I’m one of those people who thinks every year is a great year for movies. Finding 10 to love in any given year is never a problem. But even in that context, 2022 was extraordinary. Is it possible that filmmakers, at last freed from some of the constraints and anxieties of early-pandemic film production, experienced a collective burst of energy and imagination? Or are we, as members of the audience at large, finally awakening from the sluggishness of our earlier pandemic-era hibernation, more open to the possibilities of movies than we were before? There’s no clear answer to those questions, but that doesn’t diminish the splendor of this year’s crop of movies. Here are ten of my favorites for 2022, with a hearty list of honorable mentions at the end.
10. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
In 2017 photographer Nan Goldin, having just finished a stint in rehab for OxyContin addiction, founded a group called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), to force the Sackler Family—art-world philanthropists and owners of Purdue Pharma—to reckon with their role in the opioid crisis. Directed by Laura Poitras, this documentary is both a portrait of an artist who has long trained her lens on society’s outliers and a testament to the power of passionate activism.
9. The Inspection
Jeremy Pope gives a superb performance as a young gay man, homeless and running out of options, who enlists in the Marines, where he faces cruelty and bigotry but also finds a complex sense of belonging. Writer-director Elegance Bratton has drawn this story from his own experience, and rather than going for the easy answers, he roots out the hard questions. We all need to find our place in the world; no one ever said it would be simple.
8. Il Buco
In 1961, a group of young speleologists trekked to the Calabrian countryside of southern Italy to explore Europe’s deepest cave, stretching 700 meters below the Earth’s surface. Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Frammartino re-creates that exploration, framing the thrill of inquiry into nature’s deepest secrets against the tumult of a rapidly changing world. This is a rapturous, quietly hypnotic film.
We know so little about the inner lives of animals; science can tell us only so much. At age 84, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has given us a movie about the odyssey of a donkey named EO, who finds both kindness and the lack of it on a trek from Poland to Italy. EO, at times hard to watch, is ultimately bracingly beautiful, a reminder that we need to look out for our animal friends with the utmost care.
Cate Blanchett stars as orchestra conductor extraordinaire Lydia Tár, a figure so vivid that you could almost believe she’s a real person. She’s not: Writer-director Todd Field and Blanchett summoned her, tyrannical and magnificent, from imagination. This is an ambitious—and often drily funny—film about a complicated, often unlikable woman who works hard and reaches high for what she wants. But it’s also about art as a kind of sustenance—fuel for survival in a sometimes merciless world.
Even if it weren’t so timely, French director Audrey Diwan’s Happening would still be a tense and quietly radical piece of work. Adapted from the 2000 memoir by Nobel Prize-winning author Annie Ernaux, the picture is both forthright and moving in its exploration of what an unwanted pregnancy can mean to a woman—in this case a young student played with raw, bruised resolution by Anamaria Vartolomei.
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis is less a straightforward biopic of Elvis Presley than a sequined jumpsuit in movie form: impractical but flattering, and built to accommodate giant leaps of imagination. Austin Butler, with his regal cheekbones, his eyes as soft as a sigh of longing, conjures both the carnal majesty and the dreamy sadness of Elvis. This movie is nuts. But it’s also filled with love for a king we didn’t deserve.
3. Armageddon Time
In this semiautobiographical drama from James Gray, a smart but smart-alecky Queens sixth grader, Banks Repeta’s Paul, befriends one of the few Black kids in his class, Jaylin Webb’s Johnny, even as he remains clueless about the specific realities of his friend’s life. Human beings like to brag about the times they did the right thing, but memories of the times in which we failed to act are the most haunting of all. Gray reckons with those failures—and doesn’t offer easy self-forgiveness.
As kids, we have no idea how our feelings about our parents will take shape when we ourselves are grown up. That’s the territory Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells explores in her stunning debut. Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) goes on a rare holiday break with her father, Calum (the extraordinary Paul Mescal) during which she begins to see his flaws, and his suffering. The subtle aftershocks of this intimate, beautifully wrought picture linger long after you’ve finished watching it.
1. The Fabelmans
Steven Spielberg has been making movies for more than 50 years, and there are autobiographical touches in many of them. But The Fabelmans is his most personal film to date, one that reckons with the bittersweet truth of how families endure even in the midst of stress and crisis. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano star as Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, stand-ins for Spielberg’s real-life parents. Their performances are among the year’s best, delicately textured and deeply moving.
Honorable Mentions: Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, Park Chan-Wook’s Decision to Leave, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, Jeff Tremaine’s Jackass Forever, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, Sacha Jenkins’ Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR, Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane