Film as a medium stands at a crossroads. Over the last few years, streaming, the pandemic, video-on-demand, and the increased focus on intellectual property have affected where and when movies are viewed — all of which is reflected in the 2022 box office.
It’s fitting, then, that each film on this list reckons with reflection. Change. Prospection. Standing on the precipice of a moment that irrevocably metamorphoses the characters at the center of the story. I’ve considered these themes often over the past year — certainly as it relates to the film industry, but on a personal level as well. My top 10 list represents the different approaches filmmakers take in conveying this central, connective theme.
Here are my Top 10 films of 2022:
Honorable Mentions: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Barbarian, Tár
10. Armageddon Time
There’s been a recent trend among prominent filmmakers to look back on their youth through the lens of a camera. Films like Belfast, Licorice Pizza, and Roma fall under this category of neo-autobiographical pictures. However, none have presented their coming-of-age stories as frankly and unflinchingly as director James Gray with his film, Armageddon Time.
Set in 1980s Queens at the inception of the Reagan administration, the film focuses on 12-year-old Paul Graf (Banks Repeta), the stand-in for Gray. Paul dreams of becoming an artist, a prospect that his parents (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong) balk at, but his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) encourages. In school, Paul befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a young Black boy who shares Paul’s energetic spirit. When the pair get into trouble, the formative figures around Paul set him on a new trajectory that forces him to confront the racism and prejudices which set each person’s American Dream at a different price.
Armageddon Time could have very easily fallen into the White Savior trope, but Gray isn’t afraid to reckon with his own privilege, and in doing so, brings heightened awareness about how his circumstances exist in contrast to his childhood friend, represented by Johnny. He also reflects on his Jewish upbringing, on the life his family fled to escape persecution, only to feel the ripple-effects of prejudice in the country in which they now live. This thread is especially resonant now, at a time when antisemitisim rages in America.
In using the Graf family as a microcosm for the macro issues at a key transition point in American history, Gray’s Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age fable that leaves our protagonist’s innocence not only lost, but shattered.
Armageddon Time is available to rent.
I decided to watch S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR (also known as Rise, Roar, Revolt) based on its word-of-mouth alone. This Tollywood (Telegu Cinema) film, which gained a larger audience after Netflix acquired the streaming rights, consistently stayed in the conversation amongst film critics and fans that I follow. The energy, sweeping scope, and chemistry of its leads blew me away, defying any clear-cut genre definitions to deliver a greater, more transcendent epic.
This film follows two real-life revolutionaries, Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Raju (Ram Charan) in their respective fights against the British Raj. Along the way, energetic action-set-pieces, musical numbers, dance sequences, romance, betrayal, and more make the seemingly daunting three-hour runtime fly by, and a breathless second-act dance sequence at a wedding ranks among the best scenes in film this year.
Beneath its flashy style, the film, at its core, is a friendship story between two men who are, in their initial goals, intended to be adversaries. This dramatic irony pulls the film’s tension tighter and tighter the deeper this friendship develops. When that tension reaches a breaking point, the pair are left to reflect on the inciting incidents that propelled them down these paths, and whether that pursuit should come at the expense of the new relationships they’ve built. The pair is greater together than they are apart, which is the only way a revolution can be effective.
RRR is the first Tollywood film I’ve ever watched. As skeptical as I am about streaming’s affect on the moviegoing experience, the film’s accessibility via Netflix absolutely played a role in launching it into the American mainstream conversation. That’s ultimately a net positive (even if the experience would have been even better with a packed audience). And for myself and millions of others who have watched this, it may prove a thrilling gateway into this area of filmmaking.
RRR is available on Netflix.
If La La Land was a Hollywood dream, Babylon is a Hollywood nightmare. As much as director Damien Chazelle tries to leave his 2016 musical behind with a new film filled with sex, drugs, death, bodily fluid, and the ecstatic drive to achieve “something bigger,” these two installments in his filmography are inextricable from each other; the thesis and the antithesis not only of Hollywood careers, but the state of cinema writ large.
Babylon follows four key characters — a studio gofer (Diego Calva), a rising actress (Margot Robbie), a peaking actor (Brad Pitt), and a jazz trumpeter (Jovan Adepo) — during the transition in cinema from the silent era to the “talkies,” kicked off by The Jazz Singer. Characters that thrived in one cinematic era spiral in the next (debatably, down into Hell itself). And their fate remains at the mercy of the higher power that is moviemaking.
To be clear, Babylon is messy. Beautiful in its cinematography, extravagant in its production design, and sultry in its incredible score. But messy. The runtime begins to weigh by its third act, the ending continues to confound me both positively and negatively, and the characters function less as three-dimensional people and more as archetypes — which isn’t to say that the actors aren’t giving it their all, particularly a fearless Robbie. But its components add up to a mixed bag.
Chazelle takes a big swing with this picture, but it isn’t without calculation. He’s scratching at something prescient about film’s function in our culture. How it’s changed over time. Whether it may, as we currently know it, end, as all eras do. La La Land sees its characters succeed in a pre-established system at the expense of their connection to each other. Babylon rips the system apart, declaring that it isn’t enough to sacrifice oneself for this dream, because the system sees that individual as expendable; they must align with the overall vision of the business, and if they don’t, they will be ousted.
Chazelle seems to see this writing on the wall, predicting the forecast of future box offices to come. Perhaps there’s a fittingly cruel irony to Babylon’s own financial prospects. If this is the end of cinema, there’s at least one filmmaker willing to set fire to it all on the descent down.
Babylon is in theaters now.
7. The Fabelmans
No genre is complete without Steven Spielberg’s touch. It was only a matter of time before Spielberg, like James Gray, mined his own childhood for an autobiographical story worth sharing with the world.
On January 10, 1952, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle/Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) fell in love with films upon seeing The Greatest Show on Earth. That signature, wondrous “Spielberg Face” on full display, Sammy spends the rest of his formative years (and the rest of his life) chasing that initial high that only movies can provide. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and father Burt (Paul Dano) represent his right and left brain, respectively, the imagination and the precision that defines Spielberg’s own style. As that parental relationship fractures over time, Sammy’s “hobby” becomes more complicated to pursue. And he must weigh for himself whether the passion is worth the pain.
What sets The Fabelmans a cut above other films of its ilk is Spielberg himself. It feels somewhat reductive at this point to remark on a master’s craft, but the level of care and sincerity imbued in every shot is evident as Spielberg reflects on the formative moments that cemented his desire to become a filmmaker. As Time notes in its article, the notion of Spielberg making his own biopic the way he wants to before anyone else gets the chance is the ultimate flex, lending a level of meta-commentary and winkingness to the audience that knows him well, down to the film’s final frame.
It is also, by design, the purest distillation of what defines a Spielberg film — the divorced parents, the child-like wonder, the empathy in the everyday moments. Perhaps it’s true-to-life to a fault, but no other filmmaker can capture that pure, ethereal cinematic experience — within any story — in the way that Spielberg can.
The Fabelmans is in theaters now and available to rent.
6. Top Gun: Maverick
Babylon serves as a commentary for the state of contemporary films. In many ways, the success of Top Gun: Maverick has proven Chazelle correct.
Maverick drafts on the trend of legacy sequels — new installments in previously established intellectual property/franchises. Decades after 1986’s Top Gun, this film finds Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell still pushing his limits as the daring, dashing fighter pilot. A series of insubordinate decisions lead Maverick back to Top Gun, where he must instruct the next generation of pilots to accomplish a dangerous mission — including Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late wingman, Goose.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about filmmakers wanting audiences to watch movies the way they were “intended” to be seen. In clear alignment with this message, Cruise infamously insisted on holding the release of Maverick until the world was ready to see it in theaters. In doing so, Cruise and director Joseph Kosinksi make the case for movie theaters as a vital element to the consumption of material. And they’re absolutely right.
Maverick’s magic lies in the euphoria of big entertainment on a big screen. The exhilarating, viscerally coordinated and expertly shot flight sequences place us directly in the jet, along for the adventure. But beyond that, the central relationship between Cruise’s Maverick and Teller’s Goose gives us a reason to care. We are invested in the characters when they take off for the skies, knowing that they may not touch back down. Much like the box office, the stakes are high to perform well.
Does some of this success rest on the fact that the original Top Gun is a staple of 1980s films? Absolutely. Does this add fuel to the fire that films based on original ideas are less viable? Perhaps. But what Maverick does prove is that there is still a voracious appetite for theater-going if the right chord is struck. More importantly, though, it’s simply a blast from start to finish. And much like Spielberg’s awe-struck Sammy Fabelman, there’s no purer feeling for a viewer than strapping in for the ride.
Top Gun: Maverick is available on Paramount+.
5. Cha Cha Real Smooth
Director Cooper Raiff came onto my radar in 2020 with his debut, Shithouse (which made my Top 10 list that year). His follow-up, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is a similarly understated but no less distinct portrait of a young man enduring the quiet storm of life’s transitions.
Recent college graduate Andrew hides his growing pains beneath a mask of charisma that earns him a gig as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah MC. At one of these functions, Andrew develops an unlikely bond with a young mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) who has autism. As these respective relationships deepen, so does Andrew’s ennui with his progress in life until it becomes too intense to ignore.
In both of his films to date, Raiff manages to capture something so truthful about being a young person in today’s world — the waywardness, the searching, the desire to matter. These feelings make us feel isolated, but Raiff’s work speaks to the universality of these experiences, especially as we all grow up and evolve now, in the 2020s. Through the character of Domino (strengthened by Johnson’s sharp, yet vulnerable performance), we also find that this growth is never finished, even if we’re beyond the stereotypical transitional periods of life like a school graduation, or first-time parenthood, or first-time love. We’re all works in progress.
On its surface, Cha Cha Real Smooth runs the risk of being saccharine. Perhaps it would be if it weren’t for the palpable authenticity of the film. Raiff brings such genuine earnestness that I can’t help but be swept up in his stories. I’ll watch anything he ever does.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is available on Apple TV+.
In a landscape where ambitious ideas are often swallowed up by franchises and cinematic universes, director Jordan Peele has emerged as a contemporary filmmaker who can capture resonant stories on a grand scale without losing his signature voice. His film Nope is one of the most innovative approaches to genre filmmaking that I’ve seen in recent years.
Siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood are Hollywood horse handlers struggling to keep the family business afloat in the wake of their father’s mysterious death. The siblings soon learn that both his passing and the increasingly strange occurrences on their ranch is the result of an unidentified flying object. Once their initial terror subsides, they become determined to prove its existence to the world.
Peele expands his skillset narratively and technically with this sci-fi horror tale. The expansive night sky, stunningly captured by Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, provides fertile ground for the audience to imprint their worst fears upon. The characters, too, are constantly looking up at the open sky. Weary. Fearful. And in awe. All of these nuances are perfectly conveyed by a fascinatingly restrained Kaluuya and a vivacious Palmer, both of whom have proven themselves to be modern movie stars.
The alien sub-genre of both horror and sci-fi is well-trodden. Often, though, these types of stories deal with questions about why the alien is here, the threat they pose, or the new questions they create. The ingenuity in Peele’s approach, though, is that he’s far less concerned with existentialism than he is in opportunitism. It’s not about the threat of the creature; it’s about how OJ and Em can use this discovery to their advantage. This line of questioning is a refreshing narrative thread within an already engaging story. That instinct is also what continues to prove Peele as one of the most vital voices we have in film right now.
Nope is available on Peacock.
3. Everything Everywhere All At Once
The Many Worlds Interpretation is an area of theoretical physics which crops up again and again in science-fiction. Marvel may have popularized it recently between Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home. But it’s directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Shienert (known collectively as the Daniels) who manage to stretch the concept nearly as far as it can go in their film Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a mother and a laundromat owner stressing over both an upcoming family dinner and an audit. Slowly but surely, reality starts to crack around her, and she finds herself at the center of a multiversal war waged by the nihilistic Jobu Tupaki, an alternate version of Evelyn’s own daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). With the help of an alternate version of her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), Evelyn, in turn, must tap into alternate versions of herself from other universes to rise to the threat.
The Daniels prove here that you can get away with any story, no matter how ambitious or outrageous, if it’s grounded in something recognizable and truthful. The parent-child relationship at the center of the story provides a throughline across the multiverse, with all of the action-set-pieces and visual splendor serving as added texture in service of that arc. Yeoh delivers an oscar-worthy performance in a dynamic role that, at one point, moved me to tears.
Jobu’s questioning of the existence of meaning, or lack thereof, in a universe of infinite possibility and infinite change renders a compelling antagonist. As her relationship with Evelyn illustrates, the only thing that matters is what we mean to each other. Beyond the high-concept, innovative sci-fi premise, this thread of sincerity rings throughout the Daniels’ audacious work.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is available on Paramount+/Showtime.
2. After Yang
As Everything Everywhere All At Once also exemplifies, science-fiction works best when the worldbuilding is in service of the story, rather than being its sole focal point. Director Kogonada’s film After Yang uses its soft genre ties as stage-setting for a larger exploration of consciousness, technology, memory, and grief.
Set in the near-future in which ecological changes have forced people to adapt to the nature around them, After Yang follows a found family turned nuclear family — Jake (Colin Farrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and Mika’s android companion, Yang (Justin H. Min). When Yang suddenly shuts down, Jake’s journey to try and fix him reveals surprising depth about the android and the lives he touched along the way.
Through Yang, Kogonada examines our reliance on technology and the hidden impacts it has on us. Jake begins this quest as emotionally detached as one might upon taking a malfunctioning iPhone into the shop. But this problem is not so easily solved, and Yang’s absence creates an unexpected void in Jake’s family. Beyond that base-level of companionship, Yang represents the ways technology can bond us, as well as how it tears us apart.
Though this message sounds bleak, Kogonada’s rendering of the future is among the more hopeful I’ve seen, particularly in science-fiction. His cityscapes unify naturalism and technology, greenery and soft light mingling with the sleeker, futuristic architecture, imagining a world where the collision of these forces synthesize rather than destroy. This is his takeaway message: we can reverse this isolationist mentality to engage with the modern world in which we now live. And in so doing, we can deepen our own humanity.
After Yang is available on Paramount+/Showtime.
The lasting legacy of a film is less about the film itself and more about the meaning we assign to it. As viewers, we all bring personal connections into the theater that we project onto the screen as viscerally as the physical projector itself. Aftersun, the debut feature from director Charlotte Wells, understands the power of quiet moments, leaving space for the viewer to impress upon the story. Her film is a Rorschach test for the way we understand ourselves.
In the 1990s, 11-year-old Sophie (a revelatory Frankie Corio) vacations in Turkey with her father Callum (a heartbreaking Paul Mescal). Though Callum and Sophie’s mother are separated, he retains an endearing bond with Sophie, determined to make the most of their holiday together. The story is strung together in part through camcorder footage of the vacation, which Sophie as an adult watches back years later in present day, reflecting on the holiday with melancholy and something deeper. More plaintive. More gnawing.
When not viewed through footage, Wells often frames Callum at a distance, through reflection, behind window panes. Many of Mescal’s line readings are open to interpretation, placing him at an emotional remove from both Sophie and the audience. The cumulative effect offers the sense that Callum may not be around anymore. That perhaps this vacation was the last time Sophie saw him, and the images we see may be Sophie sifting through her own memories, trying to find meaning in every fragment of her father that remains. Because that’s all she has.
The tragic beauty of the film is that none of this is explicitly stated. There are no big set pieces, no waves of irrevocable conflict. It’s a quiet, profound character study of a man at odds with himself, and a daughter at odds with her memories of him. We, like Sophie, are left to piece together who Callum was, the outline of the person based on what they left behind. This is the nature of grief. We cling to these clues of interiority as we sort out who we are without these people, independent of them.
Aftersun is a masterclass in subtlety, soaking up new meaning the deeper it sinks into my mind.
Aftersun is available to rent.