom five films of 2022
The moon is hollow in "Moonfall," just like the Roland Emmerich disaster movie the planetary body features in. Makes Emmerich's "Independence Day" look like an Anton Chekhov play.
4. 'Mack & Rita'
In an ill-advised spin on "Big," a magical tanning bed turns a 30-year-old (Elizabeth Lail) into a 70-year-old (Diane Keaton). Pretty much devoid of insight and painfully unfunny, spelling embarrassment for Keaton.
3. 'Hot Seat'
The uncancellable Mel Gibson lends his name — and his increasingly grizzled star power — to this crappy "action" cheapie, also starring "Johnny Drama" himself, Kevin Dillon. A ludicrous action fantasy full up on lunkheaded macho banter and every cliche in the cat-and-mouse cyber-thriller handbook.
2. 'Jeepers Creepers: Reborn'
They shouldn't have bothered with this third sequel to the 2001 horror film "Jeepers Creepers." A total fail that just keeps finding ways to go lower over the course of an interminable 88 minutes.
1. 'Fortress: Sniper's Eye'
Now that Bruce Willis has shared his aphasia diagnosis, Willis' no-budget action clunkers like "Fortress: Sniper's Eye" are worse than just terrible; they're exploitation. If you value your memories of Willis, avoid at all costs.
The best heroes
5. Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in "Glass Onion" (Netflix)
4. Fletch (Jon Hamm) in "Confess, Fletch" (Paramount+ and other video-on-demand platforms, Showtime)
3. Oppy in "Good Night, Oppy" (Prime Video)
2. Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan) and Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao, Jr.) in "RRR" (Netflix)
1. General Nanisca (Viola Davis) in "The Woman King" (Prime Video and other video-on-demand platforms, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD)
The worst villains
5. "Jean Jacket" in "Nope" (Peacock and other video-on-demand platforms, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD)
4. The Riddler (Paul Dano) in "The Batman" (HBO Max and other video-on-demand platforms, 4K Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD)
3. Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson) in "Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical" (Netflix)
2. Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in "The Menu" (HBO and video-on-demand Jan. 3, Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 17)
1. Harvey Weinstein (Mike Houston) in "She Said" (Prime Video and other video-on-demand platforms)
More top documentaries
5. "Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb" (coming soon to theaters)
4. "Retrograde" (Hulu, Disney+)
3. "Wildcat" (theaters, Prime Video)
2. "My Old School" (Hulu and other video-on-demand platforms )
1. "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism" (Netflix and other video-on-demand platforms, Blu-ray, DVD)
The animated winners
5. "Belle" (HBO Max, Prime Video)
4. "Turning Red" (Disney+)
3. "The Sea Beast" (Netflix)
2. "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" (Netflix)
1. "Wendell & Wild" (Netflix)
Editor's note: A previous version of this story listed the incorrect date for when "The Menu" would be available on HBO Max. The movie will be released on HBO Max on Jan. 3.