My Top Ten Films Of 2022

2022: the year that cinema “came back,” in the form of Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water, and yet didn’t, in the form of broad cinema attendance outside blockbusters. A year in which I went to the movies much more frequently than the previous two, and yet possibly an order of magnitude less than I did at the peak of my film-criticism era. And a year, as always, with some really good movies to be seen.

I’m only going to do a top ten, but let it be known that the next ten include: Glass Onion, Nope, The Artifice Girl, Bones And All, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Mad God, Turning Red, Speak No Evil, Flux Gourmet, and Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. And I missed out, sadly, on RRR, Tár (set for NZ release soon), Decision To Leave, Holy Spider, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Smile, All Quiet on the Western Front, Moonage Daydream, Armageddon Time, The Woman King…the list is long. I hope to see them soon!

10. ATHENA (dir. Romain Gavras)

Ever since Mad Max: Fury Road, we’ve all been chasing a particular high: the disbelief, while watching a particularly chaotic movie, that nobody died while making it. Romain Gavras’ all-but-buried Netflix original Athena is a bravura piece of filmmaking that delivered some of the year’s most striking cinematic imagery and some of its most technically impressive directing. But Athena’s meticulously orchestrated oners aren’t just there for show: they help contribute to the powderkeg-like tone of its projects-vs-cops story, they make the audience hold its breath during its many intense setpieces, and they allow its actors to fully inhabit moments of extreme emotion. Gavras has explored subject matter like this before in music videos and other work, but never to this level of intensity or how-the-fuck-did-they-do-that craftsmanship. A final shot that muddies the film’s themes somewhat probably slid this down to the bottom of the list, but the filmmaking is so explosively virtuosic that I can’t not include it.

9. MISTER ORGAN (dir. David Farrier)

Gaslighting has become a buzzword over the past decade – perhaps even an overused one – but rarely has it been depicted as vividly as in David Farrier’s second feature. I certainly haven’t seen a film that not only tells a story about a real person being gaslit, but tells it in realtime, from their point of view. Knowing Farrier somewhat as I do (spoilers, he gets murdered and memorialised in Ghost Shark 2), it’s even more painful watching him get put through Michael Organ’s particular brand of psychological torture, exacerbated even further by being trapped in a commitment to make a documentary about New Zealand’s most terminally grating man. The fact that Farrier’s ordeal has continued on since – the film’s completion was driven by a need to stop working on it, and its release seems to have only further emboldened its subject – makes the film especially painful to watch. But to focus on the facts of the story is to ignore the craft on display here, which through skilful editing highlights Farrier’s interviewing skills while showing the limits of such skills on subjects like Organ. Absolutely bone-chilling stuff.

8. TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (dir. Ruben Östlund)

Ruben Östlund’s first English-language feature is a big time investment, but as his second (!) Cannes-winning film, it’s worth the lengthy cruiseliner trip. Östlund’s films have always revolved around cringe-comedy setpieces being served to the audience one after the other, and in Triangle of Sadness he serves up, among other things, perhaps the best comedy sequence featuring bodily fluids since fellow Cannes prizewinner Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life. The disastrous dinner sequence may be the high point of the action, but the lengthy setup and fallout passages that sandwich it more than live up to it, delving into the power disparities between the rich, beautiful passenger class and subjugated worker class. Frequently hilarious and delightfully mean-spirited, it’s sure to be referenced in history books about the art preceding the coming great anti-capitalist revolution. (That’s coming, right?)

7. THE MENU (dir. Mark Mylod)

At the risk of repetition – this is another “eat the rich” movie, though surprisingly neither food-centric class-struggle film features actual cannibalism – The Menu is a film utterly consumed with anger towards the wealthy elites who exploit and belittle the service-industry class even as they entirely rely upon them. With Ralph Fiennes playing a character seemingly conceived as Nicolas Cage’s Pig character recast as the Jigsaw Killer, Anya Taylor-Joy as a mole of sorts among the film’s cast of wealthy assholes, and an ensemble supporting cast more than capable of living up to their standards, this tight single-location thriller constantly surprises and delights. I saw The Menu shortly after writing a similarly angry stageplay that essentially delivers an equivalent story but for corporate entertainers, and found it immensely satisfying as a result.

6. PEARL (dir. Ti West)

When has a prequel ever been this much better than an original? Ti West’s follow-up to X jumps back decades to the Spanish Flu era – reflecting the Connie-stricken world outside the then-oasis of New Zealand where it was made – and not only cements itself as one of the best pandemic-aware films of this period (alongside the also-great Kimi), but as a terrific candy-coated confection with a rotten centre. Mia Goth here delivers a career-best performance calibrated at the highest volume level, a melodramatic shriek of desperation to match the Technicolor intensity of the film’s production values. Pearl’s dream is unrealistic perhaps, and her interpersonal expectations psychotic, but I’m sure many of us can relate to the degree to which she wants out of her stultifying life. It culminates in a final shot that rivals that of Spielberg’s latest, telling a final story beat through subversion of form.

5. DUAL (dir. Riley Stearns)

I love me a good genre-conceit metaphor, and Dual has a cracker of one. While Riley Stearns’ inimitably dry sense of humour keeps any maudlin introspection at a distance, Dual is a movie about self-work (if I’m reading it right, and even if I’m not, this is how it reads to me, so fuck you), filtered through a story about death and cloning and combat training. It’s got some of the best jokes of the year, and through its central concept, one of the more thought-provoking stories. Karen Gillan seems born to deliver Stearns’ absurd dialogue, and Aaron Paul gets one of the most delightful fake-out jokes I’ve ever seen. I haven’t met a Riley Stearns movie I haven’t liked yet, and if Dual is any indication, I’m not likely to.

4. AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (dir. James Cameron)

James Cameron has done something with this film, and with its predecessor to a slightly lesser degree, that I wish more blockbuster-level filmmakers had the guts to do: tell a big story without cynicism. Avatar 2 wears its heart on its sleeve, both in its exploration of flawed parenting and its yearning love for all things oceanic, and in spite of the billion-dollar VFX, there’s clearly a deeply personal movie here, and Cameron doesn’t give a fuck whether you think it’s corny. Yes, returning leads Jake and Neytiri are kind of two-dimensional characters, but Cameron wisely focuses most of this sequel’s energy on their much more-interesting kids (surrogate and otherwise), not to mention the breakout star of 2022, Payakan the space whale. I’m almost annoyed at how much I liked this film, easily the most primed-for-ridicule title of the year. But dammit, never bet against Jim Cameron.

3. BARBARIAN (dir. Zach Cregger)

Barbarian was the movie I saw this year that I most wanted to emulate. While that’s easier said than done – one does not break as many narrative rules as this without being REALLY sure of what one is doing – it speaks to the sense of glee the movie emits in its many deranged turns and pivots. A nightmarish scenario at its base, Barbarian layers on additional story elements to create an experience that’s scary, darkly hilarious, and more than a little political, ruminating on the leftover sins of Reagan’s America while also making the audience scream with terror and delight. Also features one of the best bits of casting of the year, highlighting the value that the tonal baggage of an actor’s prior work can bring to a role. Best seen knowing nothing about it, and with someone you can yell at as the movie’s wildest turns play out.

2. THE FABELMANS (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I was always going to be an easy mark for this film. A coming-of-age story about a kid following his passion for making movies, through a painful and complicated divorce, from the director who made me want to make movies?* I was doomed from the start. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional and psychological complexity of what Spielberg has delivered here. Perhaps I should’ve been – the age at which you start to see your parents as people and not just parental figures is a complicated one – but The Fabelmans floored me with its quiet musings on relationships, family, mental health, selfishness, burgeoning sexuality, and art as a way of coping with all of the above. And all, of course, rendered with the same almost infuriating gift Spielberg has for creating indelible images loaded with meaning.

* Believe it or not, it was The Lost World that first pushed me in this direction, when I was 9. When it came out, I’d started getting interested in building miniature models, and my grandparents had come over from New Zealand with their ancient video camera, so I ended up essentially doing, with homemade models of the vehicles from The Lost World, what young Sammy Fabelman does with his trains in this film. Also, every camera Sammy uses in the movie is one I’ve used at one point or another, so there’s also that.

1. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (dir. Daniels Kwan and Scheinert)

As its title and provenance implies, this wildly ambitious feature from the directors of 2016’s best film Swiss Army Man is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, imagery, and insanity. And yet, it’s also a story about whittling chaos down to what’s important: people and our relationships with them. It’s riotously funny and constantly exciting, replete with butt-plug martial arts, tender sausage-finger romance, and bagel-based existential horror. It’s got some of the year’s best performances, including Ke Huy Quan’s deeply empathetic turn that itself runs the gamut from hapless house-husband to suave Wong Kar-Wai inspired businessman. It’s the only movie this year I went back to see in a cinema more than once. Somehow, for once, the most movie of the year also ended up being the best one.

Bring on 2023, when hopefully it’ll feel a little less like an act of self-endangerment going to the movies.