Best Films 2022

The Best Movies of 2022 (And Where to Watch Them)

Our favorite critic Siddhant Adlakha weighs in on his top 15 films of the year

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Words by Siddhant Adlakha

This year, cinema was about itself, both as a series of filmmaker autobiographies, and as a referendum on the power of moving images. With the increasing churn of Hollywood blockbusters that feel factory produced (but go on to dominate the culture anyway, while sending smaller works into exile), both Tinseltown and the larger world of cinema feel in a state of crisis. And yet, this year has managed to provide plenty of films worth celebrating.

As the Marvel universe shifts mainstream appetites towards “multiverse” stories, the Daniels gave us the Michelle Yeoh-fronted Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, a blistering light-show which used its universe-hopping conceit to not only explore different modes of filmic expression (from Wuxia to Wong Kar-wai), but to tell a meaningful Asian American story about generational divide. It proved that despite Disney’s oncoming intellectual property sludge, original concepts may still find ways to thrive.

Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn Wang in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” with her third eye.

A24

In an era of saturation, films about films are unavoidable—all cinema is, in a way, about itself—and several directors leaned all the way into the concept. Results were mixed. Damian Chazelle’s Babylon turned Hollywood history into farce. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s meandering Bardo channeled the anxieties of its culturally displaced director. Sam Mendes used Empire of Light to tell a story about Britain’s past through the power of cinema, but dropped the ball severely, while Pan Nalin’s semi-autobiographical Last Film Show—India’s Oscar submission—went as far as aping other movies about movies, but had little to say about them.

However, for every four examples of a concept done poorly, you can find one that gets it right. Reliable master Steven Spielberg showed up with The Fabelmans, an autobiography that not only captures old-world cinematic elegance, but does so through wonderful new images of its own, while maintaining critical awareness of how the camera can distance just as much as it can endear. If images were about themselves this year, then how they were about themselves is just as vital a criteria, when picking the best movies of 2022.

From left, Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, and Michelle Williams in “The Fabelmans.”

Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Honorable mentions

Joyland: Saim Sadiq’s defiant transgender romantic drama, which was banned in Pakistan despite being its Oscar entry—U.S. theatrical release TBD.

No Bears: Jafar Panahi’s final dissident film before his imprisonment in Iran—limited U.S. theatrical release on Dec. 23.

Jackass Forever: A nostalgia sequel about aging, friendship, and how funny it is to watch people get whacked in the groin—now streaming on Paramount+.

15. Athena
September

The prevalence of cellphone footage of riots and police brutality may have desensitized us. Romain Gavras re-imbues these images with power and momentum, in his explosive Athena. Set in a Parisian housing project, Gavras’ mile-a-minute crescendo—which harkens back to war classic The Battle of Algiers—follows three Muslim brothers who personify different facets of French society, after their younger brother is apparently gunned down by police. It lures you into its chaos with expertly executed long-take sequences, resulting in some of the most eruptive visual tableaus in recent memory.

Athena is available to stream on Netflix.

14. Nope
July

The American dream—which Jordan Peele satirizes in Nope—is now intrinsically woven with images of fame and stardom. This yields a pointed examination of how trauma and spectacle have become inseparable, through a visual art from which, Peele argues, has simultaneously centered and erased Blackness since its inception. An alien invasion romp with lively, lovable characters, Nope is not only a tightly wound thriller, but a farce that remains laser focused on Hollywood history, transforming the idea of a camera into an all-consuming beast.

Nope is available to stream on Peacock, and available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play. 

13. Top Gun: Maverick
May

Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Paramount Pictures

The zenith of modern “legacy sequels,” Joseph Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick is in many ways traditional—from its “rah rah” militarism, to its 1980s individualism—but it’s also a metatextual lament for the dying light of movie stars, on whose names alone films could once be sold. Like pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, action hero Tom Cruise is the last of his kind in an increasingly digitized world. So, if it takes putting cameras and young actors inside real cockpits to create tangible mid-air dogfights, he’s going to win that battle at any cost.

Top Gun: Maverick is now playing in theaters and is available to stream on Paramount+ or buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play.

12. Jhund
March

A propulsive sports biopic, Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund stars Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay Borade—based on Slum Soccer founder Vijay Barse—as well as an ensemble of first-time actors recruited from actual slums. Its chase and sport scenes feel enormous, thanks to Manjule’s unconventional approach to space and movement. However, it’s simultaneously intimate too, exploring the fraught dynamic between personhood and hierarchies of money and caste, in a world where even having a legal identity requires a fee.

Jhund is available to stream on Zee5.

11. Avatar: The Way of Water
December

James Cameron whisks us away to Pandora once more, in an environmentalist action saga that surpasses the original. Unafraid to be on-the-nose, it’s an alien family film with an extended second act dedicated to exploring oceanic splendor not unlike our own. Another leap forward for visual effects and the way we see our world, Cameron’s sequel was worth the 13-year wait, releasing at a time when Hollywood blockbusters that value clarity of action and vision feel in short supply.

Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theaters.

10. All That Breathes
October

“All That Breathes” is in theaters Oct. 21 and will be premiere on HBO in 2023.

FLC Press

Shaunak Sen’s piercing conservationist documentary has all the panache and intricacy of narrative drama, depicting New Delhi at both its most polluted and picturesque, while photographing the gorgeous wildlife soaring above. Following a pair of brothers and their diligent assistant, who rescue and rehabilitate birds out of a garage, the film has an astonishingly detailed eye, both for the trio’s process, and for their casual conversations that hint at just how widespread the effects of modern Hindutva fascism have become. 

All That Breathes is now playing in theaters. It will premiere on HBO in 2023.

9. EO
November

A unique take on Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, EO captures the world through a donkey’s eyes, creating a harrowing, enlightening journey that feels like speed-running through the breadth of human experience. So energetic and lurid that it seems to harken a novel kind of cinema, it was actually directed by 84-year-old Polish master Jerzy Skolimowski, who may well have created one of the greatest animal movies ever put to film.

EO is now playing in theaters.

8. Armageddon Time
October

Banks Repeta (left) and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time.”

FLC Press

Another semi-autobiography, Armageddon Time revisits James Gray’s 1980s New York upbringing, in the form of a modern retrospective on how America became the country it is today. Banks Repeta, who plays Gray’s young avatar, leads an all-star cast—Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, and more—in a tender coming-of-age movie that also scrutinizes the brittle cross-section between whiteness and Judaism, in a world of white supremacy. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji paint the past with warm tones that turn even shadows into reflective statements on the passage of time.

Armageddon Time is available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play.

7. Holy Spider
October

Although it couldn’t be shot in Iran, Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider remains a vital Iranian story in a year of widespread protest against conservative authority. Based on serial killer Saeed Hanaei (a magnetic Mehdi Bajestani), who targeted sex workers in Mashhad, it follows a courageous female journalist, Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi, just as enrapturing), who navigates a bureaucratic labyrinth to track him down. Martin Dirkov’s eerie score, combined with Abbasi’s unsettling use of light and sound, transforms this procedural into a visceral experience about the suffocating power of zealotry.

Holy Spider is now playing in theaters.

6. RRR
March

S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language musical extravaganza was, paradoxically, a blockbuster in India, but it spread like an underground cult hit elsewhere through word-of-mouth. With audacious imagery born from both anti-colonial sentiment and questionable populist impulses, Rajamouli casts Tollywood superstars Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Jr. as real freedom fighters in his fictional tale of friendship, using them as vessels for both rousing emotional sincerity and righteous, fist-pumping violence. A truly complete cinematic experience; it’s hard not to get up and dance along.

RRR is now streaming on Netflix (dubbed in Hindi) and in its original language on Zee5.

5. TÁR
October

Todd Field’s return to the director’s chair after 16 years, TÁR is so richly detailed that some even mistook its lead character, orchestral conductor Lydia Tár (a towering Cate Blanchett), for a real person. A story of the moment sure to feel timeless in due course, Field’s ghostly psychological drama is a beguiling character study of the ways in which power and genius manifest, told with composure that befits its protagonist, but that bursts forth with intensity and, on occasion, hilarity too.

TÁR is now playing in theaters and is available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play.

4. Return to Seoul
December (award-qualifying run)

Park Ji-min in “Return to Seoul.”

Sony Pictures Classics

Led by a jaw-dropping first-time performance from Park Ji-min—as the lively, prickly Freddie—Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul follows a French adoptee visiting Korea for the first time and tracking down her birth parents. A tale of deep-seated angst, which Park exposes with disarming vulnerability, it captures the way cultural paradoxes wrangle the soul, corroding one’s sense of being to the point of pushing people away. A film that feels like peering in on the worst parts of someone you love.

Return to Seoul will begin its U.S. theatrical rollout on February 17.

3. After Yang
March

To teach their adopted daughter about her native Chinese culture, a listless couple buys her an android older brother, Yang (Justin H. Min). When Yang breaks down, his parents discover the memories he’d been covertly recording, vivid snippets that begin to influence their own outlook on the world. Through shifting cinematic textures, director Kogonada and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb craft a moving, existential mystery about Asian American identity, and about the deeply personal, even ethereal ways in which people manifest within their artistry. A film about images, and the meaning we ascribe them.

After Yang is available to stream on Showtime and available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play.

2. A Night of Knowing Nothing
February

Payal Kapadia exhibits commanding use of form in her feature debut. A work of docu-fiction, A Night of Knowing Nothing combines a tale of rediscovered footage and letters to an absent lover (narrated by actress Bhumisuta Das, with a shiver in her voice) with real footage of student protests against Narendra Modi’s violent right-wing government. A haunting collage of life in modern India, it explores not just the personal and the political, but the ways in which power makes them inextricable.

A Night of Knowing Nothing is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

1. Aftersun
October

Aftersun, the debut from Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, follows Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) on a father-daughter trip to Turkey in the 1990s. Using their playful camcorder footage as its gateway, it invites you to decipher its emotional details, wielding the connections between time and texture as its Rosetta stone. It builds a story of an unknowable past, and the way children’s perspective on their parents can shift in small but life-changing ways. A devastating film about memories and MiniDV tape that hits you slowly, and then, all at once.

Aftersun is now playing in theaters and is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Google Play.

Published on December 26, 2022

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Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter