Two years ago when theater chains were closing and huge films were debuting in our living rooms, it might’ve been hard to imagine a movie year as harmonious as this. But yet, even if things will never be as they once were, we’re inching closer back to equilibrium and 2022 is proof positive. The list below represents a pretty even mix of true-blue silver screen smashes, a few streaming originals and some smaller but no less entertaining films that might’ve been easier to see at home if you couldn’t make it to your local arthouse theater. From a blockbuster three decades in the making, to James Cameron’s triumphant return, these are our picks for the best movies of the year.
Top Gun: Maverick
The Last Action Hero, the King of Hollywood… we can debate the actual title, as long as we’re in agreement that Sir Thomas Cruise just cemented his reign as Golden Age moviemaking’s staunchest contemporary vanguard. Who else could deliver a 30 years-in-the-making sequel that not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it, standing as the most crowd-pleasing blockbuster of the year. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (which, not incidentally, was the best blockbuster of that year too) a character, without a trace of sarcasm, warns that Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt is a living manifestation of destiny. It may as well have been a fourth-wall break. There’s something poetic, to the tune of a Best Picture nomination even, of Cruise betting on himself—i.e., doing everything in his power to keep the studio from rushing it out as a pandemic streaming-only release—and stealing summer 2022 with a follow-up to his most seminal role, delivering a story that manages to cater to nostalgia while also offering deconstruction. Maverick doesn’t work because it’s a throwback, but it is definitely a reminder of what a real capital-m Movie feels like, and that there are only a rare few who can still deliver that feeling.
2022 produced few movie moments as unsettling as the moment in Todd Field’s TÁR in which the acclaimed composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) hears a scream in the distance while jogging. She — and we — never learns the origin of the scream but that’s not the point. It’s an image of a seemingly impervious character suddenly realizing the world might hold threats for her she’d never imagined. Field’s expansive film allows Blanchett to explore a deeply flawed (but, stylish) character in full as Lydia makes the long journey from the top of the classical arts world to unknown depths after her past history of taking sexual advantage of those under her supervision comes to light. It’s a nuanced and complex drama that considers how beauty sometimes comes from ugly sources and ponders what form redemption can take for those on the other side of scandal, if it’s possible at all.
The big heartbreaker of the year, Aftersun is a stunning debut from Charlotte Wells that follows an 11-year-old Scottish girl named Sophie (Frankie Corio) on vacation in Turkey with her young dad Calum (Paul Mescal). She’s carefree and precocious and enjoying the finest fruits of the 90s (No Fear t-shirts, the Macarena); he’s adrift and clearly struggling with something implacable. Only with the distance of time can adult Sophie—now the same age as Calum was on their trip and reflecting back—begin to understand her father. Aftersun is about memory and loss and seeing your parents as individual people, with an expertly-executed gut punch of an ending.
There’s something amiss in the skies above the Haywood Ranch, where “OJ” Haywood (Danel Kaluuya), with the occasional help of his sister Em (Keke Palmer), tends to the horses that his family have supplied to Hollywood productions for generations. But neither OJ nor Em can figure out what it is, even if not figuring it out could cost them their lives. Jordan Peele’s latest is similarly enigmatic. Like Us, Nope abandons the clear subtext of Get Out for a vaguer, more suggestive, but no less effective tale of horror. It’s shot with bravado by Peele, who somehow turns the sky itself into a thing of menace.
Steven Spielberg’s latest interprets his own origins via the story of Sam Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) a movie-mad kid who comes into his own as an artist as his gifted computer scientist father (Paul Dano) and artistically inclined mother (Michelle Williams) — drift apart. It’s Spielberg’s love letter to his parents and to filmmaking, but it hardly comes off as navel-gazing or self indulgent. Instead it’s a complex love letter that doesn’t skimp on the difficulties and occasional ugliness of his profession, or his upbringing.
Avatar: The Way of Water
Dammit, that boy James did it again. Finally arriving a decade after the original film, and staring down opposition from a sea of other more pop culturally engrained franchises, Hollywood’s biggest swinging dick suddenly found himself facing underdog odds. We’ll leave the box office versus budget breakage to the Disney accountants. But critically speaking, Way of Water backs up every hilariously swaggering Cameron boast that’s come out of his months-long press run. Can you chart the three-hour plus story’s entire narrative path after maybe 20 minutes in? Yes, of course. But we already know the visual language is the real show here. Rarely does a nine-figure film show the full extent of its worth—much less validate that IMAX ticket price—like Way of Water does here with its dazzling underwater sequences, mind-boggling fusion of digital and practical camerawork, and a show-stopping climax that walks right up to the bar set by the likes of T2 or Aliens. It feels safe to say we’ve collectively learned our lesson that one should—all together now—not bet against James Cameron…until eight years from now when Avat3r is finally ready and the conversation comes back to square one yet again.
The year’s most gloriously stylish movie (and often its most absurd) comes from S.S. Rajamouli, who turns a pair of real-life Indian revolutionaries into action heroes in this highly fictionalized tale set in the 1920 in the midst of oppressive British rule. The film’s political subtext is admittedly a little iffy, but it’s impossible not to be swept up in this historical fever dream in which a mid-film stampede of acrobatic CGI animals isn’t even the strangest element.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Wakanda Forever has a lot on its plate: the film has to function as a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, meet expectations following one of the most acclaimed Marvel films ever, and close out the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s admittedly shaky fourth phase while teeing up the franchise’s overarching next arc. The end result is better at some of those things than others, but overall, co-writer and director Ryan Coogler has given us a moving treatise on grief packaged in a quarter-billion dollar superhero movie. That’s a heroic feat unto itself. (Now give Angela Bassett the Oscar nomination she deserves.)
In its first act, Barbarian is one of the scariest horror movies of the year. By the second, it morphs into not only a raucous comedy, but a surprisingly clear-eyed character study on sexual assault in Hollywood. And its third act–well, you really should see for yourself. The horror debut from sketch comedy veteran Zach Cregger was quite possibly 2022’s best theatergoing experience, brimming with “No, no no, don’t go in there!” moments, tension-cutting jokes, and a deceptively empathetic villain. Cast smartly against type, both Justin Long and Bill Skarsgård do stellar work portraying two vastly different kinds of harmful men, while Georgina Campbell’s resourceful protagonist is one of the most likable, well-rounded final girls we’ve gotten in ages. (Cregger told GQ the character was inspired by his own experience as the child of an alcoholic.) If there are a couple moments that strain credulity, it’s worth suspending your disbelief for an all-time great thrill ride that has meaningful core ideas about the importance of believing women and the corrosive effect of major cities getting Airbnb-ified. Genre films don’t always get their proper credit for tackling topical themes, and we may very well look back at Barbarian as one of the defining artworks on the societal ills of the 2020s.
Topping Christopher Nolan’s instant classic Dark Knight series was always going to be a tall order, but against all odds The Batman comes pretty damn close. How does one follow a critically acclaimed, post-9/11-informed take on the caped crusader that stands as the most “realistic” depiction to date? Matt Reeves’ answer is to go even darker. Refashioning The Riddler into a Fincher-esque serial killer paves the way for the grittiest Bat-film to date, as Reeves weaves a sprawling noir-tale that’s perhaps a little too focused on the Se7en vibes in lieu of superhero spectacle. At the center of it all is Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz, authoritatively stepping out of the acclaimed indie lane they’ve been luxuriating in recently to prove they’re more than capable of picking up the blockbuster mantle. DC may be in flux, but there’s a reason Batman is still flying high.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
Writer/director Rian Johnson and Daniel Craig reunite for a second whodunnit in which gentleman sleuth Benoit Blanc (Craig) visits the world of the privileged, eccentric, and deadly. Here that world belongs to a tech billionaire “disruptor” (Edward Norton) and the circle of friends he’s gathered to a remote Greek island for a weekend of revelry and a game in which they must solve his “murder.” But when the game turns deadly Blanc has to spring into action. Johnson’s Knives Out follow up is both twistier and more pointed than its predecessor, taking aim at the excesses of tech moguls, influencers, and politicians as it unfolds an ingeniously plotted mystery.
Domee Shi’s charming feature debut is a coming of age tale in which the 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds that, for her, adolescence involves occasionally turning into a big red panda. It’s a neat metaphor for growing up, teenage awkwardness, and the pressure to assimilate, that Shi loads with autobiographical details from her own life as a Chinese immigrant growing up in Toronto (except, presumably, the part about turning into a panda). It’s a shame that this went directly to Disney+ while decidedly weak Pixar fare like Lightyear got the full movie theater red carpet rollout.
With The Northman, the king of quiet and painstakingly historically accurate horror Robert Eggers gets a big budget and gives us a Viking epic to match. Alexander Skarsgård plays a berserker warrior named Amleth on a quest to avenge his father by saving his mother (Nicole Kidman) and killing his uncle (Claes Bang). He put the cash to good use: this is the only movie of the year, and possibly ever, that culminates in a naked sword fight on an active volcano.
Decision to Leave
The plot is familiar: while investigating a murder, Busan detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) finds himself taken with the victim’s widow Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei)—who’s also the chief suspect. But director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) makes the makes the most basic of noir set-ups feel fresh via his restless, stylish direction and a deep investment in his character’s emotional lives, particularly a femme fatale (or is she?) depicted with great depth and fragility by Tang.
Triangle of Sadness
Nobody has more fun skewering the rich than Ruben Östlund, and while Triangle of Sadness strikes with less precision than Force Majeure and The Square, it’s no less effective. Set largely on a luxe yacht hosting a gaggle of wealthy dodos (including a scene-stealing Zlatko Burić as a manure magnate), beleaguered crew members, and a hapless captain (Woody Harrelson, deployed with militaristic efficiency), Triangle bristles with Östlund’s acerbic wit, particularly in the scenes between Burić an Harrelson, but it also delivers visceral thrills with one of the most gleefully nauseating scenes this side of Jackass Forever. (The director told GQ that Triangle’s big barfing scene took “almost half a year to edit,” and the labor pays off in its precise pacing.)
Thanks to captivating performances by Harris Dickinson as a generational himbo and the late Charlbi Dean as his successful model-turned-influencer girlfriend, Triangle of Sadness satirizes Instagram culture more effectively than basically any movie before it. The third act is messy, but it stays afloat thanks to a commanding Dolly de Leon, who keeps the proceedings from veering too hard into cookie-cutter Lord of the Flies territory. Taking big swings at the fashion industry, social media, and the aristocracy, Triangle of Sadness is a wild work you just let wash over you like waves of nausea on a rocking boat.
The Banshees of Inisherin
The new pitch black comedy from Martin McDonaugh takes us to a fictional remote Irish island wherein resides Pádraic (Colin Farrell in peak form), a sweet and uncomplicated farmer with a beloved miniature donkey named Jenny. Life is good for Pádraic, until it’s not: his best friend, a curmudgeonly fiddle player named Colm (Brendan Gleeson), decides he no longer wants to speak to him. So intent is Colm cutting ties that he threatens to cut off one of his own fingers every time Pádraic tries. And, well, it only gets more brutal from there. Great sweaters—plus a scene-stealing turn from rising fave Barry Keoghan—though.
As No Bears arrives in American theaters, its director, Jafar Panahi, remains imprisoned by the Iranian government after running afoul (again) of the restrictions of government censors. Unsurprisingly, the dangers of creating art in an oppressive regime are at the heart of No Bears, in which Panahi plays a fictionalized version of himself attempting to direct a movie via Skype from a small village not far from the border separating Turkey and Iran. As Panahi gets in trouble with the locals the cast of his film suffer problems that blur their lives with those of their characters. It’s a playfully constructed piece of metafiction, but one that quickly takes a dark turn. Given the situation Panahi knows so well, any other outcome would seem dishonest.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The title doesn’t lie: the second feature from The Daniels (the directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) features everything from occasionally outrageous kung fu action to a Pixar parody as it sends Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), a discontent laundromat owner across the multiverse on a journey that could save her fracturing family (and maybe existence itself in the process). The film mixes absurd humor and poignance in an overwhelming rush of action scenes, movie homages, and family drama. It’s a touching indie drama in the form of a mindbending blockbuster (or maybe it’s the other way around).
A 21st century riff on Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic Au Hasard Balthazar, the latest film from 84-year-old Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski follows a donkey named Eo on a perilous journey across Europe after he’s cut loose from a traveling circus. Rarely straying from Eo’s side, the film observes the world, and its many cruelties and occasional kindnesses, through the donkey’s soulful eyes. Filmed with the stylistic daring of a director who’s just getting started, it makes one unexpected stop after another, at each point letting him serve as a mirror to the souls of all he encounters.
Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza has been on the most thrilling run of her career these last two years or so. If 2020’s Black Bear is the best movie in that window and The White Lotus was her most mainstream project, consider Emily the Criminal her outright best performance. The movie probably won’t get much Academy Awards love, but Plaza deserves the nom, putting the film on her back like a thespian version of a LeBron 35-point game showing. John Patton Ford’s debut feature about desperate Angelenos grappling with economic precariousness is anchored by Plaza’s Emily, a three-dimensional character whose anger and indignation feels justified, but not one whose morally dubious actions are simply hand waved away. When Emily gets a make-or-break job interview with a cutthroat boss (Gina Gershon) that crackles like an all-time great courtroom scene because we understand both sides’ resentment and frustration. Emily the Criminal could suffer the fate of fundamental misinterpretation that happened with antihero shows like Breaking Bad, but its meticulous documentation of scammer culture and career-best acting by Plaza make it work on multiple levels.
You will no doubt have heard about the great lengths Austin Butler went to play Elvis: not seeing his family for years, speaking like the King for so long that his voice now seems to have stuck that way. But nothing will prepare you for the reality of Elvis. The flashy outfits! The inexplicable Tom Hanks-as-Colonel Tom Parker accent! The topsy-turvy, seizure-inducing montages. Baz Luhrmann took the biggest, Baz-iest swing possible and proved that sometimes it’s worth going after your most ridiculous impulses.