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My ten favorite movies of 2022
Plus a late-breaking favorite from 2021
I like movies! And in this day and age when the viability of movie-making as an enterprise is under threat, I feel like it’s important for movie fans to champion them. Thanks to the waning of Covid-19, more movies came out in 2022 than were released in 2021, so this year’s favorite movies of the year list has ten entries instead of just five.
When putting this list together, I wanted to highlight the range of movies that came out this year — arty films and blockbusters and some in between, movies that are visually spectacular and ones that you can watch on your phone on an airplane. Something that I’ve noticed in recent years, though, is that a large share of America’s most established and prestigious directors are shying away from stories that are set in the present day. Blockbuster fare increasingly tends toward the fantastical, but serious moviemaking has started leaning hard into explorations of the past. That’s not a bad thing as a choice by any one artist, but I do feel like it’s a little bit odd taken as a whole. As someone who lives in the contemporary world, I like to see stories about the contemporary world, so my bias is always toward a little extra credit for anyone who depicts a smartphone, a Zoom call, a social media post, or concern related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
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I’m not a real film critic in the sense that my commentary is probably amateurish, but also more importantly in the sense that I don’t get invited to movie screenings or necessarily see everything that comes out. I haven’t gotten a chance to see The Fabelmans or Glass Onion yet, for example, even though a lot of people love those movies. This is on my mind because as it turns out, my favorite movie of 2021 is one I didn’t get to see until early 2022.
My in-retrospect favorite movie of 2021
“I’m the worst person in the world” is apparently a common phrase in Norway, a kind of hyperbolic apology similar to “I’m the worst” in American English. Thus this film is not about the worst person in the world at all, but about a very normal, contemporary, college-educated resident of a city in a rich country — she’s not sure if she wants kids, she abstractly feels like she ought to try to have a successful career, she’s always worried that other people are judging her because she’s judging herself, etc.
What’s interesting about the movie is that while it has some critical detachment from its millennial protagonist and enjoys a few laughs at her expense, it’s not mean or satirical toward her — it’s a deeply humane movie.
I hesitate to mention this too much because I don’t want people to think this is a movie about cancel culture (which it really, really is not), but it is a movie about contemporary life that briefly touches on cancel culture and it does so in a very humane way. There’s an annoying hackwork quality to the feminist radio hosts who try to take Aksel down, but they are probably correct — Julie says she found his work “vaguely sexist” before she met him, and Aksel’s effort to explain to his friends the political importance of his work makes no sense. Again, the movie is not “about” that — it’s about life and relating to different people of different ages — but I think it’s woven through very gracefully and shows the value of art over didactic argumentation.
“Tár” is the poster child for the death of cinema argument. Excellent reviews have just absolutely failed to propel this movie to the kind of success that, in the past, an awards-bait arthouse movie would have aspired to. The fact is, it’s really good and you should go see it in theaters. You probably won’t, you’ll probably wait for it to come to streaming, but when it does, I hope you’ll actually pay attention and not futz on your phone because it’s a really excellent film with lots of subtle bits that only reveal themselves if you’re paying attention. It’s not perfect — I thought it would have been better without the light supernatural elements — but it’s a real triumph of filmmaking.
Everyone praises Cate Blanchett’s performance, which is excellent. The big joke about this movie is that people get confused and think it’s based on a true story about a real person named Lydia Tár. She of course isn’t real, but the strength of the film is that Todd Field wrote a character who feels real, and Blanchett delivered a performance that fully lives up to that aspiration. You can’t help but argue about the events portrayed in this movie because, again, they feel real. It’s masterfully ambiguous in terms of what it is that actually occurred in the backstory (it’s important to pay attention not only to avoid missing things, but to be clear that you’re not missing certain pieces of information, they just aren’t revealed), but you can’t put it out of your mind and say “well, it’s just a made-up story.” It’s an incredible realization — it seems like a genuine solid object we should be able to kick the tires of and come to a conclusion about.
One of the many wonderful small things in the movie is that the two most unrealistic parts of the story — the philanthropist whose aspiration is to conduct Mahler and the Monster Hunter concert — are both completely real.
Another nice touch, I thought, was the decision to use untranslated German when Lydia is speaking during rehearsal. We know due to her own account to Adam Gopnik (who plays himself in the movie) that the rehearsal, not the performance we can see, is where she says the art and discovery take place. But we are denied comprehension. At other times, German dialogue is translated via subtitles, but at the key moment when we might see the genius at work, our comprehension is withdrawn. It’s not a puzzle box, it’s just an enigma — what happened here? It gnaws at you, even though you know there’s no answer.
2. Top Gun: Maverick
At the other end of the box office spectrum is the number one movie of the year, a triumphant return of the non-MCU blockbuster.
There’s not a ton to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said, but I just want to underscore the incredible value of practical effects. This isn’t a movie that eschews CGI, which is smart because CGI is a great way to create certain images that couldn’t otherwise be rendered. But the human actors are also filmed zooming around in real planes, not because CGI can’t render the motion but because being in real planes helps the actors’ performances enormously. The result is dramatically better acting than in a typical CGI-fest and makes the movie emotionally engaging, which in turn makes the visuals that were done with CGI worthwhile. You’re not just observing a cool spectacle with planes flying around, you’re invested in it.
Jennifer Connelly also manufactures a winning performance out of basically nothing. A triumph.
3. The Stars at Noon
Sight & Sound magazine came out with its decennial critics’ poll of the best movies of all time, and Claire Denis’ 1999 film “Beau Travail” rated as number seven — part of a big boost to woman directors after the 2012 iteration of the list was criticized for featuring almost no women.
So I find it bizarre that in this context, nobody is talking about the movie Denis released this fall that, unlike “Beau Travail,” is in English and just sitting there on Hulu. It’s good! Like “Beau Travail,” “The Stars at Noon” is a plot-lite, vibes-heavy look at white people moonlighting in the developing world, this time Nicaragua rather than East Africa, and it’s kind of amazing.
The use of late-phase Covid NPIs as part of the backdrop to a general setting of dread and crisis is also very effective, and while the film is certainly not a detailed look at the economic impact of the pandemic on poor countries, it does show Covid-19 playing out, which very few recent works have done. Margaret Qualley’s performance is absolutely stunning, showing lots of different sides to the character — there are actually good reasons that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl became a staple of modern fiction, and the internet trend of “name the trope in order to dismiss it” is dumb. What’s genuinely bad is leaning on tropes in place of writing characters, but here Denis and Qualley give a totally fresh, much more sober view of it.
My guess is critics decided not to champion this movie because it seems like if you’re going to have a white person make a movie about white people in Nicaragua, it ought to have impeccable politics. I’m not really sure that this movie has any politics at all, and if it does they’re not necessarily good politics. There is no redemptive hero here and not really a message, it’s just a story about people who happen to be somewhere.
4. She Said
If you want redemptive heroes and a message, the place to go is “She Said,” an adaptation of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book about their reporting on Harvey Weinstein.
I think it’s important to say that this is really a movie about Kantor and Twohey, not a movie about Weinstein. This is a story about superheroes, mythic investigative reporter moms who unfailingly support each other and doggedly pursue the truth without a hint of careerism or opportunism. They do the work, but they are also supported — again, unfailingly — by the editors and colleagues at the Times without any hesitations or doubts or jealousy. I wasn’t there and I have no idea how real that is, but it makes working at the Times seem really awesome (the office looks cool, the CMS looks cool, the cafeteria seems cool, the bosses seem cool) and it makes journalism seem really awesome and it constantly shows you that there’s just no way “citizen journalists” on Twitter could substitute for the resource-intensive work of investigating powerful people. Is it stressful? Yes, but they can handle it — the kids are okay, the husbands are okay, everyone is okay. Patriots are in control.
I know I sound a little like I’m mocking, but amidst a sea of comic book superheroes, this Hollywood version of Kantor and Twohey are the heroes we really need. I also tip my cap to the film for front-loading professional women’s outrage at Trump’s impunity, something that was a huge driving force during critical years in American politics but has tended to be memory-holed as the 2020 primaries went kind of off the rails and the pandemic came to the fore.
Steven Soderbergh is just the best at rattling off small, nicely-wound movies like it’s nothing. Zoë Kravitz is a fantastic movie star, and this is a great little paranoid thriller that you don’t need to think too hard about if you don’t want to — good fun.
At the same time, it’s one of the only cultural works I can think of that’s tapped into something I think we all know is true but hasn’t really been acknowledged in elite circles: high levels of Covid caution were in part reactions to actual information about the health risks of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but were also heavily shaped by psychological and sociological factors. Angela’s reaction to the pandemic is shaped by her struggles with agoraphobia and also feeds back into those struggles in complex ways that make it hard to definitively identify cause and effect.
I’m sort of reconciled to the idea that audiences aren’t ever coming back to movie theaters for anything that doesn’t involve crazy special effects, so in the long run, most films will need to be made direct-to-streaming for modest budgets. But I wish that meant more stuff like Kimi — fun, not pretentious movies — rather than “prestige television.” Kimi has a beginning, a middle, and an end, plus a great pace and a little something to say about how we live now. Then you turn it off and move on with your life.
Speaking of streaming entertainment with limited aspirations but excellent execution, Dan Trachtenberg’s entry into the long and mostly-not-great Predator franchise is amazing.
Part of the key to this movie’s appeal is that it totally gave up on the idea of adding to our understanding of the Predator. Instead, it’s the exact same premise as the original movie: a Predator shows up on Earth, does some killing, and is ultimately defeated by our hero. But instead of our hero being an American special operator on a mission in Central America in the 1980s, she’s a young Native American woman in the 18th century. There’s not really a lot you can say about this movie except that it paints by numbers really, really well. The Predator looks cool. The hero is charismatic. The bad French trappers are bad. The action is convincing and thoughtfully staged and actually exciting. And it raises the possibility that you could just rip off endless iterations of this — Predator in the Viking Era, Predator against Japanese samurai, Predator in the trenches of World War I… the sky’s the limit.
There’s nothing especially “political” about this film, but I think it illustrates why the reactionary culture warriors fundamentally keep losing. There is actually a lot of juice to be squeezed out of taking story templates we’ve seen before and freshening them up with a more diverse set of heroes.
7. Thor: Love & Thunder
For my money (which is not worth very much), “Thor: Ragnorak” is the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies,1 and while I didn’t think the follow-up was quite as good, it’s pretty excellent.
Both the fan and critical reaction to this one were pretty blah, which I think reflects the oddness of the project — it’s essentially a satire of MCU films occurring inside the MCU itself, as if Austin Powers were an official James Bond movie. The thing about satire is for it to work, you need to have some genuine affection for the underlying material, which Taika Waititi clearly does. And even though I’ve grown increasingly alarmed at the way the MCU has devoured the movie industry, I like it enough to have seen all the movies, so I’m there for it. A lot of the MCU fanbase seems too self-serious and defensive to take a joke — note this video complaining that the dialogue lacks subtext, isn’t naturalistic, etc. — but what you’re watching is comedy. Not the insertion of random quippy jokes into an action movie, but a comic film.
Baz Luhrmann brought us Romeo and Juliet set in the early nineties Southern California town of Verona Beach. He put Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim in 19th-century Paris. He did a hip-hop soundtrack for The Great Gatsby without changing the setting from Jazz Age Long Island.
So his version of an Elvis biopic is bracingly ahistorical both in the soundtrack choices and also in terms of fidelity to the actual record. And it’s incredible. The biopic genre is, frankly, not that well-suited to conveying factual historical information, and Luhrmann’s stylistic tics helpfully lampshade that you are watching a story of his devising, not a documentary about the origins of rock ’n roll. The real Elvis is a controversial figure in African American musical circles, with Chuck D famously speaking for the prosecution and B.B. King speaking for the defense. Luhrmann gives us King’s interpretation, depicting the two men as good friends early in life, Elvis as sincerely concerned about civil rights issues, and any contrary elements in Elvis’ life story as the work of the evil Colonel Tom Parker, who is also victimizing Elvis throughout his career.
Regardless of its fidelity to history, what’s amazing about the film is its degree of fidelity to itself — incorporating ahistorical movie cues into the soundtrack, highlighting great Black musical performances diegetically,2 and having Austin Butler cover famous Elvis recordings in a way that blues-es them up. Compare the official Elvis recording of “Trouble” to to the Butler/Luhrmann version.
And you actually on some level need reckless infidelity to the original material. Lurhmann’s Elvis is sexier and more dynamic than the real Elvis because we live in a post-Elvis world, so you need to amp things up to convey the Elvis effect. I’m a little worried these days about the polarization between dumb-as-nails blockbusters and really difficult art films, but “Elvis” is a great exemplar of the old-fashioned idea of bringing some artistry to what is, at the root, an entertaining time at the movies.
9. Avatar 2: The Way of Water
Movies exist at the intersection of art, science, and commerce in a way that’s unusual in this day and age, and James Cameron’s Avatar sequel, more than anything else this year, is right there in the middle.
The guy is the director of two of the three top-grossing films of all time and the creator of the iconic Terminator franchise, and somehow a lot of people still think “Aliens” is his best movie.3 And for the past decade or so of his life, he's chosen to pursue this extremely idiosyncratic notion of shooting another Avatar movie except this time incorporating water into the mix. It's like a quirky arthouse project, except it also cost $1 billion. There's plenty you can quibble with in the plot here, just like Lords of the Rings haters will always be able to say they should have just flown to Mordor on the eagles. But it is the most genuinely immersive moviegoing experience that I've ever seen — you will truly believe that they shot this movie on location in Pandora. The stop-motion teenage Sigourney Weaver looks just like Sigourney Weaver and the stop-motion Kate Winslet looks nothing like Kate Winslet and they both seem like real people. It's remarkable.
People forget, but the looming crisis for theatrical moviegoing was already clearly visible when the original “Avatar” came out in 2009. The plan, at the time, was to shift movies to 3D, which is a basically theatrical-only movie experience… except that for most movies, 3D seems like a tired gimmick. Then along came “Avatar” which, whatever its flaws, genuinely used 3D photography to good effect. It seemed like we were seeing the future of filmmaking, like Cameron’s technical breakthroughs would filter down to other tentpoles and then become available over time to smaller films, and that directors and cinematographers would learn how to shoot compelling 3D scenes. That future never came to pass, and it’s been over 10 years since I put a pair of 3D glasses on. But Cameron is showing us that it is possible, someone just needs to pick up the baton and run with it.
10. Not Okay
It seemed like a lot of people didn’t really take this one seriously because it’s a streaming-original black comedy written and directed by a 27-year-old woman, but I really liked it, and in keeping with the theme of this year’s list I want to give it extra credit for addressing contemporary reality.
“Not Okay” is about a junior staffer at a web-native publication (Depravity) who sets about to spend a weekend pretending to be at a writers’ retreat in Paris while actually holed up in her apartment posting fake content to Instagram. Then a terrorist attack happens in Paris. Rather than admit she wasn’t there, she pretends to have been present at the attack, which leads to a huge breakthrough viral article, among other things. It’s funny and at times sweet, but also ends on a dark — but honest — note about the cruelties of contemporary internet life.
It’s atmospherically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tár and carries none of Tár’s empirical ambiguity. But at the same time, it offers another different, important cut at the ethical ambiguities of our modern world and the tipping points of acclaim and condemnation.
More Cate Blanchett is always better.
Diegetic music is music that plays inside the story in a way that the characters can hear versus the music that appears as part of the score that only the audience can hear.
Not me, but that’s another story — T2 all the way.