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The proximity of this year’s annual top-10-list-making tradition to Sight & Sound’s once-in-a-decade critics’ poll about the greatest movies of all time makes my 2022 list an easy one to introduce. For the past few days, every critic I know—even those, like me, who don’t generally cotton to list-making—has been talking and tweeting and arguing about the meaning, purpose, and utility of movie lists. Are they consumer guides, exercises in canon-making, expressions of personal passion, or chances to parade around displaying one’s own knowledgeability, uniqueness, edgelord status, and exquisite taste?
In a year when the most salient feature of the cinematic landscape was the difficulty of locating exactly where movies were happening (on VOD? In theaters? Exclusively on yet another bespoke streaming platform bent on tapping me for $5.99 a month?), I relied on the same principal criterion for both the best films of all time and my favorites of this year: Which were the movies that made me experience the increasingly elusive sensation of movie-ness, that feeling of full-body rapture that comes when a film sneaks up on you and captures your consciousness? This kind of transport still happens most often for me in a big-screen setting, but now that we live in an age of ever-narrowing or nonexistent theatrical platform releases, I am learning how to let it occur in a home setting as well (even if, 20th-century relic that I am, I still require a dark room, the largest screen possible, and a complete absence of electronic distractions). Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 films that, for a few hours at a time, stole my soul in 2022, plus five bonus titles that could just as easily have made the list.
All That Breathes
This documentary, about a pair of New Delhi–based brothers who run a barely solvent bird rescue operation from the roof of their apartment building, provided the most potent emotional experience I had in a movie theater all year. Director Shaunak Sen’s agile, observant camera finds beauty and meaning everywhere, even amid the towering garbage dumps where birds of prey, rats, and other urban beasts converge to find sustenance in a landscape transformed by pollution. All That Breathes is an ode to survival on a climate change–ravaged planet that is tragic and hopeful in equal measure, with images so painterly it’s hard to believe they were captured from a moment of real life.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Even if you know nothing about the life and work of photographer Nan Goldin, this documentary from Laura Poitras (director of the Oscar-winning Citizenfour) will find an angle from which to pull you in. Goldin’s raw, intimate portraits of queer life in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s are vital documents from a vanished world, and her passionate late-life commitment to protesting the philanthropy of the Sackler family—who have spent the past several decades laundering their reputation by donating portions of their ill-gotten pharmaceutical fortunes to the international art world—is a thrilling example of how, in their most deeply lived form, art and activism can become one and the same.
The Banshees of Inisherin
The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has had hits and misses in his career as a writer-director. His debut film, the assassins-on-the-run caper In Bruges, has gained a devoted cult following, but the try-hard black comedy Seven Psychopaths and the ambitious but uneven drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri split audiences into defenders and detractors. The Banshees of Inisherin is McDonagh’s most accomplished and most enjoyable movie yet, if enjoyable is the right word for a story in which self-mutilation, clinical depression, and pony feces figure largely. As two old friends on a remote island whose relationship takes a sudden and mysterious swerve toward the pathological, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson take the existential buddy comedy of In Bruges to the next level, delivering guffaws and gasps of horror in the same line. (Read the review.)
It’s been quite the year for long-established directors trying new things for the first time: Frederick Wiseman moving from documentary to literary biography with the single-actor Tolstoy biopic A Couple, Steven Spielberg time-traveling to his own adolescence with The Fabelmans, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, the 84-year-old Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski, best known for large international coproductions with political themes, coming out with a small marvel like Eo, the often wordless saga of a long-suffering donkey’s journey from a Polish circus to an Italian villa occupied by a haughty Isabelle Huppert, and beyond. Eo could be thought of as a sort of remake of Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, but as it turns out, world cinema has room for more than one masterpiece about the trials of a peripatetic donkey. The six animals that together play the title character should be nominated for some kind of nonhuman ensemble cast award. Never have 12 equine eyes expressed a wider range of emotion, from terror to contentment to whatever the animal equivalent is of longing. It contains scenes of (simulated) animal suffering that make a content warning seem in order, but if nothing else, Eo will make you go home and be extra kind to your pet.
How basic am I that, for two years in a row now, I’ve put a Steven Spielberg picture on my top 10 list for the year? The correct answer is “I don’t care,” because at age 75, this most populist of moviemakers is still surprising himself and us by seeking out new-to-him modes of storytelling (the musical, the autobiographical bildungsroman). Weeks after seeing The Fabelmans, I still keep returning to it, turning certain scenes and encounters over in my mind. Tony Kushner’s script, based on conversations with the director that both men have compared to a kind of talk therapy, returns again and again to the ambivalent nature of the motion-picture camera—the way it can both reveal the truth and hide it, express the auteur’s intentions and cleverly disguise them. Don’t fall for the trailer’s implication that The Fabelmans is a simple nostalgic valentine to the movies. A love letter it may be, but between the lines are messages in invisible ink that I’m still figuring out how to decipher. (Read the review, and read Spielberg’s biographer on how the movie transforms the filmmaker’s life story.)
The week the French abortion drama Happening hit screens in the U.S. was also the week a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion made it clear that the near-50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade was about to be overturned. Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of an autobiographical novel from this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, Annie Ernaux, looks unflinchingly at the experience of a university student trying by any means necessary to end an unwanted pregnancy in the early 1960s, when the word avortement was too taboo even to be uttered in France (as indeed it never is in the film). As the increasingly desperate but fiercely determined Anne, Anamaria Vartolomei gives one of the most searing performances of the year. Rigorous without being didactic, Happening should be required viewing for anyone whose life has been touched by abortion, which is to say you and virtually everyone you know. (Read the review.)
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
In a movie industry with a bottomless appetite for recyclable and expandable IP, Dean Fleischer-Camp’s stop-motion debut feature is a miniature in more ways than one. Yes, this is the tale of a 1-inch-tall tchotchke living in a human-sized house with his beloved but cognitively declining shell grandma. But it’s also a plucky little David of a movie, facing the Goliath of Big Animation with an idiosyncratic spirit, an abundance of visual wit, and a voice characterization for the ages from comedian and actress Jenny Slate. Slate invented the voice of the irrepressible-yet-timid Marcel more than a decade ago to make Fleischer-Camp, then her husband, laugh. He ran with the joke, and together they developed the character into a DIY YouTube star, an experience the movie dramatizes. Turning a decade-old marital in-joke into an affecting piece of art would be a tall order if the couple in question were still married; to do so with one’s ex, and to get a result this special, feels something like a miracle. (Read the review.)
Filmmaker Alice Diop, a documentarian making her first narrative feature, draws on a chilling true story—a Senegalese immigrant in a small French village drowns her 15-month-old daughter, freely confessing to the crime but providing no clear reason—to create a courtroom drama like no other I’ve seen. The dual lead performances, by Guslagie Malanda as the haunted mother on the stand and Kayije Kagame as a novelist observing the trial to write a book on the case, work together in intricate counterpoint, with each woman’s story refracting different aspects of the experience of motherhood and daughterhood. The harsh subject matter makes Saint Omer what is sometimes called a “tough sit,” but it’s also a moving and often strangely beautiful one.
Like its poisonously charming antihero, Tár is a tightly controlled bundle of contradictions: It is brilliant and brutal, frightening and funny, seductive and repulsive, an enigmatic recasting of an all-too-familiar story. A tale about sexual harassment told from the point of view of the accused harasser could easily, in 2022, have come off as a reactionary screed against “cancel culture” and the fragile sensibilities of Kids These Days. Instead, writer-director Todd Field’s study of a superstar orchestra conductor, played with unassailable authority and sly humor by Cate Blanchett, is a smart movie that trusts its audience to be even smarter, to notice the riddles and ambiguities tucked into every corner of the frame, and to leave the theater with questions that, months later, still resonate like the last vibrations of a sustained chord.
In theaters and available for rent
Top Gun: Maverick
The massive box-office success of Joseph Kosinski’s 36-years-later sequel to one of the 1980s’ most iconic bro-downs—and the hearty whoops of collective appreciation from the packed audiences who turned out to see it—was this year’s proof that big, dumb, gloriously crowd-pleasing event movies have not wholly ceded their cultural significance to COVID-era, watch-in-your-slippers streaming fare. At 60, Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still every inch the cocky, insouciant Navy pilot; it’s the world that has changed around him, leaving him and us to wonder whether the passing of the golden age of fist-pumping action blockbusters, cheerfully jingoistic bad-guy bombardment, and movie-star features distorted by G-force is a thing to be celebrated or mourned. This is the rare legacy sequel that exceeds the original in almost every respect, and the source of more plain-old moviegoing fun than I had watching any other new movie this year. (Read the review, and read the rest of Slate’s coverage of Top Gun: Maverick.)
In theaters and available for rent
A Couple (Frederick Wiseman)
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook)
The Eternal Daughter (Joanna Hogg)
Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter)
Women Talking (Sarah Polley)