There’s never enough time to see all of the movies in the conversation for “best of the year,” much less to summarize thoughts on the previous twelve months of new releases. But here, finally in February, is my movie diary for 2022: a top ten list, some thoughts on honorable—and dishonorable—mentions, and a rundown of everything I watched over the year.
My grand total this year was 217 films, a noticeable decline from 2021, though still about on par with my general movie watching trend over the past five years.
Total Movies Watched by Year
It was a busier twelve months, that’s for sure, but it also felt like a markedly worse year for film. I saw only fourteen new releases in theaters in 2022. While that’s a post-pandemic high, more often than not I felt less than enthusiastic about what I was heading to theaters to see. I’m not just talking about the unrelentingly mediocre pablum that Marvel continued to churn out. Even the year-end prestige fare struck me as particularly lackluster; if I never see another flick in which an auteur director revisits his childhood and/or pays rhapsodic tribute to the magic of film, I’ll be just fine. I’ve also excused myself from the latest “Avatar” sequels—and however many more might be coming down the pike.
Still, I’m hoping (perhaps against hope) that this is all just cyclical, that we’re just in a temporary downturn, and that 2023 will breathe some new life into the movies, particularly theatrical releases. A look at what’s on the slate is actually pretty exciting: a calendar full of new works from Martin Scorcese, Denis Villeneuve, Wes Anderson, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan, among others. Reasons to stay optimistic.
Top Ten for 2022
“After Yang” Colin Farrell goes on a quest to repair an android companion that’s on the fritz, and what follows is a remarkably deft, nuanced look at how technology changes us as much it changes the world around us. This beautifully imagined and winningly complex vision of the near future has an uncanny understanding of how mundane details can make for far more convincing sci-fi than wild pyrotechnics.
“Happening” In 1960s France, at a time when abortion was still illegal, a young student seeks to end an unwanted pregnancy, and must clear horrifying societal hurdles in order to do so. Director Audrey Diwan casts an unflinchingly honest and emotionally fearless eye on a brutal social landscape, where women face entrapment at every turn and trust is largely transactional. Hauntingly relevant.
“Petite Maman” Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is at once fantastical and exceptionally simple: at a time of crisis for her parents, a young girl somehow meets and befriends a version of her mother when she was the same age. There’s nothing ornate or tricky about the execution; it’s just a simple tale of two children at play, and yet it’s still mind blowing and completely heartbreaking in how much it says about inter-generational empathy.
“Tár” A statement movie about art and power and an acting showcase for Cate Blanchett, who is utterly commanding as a musician at the very top of the classical music echelon, and then utterly infuriating as she sabotages herself and spins out of control. As a prestige picture, it feels at first like Oscar bait—my least favorite genre—but director Todd Field makes it a genuine work of art that asks complex questions and refuses simple answers.
“Top Gun: Maverick” A transparently propagandistic pack of Hollywood clichés, with a paper thin plot, that somehow manages to be whatever movie every viewer needs it to be. Looking for a blue-blooded adrenaline rush for red state viewers? Check. Looking for a disquisition on the continued viability of analog in an increasingly digital horror-scape? Check. Looking for an escapist thrill ride in the form of an aerial heist flick? Check. My favorite: looking for a death dream meditation on resolving personal relationships at the end of a long life? Maverick is your man. In its square, uncool way, this relentlessly enjoyable popcorn actioner is a miracle.
“Triangle of Sadness” Lampooning the cluelessness of ultra-wealthy passengers on a luxury yacht is like shooting fish in a barrel, but with this movie director Ruben Ostlund reminds us that shooting fish in a barrel can be a ridiculously good time. What makes this really work is a pleasingly digressive, unhurried style that allows the cast’s astoundingly naturalistic performances to shine. When the characters act stupidly, which they do often, they tap into a deep empathetic vibe that allows you to recognize yourself in them, even as you’re laughing your head off at them.
“Nope” Jordan Peele’s extraterrestrial horror film pulls together a disparate array of hidden Hollywood backstories into an almost cohesive whole—not quite fully successful, but the delirious ambition on display here was some of the most thrilling cinema I watched all year. Its opening scene, which takes place on the set of a sitcom where things have gone horribly wrong, is stunning and indelible. Peele is not resting on his laurels as one of the most exciting directors working today.
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” I very superficially assumed that this story of a middle-aged widow’s sexual awakening was not for me. But Katy Brand’s screenplay is so thoughtful about the subject matter, and director Sophie Hyde is so surehanded in its execution, that the universality of the story shines through with exceptional lucidity. It’s hard not to get swept up in both the sadness and redemption in the stories of its two principal characters.
“Turn Every Page–The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” Over the years I’ve read so much about the writer Robert Caro, about his work and about how he works, that I had modest expectations for this documentary. But its spotlight on Caro’s decades-long collaboration with his editor Robert Gottlieb was a revelation. It illuminates the under-appreciated dynamic between author and editor and it captures for posterity the particulars of one of the most important literary partnerships of the past half-century. I don’t like most documentaries, but I really liked this one.
“The Batman” The super-hero genre is in such dire straits—there were few cinematic experiences that I had this year that I detested more than the Marvel movies I had to sit through—but this umpteenth reboot, imperfect as it is, just thrilled me. It takes itself way too seriously but I much prefer an enterprise that is determined to amount to something of substance. It has a genuinely adventurous, provocative, beating heart that harbors legitimately courageous ambitions to expand the vocabulary of modern myth beyond pure commerce. It’s also the best Batman movie, period.
A few quick notes on some releases that didn’t make the top ten but that I think were still worthwhile:
Park Chan-Wook’s “Decision to Leave” is a beautiful, near miss of a Hitchcockian thriller. “The Menu” can’t pay off its irresistible premise, but it’s loads of fun anyway. The French romantic comedy “Anaïs in Love” is nothing we’ve never seen before, but its warm execution is a winner. I’ve never seen a movie that’s as good as “Babylon” is for its first two-thirds turn so bad in its last act, but it’s still well worth a viewing. People missed Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas hamming it up in “Official Competition” but they shouldn’t. Guillaume Pierret’s “Lost Bullet 2” is building the crazy car-centric action franchise that the Fast & Furious movies have completely forgotten how to be.
And a few movies that, in my view, were overpraised:
Baz Lurrman’s “Elvis” has some entertaining musical numbers but otherwise it’s a groaner. Spielberg puts everything he’s got into “The Fabelmans” but it’s still overwrought nonsense. “All Quiet on the Western Front” has a very important message about how war is bad! The movie itself is also bad. Robert Eggers’s “The Northman” is just a high class version of Zack Snyder’s low class “300.” While not un-fun, it’s time to get off of David Leitch’s “Bullet Train”—and other John Wick derivatives.
For a more comprehensive overview of what I watched last year, you can see my Letterboxd stats, beautifully presented as always by that amazing platform for all kinds of movie watchers and fans. Below is a month-by-month inventory of everything I watched, old and new, in 2022. You can also turn back even further in time and see what I watched in 2021, 2020, in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always follow my capsule reviews as I write them at my Letterboxd library.
“Light Sleeper” (1992) ★★★★ An absurd premise but executed so well; Paul Schrader creates a somnambulent version of Manhattan that Willem Dafoe glides through like a wounded ghost.
“Boiling Point” (2021) ★★★½ Scrappy indie film about a restaurant staff basically on fire. Not perfect but very worthwhile.
“Boiling Point” (2019) ★★★ The original short film that formed the basis of the 2021 feature-length version. Also very worthwhile.
“Old Henry” (2021) ★½ The terrific Tim Blake Nelson in a western, but fighting against a mediocre plot and casting.
“To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) ★½ Rewatched. Aside from a car chase clearly meant to one-up “The French Connection,” the rest of this is satire-level macho posturing.
“Nightmare Alley” (2021) ★★★ Both better and worse than the 1947 original, but not a movie that really sticks with you.
“Radio On” (1979) ★★★ A gorgeous, dissonant tone poem in the form of a road movie.
“My Cousin Vinny” (1992) ★½ I can’t believe this sitcom plot of a movie made any kind of cultural impression at all, much less garnered an Oscar for Marisa Tomei.
“Paper Moon” (1973) ★★★★½ Rewatched. A grand slam of a movie, with a walk-off home run ending that’s spot on perfect. The Coen Brothers learned so much from this.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) ★★★½ A remarkable recreation of the wit and spirit of screwball comedy, but still a recreation. Streisand is fabulous though.
“5 Fingers” (1952) ★★★★ A corker of a spy tale but in the old fashioned sense, so don’t expect explosions and golden girls. Instead what you get is a comedy of manners, rendered with extreme elegance by James Mason in the lead role.
“All About Eve” (1950) ★★★★½ Every bit as good as everyone says it is.
“A Letter to Three Wives” (1949) ★★½ Post-war melodrama sports three terrific leads and digs into some interesting territory for a while, but never really breaks through.
“Kimi” (2022) ★★★½ Capable, small scale noir unexpectedly set in the world of smart speakers defies expectations and manages to be terrific.
“Gaslight” (1944) ★★★★ I’m amazed that the 21st century reached way back in time to this terrific but fairly obscure noir and turned its title into a culturally incisive colloquialism.
“Lifeboat” (1944) ★★★★ Hitchcock’s specialty: a sparse, limited set; richly drawn characters; and a taut, morally ambiguous conflict. Genius.
“The Hit” (1984) ★★★★ An existential odyssey disguised as a gangster flick.
“Speed Racer” (2008) ★★★★ Rewatched. This might be the best f all of the Wachowski’s films, even that one with the sunglasses and trench coats.
“Rushmore” (1998) ★★★★ Rewatched. Holds up, and shows how Anderson’s early characters were sometimes more internally coherent than they are today.
“The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) ★★ Dunderheaded plot logic, but interesting to see how special effects were pulled off in the dark ages.
“The Addams Family” (1991) ★★★ Rewatched. Raul Julia and Angelica Huston were perfect.
“Phantom Boy” (2015) ★★½ Gorgeously animated, as expected, but not much of a progression from “A Cat in Paris.”
“A Whisker Away” (2020) ★★★ The story, a teenager’s fairy tale in every aspect, is delicately executed, but the main reason to watch this is for the long string of exquisitely, lovingly rendered backgrounds.
“Air Bud” (1997) ★½ There’s not a moment here where naturalism of any kind creeps in, even for a second.
“Seven Chances” (1925) ★★★½
Early Buster Keaton; takes a while to get in gear, but it’s worth it.
“Red Desert” (1964) ★★★½
Rewatched. Antonioni’s uncompromising vision is conceptually rewarding but also exhausting.
“The Great Beauty” (2013) ★★★½
A somewhat preposterous protagonist makes for a movie that is shallower than it thinks. Still, Paolo Sorrentino’s incredibly vivid direction turns it into something exactly as rapturous as his aspirations.
“Drive My Car” (2021) ★★½
Is Haruki Murakami really that good of a storyteller, or are we all just deluding ourselves? This movie really made me wonder.
“The Color of Money” (1986) ★★★★ I’d always heard that this is lesser Scorsese but it still rocks.
“The Adam Project” (2022) ★ Ryan Reynolds has become the face of the overbudgeted, undercooked Netflix era of film.
“The Man Who Never Was” (1956) ★★½ Rewatched. A much better (if still kind of unremarkable) recounting of the events behind “Operation Mincemeat.” I saw this as a kid and I’ve been fascinated with this story ever since.
“Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) ★★★★ A cinematic triumph of conservative ideas that even a lefty can dig.
“Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) ★★★★ Rewatched. I went back to see it again the very next day.
“The Parallax View” (1974) ★★★★ Rewatched. Still fascinatingly paranoid, but the real star is Gordon Willis’s gorgeous cinematography.
“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) ★★★★ Rewatched. The character building throughout is masterful.
“The Bad Guys” (2022) ★★★ Sharply styled, marginally above-average kids movie.
“Bullet Train” (2022) ★★½ Admittedly rather fun for a while, but probably about twenty minutes too long.
“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” (2021) ★★½ Over-the-top bonkers Romanian morality play that’s really just a one-act show stretched out to feature length.
“On the Count of Three” (2021) ★★★ A tidy little indie film made with heart and smarts, but maybe not quite with enough ambition.
“Police Academy” (1984) ½ Vacillates wildly between slapstick farce, horny 80s comedy, bland actioner and limp morality play, with the only consistent throughline being its utter incompetence from start to finish—and its utter lack of laughs.
“Do Revenge” (2022) ★½ Another frustratingly self-aware yet clueless Netflix original that no one will remember in thirty minutes.
“Heat” (1995) ★★★★½ Rewatched. They’ll never make a heist film to top this one.
“DC League of Super-Pets” (2022) ½ Another argument that despite his putative charms, Duane “The Rock” Johnson has outrageously poor taste in projects.
“See How They Run” (2022) ★★★½ This spry corker of a comedy-mystery doesn’t pretend for a moment it can really deliver on its promise of a truly elevated whodunnit—and in the end it does not. But it has a blast along the way.