The movie year 2022 was a year of memory and identity, with one film after another exploring how memory both gives us access to our past, to our roots, and also distorts and obscures the past. At least five notable films (including three of my favorites) are from filmmakers drawing on childhood memories of their parents. In three of the five, prominent filmmakers — Steven Spielberg, James Gray, and Sam Mendes — have made the most personal film of their careers; in the other two, memories of parents is a subtle but ultimately crucial theme in the film itself. One of the year’s best animated films is both formally and thematically an exploration of how we recreate the past in the act of remembering, while a quiet sci-fi movie explores themes of memory and identity in a story of artificial intelligence, loss, and grief.
Looking over the films of 2022, I’m also struck by how many excellent films are feature directorial debuts: a father-daughter hangout movie (Aftersun); a wounded-warrior drama (Causeway); a stop-motion gem (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On); a queasy foray into schoolyard bullying (Playground); an enigmatic courtroom drama (Saint Omer); a Holocaust-shadowed documentary (Three Minutes: A Lengthening); a rowdy animated coming-of-age movie (Turning Red). Another film, the crowd-pleasing horror movie Barbarian, was the director’s solo feature debut. (One of those didn’t make my top films lists, but it was close.)
Many of these films are low-key, even contemplative in tone, but 2022 also had its share of over-the-top, maximalist spectacle: the blockbuster mega-sequels Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water; Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed Elvis; the ostentatiously excessive Glass Onion; the sprawling Telugu-language epic RRR; and, perhaps most of all, the multiverse-spanning kung-fu mother-daughter melodrama Everything Everywhere All at Once. Next to these powerhouse entertainments, the likes of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever look dull and paltry. (Matt Reeves’s The Batman doesn’t look paltry, but I need to see the sequel before I can form a proper opinion of it. I haven’t seen Black Adam and I’m okay with that.)
Maverick is the epitome of doing as much as possible for real in front of the cameras, while Avatar 2 is the epitome of creating as much as possible that couldn’t possibly be done in front of cameras. Both succeed brilliantly and I’m glad for both.
Of these, Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water were each in a way the pinnacle of opposite approaches to moviemaking: Maverick is the epitome of doing as much as possible for real in front of the cameras, while Avatar 2 is the epitome of creating as much as possible that couldn’t possibly be done in front of cameras. Both succeed brilliantly and I’m glad for both.
2022 wasn’t a great year for notable religious themes. There’s Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, about Mennonite women grappling with their beliefs while coming to terms with the reality of serial rape in their community. There are Catholic images and themes in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio and The Banshees of Inisherin. The Terence Davies biography Benediction, about the English war poet Siegfried Sassoon, acknowledges his late conversion to Catholicism up front, as briefly as possible, before putting the whole topic of religion aside. (Instead it focuses mainly on his complicated sexuality, which included relationships with a number of men before marrying and having a son.) Then there are pagan themes in The Northman and Turning Red. (For a recent year with stronger religious themes, see 2019.)
Nor was it a great year for family fare. Not to undersell the gently winning Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a great film for open-minded families. On the other side of the spectrum is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, which I loved but might be a bit much for some families. After that, though, there were a few computer-animated offerings I liked — DreamWorks’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish; Netflix’s The Sea Beast; Pixar’s Turning Red — but nothing that demanded to make even my Runners-Up list. I saved a slot in Honorable Mentions for one of them, and ultimately picked the one that felt the most personal. (Puss in Boots is inventive and fun, but it’s also got a pretty corporate vibe, while The Sea Beast revisits a theme just as familiar as Turning Red with considerable panache in the first half, but the second half is a letdown.)
January has been a difficult month for me, and this list arrives quite a bit later than usual. At this point most of these films are familiar from other people’s lists, and a few notable absences stand out more glaringly. (Despite the matchless skill and clear depth of feeling that Spielberg brought to The Fabelmans, I didn’t find it an involving or illuminating work. And, while I was far from unmoved by Everything Everywhere All at Once, the recurring sex-toy theme alone was enough to put me off.)
Following my break from precedent in 2021, I’ve decided again not to rank my Top 10 films. Like the Runners-Up and Honorable Mentions, this year’s Top 10 is alphabetized. Even the assignment of films into the Top 10 or Runners-Up is almost arbitrary; the Runners-Up is virtually as good a list as the Top 10. The Honorable Mentions list is different — I’m more willing to acknowledge a notable film in that list even if it has some issues — but even that list includes mostly top-notch films. (Also like 2021, the banner image includes one film from each of the three lists to avoid an appearance of an implicit Top 3.)
Anyway, of all the 2022 films I’ve seen so far (and I’m acutely aware that, even now, I’ve missed some big ones), these are the ones that most stood out to me. As always, your mileage may vary.