I had my work cut out for me this viewing year. It became apparent by, say, late October — even before the onrush of Oscar hopefuls started to populate our cinemas, streaming services and my mailbox — that 2022 would be an exceptional year for cinema. On most other years, my 10 honorable mentions could easily have made it into the year’s 10 best.
I’m sure the COVID backlog contributed to the tsunami of excellent fare this year, with studios biding their time on prestige titles for the past two years. But the fractured state of our world in general, and the movies’ responsibility to reflect and question and confront these fractures, is a central factor. Looking at my final selections, subconscious parallels emerge, with multiple films tackling religious extremism in varied ways. True crime is another connecting thread, but the most transcendent may be women’s empowerment, a movement that extends behind the stories behind told.
Four of these 10 selections, including my No. 1 of the year, were directed by women; so were five of the films in my 10 honorable mentions. We’re still a long way from gender parity in the director’s chair, but when we look back on 2022 in film, I hope it is remembered as the beginning of a watershed moment.
10. Hold Me Tight
Vicky Krieps’ performance in the acerbic, forthcoming costume dramedy Corsage is getting most of the awards attention right now, but I prefer her richer work in one of the year’s most underrated imports, writer-director Mathieu Amalric’s Hold Me Tight. She plays Clarisse, a wife and mother of two who seems to inexplicably abandon her family at the film’s outset. Alternating between her travels and the life she left behind, this puzzle box of a narrative is interrupted by strange leakages of fantasy, flashback and quantum connections that reward perceptive viewers. Channeling the temporal displacement of Alain Resnais’ best work, its conclusions are ultimately open to interpretation, which is part of why Amalric’s direction is so haunting: Like its untethered heroine, we, too, are left grasping for answers in the wake of a buried trauma.
9. Holy Spider
Equal parts gripping true-crime thriller and seething social commentary, this brave and unnerving drama from Iranian director Ali Abbasi feels ripped from that country’s ongoing headlines. Zar Amir Ebrahimi plays Arezoo Rahimi, an investigative journalist who travels to Mashhad, Iran’s second most populous city, to report on a series of murders. Abbasi doesn’t keep the villain a mystery: His name is Saeed, a construction worker and married father of two, who moonlights as a killer of prostitutes, believing he’s doing Allah’s work by ridding the streets of its impurities — to tacit acceptance from Iran’s religious establishment. Alive to the choking gender inequities of much of the Middle East, Abbasi offers a vision of Islamic nationalism in which a lone psychopath’s murderous doctrine isn’t far from the harsh punishments and everyday misogyny of its institutional structures.
8. Triangle of Sadness
Ruben Östlund’s sixth feature (and English-language debut) certainly has its detractors, which is understandable; it is a deliberately repellent film. It’s also the most confrontational satire of the class divide since Parasite, and arguably the funniest movie I saw in 2022. While it certainly lacks the nuance of Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar winner, it more than makes up for it in its series of brazen, gonzo set pieces, the centerpiece of which, staged on a luxury cruise ship, eats the rich and then projectile-vomits their remains. The final section of Östlund’s pitiless triptych is set on an island, where the vessel’s few castaways must form a new social hierarchy, with the ship’s resourceful “help” now subjugating the helpless influencers and money changers. In his targeting of the obscenely wealthy, Östlund wields a hammer, not a scalpel, and his blows land with a greater savagery than even Buñuel’s most acidic classics.
7. Saint Omer
The real-life 2016 French murder trial of a young Senegalese immigrant who killed her infant daughter is reconstructed in documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s first narrative feature. Like Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, most of the action takes place in the arid confines of judicial process, matter-of-factly and without editorial comment. Rama (Kayije Kagame), a literature professor, novelist, expectant mother and fellow native Senegalese, attends the trial as fodder for her next project, a meditation on Medea in modern times, but gradually becomes overtaken by an unexpectedly emotional connection to the defendant. What emerges is a surprising exploration of motherhood and madness, culture and colonialism, whose final arguments by the defense attorney are addressed directly to the camera — powerfully wrapping the (white) Western world into her closing indictment.
6. The Fabelmans
Steven Spielberg’s finest movie since Lincoln, his justly lauded autobiographical saga is a work of retrospective critique as well as celebration, a coming-of-age narrative of pain and obsession that could only emerge from the hindsight of time and age. He offers an on-screen avatar (Gabriel LaBelle) who — whether it’s grappling with his mother’s marital straying, his parents’ divorce or anti-Semitic bullies at school — seems only able to communicate through the magical medium of movies. For this young Fabelman-cum-Spielberg, the camera is not so much an extension of his voice as a replacement for it, an unhealthy coping mechanism that distances him from his family — his sister tells him that he’s as selfish as their mom — while presaging his unimaginable success as a storyteller. The Fabelmans is a revelatory culmination of the director’s 50 years at the forefront of screen entertainment; it’s also Spielberg on the couch.
Filmmaker Anita Rocha da Silveira’s sophomore feature skewers the hypocritical piety of Christian fascism, a movement that is on the rise in her native country of Brazil. It’s here that a pair of lifelong friends, Mari and Michelle, praise God by day as part of an upbeat vocal group, and carry out His “vengeance” by night by donning masks reminiscent of a 1980s slasher and targeting the “sluts” and “jezebels” they find walking the streets. Unlike Holy Spider, they’re out to convert these “loose” women, not murder them — until information that doesn’t fit their paradigm begins to puncture the girls’ cloistered puritanical worldview. A parable of ageless literary symbolism set in a neon-drenched and tech-savvy contemporary Brazil, Medusa ultimately pulses with a feminist rage whose arrival is as satisfying as, well, an answered prayer.
In a sobering coincidence, Audrey Diwan’s gripping period piece, set in the pre-abortion-rights dark ages of 1963 France, was released in early summer, during a time when the curtailment of this right was indeed imminent in the United States. Anne, a diligent student from a working-class family, finds herself surprisingly pregnant, with no alternative options at her disposal. Multiple doctors advise her that she must have the child regardless of the consequences, but the determined protagonist is willing to do whatever it takes, including self “care” and underground providers, to regain control of her reproductive health. A social-problem film that plays out like a horror movie, Happening is scripted, directed and acted with such raw urgency that it’s easy to accept it as a documentary.
Intellectually stimulating, abundantly rewarding and furiously relevant, Todd Field’s Tár is a work of herculean achievement. A Citizen Kane updated for a post-pandemic, post-MeToo, post-woke America, it stars a career-defining Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, one of the top composer-conductors in contemporary classical music. When it comes out, through the apparently self-inflicted death of a former player in Lydia’s orchestra and a subsequent lawsuit, that the great conductor may have been “grooming” the troubled musician, it sets off a string of calamitous events that threaten to torpedo Lydia’s career at its apogee. Tár addresses the perennially topical debate of separating the art from the artist — of the extent to which odious personal actions, real or imagined, can and should deprive a creative talent of their livelihood. Field wisely avoids tilting his revelations in either direction. It’s rapturous filmmaking on every level, and Blanchett is mesmerizing for every second she’s onscreen.
Octogenarian director Jerzy Skolimowski’s first feature in seven years is a beautiful and agonizing update of Robert Bresson’s 1966 feature Au Hasard Balthazar. Like Bresson’s landmark original, the episodic film follows a donkey, christened EO, as he is transferred, through human involvement and life’s currents, to sundry owners and locales: among them a circus troupe, a farm, a rowdy soccer team and the palatial estate of a bitter countess (Isabelle Huppert, in the movie’s lone celebrity cameo). From its immersive cinematography to its unsettling score, EO is a cinematic journey like no other. It’s an almost religious experience, one that demands that biggest screen possible. While Skolimowski’s camera is more virtuosic than Bresson’s, he shares with his spiritual forebear a rejection of sentimentality and a sense of compassion for every living being. EO looks at humanity’s cruelties and absurdities through the eyes of its mute protagonist, and it’s a jaundiced gaze. The movie’s toughest pill to swallow may be that even when we try and help our fellow beasts, our interventions only hasten their suffering.
1. Women Talking
Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is set almost entirely in a hayloft, where the women in a religious patriarchal colony, following the latest in a horrific sequence of rapes and abuses, plan their response: Either they stay and fight, or they leave en masse. In Polley’s precise and political vision, no men are granted speaking parts save for the unofficial parliament’s one male ally, August (Ben Whishaw in an Oscar-deserving performance of deep richness and feeling), who takes the minutes of their often-fractious deliberations. These dialectics are as important as their final decision, for Women Talking is nothing if not a paean to union organizing and to the power of community and agency. Furthermore, by structuring her adaptation of Miram Toews’ same-named novel in such a confined, almost voyeuristic space, we essentially conspire with them. In depriving men of a voice in the film, Polley rejects a century-plus male dominance in cinema. The monumental questions it poses make most movies feel like trifles by comparison.
12. Montana Story
15. The Princess
17. Crimes of the Future
19. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
20. Moonage Daydream