“The whole system has been primed to make sure that you accept only a superhero movie….if you said to a college student today “dude, you’re a sellout” would they even know what the hell you were trying to say?” – James Gray
“….if I can make a business case to spend a billion dollars on a movie, I will fucking do it. Do you want to know why? Because we don’t put it all on a pile and light it on fire. We give it to people.” – James Cameron
“Without any middlebrow, non-superhero films — star vehicles, they were called — we’re facing the elimination of being as an art form, the death of tropes, tics and signatures; laughs and struts and accents and turns of phrase; a gallery of light bulbs going “ding” over some actor’s head.” – Wesley Morris
“I think there’s s film culture that’s not going anywhere, at least within my lifetime…this whole Hollywood, machine of it all, if it all came crashing down I still think there’d be us weirdos making weird little movies that we’d show each other.” – Kristen Stewart
I won’t lie to you, sometime in early July — right around when Minions: Rise of Gru was winning the box office, and the closest thing we had to an original movie available in theaters was The Black Phone (not sure if yet another 70s sadistic killer movie counts as ‘original”) — I had the sinking feeling that this could be the worst year for movies in a decade. Top Gun: Maverick thrilled for about a day. The Northman was all gimmick. Deep Water couldn’t live up to its incredible teaser. It was really looking like this might be the culmination of every doomsday prediction. Hollywood had finally hit a wall. Then, like a host of alien angels, the saucer from Nope descended down on Southern California. A smart, broadly entertaining thriller? In this economy? From then on, the movies seemed to reclaim some of their zeal, even if the year overall was a mixed bag.
In 2022, more than ever, the movies seemed desperate for your attention. The subjects were all attention seekers. Elvis in his rhinestones, shaking for the crowd. Maverick hijacking a 20 million dollar jet to prove the mission can be done. It began in January with Jackass Forever, the ultimate distillation of I’ll-do-anything-to-make-get-you to-look-at-me cinema (forget story, let’s just nail our penises to the wall) and ended with the vulgar glories of Babylon. If the family strife at the center of Everything Everywhere All At Once won’t hold your attention, there’s also a raccoon, and dildos, and multiple universes. The women of X reckon with outsiders who resent their need for attention. The siblings in Nope don’t just want to make contact with aliens — they want to film them, package them, and grab the attention before anyone else does.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Jackass Forever. I saw Top Gun: Maverick twice. I put Babylon on this list! But the balance is off, right? “The movies” have always believed enough in their cultural capital that they could occasionally ask for a little patience. They could slip a kitchen sink drama in between the capes. They had the confidence to every so often earn your attention, instead of begging for it. But in 2022, it felt like Hollywood was constantly yanking you by the neck. Longer, louder, glitzier. Getting you outta the house and into a theater has never been harder, and the movies have never been sweating it more. They’re dancing and singing with a desperation that borders on mania.
Meanwhile I, as an audience member, have to contented with my own contradictions. Here I am whining about the onslaught of spectacle, but if I’m honest, during the pandemic, I wasn’t watching Wild Strawberries on a Thursday night. It was Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Romancing The Stone (guess I was craving the jungle?). All of this to say, maybe Hollywood is right to be manic. Maybe they’re right to stick to tentpoles. Maybe the industry has survived this long because they know just what people need, and when. Who am I to tell Hollywood not to spend a billion on Avatar: The Way of Water when it makes double that in a few weeks?
And you know what, despite it all — despite Disney’s stock, and doomsayers, and poor projection, and overblown budgets, and too many trailers, and Jurassic World Dominion — there were still great movies. Movies that cut to the bone. Movies that reminded us how much this art form can matter. Movies that overcame Hollywood’s noise and insecurity and put to good use the world’s greatest empathy machine. Here they are:
11) Kimi: HBO has a habit of unfairly burying Soderbergh. But, if you’re looking for a lean, pandemic-infused (my favorite Absolut flavor) thriller starring one of the best nepo-babies working (Zoe Kravitz!), this is your movie.
10) Babylon: If Babylon ends up going down as the millennial Heaven’s Gate, well, at least we went down swinging. Damien Chazelle throws everything at the wall — orgies, alligators, booze, blow, a Tobey Maguire forbidden pleasure dungeon (!!). Then, he picks everything back up, and throws it at the wall again, and again, and again. Special shout out to the scene where Nellie (Margot Robbie) tries to perform in a talkie for the first time — best delivery of “He’s dead!” in a long time. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cringe. And in twenty years, this movie will be in the Criterion Collection. You can either get on board now, or pretend you did later.
9) Confess, Fletch: The Jon Hamm of our dreams has finally arrived. Paunchy, slightly disheveled, and responding to lines like “She married him for love.” with “Right…love of money.”. Repartee gets a bad rap. Something about it strikes modern ears as old fashioned. But damn if I couldn’t watch three hours of Hamm wandering around Boston having slightly cutting conversations with every passerby. Will this win any awards? Of course not. Will it even be available to watch in five years? Not with the way things are going. But for a few hours, we can pretend to live in a world where charming stars bantering is more than enough.
8) Bones and All: There’s a really simple wide shot when Maren (Taylor Russell) is leaving the supermarket. She looks across a parking lot to an abandoned building where Lee (Timothee Chalamet) is “eating”. It’s bright and sunny. Mostly empty of cars. Surrounded by washed out green trees. At the back of the lot is a massive puddle from a recent rain. I’ve seen that parking lot puddle a thousand times in Virginia. It’s such a fact of life that it often goes unspoken, un-visualized. But director Luca Guadagnino sees it. Rather, he doesn’t just see it. He feels it. I felt it. That’s the movie. All those little observations — Maren’s father’s eyes lighting up when his daughter gets in the car, Brad’s suspenders, the flickering reflection of fireworks on Lee & Maren’s faces as they swim. This film won’t be to everyone’s taste (pun intended) — it’s so graphic and gorgeous that it’s almost goofy — but if cannibal Mark Rylance in a fedora sounds up your alley, give it a chance.
7) The Fablemans: Over the summer I was talking to some friends and we got on the subject of the greatest living American directors. The deciding factors being longevity, influence, artistry, blah blah blah. Basically it boiled down to two candidates, Scorcesse or Speilberg. It’s the film dork equivalent of John or Paul. You either love the tortured, violent, urban genius. Or, you ride for the awed, big-hearted suburban genius.
The Fablemans is one more notch for Spielberg. (Scorcesse’s up next with Killers of the Flower Moon in 2023). Even at his most maudlin, Spielberg does things with the camera that I can only begin to comprehend. The scene where Sammy (Gabriel Labelle) discovers his mother’s affair while editing a family film is up there with the opening sequence of Jaws — perfectly composed, ruthlessly effective.
6) White Noise: If you’re gonna blow the GDP of a small country on a movie, this is how you do it. It’s ten movies in one. Videodrome meets National Lampoon’s Vacation meets Close Encounters of The Third Kind. Do we need the fields of extras? Do we need the elaborate train crash sequence? Do we need the extended dance routine scored to LCD Soundsystem? No…..but also, if Netflix is paying, why not? There are certain filmmakers that feel like they’re making movies just for you. Something about their style and humor and hang-ups goes right past the thinking part of your brain and speaks to your soul. For me, that’s Noah Baumbach.
The film is filled with double speak. Everyone keeps correcting themselves and one another. Characters keep referencing a reference of a reference. A grocery store loud speaker tells shoppers to “disregard the last message” then “…no, actually, wait, regard.” Piles of language trying to make sense of systems and put narrative onto chaos. But in the end, nobody has any idea what the hell they’re talking about. Feels about as 2022 as you can get.
5) Emily the Criminal: “If you wanna tell me what to do, then put me on the payroll”. That line — uttered with contempt by Emily (Aubrey Plaza) during an interview for an unpaid internship — is a hall of fame tell-off-your-boss moment. It may not have the tenderness of Jerry Maguire’s “Who’s coming with me?”, or the succicintness of Half Baked, but gah, when it happened I was pulling a Warlock and silently fist pumping in the theater.
The entire film operates on that line’s angry, ecstatic wavelength. Aubrey Plaza completely embodies the desperation of an over educated, under-employed gig worker with nothing to lose. Even the extreme close up photography, which can sometimes feel like a first-film crutch (forcing claustrophobia rather than creating it in the writing), totally worked.
Theo Rossi as Youcef was also revelation, especially in a role that easily could’ve slipped into cliche (the good hearted criminal with dreams of a going legit). Everything felt true to the world. Sometimes a thriller can feel like the screenwriter just read a New Yorker article as research. Emily The Criminal feels like it was written in the same warehouse where Youcef and his crew take the fake ID photos. Much like last 2019’s Uncut Gems, the film feels lived in. The colorful furniture at the marketing agency. The wood paneling at the sketchy car dealership. The delivery manager with his hand in a cast (never explained). Emily the Criminal is as close to a 70s down-and-out thriller as we’ll likely get. Put it on a double bill with California Split. I’ll be first in line.
4) Decision to Leave: Park Chan-wook’s Vertigo (no matter how much he tries to deny it), except this time the obsessions are mutual. Chan-wook has a way of shooting that makes the most mundane tasks interesting. Every moment is an opportunity to play. Two hands cleaning off a table after a sushi meal. The rhythmic click of turn signals during a slow motion car chase. Even opening a phone from the lock screen becomes a cheeky metaphor for “connecting the dots”.
I’d love to see the storyboards for this movie. I can’t imagine they’re anything less than immaculate. They’d have to be. The rhythm and sheer visual symmetry of his images is reinforced in every frame, every cut. Respect should also be paid to the score. It’s cinematic and woozy, consistently adding an extra layer to the action. Like every Park Chan-wook film, this one will probably climb higher with age.
3) Armageddon Time: The last decade has seen a glut of prestige directors mining their childhoods for a magnum opus. Alfonso Cuaron gave us Roma. Kenneth Branagh tried it with Belfast. Even at number 7 on this list is Spielberg and The Fabelmans. But none have been as unflinching and candid as James Gray’s Armageddon Time.
The film is completely clear-eyed about the limits of our compassion. So often we know the right thing to do. We know what we should should say. How we should act. And so often we hold ourselves back. We stammer, and justify, and sit in the front seat of our car giving little speeches about how unfair the world is. The film is clear-eyed about the systems that determine scapegoats. It’s clear-eyed about class and its stranglehold on self-worth. It’s clear-eyed about the beige computers and grim spaghetti that are miles away from the confected 1980s of so many other films set in the era. Even a heart-wrenching speech about mensch-hood delivered by Anthony Hopkins is given without a trace of melodrama.
Also, special note has to be made of Jaylin Webb as Johnny. He delivers one of the best performances from a child actor I’ve seen in a long time. At no point did I ever doubt his contradictions. He’s vulnerable in one moment, showing off his NASA badges. Defiant in the next moment, talking back to his teacher. He completely embodies a child forced into the prejudice and pre-determination of adults, breaking your heart with every glance.
2) Barbarian: Even as I write this, months after the film was in theaters, part of me doesn’t want to tell you anything about the plot. The surprises are so inconceivable. So left-field. So exact. I hope any readers who haven’t already seen the film to go in totally blind. For everyone else:
Barbarian is a brilliant debut from writer/director Zach Clegger. The time jumps. The switches in perspective. The suffocating scare tactics mixed with incredible comedic bits. It’s the absolute perfect balance of classic horror tropes (dark basements, serial killers, the Skaarsgard family) and plot lines that could only exist right now (Airbnb, the #MeToo movement). There’s one extended sequence where Justin Long is measuring the square footage of his newly discovered basement that had me in tears. And then, not only is this moment funny enough on its own, but the tape measure pays off when a few scenes later our protagonists are trying to escape and they clatter into it, alerting the monster to their presence. Incredible.
Barbarian is another example of a comedian bringing their sense of timing to bear on horror. I’m not the first to make the connection between a punchline and a jump scare but Barbarian may be the consummate example. I don’t know how this movie got made, much less a wide release. I just pray to the movie Gods (aka: Stanley Kubrick’s ghost) that we get more.
1) Nope: As I mentioned in the intro, extreme spectacle was on the mind of almost every filmmaker in 2022. From Avatar: The Way of Water to Top Gun: Maverick to Everything Everywhere All At Once to White Noise — filmmakers seemed to be releasing all their pent up pandemic energy onto the screen. It was reflected in their runtimes, their budgets, their size and scale. But only Jordan Peele’s Nope had the foresight to investigate the very nature of spectacle. (Something he’s talked about in countless interviews). It’s a movie that has its cake and eats it too. Aside from hooking you with terrifying sequences (Gordy’ attack — ooooooff) and IMAX photography, Nope questions our need for spectacle, our dependency on it, the way we fear it, and monetize it, and submit to it. Nope makes so many other films this year look wholly one-dimensional.
And to do all that subtextual lifting plus create characters you want to spend time with — the best. His characters aren’t just chess pieces moving across a board. They get excited. They have shitty apartments, and theories, and baggage. The handshake. The VR goggles. The Sour Patch Kids. I won’t go through every detail. I’ll just say Jordan Peele has been on a run, and we, as an audience, have the pleasure of living through it. Like Bogdanovich from 1971 to 1974, Oliver Stone from 1986 to 1989, or Shyamalan from 1999 to 2002 — Peele’s films keep expanding in scope and deepening in richness. Enjoy this while it lasts.
Trends & Superlatives:
New Christmas Canon: Elvis. It’s become a tired ritual to argue about Die Hard as a Christmas movie. But if there were any justice in this world, Baz Lurhman’s Elvis would be the film you fall asleep to on Christmas Eve. The lights, the tinsel, the fact that a key turning point hinges on Elvis recording a Christmas special. Trust me, next time you’re home for Christmas —make a little egg nog, turn motion smoothing off on your parent’s TV, and fire it up.
Comedians in Hollywood Making Thrillers: Nope (written and directed Jordan Peele), Vengeance (written and directed by BJ Novak), Barbarian (written and directed by Zack Clegger), Emily The Criminal (produced and starring Aubrey Plaza) — not sure what it says about the state of Hollywood that comedians are almost single-handedly keeping the adult thriller, original screenplay alive. Are all comedians secret cinephiles? Are they just funnier in pitch meetings (and therefore more successful)? Is there a secret comedian cabal blackmailing studio heads? Whatever the reason, it’s working.
The British Are Coming (for your job): The United Kingdom, historical home to some of the world’s greatest writers (Shakespeare) and worst cuisine (meat pies), has been gumming up American movies with its actors for years. Not to go all nationalistic but why is the star of Where the Crawdads Sing a Londoner? Why is Spider Man a dude from Kingston upon Thames? Why is Benoit Blanc a middle-aged guy from Chester? First let’s nationalize the banks, then, CAA.
The Sally Rooney Cinematic Roon-iverse: Horned up adaptations of Sally Rooney’s novels have become the launch pad for a new generation of bland British actors. And the easy pick in 2022 for Roon-iverse breakout would be Paul Mescal, who followed up Normal People with Aftersun (!). Then, there are those who would argue for Daisy Edgar Jones after she took the summer by storm in Where The Crawdads Sing. But let’s not forget that Swifty sheepdog, Joe Alwyn. He went from inscrutable, silent type in Conversations with Friends to the inscrutable, silent type in Stars at Noon.
White Guy-est Crowd Award: The Northman. If a missle had struck my opening night, 8:00pm screening of The Northman at BAM, the rubble would’ve just been beard hair and those performatively large key rings.
Accent Mark of the Year: Tár. From Lettárboxed to Richard Brody — this was the accent mark that launched a thousand mediocre jokes. As for the movie itself, méh.
Best Film Criticism of the Year: Zadie Smith on Tár. Despite my ambivalence about Tár as one of the year’s 11 best films, this piece by Zadie Smith was undoubtedly the best piece of film criticism. (Close runner up being Wesley Morris). By framing the existential questions posed by the film through a generational lens, the article enlightens, entertains, and makes me wish she and I could grab a coffee.
Thankless Intern Assignment of the Year: Ovation timer. Giving us the exact length of the standing ovation that a film receives has been happening for years. But in 2022, it suddenly seemed every festival article led with how long the standing ovation lasted. The Whale at Venice (6 minutes). Don’t Worry Darling at Cannes (5 minutes). Elvis (12 minutes). Is an intern standing by with a stopwatch? Is there a big clock that clicks on as the credits roll? How many people count? What if only half the theater is standing?
Best Head Rivulets: Dave Bautista in Knives Out: Glass Onion. Anybody else notice the canyons running down Dave Bautista’s head in Glass Onion? What was that about? Really intense.
Sydney Pollack Award for best Director tuned actor: David Gordon Green. John Huston in Chinatown, David Lynch in The Fablemans, Sydney Pollack in all his acting roles (Tootsie, Eyes Wide Shut, Husbands and Wives) — the list of famed directors who turn to acting and blow us outta the water is longer than you think. Let’s add David Gordon Greene for his cannibal-by-choice in Bones and All. His scene (and that smile) are truly haunting.
Coffee Table Movie of the Year: After Yang. Was After Yang produced by Taschen Books? There’s always been a certain kind of sci-fi movie that assumes that by 2042 everyone will be living in a Kinfolk spread. But After Yang might be the most egregious in this trend. On this planet, most tech is janky and cracked and smudged. Design is chaotic and garish. Has Koganada been to a bodega in the past decade? Has he seen what TikTok looks like? The story in After Yang pushes the boundary of plausibility. The aesthetic? Pure fantasy.
Missed Marketing Opportunity of the Year: Abbatars promoting Avatar. Yes, holograms of the band Abba have been on tour for the last year. And yes, they’re called “Abbatars“. This means some marketer in the 20th Century offices missed a huge chance for cross promotion between Abba and Avatar 2: Way of Water. You get a Na’vi to duet with Agnetha Fältskog, that’s impression gold.
“Presented by Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”: Saw this phrase in front of a YouTube video. Just wanted to memorialize it somewhere.
Okay, there it is. Another year in moviemaking and moviegoing. Thanks for reading (or at the very least scrolling) to the end. Take care of yourselves in 2023. And like I ask every year, please keep going to the theaters. Looks like M3GAN is playing tonight at 8:30. Maybe we grab a drink after?
Terrific article. You write about a few films that I’m going to check out.