Over the summer, I compiled a list of halfway highlights. Many titles repeat onto this year-end version. 2022 witnessed achievements across the filmmaking sphere: many fascinating late-style works from arthouse auteur staples, a few examples of innovative large-scale studio filmmaking, and some bold statements from first-time filmmakers. As a note on methodology, this list was compiled from the year’s theatrical releases. Movies with festival premieres but no theatrical distribution yet don’t qualify.
Ten is a strict number. Lots of great movies fall wayside when you restrict yourself. I’d be remiss not to mention James Gray’s Armaggedon Time, an anti-Fabelmans, unsentimental slice of autofiction. Gray’s movie follows a microcosmic, middle-class New York Jewish family torn between a history of repression and desire for assimilation. It’s an elegy composed in clenched-fists about how capitalism and privatization undo the seeds of solidarity. Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco is a slow cinema descent into a 683-metre Calabrian cave, fostering an intoxicating ambiance between torchlight and shadow. The cave becomes a space resilient to the spread of modernity: a souvenir of slowness in an accelerating world. Charlotte Wells’ first feature Aftersun broke my heart. It’s a small movie about reinterpreting gestures and memories from your childhood and finding new meanings from them in your adult years. It’s also about recognizing the silent suffering behind those memories and connecting to absent figures through them. Paul Mescal as the slowly-drowning, trying-to-be-present paternal figure is as good a performance as anyone gave this year. RRR is lesser S.S. Rajamouli, but still packs some of the year’s most imaginative action setpieces. Then there’s Tár, a ghostly, slow-burn melodrama about a world-renowned conductor and her cult of personality crumbling. The film takes pleasure orchestrating its protagonist’s undoing. Her meticulously ordered world falls apart, and Cate Blanchett—better than she’s ever been—embodies the flailing chaos of a slowly defeated empress.
That’s not even to mention Bertrand Bonello’s eclectic puzzlebox Coma, Park Chan-wook’s immaculately wound noir Decision to Leave, Laura Poitras’ tearjerking Nan Goldin portrait All The Beauty And The Bloodshed, the go-for-broke nightmarescapes of Phil Tippett’s Mad God, or the giddy, rocket-paced delights of Wai Ka-fai’s Detectives vs Sleuths. While I limited myself to one Hong Sang-soo movie for the top ten, In Front of Your Face is also a melancholic and patient exploration of its protagonist’s interiority. As always with Hong, it’s a lovely movie.
As a final thought: there are no good or bad years for movies. Every year offers tremendous rewards if you’re willing to look for them. Here are some this year’s greatest rewards:
Saint Omer, the first narrative feature from documentarian Alice Diop, is based not only on Fabienne Kabou’s trial for murdering her fifteen-month-year-old, but specifically Alice Diop’s position spectating that case. Cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom. And so, Saint Omer became a fictional account of Diop’s experience. Nonetheless, the film’s minimalist rendition of the courtroom unfolds with the unvarnished realism of non-fiction storytelling. Diop creates a courtroom without sensation. Similarly, central performances from Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanga reveal no glimmer of artificiality: unstrained, matter-of-fact, yet haunting. But this isn’t buttoned-up austerity. Outside the courtroom, the images flow differently. There are dream sequences and even an interpolated passage from Pasolini’s Medea. Diop’s toolbox includes a variety of devices that slowly reveal tremendous pain lurking beneath the film’s surface. Saint Omer becomes an indictment of how Western systems (legal, aesthetic, theoretical) prove inadequate in addressing the subjectivities of the colonized.
A Night of Knowing Nothing
What is the role of cinema in political revolt? Payal Kapadia’s first feature A Night of Knowing Nothing follows a tradition of past revolutionary cinemas (references include Ritwik Ghatak and Jean-Luc Godard), questioning how aesthetics can combat fascistic campaigns. The film’s both an epistolary romance and an essayistic documentary on film school protests against the violence of the Narendra Modi government. It weaves testimonials and news footage into a non-linear, ghostly trance. The personal and political entangle into an eclectic assembly of cryptic images. Yet none of its mystery undoes its anger or its urgency. Kapadia’s form pays homage to a lineage of fellow radical filmmakers, all the while establishing its own position in a revolutionary canon.
À la Paul Schrader, Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO uses a Bressonian skeleton (in this case, Au Hasard Balthazar) as gateway into a modern political context. Unlike Schrader’s gradual shift into minimalism, Skolimowski envisions a world of animal subjectivizes, bathed in crimson and swiveling quasi-black metal aesthetics. Skolimowski’s hero: a wordless donkey (actually played by six), passed from person to person across rural Poland and Italy. The donkey’s gaze captures a crumbling economic system and the violent eruptions that accompany it. Skolimowski is eighty-four, yet he’s still burning with youthful innovation, conjuring a nightmarish magic show for the ages. EO is a masterwork of posthuman cinema, where the camera stands in for the gaze of lives trampled by our ways of living.
With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg sews a tapestry of the autobiographical memories his career’s repurposed into blockbusters. The movie reveals how personal his seemingly impersonal spectacles have been and how they’re deeply rooted in the small-scale, intimate drama of his lifetime. It’s invaluable as a supplement to Spielberg’s career (and everything his body of work encapsulates), yet also a delightful melodrama on its own. Spielberg is probably Hollywood’s biggest sweetheart since Frank Capra, yet he still stares unflinching into his family’s internal pain. It’s self-indulgent, maybe. Yet when the details of Spielberg’s own childhood are so linked to the images beamed into our own consciousnesses for decades, it feels justified. This is the movie Spielberg’s been gesturing at his entire career, lodging fragments under the obscuring cloak of Hollywood bombast. This isn’t to diss Spielberg’s spectacles. He’s a master in that arena. But it’s incredibly rewarding to see him this vulnerable with, finally, nothing to hide.
Michael Bay’s penchant for all-American bombast has scarcely felt as finely-tuned as Ambulance: a pulpy heist-turned-getaway actioner told with disorienting glee. In kaleidoscopic excess, Bay’s camera rockets between perspectives. Fast-gliding drone shots align us with the POVs of frantic vehicles, both aerial and automobile. Bay’s camerawork is hyper-active and clearly assembled from endless hours’ worth of footage shot as coverage. In the tradition of Tony Scott and Michael Mann, Ambulance is a triumph of digital action filmmaking, where the camera is an active participant in the action, rather than a mere documenter of individual bodies’ motions. With Ambulance, Michael Bay achieves his destiny, crafting a divine B-movie drenched in gallons of blood, sweat, and gasoline.
If Get Out established Jordan Peele as an accomplished ironist, and Us marked the blossoming of his visual storytelling, then Nope is a marriage and expansion of both. It’s the type of grand, idiosyncratic blockbuster largely extinct in today’s production market. Peele leans into digressions, packing a tangent-friendly narrative with expansive setpieces. Unfolding against sprawling Californian backdrops (often shot, confoundingly, day-for-night), Peele mixes pastiches into a horror-western cocktail. Yet in a movie about a quasi-suicidal compulsion to make everything visible, Peele leans into restraint. He masters visual synecdoche, dwelling on haunting details and avoiding the big picture of cataclysmic events. The images are unforgettable: a bloodied key lodged in a horse’s body, screeching faces slithered through the claustrophobic tunnels of an alien digestive system, an inflated mascot drifting through the clouds next to an unraveling, amorphous extraterrestrial, etc. If these weren’t enough, the movie climaxes as a bombastic Moby-Dick riff featuring a hand-cranked IMAX camera. It’s a dense and uncompromising crowd-pleaser from a filmmaker who keeps pushing himself further.
The Novelist’s Film
Ungenerous critics often describe Hong Sang-soo’s filmography as ceaseless rehashes of the same movie: laidback and static, soju-drenched dialogues performed by a regular troop of actors. This isn’t entirely false, but it is reductive. While there are no complete stylistic overhauls between movies, Hong’s filmography is fascinating for its quiet ruptures of his familiar form. In The Novelist’s Film (one of Hong’s three(!) movies this year), an aging writer (Lee Hye-young) arbitrarily decides to make a movie. She flirts with reinvention deep into her career. The story builds towards a finale which reveals the realization of her project. Hong films her movie as a kinetic and orchestral passage, totally incongruous with his signature aesthetics. Like his protagonist, Hong embraces something new. This moment feels so revelatory because it stems from such an aesthetically consistent artist. The Novelist’s Film is an oddly hopeful detour from Hong, whose work once seemed fundamentally cynical and curmudgeonly. Here, he embraces a need for openness (open to art, open to other people). It’s a movie about approaching change with open arms.
Stars at Noon
Stars at Noon, Claire Denis’ second American film, is her variation of an espionage thriller. Though not without suspense, traditional genre beats aren’t the focal point here. Denis’ more concerned with her characters’ wandering aimlessness, the suffocating hopelessness which overcomes their lives, and the sweat-stained hotel rooms that house their sexual refuge from impending doom. The movie eerily transposes Denis Johnson’s novel (set in Nicaragua circa 1984) onto the country’s COVID-era landscape, leaving almost every detail otherwise unchanged. The timelessness of the adaptation captures a circular chaos, with the role of American imperialism unchanging.
The story centers on the futile romance of two pitiful lovers going nowhere fast. In a great and insufferable performance, Margaret Qualley stars as a perpetually “swacked” American expatriate, parading through the streets, at one point spitefully screaming at Nicaraguan locals about how US tanks are going to come and crush their country. Her perfect match? Joe Alwyn plays opposite her as a British oil company contractor wanted by American and Costa Rican agents alike. Their affair is like two flies trapped in a spider’s web, writhing and screwing to their dying breaths. It’s equal parts slimy and sexy: impossible to avert your eyes.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is a coming-of-age drama unfolding in the lonesome caverns of the internet. Still, Schoenbrun isn’t just grafting coming-of-age conventions onto a new platform. World’s Fair structures around the fleeting encounters and unanswerable mysteries that backbone internet sociality. Schoenbrun’s representation of online space is perhaps the most accomplished of any filmmaker to date. A majority of the film unfolds from the perspective of computer screens. Video streaming autoplays enact an associative flow of images. We come to learn about characters not just through their words and actions, but also how the algorithm interprets their psyches from their internet footprints. The subconscious becomes intwined with technology. Schoenbrun’s storytelling excels through the originality of its visual language, deeply attuned to the melancholia and alienation of a life lived online.
Crimes of the Future
After eight years, David Cronenberg re-emerges with an aggressively late-style tango between his lifelong obsessions of technology and human evolution. This one’s got underground organ-growing performance art and cults of plastic-eaters though. Equal parts jargon and camp, Crimes of the Future boasts a perfectly-calibrated, tongue-in-cheek ensemble lead by Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart. The film unleashes a claustrophobic world of fleshy mise-en-scène and goofy eroticism, lensed hauntingly by first-time Cronenberg DP Douglas Koch.
In his twilight years, Cronenberg’s typical bodily ruminations infuse with the elegiac reflexivity of an older man and the immediacy of a dystopian era. Nonetheless, his transhumanist musings have scarcely been as hopeful as the film’s toxic-waste chomping finale. In the end, Crimes of the Future’s corporeal mutations are many things. They’re comic, tragic, romantic, and even erotic (was there a more sensual gesture this year than Seydoux eating out Mortensen’s abdominal zipper incision?). Still, the crown prince of body horror himself omits any actual horror from the film’s fleshy intrigue. It’s the product of a filmmaker in full of acceptance of the organism’s infinite expansion. Cronenberg’s always been curious about human civilization’s next chapters. But this time, he approaches it without fear, totally at peace with the body’s anarchy.