The movies returned at something close to full force this year. COVID masks all but vanished from multiplex crowds, and from the audiences at the press screenings I attended (though I kept mine handy). Sundance did cancel its in-person screenings for the second January in a row, thanks to the early Omicron surge, but other major film festivals continued on unimpeded. The Oscars made headlines (if scarcely the ones they wanted), as did box office returns. Companies like Netflix, Warner Bros. and Disney all saw their plans for streaming domination hit an iceberg, and reshuffled those plans accordingly.
So why did cinema’s apparent resurgence so often feel like a retreat? Maybe it was the sense, even more pronounced than usual, that the audience at large couldn’t be bothered to care about movies other than “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” or anything else without a franchise-designating colon in the title. Not that those movies offered nothing to care about; Tom Cruise’s irrepressible last-movie-star energy was a boon to the summer movie season, just as Chadwick Boseman’s haunting absence was its own poignant reminder of the bonds we forge with actors we love. As even the curiously touching if hugely divisive “Avatar: The Way of Water” bears out, blockbusters haven’t crowded out personal filmmaking so much as subsumed it.
That’s not a terrible thing. But it’d be a better thing in the hands of an industry, and an audience, that didn’t increasingly equate the big screen with outsized spectacle, to the exclusion of all else. The learned viewing habits of the pandemic, which prioritize convenience over curiosity, now seem to suspend themselves only when a big event picture — or a Marvel movie, which at this point can scarcely be considered an event — comes along. Romantic comedies and grown-up dramas have been on the commercial decline for years, but there seemed a particularly harsh finality to the mass-audience rejection of “Bros” and “She Said.” Some industry finger-waggers gleefully blamed these flops on Hollywood’s allegedly progressive agenda, which doesn’t quite explain the success of a racially inclusive, politically conscious thriller like “Nope,” one of the few original hits released by a major studio this year. But then, Jordan Peele is in the business of avoiding — and defying — easily digestible narratives, which is very much to his credit.
“Nope” made my year-end list of favorites, as did a lot of movies you may have seen or not seen, heard of or not heard of. My hope, as always, is that this list will not be a final word but an introduction — the start of a conversation, a watchlist and, yes, a trip to the theater, where some of these films are still playing or will be playing shortly.
Here are my 10 — nah, 11 — favorite movies of 2022:
1. ‘No Bears’
This year saw numerous great filmmakers, from Charlotte Wells to Steven Spielberg, effectively become their own protagonists. The Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been turning the camera on himself — or a version of himself — for years now (“This Is Not a Film,” “Taxi”), both confronting and sidestepping an oppressive filmmaking ban with formal ingenuity, incisive social criticism and sly, self-effacing humor. His self-portraiture rises to another level of invention but also descends to new depths of despair in the extraordinarily intricate, playful, angry and devastating “No Bears,” in which Panahi — both onscreen and off- — brilliantly interrogates religious fundamentalism, systemic misogyny and the ethical complications of photography and filmmaking. In July, Panahi was detained and jailed by the Iranian government, not long after finishing this searingly thoughtful and provocative movie — neither his first masterful act of cinematic protest nor, I hope, his last.
(“No Bears,” which screened at AFI Fest in November, opens theatrically Jan. 13 in Los Angeles.)
2. ‘Aftersun’ | 3. ‘The Eternal Daughter’
The widening chasm between a parent and a child, always a potent wellspring of emotion, has seldom been measured to such layered and heartbreaking effect as it is in Charlotte Wells’ melancholy summer-of-loss debut and Joanna Hogg’s spooky-sad winter’s tale. Both movies take place on a holiday at less-than-ideal lodgings, where a shared hotel bedroom can become charged with unarticulated hurts and longings, and where time has a way of slipping between past and present. Here too are two of the year’s best acting duos: Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio in “Aftersun,” and Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton in “The Eternal Daughter.”
4. ‘Tár’ | 5. ‘Benediction’
Two superbly written and directed movies about, among other things, acclaimed queer artists inhabiting and negotiating radically different eras, desires, personal moral codes and spheres of cultural influence. One’s a biopic and the other isn’t, though some of the more amusing discourse around “Tár” has confused Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, never better) for a real-life scourge of the classical music world. That speaks to writer-director Todd Field’s masterful world building, his ability to extend portraiture into panorama. The same could be said of Terence Davies in his acerbic, achingly sad “Benediction,” which brings us into the inner circle of English poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden, also never better) and reveals how it both assuages and inflames his longing for love.
It was another weird year. This is the music, movies, theater, books, television and art that got us through.
6. ‘Decision to Leave’ | 7. ‘Kimi’
The year’s two finest Hitchcockian thrillers — one extravagantly designed and doomily emotional, the other a model of spare, efficient suspense technique — could scarcely have been more urgently of the moment. If Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave” rewired “Vertigo” for the era of smartphones, Siri and premium-grade sushi, then Steven Soderbergh’s “Kimi” peered out, through “Rear Window,” onto a COVID-decimated world gradually emerging into a queasily uncertain future. (As a micro-budget snapshot of life in lockdown, Soderbergh’s movie might also have been plausibly been titled “Decision to Leave.”)
8. ‘Crimes of the Future’ | 9. ‘One Fine Morning’
Two very different performances by Léa Seydoux in two very different movies that both touch the heart and mind. “Crimes of the Future” also touches the guts, the spleen and other assorted viscera, since David Cronenberg’s grimly funny, surprisingly tender dystopian shocker unfolds in an era when surgery has become an artistic and recreational pastime. There is no surgery to speak of in “One Fine Morning,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s lovely and beautifully observed Parisian slice-of-life, though as a single mom navigating loss and love, the brilliant Seydoux operates close to the emotional bone.
(“Crimes of the Future” is streaming on Hulu and available on other platforms. “One Fine Morning,” which played a one-week awards-qualifying run this month, will return to Los Angeles theaters Jan. 27.)
10. ‘EO’ | 11. ‘Nope’
Our systemic abuse of the animal world is one significant thread that connects Jerzy Skolimowski’s gorgeous and empathetic donkey drama to Jordan Peele’s wholly original Hawksian sci-fi horror western about horses, cameras and the insatiable human appetite for spectacle. “EO” tangoes with Bresson and “Nope” tussles with Spielberg, but their most purely expressive images may be of a beast of burden’s glassy-eyed gaze — a window into a soul that we endanger at our convenience and our peril.
Ten honorable mentions:
“Armageddon Time” (James Gray) and “The Fabelmans” (Steven Spielberg)
Two gifted American classicists return to significant moments of artistic self-realization and childhood anguish — and emerge with a hard-won sense of introspection that few of their detractors, and they have many, would have expected.
“Descendant” (Margaret Brown) and “Tantura” (Alon Schwarz)
The two most penetrating documentaries I saw this year — one focused on the wreckage of a U.S. slave ship, the other on the grim fate of a Palestinian fishing village — dug deep into the buried evidence of crimes and atrocities that many would prefer stay hidden.
“Happening” (Audrey Diwan) and “Women Talking” (Sarah Polley)
What will she do? What should they do? These superbly honed, urgently cinematic adaptations are bound by their bracing insistence on female agency — something that the world, whether it’s 1960s France or a 21st-century Mennonite colony, will always insist on snuffing out.
“Întregalde” (Radu Muntean) and “X” (Ti West)
Whether you’re off to deliver canned goods to the needy or just trying to make a porno flick with your friends in an empty barn, journeying out into the wilderness has never been so deliciously ill-advised.
“The Novelist’s Film” (Hong Sang-soo) and “Saint Omer” (Alice Diop)
Two far-flung contemporary dramas — one set in a small town outside Seoul, the other in a northern French town — in which an established novelist sets out in search of inspiration, only to be confronted by a voice and visage that awaken a profound sense of recognition.
And I also recommend: “After Yang,” “Ahed’s Knee,” “Ali & Ava,” “All That Breathes,” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “Barbarian,” “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” “Beast,” “Bones and All,” “Both Sides of the Blade,” “The Cathedral,” “Catherine Called Birdy,” “Causeway,” “A Couple,” “Dos Estaciones,” “Emergency,” “Emily the Criminal,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Fire Island,” “Fire of Love,” “Flux Gourmet,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” “Great Freedom,” “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.,” “Hustle,” “In Front of Your Face,” “The Inspection,” “Living,” “A Love Song,” “Murina,” “Nanny,” “Navalny,” “Neptune Frost,” “The Northman,” “Pearl,” “Playground,” “Pleasure,” “RRR,” “She Said,” “Something in the Dirt,” “Speak No Evil,” “Stars at Noon,” “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” “Till,” “To Leslie,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Triangle of Sadness,” “The Tsugua Diaries,” “Turning Red,” “Vortex,” “Watcher,” “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” “White Noise,” “The Woman King,” “The Wonder.”