Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2022 (Not a Typo)

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Whereas most people rush to get their best films of the year lists out before the end of the year in question, I decided to take my time, catch up on as much from 2022 as I could, carefully weigh their strengths and weaknesses, and then forgot to write my list for another eleven months. Oops.

Despite this list being comically late, I do think that it was worth taking the extra time to make sure it was as complete as possible, since there are films on here that absolutely would not be if I had got my shit together and written it at the appropriate time. Something like Andrew Semans' Resurrection, for example, wasn't on my radar much last year at all. But I heard good things about it from people whose opinions I respect, I jumped at the chance to see it once it hit streaming, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. Sometimes truly impressive procrastination is the right move.

2022 felt like the first year since the pandemic started where cinema was truly back. I had been going back to see movies in theatres since early 2021, but generally theatres were still pretty empty, and even when there were busy they tended to lack the thrum of excitement that has always made going to the movies such a thrill for me. In 2022, however, my memories of seeing movies tended to be more about communal enjoyment of big spectacles, whether it was returning to Pandora, seeing Tom Cruise try to kill himself for our amusement but in a plane this time, or seeing Johnny Knoxville get absolutely obliterated by a bull. While there's no one thing that links the films on this list - other than that I really liked them - a recurring motif is maximalism, of people really swinging for the fences, which felt like turning the page on a few quiet, sad years.

25. Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells)

When I originally put this list together, this was much higher up on the list. That it has fallen to the bottom is not to disparage it: Wells' semi-autobiographical film about a father (Paul Mescal) and daughter (Frankie Corio) on holiday in Turkey in the early '00s is still a startling debut, driven by two very strong performances and a sad, sun-tired tone that captures both the feeling of a slightly disappointing holiday and a bittersweet memory. But ultimately as I caught up on more movies, it faded from my memory more than a lot of the brasher films that resonated more with me this year. Still, a remarkable film, and I look forward to whatever Wells does next.

24. Emily The Criminal (dir. John Patton Ford)

Emily The Criminal is a real testament to how much a great actor can bring to a film, to elevate it above what could be fairly boilerplate material. Now the script is good, and the direction is also incredibly solid, but it is Aubrey Plaza as the eponymous Emily Who Is A Criminal that really puts it over. As a woman driven to take part in a credit card fraud scheme to stay afloat, Plaza conveys both toughness and desperation, making you believe that she would go to any lengths to get out of debt, and that she is not prepared for what that could mean. It's a performance that recalls Gena Rowlands in its rawness, which is about as high a compliment as I can pay.

23. Is That Black Enough for You ?!? (dir. Elvis Mitchell)

Personal yet expansive, Mitchell's documentary offers a comprehensive overview of Black cinema in the ‘70s and what made it such a vital and influential movement, places it within the broader context of American culture, as well as his own experiences with those films as a Black critic. It left me with a long list of films to watch and soundtracks to listen to, which I have barely made a dent in. A terrific work of film criticism and memoir.

22. Mad God (dir. Phil Tippett) 

Probably the most disgusting film of the year, and they put out a new Jackass film, so the competition is pretty stiff. Tippett's stop-motion descent into Hell, a labour of love that took decades to complete, lives up to the hype and then some. The story is fairly thin and oblique, but the visceral detail of the world his character travels through and the sheer horror of what he encounters makes it a truly unforgettable experience. 

21. Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero (dir. Tetsuro Kodama)

So I got into Dragon Ball over the course of the pandemic, despite for years dismissing it as kiddie bullshit because my younger cousin was in to it when I was getting into high-minded Miyazaki anime. Now, it is kiddie bullshit, but it's fun kiddie bullshit, and really that's all that counts. This feature film focuses on many of the side characters from the series, especially Piccolo, and while that could have been to its detriment - why would you care about stuff that happens while Goku is off doing something else? - it frees it up to be really funny about the convoluted history of the series (Gohan asking Piccolo to grow really big for the final fight and him saying essentially "Oh, I forgot I could do that" in reply really cracked me up). The thing that really sets this apart is its use of CG animation, which retains the look of the series while giving it a fluidity and scale that the show, for all its creaky and cheap charm, rarely achieved. 

20. Jackass Forever (dir. Jeff Tremaine)

Mad God may be grosser, but Jackass Forever has heart, so it just about edges it on aggregate. One of my favourite theatregoing experiences in 2022 was seeing this in a packed theatre and being able to hear everyone squirm during the especially disgusting moments, or wince when something particularly painful happened. That communal aspect has always been a big part of the Jackass experience - watching the third film with a bunch of friends in Sheffield not long before most of that group moved away is an indelible memory of my 20s - and getting to experience that once more with this valedictory send off of dick and fart gags was really quite lovely, in its way.

19. Three Thousand Years of Longing (dir. George Miller)

It may be slightly hokey in its celebration of Capital-S Storytelling, but the scope of George Miller's vision and his fevered direction really help it break out of the self-satisfied trap that it could have found itself in. As a genie who recounts the events of his life and imprisonment, Idris Elba gives one of his best performances in years, mixing a cosmic grandness with a love for the earthiness of the real world, and Tilda Swinton is typically great as the woman who frees him, hears his story, and falls in love with him. A romantic movie that earns its slightly too neat ending.

18. Thirteen Lives (dir. Ron Howard)

I guess Ron Howard was due to make another really good movie at some point, and nearly a decade after Rush, he finally delivered. The story of the Thai soccer team who became trapped in a cave could have made for something cheap and saccharine, and certainly when I heard that Howard was making the film that's what I expected, but it sidesteps that entirely by focusing on the long, difficult process of figuring out how to rescue the kids, making for a film which is much more intricate and involved than a standard "based on real life" awards contender. It also helps that it looks great, with frequent Apichatpong Weerasethakul cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom capturing the beauty of Thailand and the claustrophobia of the cave.

17. Benediction (dir. Terence Davies)

Terence Davies' death understandable casts a pall over his final film, since it becomes in retrospect emblematic of the difficulties he had getting his work made and distributed. That a film of such beauty,  grace and biting humour would struggle to get out to the wider world and generally go overlooked was typical of a career that itself was often ignored, and only really seemed to get the attention it deserved once it was over. Still, at least we have those movies, and Benediction is as good a coda as we could have hoped for, filled with a sense of possibility and lust in the scenes of young Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) and a ruefulness in the scenes of him as an older man (Peter Capaldi).

16. Saint Omer (dir. Alice Diop)

In its formal rigour and unsparing close-ups, this courtroom drama inspired by the real case of a woman being put on trial for murdering her child reminded me of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is a lofty comparison but one I think it easily squares up to. Yet as a meditation on Motherhood, race and post-colonial France, it is entirely its own. Hard to believe that Kayije Kagame and Guslagie Malanda had hardly been in anything else before this, since both give incredible, authentic and difficult performances.

15. Kimi (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

A terrific, tight thriller that demonstrates that Soderbergh remains one of our most naturally gifted visual storytellers, both in how he synthesizes things like Rear Window, The Conversation, Blow Out, Affliction and Wait Until Dark into something that feels fresh and relevant, but also in his innate understanding of how funny it is to have a big goon and a little goon working together. Probably still the best film to be informed by the pandemic - in its focus on a character who is still isolating from the world - without trying to tackle it head on.

14. Ambulance (dir. Michael Bay)

Like a lot of cinephiles who came of age in the early '00s, I for a long time was very dismissive of Michael Bay. His movies were so brash, so lurid, so gauche, and while he had his fans among the vulgar auteurists, he was not someone I thought I needed to take seriously. And while no one is going to convince me that his Transformers films are any good, and the flagrant sexism in a lot of his movies remains pretty gross, I have grown to appreciate his distinctive and unabashedly populist style as blockbusters have become more boring and identikit over the last decade or so. All of this is to say that Ambulance, his brash and lurid film about two brothers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who rob a bank and then tear around Los Angeles in an ambulance with an injured cop and a kidnapped paramedic (Eiza Gonzalez) in tow, came out at the right time for me to appreciate it as a somewhat nostalgic reminder of a kind of aggressively practical big-budget filmmaking that has been shunted to the sideline in recent years. Though what really stuck out to me - besides the genuinely sweet relationship between Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen - was the film's use of drone cinematography for its camerawork, which felt like Bay had learned a new language for action cinema and was determined to show it off in as many cool ways as possible.

13. Confess, Fletch (dir. Greg Mottola)

A wonderfully avuncular film. Mottola really captures the laidback, loose energy of the Gregory MacDonald Fletch novels, and Jon Hamm is truly in his element as the independent journalist who just sort of swans his way in and out of crime scenes, annoying everyone around him until he gets what he needs. It also does what so many of my favourite comedies do, which is give as many of the supporting cast their own business or running gag to make the world feel more filled out, like this is some pocket dimension that is a little off to the side of our own but everyone is a little less sane and a lot funnier. I hope that they get to make more of these, but if not, this is a perfect little morsel.

12. Elvis (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

It's very funny that I walked away from Elvis thinking it was one of Luhrmann's more restrained films, because it is a runaway freight train of a film that zooms through The King's life with glee. Yet compared to most of his work, it is extremely focused and grounded, in no small part thanks to Austin Butler's star-making performance as Elvis Presley, an extremely demanding role that puts him in almost every frame and requires him to go from happy-go-lucky singer to strung out, moldering icon, all while trying to lend some credence to Tom Hanks' utterly bizarre performance as Colonel Tom Parker. A cartoonish work with a human soul, much like the man himself.

11. Tar (dir. Todd Field)

They finally made a movie about a quirked up white girl goated with the sauce, what a time to be alive. Cate Blanchett is really phenomenal, giving her most vivid and lived-in performance in years as Lydia Tar, an acclaimed conductor whose life is gradually going off the rails, in ways she doesn't realize until it's too late. Field lets every scene breathe, but the film moves very quickly and is consistently compelling and engrossing. Also, for how portentous the setting could be, it's really fun and at times very funny. The cut to Lydia playing her accordion is a particularly killer joke, as is the revelation of what she is doing in the final scene.

10. RRR (dir. S.S. Rajamouli)

Everyone knows that Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem never met and became buff best friends, but what this movie presupposes…

Probably the film I most regret not seeing on the big screen from 2022, since every beautiful, melodramatic plot twist and bravura action sequence plays so well at home that I can only imagine how much more exhilarating it would have been to lose my mind over them with a crowd. An overwhelming and joyous spectacle that moves at a dizzying pace despite its epic run time. Truly no second is wasted.

9. Resurrection (dir. Andrew Semans)

Quite simply one of the wildest films I've seen in a while. So much so that whenever I have described what happens in it to people, they always assume I'm making it up. A masterclass of dread and unease, shot through with a pitch-black sense of humour that only serves to heighten the sense of a world coming apart at the seams. Rebecca Hall is utterly incredible, and few things made me laugh as much as the cut to her intern's face after she finished her heartbreaking, deeply destabilizing monologue that forms the fulcrum point of the film.

8. We're All Going to the World's Fair (dir. Jane Schoenbrun)

As someone who has lived much of my life online, I've always found depictions of the Internet in film and TV frustrating. It's very easy to portray it as a sinister place where danger lurks just a click away, and in the last decade it has become more poisonous and divisive as more people have piled in and brought their opinions and their neuroses with them, but my main experiences of the Internet have been of connecting with people over movies and TV shows we like, and some of the longest-lasting friendships I've had came from deciding to join a Spaced forum in 2005. It is a land of contrasts, to say the least, and We're All Going to the World's Fair is one of the best works of art about the Internet as both a profoundly lonely place, and as a place where you can reach out and connect with people, even if those connections are dangerous.

7. The Fablemans (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Something that really bugged me during the awards conversation last year was how The Fablemans kept being lumped in with crap like Empire of Light as part of the year's crop of "magic of the movies" films, usually by people who hadn't seen it. And I get it: if you told me in isolation that Steven Spielberg had made a semi-autobiographical film that is in part about how he started making movies, I'd assume it was about that as well. But The Fablemans isn't that film. Even the one moment that seems like it would be - young Sammy/Steven seeing The Greatest Show on Earth - ends up being about how the train crash scene terrifies him and he sets about trying to recreate it to control the thing that scared him. It's a film about how one of the most successful and influential filmmakers in history seemingly thinks he makes movies to escape from the terrible things in his life, and maybe even alienated himself from other people in the process. It's a fascinating text! But also, it's a ridiculously fun movie about kids making movies for fun, teenage hijinks, and David Lynch playing John Ford. It's so much more enjoyable and weird a film than the discussion around it would have you believe, and a late masterpiece from one of the best to ever pick up a camera.

6. Top Gun: Maverick (dir. Joseph Kosinski)

The meta-narrative about Tom Cruise being The Last Movie Star lends a certain frisson to all his work these days, and none more so than Top Gun: Maverick, which finds him being brought back to help an organization that views him as a relic whose time has passed, only for him to demonstrate that for all their technological advances, it's the movie star pilot that makes the difference. Of course the fascinating metaphorical considerations wouldn't matter much if the film wasn't fun as hell, and fortunately Maverick is, with the flying sequences besting those of the original, particularly the final attack run, and the dynamic between Cruise and his late co-pilot's son (Miles Teller) lending the film an emotional core to ground everything.

5. Avatar: The Way of Water (dir. James Cameron)

I was pretty lukewarm on the first Avatar when it came out. I didn't dislike it by any means, but I thought it was a fine sci-fi action movie and that it was weird that James Cameron had taken so long to make it. In the lead-up to the release of the sequel I went and watched the re-release and was charmed by it, and while I still didn't love it, I was won over by the spectacle and the simple, earnest story. Even with that reappraisal, I was not prepared for how much I would dig the sequel, which has all the things that the original did well - thrilling action, breathtaking effects - and expands the world with more interesting supporting characters (most notably Payakan, the sad space whale) and a broader canvas. I particularly loved the contrast between the first half, which is extremely light on plot and consists largely of the Na'vi swimming around, and the second, which is some of the most fun and relentless action of Cameron's career.

4. Decision to Leave (dir. Park Chan-wook)

Like so many of Park's films, Decision to Leave manages to be multiple things simultaneously; a compelling mystery, a breathtaking romance, a darkly comic thriller, and it does them all brilliantly. It's also one of the best films at using texting as both a plot device and as a method of illuminating the thoughts of the characters, since every pause and re-written text serves to bring us closer to their thought processes.

3. All That Breathes (dir. Shaunak Sen)

A touching documentary about two brothers who spent their time trying to nurse black kites back to health in Delhi, All That Breathes is a really moving celebration of people doing quiet, noble work while placing them within the broader political context of Modi’s India. Every time they talked about treating birds to honour their mother’s memory it brought me to tears.

2. Nope (dir. Jordan Peele) 

The thing that really made Nope click for me after the first half, which was funny and scary and looked beautiful but felt very scattered and disparate, was the last flashback to Ricky (Steve Yuen) on the deadly set of the sitcom he starred in as a child. Seeing that Ricky's defining memory of Gordy the chimp was of him trying to do the exploding fist bump, even after he had brutally attacked two people, contextualized why he felt that he could control the creature at the centre of the present-day story; he doesn't understand how dangerous animals can be, but he thinks he has some innate connection to them, and that in turn gets a bunch of people killed. It was indicative of what Peele does brilliantly in the film more broadly, of setting things up, no matter how obtuse or far from the point of the story they might seem, and paying them off in startling and surprising ways. It's classical Hollywood filmmaking at its core, but done in a way which doesn't feel tired. It's Peele's thorniest film so far, but easily his best and most rewatchable.

1. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (dir. Laura Poitras)

I read Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe's thorough and horrifying account of the Sackler family's role in the opioid crisis, early in 2022, and while I loved it, as a work of journalism it had a certain remove to it that kept me from truly feeling as outraged by the whole situation as I probably should have been. It was all so big, the damage so immense, that it was hard to focus on any one element of it to be furious about. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed served as a powerful complementary work to that book, since by focusing on the experiences of Nan Goldin, the world-renowned photographer who herself became addicted to Oxycontin, it lends the story a fiercely personal perspective. And by highlighting her efforts to draw attention to the Sacklers' complicity in the crisis and their attempts to whitewash their reputation through their charitable endeavors, it also serves to show how her activism becomes a work of art, and her art a form of activism. A really staggering piece of work.