We asked ten contributors to pick three films from 2022 that they think everyone should see before making their top ten lists of the year. These are the choices of Robert Daniels.
It’s an annual ritual for me: End of the year lists drop from major publications and respected colleagues and I pull my hair out seeing lesser-known films left off in lieu of glitzy blockbusters and prestige titles. Usually, I spend my time standing on a soapbox shouting into the social media wind hoping at least a few people will hear me and discover the delights I’ve taken into my heart during the year. This time, however, with this piece—which offers a chance with far more cogent thoughts than my usual desperate pleas—I’ve been given the opportunity to stump for what I think are some of 2022’s best films.
The trio I’ve chosen, on their face, aren’t bound by obvious ties. What could an Afrofuturist dream, an Irish moral crucible, and a documentary concerned with maternal deaths among Black women have in common? They attack broken systems, and the glaring inequality lurking within them. They are rebellious declarations whose time and place are fully felt, and are indicative of the crisis of confidence in our contemporary institutions. They have weighed heavy on my mind, and deep in my spirit. And they deserve your attention.
I’m always impressed when a movie feels smarter than I am. These are films that require multiple watches to fully recognize the riches lurking in their thought-provoking layers.
Few works this year are as narratively sumptuous, thematically dense, and visually arresting as co-directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ politically muscular and intensely vibrant Afrofuturist musical odyssey. Their revolutionary statement concerns Neptune (Elvis Ngabo/Cheryl Isheja), an intersex runaway, who becomes part of an insurgent Rwandan collective after their grandmother passes away. During their journey they encounter a dogmatic officer from the country’s totalitarian government assigned to stamp out independent spirits. Neptune also experiences vivid dreams where sage figures like “the wheel man” guide them toward an otherworldly gadget-infused village, in which rebellious leaders like Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), Memory (Eliane Umuhire) and Psychology (Trésor Niyongabo) are carrying out cyberattacks to dismantle exploitation, colonialism, and anti-gay laws.
Somewhere between a neon-coated scream and a fashionista-backed act of defiance, “Neptune Frost” is a technical delight. Computer-parts adorn the garb; motherboards are the clime; the multi-colored hairstyles defy gravity; and the rhythmic, percussive musical compositions—a stirring one takes place in a mine—become wrapped around your ear with the warmth of a wool hat. No film this year looks like it; no film this year is as audacious or as stimulating. “Neptune Frost” bucks against respectability politics for an unmistakable declaration against inequality.
The prodigal son, so to speak, returns to his oyster farming, seaside Irish village after spending years abroad in Australia. He is Brian O’Hara (Paul Mescal), a seemingly amiable and beguiling young man that the town welcomes back with open arms in their quaint church, and in their cacophonous pub. Brian’s mother Aileen (Emily Watson) works at the local oyster plant. She enjoys having him around the house again. That is, until local authorities accuse Brian of sexually assaulting a local woman named Aisling (Sarah Murphy). Emily becomes stuck between supporting her son and defending his possible victim.
Unlike Alex Garland’s allegorical horror flick aimed at interrogating the patriarchy and misogyny, “Men,” co-directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s “God’s Creatures” relies not on heightened provocations, but on subtle, nuanced turns. The film ever-so-deliberately breaks down how religion, industry, and a culture's unrelenting desire to excuse men's toxic behavior influences this secluded community.
While every gust of cold, apathetic wind and every damp surface can be felt in the tactile precision of “God’s Creatures,” the biggest draws are its perceptive performances. Watson’s internal kineticism, seen on every corner of her face and body, as captured by filmmakers unafraid of a close-up, provides the dramatic fulcrum of this moral quandary. Murphy accomplishes the most with her barren screen time, offering the narrative unforgettable, acute punctuations. But Mescal, in a year where he’s already astounded in Charlotte Wells’ aching coming-of-age drama “Aftersun,” is note-perfect in a role that understands how abusers are rarely one thing or the other, rarely a flip of the switch from nice to menacing. They terrifyingly exist, openly, with broad patriarchal support, as both friend and foe.
From Sierra Pettengill’s hard-hitting “Riotsville, U.S.A.” to Daniel Roher’s spy thriller “Nalvany,” 2022 has been a magnificent year for politically charged documentaries. One that’s unfortunately flown under the radar is the co-director Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt’s bracingly intimate “Aftershock.”
The film takes notice of the real risk Black mothers-to-be experience in the American hospital system by spotlighting the heartbreaking deaths of Shamony Gibson and Amber Isaac. These two women from New York City died from childbirth-related complications, leaving behind their children and loved ones. Their spouses and remaining family now lead the fight, hoping to reform the dangerously prejudiced habits of medical professionals who ignore the pain of Black women.
The magic of “Aftershock” springs from Lee and Eiselt’s uncanny ability to distill this pervasive crisis from its heavy statistics and historical roots (which trace back to slavery) into fully felt human stories captured with sensitive vérité filmmaking. And unlike other documentaries made to raise a red flag, “Aftershock” doesn’t stop at simply calling out the issue. It offers solutions, primarily by highlighting midwives and birthing doulas. Due to the inherent tragedy of the subject matter, Lewis and Eiselt cannot provide a happy ending to these senseless deaths. But with “Aftershock” they provide a loud, imperative call that deserves to be heard.