Let there be Mavericks, Bollywood magic, and a Cate Blanchett maestro on the loose.
Below are the 10 best that rose to the top of our highly subjective list, and five dire misfires that landed on our worst. Even in a singularly chaotic year, though, the good still outweighed the bad: our postscript features more than a dozen runner-ups — essential international dramas, indie gems, all kinds of animation — that nearly made the cut.
The year’s best films
RRR may not be the best movie this year by most traditional metrics, but it is almost certainly the most movie: A dizzy maximalist trip so visually extravagant that the tiger wrestling, flying soldiers, and stadium-size fireballs of the first hour turn out to be merely a little light scene-setting for what comes next. Writer-director S.S. Rajamouli’s sprawling Telugu-language story, such as it is, centers on two men on either side of a political and cultural divide circa 1920s colonial India: N.T. Rama Rao Jr. is the insurgent rebel desperate to get his kidnapped sister back, and Ram Charan, the Imperial soldier loyal to British command. Identities are concealed, women wooed, and wild beasts conquered; more than once, there is a dance-off. High melodrama, surreal Bollywood spectacle, epic bromance: It’s all here, and it is glorious.
9. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
In their raw depictions of sex and pain and disintegration, Nan Goldin‘s photographs have longed blurred the boundaries between art and life. Veteran documentarian Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) could easily have made a slick, enjoyable film about the seedy glamour of Goldin’s work; instead, she’s constructed something far more interesting: a portrait of the artist as a whole person. Goldin’s ongoing battle with the billionaire Sackler family over the opioid money they’ve whitewashed through world-class museums for years stands next to evocative explorations of her fraught family history and the glittering circle of addicts, ex-lovers, and iconoclasts who populate her pictures. The result feels like something beyond biography, a living artifact as fierce and tender — and yes, beautiful — as its uncompromising subject.
8. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
A snail by any other name would not be as sweet, or as sneakily profound, as Marcel, the loquacious little one-eyed mollusk first voiced by Jenny Slate in a series of YouTube videos more than 12 years ago. A dauntless optimist who spends his days surfing bathtubs, rolling around in a customized tennis ball, and watching 60 Minutes with his kindly grandmother (an indelible, gravelly Isabella Rossellini), Marcel also turns out to be a tiny philosopher king: a fount of whimsy and hard-earned wisdom in a world gone mad. (Full review)
7. All Quiet on the Western Front
In the year of our Lord 2022, there may not be much fresh material to mine from war movies, a genre long consigned to the realm of armchair historians and dads still holding tight to their Saving Private Ryan Blu-rays. But it’s hard to deny the raw power in director Edward Berger’s harrowing and often aesthetically dazzling depiction of one young soldier’s journey from buoyant teenage recruit to hollowed-out veteran over the last 18 months of Germany’s doomed campaign in Northern France circa 1917. Like the actual 1917, Dunkirk, and so many films before it, Front operates in both the wide-screen realm of pure shock and awe and the smallest microcosms of personal loss; it’s not news to tell an audience that war is hell, but it’s still something to do it exceptionally well. (Full review)
Not much happens in Aftersun, or at least at first, not much seems to: It may take multiple viewings to peel back the translucent layers of Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells’ woozy, devastating debut. On a trip to the kind of discount Turkish resort that comes with all-inclusive wristbands and drunk karaoke, a bright, cheerful 11-year-old named Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her young father, Calum (Normal People‘s Paul Mescal) spend their days drifting between the pool and various forced-festive activities; it’s no surprise, really, when a teenage guest mistakes them for siblings. But Calum seems distracted and restless, or possibly worse — and as the dreamlike narrative unfolds, it takes on a quality somewhere between a home movie and a memory, both intimate and unreliable. Don’t think there isn’t an art to it, though; the cumulative effect lodges in your chest and stays there. (Full review)
5. Fire of Love
There’s amour fou, and then there is Katia and Maurice Krafft, a pair of married French volcanologists whose passionate union was forged at the molten center of some of the 20th century’s most notorious eruptions. It also, we learn in Fire‘s opening moments, led them directly to their deaths. If the movie often comes off more like a Wes Anderson fever dream than anything resembling straight documentary — director Sara Dosa plays with form in nearly every scene, and filmmaker Miranda July provides the wry free-verse poetry of the narration — it’s also a fascinating portrait of obsession: Heart of Darkness with seismographs and little red woolen caps. And the actual raw footage, undulating rivers of magma and smoke all shot in otherworldly closeup by the Kraffts? In a word, astonishing. (Full review)
4. Top Gun: Maverick
Is he the last movie star? Maybe. At the very least, the thrillable, unkillable Tom Cruise and his megawatt grin managed to pull off something harder than a Mach-10 barrel roll: a sequel to a 35-year-old movie that actually works. Maverick, with its rippling flags and ripplier abs, is so nakedly jingoistic it’s basically unpaid agitprop, and the machinations of the plot hardly matter (if you doubt for a second that it won’t end in triumph, you must have walked into the wrong multiplex). But director Joseph Kosinski’s canny mix of silver-fox veterans (Cruise, Ed Harris, Jon Hamm) and next-gen golden boys (Glen Powell, Miles Teller) — and his ability to shoot flight scenes with visceral, lung-popping mastery — make for an experience that feels like the rarest thing of all in 2022: a film meant to be seen on a giant screen with a room full of strangers, in absolute awe. (Full review)
3. Triangle of Sadness
There may not be a messier moviegoing experience this year — literally, early press screenings had neat little airsick bags left on every seat — or a more enjoyable one than Triangle, Swedish agitator Ruben Östlund’s glossy, outrageous class satire. When model-influencer couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) board a cruise on a luxuriously appointed yacht, it’s just one more high-end freebie for the feed. But the boat’s captain (Woody Harrelson, having an absolute ball) sure seems to keep a lot of booze and tracts on socialism stacked in his cabin, and when natural and man-made disasters collide, the narrative takes a turn. What follows is both wildly scatological and wickedly funny, an acid examination of all the ways that privilege — be it beauty or money or sheer dumb luck — can fool us into believing we’re anything but animals in the end. (Full review)
2. The Banshees of Inisherin
What is a man without his best friend? Pádraic (Colin Farrell) finds out the hard way when his closest mate, Colm (Brendan Gleeson, snuffling and brooding like a ginger-haired bull) suddenly drops him one day without explanation. There will be no more pints at the pub or long rambling walks along the postcard coastlines of their rural Irish village, but there will, perhaps, be blood — an escalating feud that playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) explores with surreal deadpan flair. (Banshees is also, if you care — and you should — a reunion with the two main muses of his criminally underrated 2008 caper In Bruges.) As a storyteller, McDonagh has always been almost relentlessly clever, a born provocateur who thrives on the serrated edges of things. In Banshees, though, he finds a new emotional resonance, and even an improbable kind of grace. (Full review)
Oh, the ágony and ecstasy of TÁR. Cate Blanchett‘s turn as a famed composer with a monstrous ego (and the EGOT to match it) sets the bar for entry high; you may very well hate her at hello. But what writer-director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) does over the next two-plus hours feels like a masterclass in both immersion and subversion: Lydia Tár, it turns out, is a construct meant to be dismantled — and she will be, in a gorgeously disorienting drama that touches on ideas of artistic integrity and identity and the ever-shifting concepts of gender and power without ever becoming anything as simple as a #MeToo story. The scene-setting is so rich it nearly feels 3D, and the scrambling roundelay of lovers, assistants, and enablers that surround the great maestro are played with delicious unease by a near-flawless supporting cast that includes Nina Hoss, Mark Strong, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant. It’s Blanchett, though — pill-popping, imperious, casually cruel — who owns nearly every moment on screen: a supernova hurtling toward the collapsed core of her own psyche, and throwing off sparks as she goes. (Full review)
Plus more we loved: Navalny, Close, The Menu, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, EO, Hustle, Turning Red, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Emily the Criminal, Decision to Leave, Happening, Clara Sola, Great Freedom, Pearl, Good Luck to You Leo Grande, Mad God, Empire of Light, You Won’t Be Alone, Bros, The Woman King
And the worst…
Can you call it a snuff film, even when it ends with a suicide? Cuban actress Ana de Armas is a ringer for Marilyn Monroe, and she puts her whole heart (and nearly every other body part) into the role, but writer-director Andrew Dominik’s plodding, joylessly explicit melodrama mistakes emotional sadism for depth at nearly every turn; give this man a diamond, and he’ll turn it back to coal.
Brendan Fraser rightfully earned praise for his compassionate turn as a morbidly obese man living out his last lonely days in a dim Idaho hovel. But director Darren Arronofsky makes it all feel like such an ugly, lugubrious slog that the movie never really earns its misery; it just gives it out for free.
What a mystery Lena Dunham is: Just weeks before the release of her fizzy YA charmer Catherine Called Birdy, the Girls auteur put out this flat-footed “sex-positive” satire about a Los Angeles Lolita careening her way through bad men and worse decisions, and hitting every wrong note along the way.
So many stars! So little funny. Like the rest of us, Judd Apatow had a lot of pandemic time on his hands; unlike us, he went to England and made a meta comedy about a disastrous monster-movie set starring Pedro Pascal, Keegan Michael-Key, Maria Bakalova and about 15 other people you would probably really enjoy, if they had any sensical plot or more than four good lines to hang on.
We come not to praise the #Girlboss, but to bury her — or at least the mislaid feminism of movies like The Princess, a cortex-numbing action thriller that turns Bullet Train‘s Joey King into a medieval killing machine when her father tries to marry her off to a very bad man (Dominic Cooper). The elevator pitch is Gen-Z Kill Bill; the execution just feels like Mortal Kombat with a pop-punk soundtrack.