What a year. The array of filmmaking on the list below should be shown to anyone willing to suggest that 2022 was somehow inferior in the history of cinema. And these excellent films don't even include some of the most popular flicks of the year like the critically acclaimed "Top Gun: Maverick" or "Avatar: The Way of Water" (although both films will appear on individual lists from our expanded staff that will run on Friday, for the record).
This composite site top ten used the same formula as we have since 2014, taking the best-of lists from our regular review staff and compiling them into one big list. Documentaries, blockbusters, an animated film, aliens, donkeys, and even the boys from "Jackass" made the top twenty, and the big ten have been detailed by some of our talented critics. Every blurb in the top ten also includes details on where to watch the film. If you took the time to sit and view all 20 of the movies listed below, you would have an incredible picture of where the art of cinema stands as we head into the mid-'20s. It stands tall.
Runners-up: "All the Beauty and the Bloodshed," "Benediction," "Bones and All," "EO," "The Eternal Daughter," "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," "Happening," "Hit the Road," "Jackass Forever," and "Mad God."
A bombastic epic as artistically ambitious as those made during the height of the silent era, writer/director Damien Chazelle's "Babylon" takes the audience on a visceral odyssey through the highest highs and lowest lows of late-1920s Hollywood, from orgiastic parties and chaotic film sets to personal triumphs and melancholic moments of utter despair. As the movie business transitions from silents to talkies, characters like aging matinee idol Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), wannabe starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), assistant Manny Torres (Diego Calva), sensationalist journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), jazz musician Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), and multi-talented entertainer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) struggle to find their footing in an industry in flux.
Although the story follows fictional players at the fictional Kinoscope Studios, Chazelle's script is steeped in a deep knowledge of old Hollywood's dark, complicated history and its most pervasive (and perverse) mythologies. Linus Sandgren's fluid cinematography, coupled with Justin Hurwitz's hot jazz score, raises this larger-than-life era back from the dead with humor and pathos. Tom Cross' dynamic editing keeps the film vibrating at a breakneck pace, its three-hour runtime barely registering as one zany set piece after another barrels toward the film's denouement. Ending on a note as rhapsodic as it is elegiac, Chazelle's film is ultimately a condemnation of the Hollywood machine that crushes everyone with equitable cruelty and an ode to the innovative artistry and ineffable magic of the movies, whose siren call continues to lure audiences and filmmakers alike towards its warm glow. (Marya E. Gates)
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It's hard not to love a movie where a herd of snarling Big Cats leaps out of the back of a truck as one (in slo-mo) to sic themselves on a crowd of British imperialists milling about in evening dress. It's hard not to love a movie where two men (Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), strangers to one another, collaborate on the fly to save a child in peril, their plan involving a motorcycle, a horse, a long rope, a gigantic flag, and simultaneous swan-dives off a burning bridge. S.S. Rajamouli's "RRR" calls into question all other action sequences in all other films, sequences which may have thrilling moments and impressive stunts but lack the dazzling bravura of the spectacle on display here. "RRR" makes you ask: Why CAN'T we show a bare-chested man wielding a crossbow emerging through a ring of fire? Why CAN'T we include family trauma, political commentary, ahistorical wish-fulfillment, revenge/redemption fantasies, sweet romances, rousing dance numbers, and the Platonic Ideal of a Bromance all in the same film?
Critic Siddhant Adlakha observed that Rajamouli "makes the moving image feel intimate and enormous all at once." This is key. A golden coin dropped in the sand is given as much visual importance as those rampaging CGI-Big Cats. Rajamouli ignores nothing and prioritizes everything. What this propulsive style encourages is involvement. It's impossible not to get involved in the action: the emotion and the characters' destinies. My only regret is I didn't see "RRR" with an audience. It's how it's meant to be seen. (Sheila O'Malley)
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It's rare to see a film where you can't predict what will happen by the end, and rarer still to see one where you can't predict what will happen from one scene to the next. "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is an example of the rarest of all: a film where you don't know what will happen from one shot to the next.
The filmmaking team known as Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), who started in music videos, made that kind of movie in their first feature, "Swiss Army Man," a comedy-drama about brotherly love, heartbreak, and the fear and awe of death, focused on the burgeoning friendship between a castaway on a desert island and a flatulent corpse that washed up on the beach. Daniels have done it again on a grander scale with "EEAAO," which does about a dozen different things simultaneously and hops between timelines as it does it. The movie is a marriage story, a mother-daughter drama, a tale of immigrant assimilation and generational changeover, a satire on bureaucracy, an action picture full of willfully absurd and sometimes lewd kung fu battles, and a science fiction movie that accepts the ideal of parallel timelines/universes as a given and shows how personal decisions alter the course of events in each.
The film tells the story of a troubled marriage between Chinese-American laundromat owners Evelyn and Waymond (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan), and how their struggle affects Evelyn's relationship with her adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who wants her mother to welcome her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) and get her reactionary grandfather Gong Gong (James Hong) to accept her, too. But the filmmakers never let the storytelling get bogged down in therapeutic or self-help cliches because all of the ideas are dramatized as well as discussed in breathlessly edited micro-bursts of images culled from different timelines—and sometimes in extended sequences that cross-cut between parallel lines of action during a marital disagreement, a spiritual test, or a martial arts brawl in the office building where Evelyn's family is being audited by cruel IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis).
The cast is fully invested and attacks their scenes with fierce focus—and always with sincerity. For all its blistering and sometimes borderline-pornographic slapstick, this is an earnest and optimistic movie. Spiritual growth is central to every story in every timeline, and the characters' struggles usually come back to the tension between obligation and selfishness in relationships. There's a universe where everybody has hot dogs for fingers (Deirdre plays piano with her feet in that one) and a showdown that prominently involves a dildo. At one point we enter a universe where two rocks on a cliff speak to each other telepathically, and their dialogue is subtitled. If you're not fully on board by then, you never will be. (Matt Zoller Seitz)
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7. "No Bears"
In July, the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison after inquiring about fellow director Mohammad Rasoulof, also in jail. Panahi had completed his latest docudrama, "No Bears," two months prior; it premiered at the Venice Film Festival that same month.
In "No Bears," Panahi plays himself, a filmmaker sequestered in a village near the Turkish border while filming his latest drama. Panahi's assistant Reza (Reza Heydari) asks him why he didn't just stay in Tehran. Panahi waves away the question, saying he prefers to be near his cast and crew. However, he still goes with Reza to see and even inadvertently steps over the border. Panahi hastily returns to Iran, where he becomes reluctantly involved with the local villagers' drama.
There's been some confusion: the villagers think Panahi's taken photos of young lovers Gozal and Soldooz. Those imaginary photos threaten Gozal's arranged marriage to Yaghoob. There are some parallels between this domestic dispute and the fictional movie that Panahi directs within the film, through a combination of video chats and Reza's assistance. Still, Panahi struggles to remain disengaged. He does not want to get involved in the villagers' lives, but they insist.
In "No Bears," Panahi tries to maintain his freedom, to blur the lines that separate fiction from reality (as his mentor Abbas Kiarostami did), and between himself and the world beyond. The film's title comes from a scene where a local villager explains that no bears are lurking nearby; that reassurance is obviously ironic. (Simon Abrams)
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Jordan Peele masters the dense blockbuster, again, with his third and most thematically ambitious project, "Nope." Once you get to the second act, the film's brilliant entertainment has an irresistible pitch—"What if 'Close Encounters' turned into Jaws'?" and turns the classic Spielberg gaze inside-out to reveal its terror. Its core understanding starts with locking us in the point of view of a terrified child actor who watches his chimpanzee co-star, Gordy, wreak bloody havoc on a sitcom set before locking a gaze with the boy. It's a pair of shots with no less fury than the Nahum 3:6 Bible quote that comes before: "I will cast abominable filth upon thee … make you spectacle." And to tackle the totality of how monstrous our need for spectacle has become, parallel to our desire to harness it, Peele takes us back to the first moving image, a Black man riding a horse for the inventor of the moving picture, Eadweard Muybridge. So much of humanity has changed since those shots, including who is in the frame and why they are being filmed. "Nope" concerns nothing smaller than the abyss we have made of being seen—in the case of Peele's latest horror metaphor, the abyss sucks its screaming prey into the sky, squishes them in its claustrophobic bowels, and turns them into blood rain.
Peele's flying people eater is what happens when we treat presidential campaigns as pure entertainment or exploit others on social media for followers—when our coexistence with other souls, animal or human, is devastated by the pursuit of monetary gain. But this is all just the interior for a beast of a sci-fi adventure that constantly transforms, and "Nope" thrives on Peele's inestimable confidence when guiding audiences. His original script is pure entertainment, boasting the writer/director's unique touch for spiky pop culture humor and heartfelt characters who outsmart the evil that hunts them: our heroes here are a horse trainer named Otis (a fascinating Daniel Kaluuya, rewriting the stoic cowboy) and his high-energy sister Em (Keke Palmer, in one of the year's funniest performances). In a giddy pursuit of what they call "The Oprah Shot," they collaborate with a Werner Herzog-like filmmaker (Michael Wincott) and a UFO enthusiast (Brandon Perea) to document this killer thing while trying to understand it.
The gangbusters third act of "Nope" revels in the work that goes into getting one perfect shot, and it's no mistake that Peele's latest has inspired craftsmanship across the board, creating an IMAX-ready scale with a minimal cast and a lot of open range. (For starters, production designer Ruth De Jong conjures a whole Western theme park for our traumatized former child star who still seeks an audience, now played with immense pathos by Steven Yeun.) All of these talents are storytellers; in revisiting their efforts, bonded by Peele's golden imagination, it becomes apparent how much is there to be mined. From start to finish, "Nope" gifts the audience with a wealth of reflections to discover, consider, and never forget. (Nick Allen)
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I often think about a tinted polaroid my mother took of my father during a family trip to Wisconsin. He's wearing sunglasses inside our hotel room, looking blankly at the camera. I knew my father for twenty-five years without ever really knowing him. I knew my father for twenty-five years without ever really talking with him, hugging him, or understanding him. We weren't estranged. He was just raised during the 1950s. And with that upbringing came a wall.
So when he passed away in 2015, though I loved him, I knew no matter how much I tried, I could never fully understand what hurts, desires and dreams deferred occupied his mind. It's a burden not uncommon for most people who lose a parent at a young age. But it doesn't hurt any less, no matter how much time has passed.
It's why at Karlovy Vary Film Festival when I saw writer/director Charlotte Wells' feature directorial debut, "Aftersun," a semi-autobiographical film about a woman (Celia Rowlson-Hall) looking back on a holiday trip she (Frankie Corio) took with her father (Paul Mescal) during the 1990s, I couldn't avoid being broken open again by regret. Supported by riveting performances and told with acute period detail by Wells' taut script, "Aftersun" is a deeply empathetic, visceral tale of the haunting heartache and vertiginous, inconsolable meaning that swims beneath one's seemingly innocuous memories.
The film climaxes with a fitful and stabbing strobe light scene set to Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure," a moment that physically rips open the cavern between nostalgia and nightmare to reveal self-annihilating guilt; it is the truth of a picture so open for picking at what must feel like a festering, self-inflicted wound that it plunged me back into my buried remorse. Wells' "Aftersun" is a tender, unnerving spot of time that, like my father, I will not soon shake. (Robert Daniels)
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Lydia Tár is an orchestra conductor who has received every possible accolade and award. Cate Blanchett is dazzling as a woman who thought she had created an impenetrable fortress of power and prestige and then sees it collapse suddenly and irretrievably. Her physicality is always precise and dominant, as she confronts an insolent student, denies a wealthy donor a favor, threatens her daughter's bully of a classmate, and brings down the baton sharply with one hand while using the other to communicate a world of nuance. Todd Field's script is deeply researched, bringing a sense of authenticity so vivid we almost feel we saw the conductor on "60 Minutes," or was it "American Masters"? That detail provides a foundation for a provocative exploration of longing, identity, obsession, and status.
Field, Blanchett, and cellist Sophie Kauer make a restaurant scene into a fugue of shifting power dynamics when Tár tries to maintain her control while trying to seduce a young musician. The movie takes its time with the story, but it is as spare as the superb settings from production designer Marco Bittner Rosser. Not a moment is wasted. The sound design and the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir are almost characters in the film, fitting in a story where so much depends on what is heard, about tone and tempo. Tár is an enthralling character who keeps our sympathies shifting as we consider questions of seduction, privilege, predation, and cancel culture, with an audacious final scene that resonates like the last note of a symphony. (Nell Minow)
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3. "Decision to Leave"
"Decision to Leave" finds the Korean master Park Chan-wook operating in a more muted palette and tone, but one that's no less gripping than his bold, beloved works like "Oldboy" and "The Handmaiden." As he updates the film noir, he steadily builds tension using rapturous imagery, clever technology, a haunting score, and unexpected humor.
But at the heart of Park's Hitchcockian thriller is the tantalizing push-pull of the forbidden romance between a Busan detective and his prime suspect. Park Hae-il is the world-weary but meticulous policeman investigating what looks like an accidental death; Tang Wei is the dead man's widow, an alluring femme fatale who also may be the culprit. He doesn't really want to solve the case, though, because he's become fascinated by her—and who wouldn't be? The Chinese actress is at her most seductive and mysterious. And she doesn't really want him to learn the truth either, for a multitude of reasons—one of which is she kind of enjoys having him around.
We think we know these characters, these familiar types, but the tight and twisty script from director Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong takes them in unexpected and ultimately devastating directions. The actors' chemistry smolders and crackles. And as their relationship evolves, so do the look and feel of the film in subtle but substantial ways. The dark wood and colorful wallpaper of the detective's apartment give way to the soft pastels of the beach at the film's heartbreaking finale. It's where sea and sky blend into one, and the waves lap endlessly, with unanswerable questions lingering in the salty air. (Christy Lemire)
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2. "The Fabelmans"
Contrary to its advertising, this is not a picture celebrating the "magic" of movies or completely espousing them as "dreams." It's a picture about falling under a certain spell, to be sure. The opening scenes, in which a wide-eyed little boy is overwhelmed by a fake train wreck in what most of us now dismiss as a cheesy Cecil B. DeMille movie, make the case that the theatrical experience once was, and still can be, a sensory steamroller. But once out of that theater, "The Fabelmans" goes into an affectionately recreated and vividly acted late-20th century real life and a story of a kid who joyfully learns a craft. And then, as his family and social life fall apart, he uses that craft to keep the world at arm's length or to create worlds one likes better than one's own.
The emotions at play in Steven Spielberg's autobiographical story are rawer and sometimes more unpleasant than we've seen from the filmmaker in such concentration for a while. We admire Sammy Fabelman's inventiveness and stick-to-itiveness even as we see him become a kind of voyeur in his own life. His feelings about his passionate mom and his kind but buttoned-down dad yo-yo like crazy, as his moviemaking provides something he can actually control. And then he learns that something he controls himself can also be used to manipulate others. As is common in every Spielberg film, every shot here is a kind of miracle, a celebration in and of itself. But don't mistake this for an uncritical cheer for image-making. It's worth remembering that at the end, when Sammy visits "the greatest director who ever lived," that director is cooling his heels without a project in an office across the hall from that of "Hogan's Heroes." Like Sammy's uncle says, art will tear you apart. (Glenn Kenny)
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Martin McDonagh's black comedy is the rare kind of film that offers a fascinating dissection of the human condition while it entertains. It can be enjoyed thoroughly on its surface as the story of the day that a man named Colm (Brendan Gleeson) decided he was done talking to his friend Padraic (Colin Farrell). However, it's also a film that's very intentionally set against the backdrop of the Irish Civil War, a conflict wherein former neighbors became enemies. And it's a film that provokes conversations about our impact on the world around us. Colm becomes convinced that the only impact he can make is through lasting art, but his decision to end a friendship has life-changing impacts on the people around him. "The Banshees of Inisherin" seems to diminish kindness, but it is the removal of the kind of everyday mundane niceties on this small island that shatters it. There's so much to unpack, even in considering why McDonagh chose to make this movie now. It may be set a century ago, but the theme of a divided country and broken friendships feels very current.
Of course, it helps to have a cast as talented as this one, arguably the best of the year. The phenomenal Farrell had the best year of his career with this, "After Yang," "Thirteen Lives," and even "The Batman" serving as a remarkable display of his range. This is the peak of his career, the kind of performance that leads a highlight reel for a Lifetime Achievement Award. It is such a richly detailed acting turn, one that reveals new choices made by Farrell with each viewing. Gleeson gives a quieter performance than usual, but he balances Farrell in a manner that sells both their history and his willingness to destroy their future. Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon provide precisely what their roles need and then some.
Like only the best films, "The Banshees of Inisherin" is so hard to sum up in a blurb like this one because it's got so much going on. It's both comedy and tragedy at once. After all, they used to be friends. (Brian Tallerico)
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