Top 20 Films of 2022

2022 was, without question, the greatest year of my life. On July 1st, I married the love of my life, Rebecca, while surrounded by so many of our loved ones at the Gardens of Woodstock. Our subsequent week-long road trip in Iceland was a glorious adventure filled with breathtaking sights, courtesy of the travel agency Nordic Visitor. Not once did we take for granted the fact that we were able to have the wedding and honeymoon of our dreams in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. In October, Rebecca and I began to grow our family with the adoption of an adorable Catahoula Australian Shepherd we named Daisy Bowie in honor of her different colored eyes—one brown, one blue. And, oh yeah, I saw a whole lot of great movies along the way. 

Though Indie Outlook remains on an indefinite hiatus, I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to pen my annual in-depth list ranking the top 20 films of the year. Be sure to stay tuned later this month for my article revealing who I would nominate in each category this awards season. Yes, there are still a number of films from this year I have yet to see, in large part due to the fact that, since the pandemic began, many films aren’t screened for critics throughout the year, and instead arrive in an avalanche of screener links in the days leading up to awards voting for critics. That being said, out of the massive amount of films I did see, these are the ones I loved the most. By the way, it’s worth noting that over Labor Day weekend, Rebecca finally convinced me to get on Letterboxd, and I’ve since then logged my ratings for over 5,400 films (you can follow me here).

20. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Whereas Disney’s grotesquely uninspired CGI-laden remake of their 1940 animated classic, “Pinocchio,” is one of the very worst films I’ve seen in 2022, Guillermo del Toro’s visionary adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel about the disobedient wooden boy is one of the best. Co-directed by stop-motion maestro Mark Gustafson (“Return to Oz,” “Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas Celebration”), this is a vividly realized fantasy on par with del Toro’s masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” in its level of visual invention and its sneakily profound insights on the nature of mortality. It also marks the latest triumph for producer Lisa Henson, on the heels of her spectacular success with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” I personally fell head over heels for the film as soon as its titular hero, upon finding himself suddenly brought to life, belted out, “Everything Is New To Me,” a song that any owner of a rambunctious puppy could easily find relatable.

19. The Fabelmans

I have been hungering for this cinematic memoir from Steven Spielberg ever since I wrote a research paper in high school that explored the recurring theme of frayed father-son relationships in his films and how they were reflective of his own upbringing. Michelle Williams channels the soul of the director’s ever-supportive mother, forever etched in my mind as she tearfully watched her son win his first Oscar, while Gabriel LaBelle delivers a breakout performance as the teenage Spielberg, whose use of the art form is endlessly fascinating. The script co-authored by Spielberg (his first since “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) and Tony Kushner spawned from a series of Zoom interviews the pair had during the pandemic, resulting in a picture comprised of sublime vignettes. And then there is David Lynch, whose big scene as John Ford is alone worth the price of admission. So glad that Laura Dern and a bag of Cheetos convinced him to do it. Seriously.

18. Mothering Sunday

Eva Husson’s haunting romance is the sort of film that demands to be seen more than once in order to be fully appreciated. It plays on the senses like a hypnotic fever dream, mixing memory and fantasy until they are indiscernible from one another. Odessa Young, the revelatory young star of Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” is simply captivating as Jane, a writer in England who recalls the erotic afternoon she shared with a man, Paul (Josh O’Connor, Emmy-winner for “The Crown”), during the post-World War I era. The fact Paul is betrothed to marry a woman of his designated class lends a bittersweetness to his affair with Jane. Husson brilliantly explores an awakening that isn’t merely of a sexual nature, as Jane finds fulfillment in turning her emotional journey into art. The centerpiece sequence where Jane takes a naked stroll through Paul’s empty house is a richly provocative illustration of how nudity can serve as a political statement.

Read my interviews with Eva Husson and Odessa Young at Cinema Femme here.

17. The Justice of Bunny King

This riveting debut feature from Gaysorn Thavat stars the brilliantly chameleon-esque Essie Davis (“The Babadook”) as Bunny, a woman whose efforts to protect her daughter have resulted in her being cruelly separated from her offspring. When she discovers that her withdrawn niece, Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie of “Jojo Rabbit”), is being abused by her stepfather, she takes the law into her own hands. It all leads up to two scenes that took my breath away. One involves a phone call made by Davis to her little girl, whom she aims to cheer up despite the wrenching emotion brewing within her. The other is a single line of dialogue delivered by McKenzie, and the time that she takes with it, causing each word to sound like an eruption from her soul, exemplifies her genius as a performer. I also must single out the wonderful Tanea Heke, whose portrayal of an unflappable and surprisingly compassionate woman makes the film’s final act all the more indelible. 

Read my interview with Gaysorn Thavat at Cinema Femme here.

16. Belle

There is no film from this year I regret missing more on the big screen than Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda’s dazzling and dizzyingly detailed animated masterwork. The English-language version I viewed on HBO Max features the voice of 20-year-old newcomer Kylie McNeill in a great debut performance as Suzu, an introverted high schooler who finds a global following through the virtual world of “U” (which is like Zuckerberg’s Meta, but competent), where she inhabits the persona of an uninhibited singer, Belle. “Euphoria” star Hunter Schafer is also among the voice cast, and the music credited to four composers is a marvel in itself. Few films have ever explored the double lives we lead online and why we crave them as thoughtfully and creatively as this one does. I am eager to view the film in its original audio track, though it must be said that the English dub is utterly seamless (I also recommend watching McNeill’s uproarious song, “Musical Theatre Major,” on YouTube).

15. Women Talking

For Rebecca and me, 2022’s great comeback story on the movie front was that of actor-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley, who helmed three exquisite pictures—“Away From Her,” “Take This Waltz” and “Stories We Tell”—before a head injury and family duties kept her away from the director’s chair for a decade. Now quickly following the release of her revealing memoir, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, Polley has returned to the big screen with every bit of her sincere humanism and uncommon attention to nuance intact. Though the fact-based story, adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel, concerns the abuse of women in a Mennonite community administered by its men, all of it is left off screen. The focus instead is on the women themselves—played by a magnificent group of actors, each with an essential career of her own—as they decide whether they should forgive, stay and fight or leave for good. It is an acting master class for the ages.

14. Relative

Michael Glover Smith’s fourth and finest film to date is an utterly captivating ode to the spontaneity and resilience of human connection, not to mention how so much of life boils down to putting one foot in front of the other. The writer/director has gathered his largest and most impeccably cast ensemble, while allowing each actor to have their moment to shine. In only her second screen role, Elizabeth Stam walks away with each of her scenes as Hekla, the Icelandic actress who sets her sights on college graduate Benji (Cameron Scott Roberts), while steering him back to the party his family had prepared for him, and he had planned on avoiding as long as possible. Smith’s superb direction allows for numerous moments of wordless observation, such as ace cinematographer Olivia Aquilina’s elegant camera pan that surveys the family house during the stretch of an afternoon when it is unoccupied yet no less alive with feeling.

Watch my onstage interview with Michael Glover Smith and the cast of “Relative,” as filmed by Cati Glidewell (a.k.a. The Blonde in Front) here.

13. Let the Little Light Shine

When Black and Latinx neighborhoods are reduced to mere statistics on the news, the work of documentary filmmakers is absolutely essential in placing a human face on the communities that are directly hurt by the dehumanizing impact of gentrification. On the heels of collaborating with Kartemquin’s Steve James on two of the greatest docuseries in recent memory—2018’s “America to Me,” for which he served as a segment director, and 2020’s “City So Real,” which he co-lensed—director Kevin Shaw tackles his first narrative feature since his 2010 debut, “The Street Stops Here,” and the results are explosively powerful. He focuses on the injustice of plans by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to convert a top-ranked, predominantly Black elementary school, National Teachers Academy (NTA), located on Chicago’s Near South Side, into an integrated high school. Here is an example of grassroots activism that manages to achieve what few had thought possible.

12. Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s deeply personal epic begins with a scene that is straight out of my actual dreams: we view the ground from the perspective of a man as he jumps higher and higher until he starts to hover above the earth. What follows in this playfully abstract dreamscape are fragments from the life of documentarian and former journalist Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) as it flashes before his eyes. Darius Khondji’s cinematography warrants comparison with the great Emmanuel Lubezki, while the production design by Eugenio Caballero (whom I interviewed in 2019) recalls the ingenuity of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The film is a feast for the senses, to be sure, yet there is great meaning in even the most seemingly inexplicable of its diversions, providing us with a richly textured portrait of a man grappling with his relationships, his identity as a Mexican American and ultimately his own mortality. 

11. You Resemble Me

When I joined my fellow jurors at this year’s BendFilm Festival in Oregon to decide which of its selections should receive the coveted top prize, this film was on practically everyone’s lips. Dina Amer’s spellbinding and visually audacious debut feature comes with a stellar pedigree—among its executive producers are Riz Ahmed, Alma Har’el and my two favorite Spikes, Lee and Jonze. Going into the film unaware of the real life story in which its narrative is rooted, I was stunned by every twist and turn of the narrative. As its young heroine attempts to care for her little sister while escaping their hellish home life on the outskirts of Paris, her face literally morphs before our eyes, reflecting the many conflicting selves that reside in us all. This is the greatest use of “deep-fake” technology I’ve seen thus far, since it’s not used to merely stand in for someone else, but rather, bring us a greater understanding of how a character navigates her own daily existence.

10. Pearl

One of the best cinematic masterstrokes to arise from the pandemic is the decision made by filmmaker Ti West and actor Mia Goth to stick around a bit longer in New Zealand after shooting their hugely entertaining horror comedy “X” and craft a stylistically different and far more unsettling prequel. Its titular heroine was played so brilliantly by Goth and under such elaborate makeup in “X” that I had no idea it was her until the end credits rolled. Goth co-authored the script for “Pearl” with West, and the extent to which it makes her alienated character’s plight relatable—especially in the era of Covid, which the film echoes—makes her actions all the more horrific. Goth’s astonishing tour de force in this double bill, which I’ve dubbed “The X-Factor,” reaches its pinnacle with a nearly eight-minute climactic monologue and a final shot spontaneously staged by the pair that runs for over three minutes until it burns unto your soul. Cannot wait for their third installment, “MaXXXine.”

9. Everything Everywhere All At Once

If there is one film this year that was considered the general moviegoing public’s clear favorite, outside of the predictable yet technically first-rate nostalgia fest, “Top Gun: Maverick,” it would have to be this sensationally inventive comedy by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels), whose refreshingly warped minds previously brought us “Swiss Army Man.” This film, told in three perfectly structured acts, envisions a multiverse that runs circles around any inhabited by mainstream supermen, complete with fingers that take the form of hot dogs, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance of a Lynchian Red Room, an apocalyptic take on the everything bagel and an utterly uproarious parody of Pixar’s “Ratatoullie,” among countless other surrealistic marvels. Yet what anchors all the madness—as with Pixar’s latest gem, “Turning Red”—is the relationship between a mother (Michelle Yeoh) and daughter (Stephanie Hsu) that is in dire need of mending. 

8. Palm Trees and Power Lines

Jamie Dack’s shattering debut feature, based on her short film of the same name, is anchored by a performance from newcomer Lily McInerny that ranks among the year’s very best. She plays Lea, a teenager eager to escape her surroundings, who finds her ticket in an attractive man twice her age (Jonathan Tucker). His character provides a meticulous study in the art of grooming, as he isolates the girl from her peers, while assuring her that only he can see her special qualities, before revealing his true intentions. A key mark of a great actor is the ability to keep our attention rapt simply through listening, and McInerny is utterly mesmerizing as we see her studying Tucker, grasping onto hope even as cracks begin to form in his slick façade. An excruciatingly protracted shot deftly lensed by Chananun Chotrungroj of Lea as her newfound entrapment suddenly sinks in is flat-out devastating. Keep your eyes peeled for this one in theaters and on VOD in March 2023.

7. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

Since Sophie Hyde’s sterling film about a retired school teacher’s sexual awakening was released exclusively on Hulu, it has been largely left out of the awards conversation. Yet that certainly won’t stop me from including it on my best of the year list because, a. A movie’s a movie, and b. There is no performance in 2022 that is worthier of an Oscar than the one Emma Thompson delivers here as Nancy Stokes, a repressed woman who makes the first steps toward embracing her sexuality with the empowering aid of Leo, the titular sex worker. He’s played by Daryl McCormack of “Bad Sisters” in a revelatory performance that fully fleshes out the character smartly written by Katy Brand, whose own needs and frustrations eventually rise to the surface. How Hyde gauges the tonal shifts, from laugh-out-loud funny to so tender you could hear a pin drop, never ceases to delight. As for the film’s very final moment, it is such a thing of arresting beauty that it left Rebecca and me in tears.

6. Close

Lukas Dhont is one of the most gifted directors of children since Spielberg, and his latest Cannes prize-winner makes this truth an undeniable one. In a just world, Eden Dambrine would be a Best Actor frontrunner right alongside Brendan Fraser for his portrayal of Léo, a boy whose extremely tight knit bond with pal Rémi (an equally wrenching Gustav De Waele) cause their peers to start questioning the boys’ sexuality. Suddenly wracked with unease, Léo begins to push away Rémi, and as far as plot synopses go, I should stop there. What I will say is that Dambrine and De Waele give two of the best child performances in all of cinema, while Léa Drucker and Émilie Dequenne (the star of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s great 1999 Palme d’Or winner, “Rosetta”) are equally compelling as their respective mothers. This is such a perceptive film about the minds, hearts and souls of sensitive young people that it unearthed memories of mine I had long forgotten.

5. Bad Axe

I had the great privilege of presenting first-time feature director David Siev with an award that I got to name myself—“Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Personal Filmmaking”—at this year’s BendFilm Festival for his extraordinarily moving documentary. It’s a searing portrait of the filmmakers’ own Asian-American family as they combat the dual onslaught of Covid and bigotry while attempting to keep their restaurant afloat in rural Michigan. Like the other masterful documentaries produced by Diane Quon, “Minding the Gap” and “Finding Yingying,” “Bad Axe” is a self-interrogating picture in which the director turns the camera on himself as well as his family members in ways that are richly provocative and unflinchingly honest. The stories shared by Siev’s father, Chun, of surviving the Cambodian genocide are illustrated through excerpts from Siev’s 2018 short “Year Zero,” which would made an excellent special feature on the eventual DVD release. 

4. TÁR

From its entrancing, old-fashioned overture onward, Todd Field’s long-awaited third feature never ceased to upend my expectations. What seems initially like a deeply serious, awe-inspiring portrait of trailblazing composer-conductor Lydia Tár (a towering Cate Blanchett) gradually reveals itself to be the most epically mounted—and eerily haunted—“Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode to date (all that’s missing is Luciano Michelini’s “Frolic” playing over the final cut to black). As the darkly comic irony of the story takes hold, I found myself laughing more and more, particularly when the disgraced maestro, done in by her own abuse of power and tone-deaf condescension in the era of cancel culture, resorts to hollering an off-key accordion number as a form of juvenile protest. The film’s staggering depths revealed themselves only upon second viewing, when I realized how Tár’s assertion that “time is the thing” echoes through all the interpretive passages that follow.

3. Nitram

The devastating toll of senseless gun violence has hit closer to home for me this year than ever before, and no recent film has tackled this subject more brilliantly than Justin Kurzel’s career-best effort. It deservedly earned its star, Caleb Landry Jones, the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year for his portrayal of a disturbed young man (based on the real-life story of Martin Bryant) in the days leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Australia, where he killed 35 people. This atrocity led to the passing of the very common sense gun control laws that are routinely blocked in this country, no matter how many lives are lost. Rounding out the film’s excellent cast are Essie Davis (making her second appearance on this list), Anthony LaPaglia and Judy Davis, who once again reminds us that she is one our greatest living actors. As with “Women Talking,” the violence is left offscreen, but its impact is palpable, especially within the charged silences. Don’t miss this one on Hulu.

Read my interview with “Nitram” star Essie Davis at RogerEbert.com here.

2. Lynch/Oz

In a year where I got to experience David Lynch’s complete body of work on the big screen, thanks to Daniel Knox’s masterfully curated retrospective at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, my soul was ready for Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest work, and I ate it up like catnip. As he did in “78/52” and “Memory: The Origins of Alien,” Philippe brilliantly illustrates how cinema at its highest level is a gift that keeps on giving, illuminating the ways in which dreamscapes enable us to understand ourselves and others with greater clarity. Taking the form of six video essays, each narrated by a filmmaker or critic, the movie illuminates a wealth of provocative ways in which “The Wizard of Oz” is meaningfully reflected in Lynch’s oeuvre. “Yellowjackets” director Karyn Kusama’s analysis of “Mulholland Dr.”, which still stands as my all-time favorite film, is one of the best I’ve ever heard, reminding us cinephiles of why we crave revisiting the work that caused us to see the light. Keep an eye out for this one next year.

1. Happening

When Audrey Diwan’s scarily timely film won the top prize at Venice last year, who could’ve predicted that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v Wade just a month after the film’s eventual U.S. release the following May? Based on Annie Ernaux’s novel that delved into the fearsome obstacles faced by women seeking an abortion in France during the 1960s, Diwan’s film centers on Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei, who famously starred opposite Isabelle Huppert a decade ago in Eva Ionesco’s “My Little Princess”), a student who strives to evade the gender roles society is determined to keep her locked within. It’s wonderful to see Luàna Bajrami cast as Anne’s compassionate friend, considering how her own character was forced to deal with an unwanted pregnancy in Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (the newest addition to Sight & Sound’s greatest films poll), yet what makes Diwan’s film unforgettable, above all, is its extraordinary performance from Vartolomei. She enables us to feel on the most visceral of levels her character’s fierce determination, amidst unbearable anguish, to fight the law obstructing her freedom. This isn’t only the best film of 2022, it is THE film of 2022.

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTIONS

As in previous years, I must make special mention of a few cinematic achievements that are the equal of any feature-length release I saw in 2022, starting with Allison Torem’s lovely short film, “Essentials.” It serves as a top-drawer showcase for two of my favorite actors working today: Torem, whom I’ve admired ever since she was in Stephen Cone’s “The Wise Kids,” which topped my best of the year list a decade ago, and the great veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, whom I interviewed in 2018. Their characters meet on a near vacant street at night in the early days of the pandemic, and how they go about forging an unexpected connection is a joy to witness. As for my small screen viewing this year, nothing topped Ethan Hawke’s docuseries, “The Last Movie Stars,” on HBO Max, which chronicled the love, artistry and legacies of screen legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (who starred opposite Pendleton in her last film with Newman, James Ivory’s 1990 treasure, “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge”). Salvaging the transcripts from Newman’s abandoned memoir, Hawke brings them to life with the help of fellow quarantined performers via Zoom, who lend their own invaluable insights on the process of acting and how Newman and Woodward mastered it. 

And then there is the matter of Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” which was nominated for two Oscars at the 94th Academy Awards (which is remembered only for Will Smith’s monstrous ego), despite the fact that it only opened in the U.S. this past February. It already made numerous best of the year lists in 2021 (including the cumulative one on RogerEbert.com), but I never got the chance to see it until 2022, so instead of simply placing it among the other titles on this list, I am instead singling it out for being one of the best films in recent years, period, regardless of what year it technically counts for. Like “Everything Everywhere All At One,” Trier and his frequent co-writer Eskil Vogt create a world here that is thrillingly alive, both in its sheer unpredictability and the authenticity of its emotions. Borrowing the chapter structure of such classics as “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the film revolves around the search for self embarked upon by Julie (Renate Reinsve in a star-making performance), whose waning relationship with cartoonist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, star of Trier’s “Oslo, August 31st,” in the role that should’ve earned him an Oscar nod) is further disrupted by a flirtatious man (Herbert Nordrum) she meets while crashing a wedding. Two key sequences—one in which Julie causes time to freeze and another where she endures a bad drug trip—are as exciting as any cinematic achievement in recent memory, and the rest of the picture ain’t too shabby either. Add this title to your Criterion Collection, and you’ll get along with it an essay from my wonderful colleague Sheila O’Malley about why this film is so deeply special.

30 More Honorable Mentions: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “The Batman,” “Benediction,” “Brighton 4th,” “Butterfly in the Sky,” “The Cave of Adullam,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Descendant,” “The Fallout,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” “Holy Spider,” “I Love My Dad,” “Kimi,” “Lucy and Desi,” “Mama’s Boy,” “Montana Story,” “Murina,” “Of Medicine and Miracles,” “The Princess,” “Provo,” “Roving Woman,” “She Said,” “Sweetheart Deal,” “To Leslie,” “Turning Red,” “Vortex,” “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” “The Woman King,” “X”

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