Let me level with you: Making a list of the best movies of the year is impossible. It’s highly personal. It’s trying to rank art, which is absurd. There are thousands of movies, and I can only reasonably see several hundred, and this is my job. It’s a task nobody should really undertake.
But undertake it we do, because even a list that’s taste-driven and necessarily partial can be a fun exercise in reading the culture. What did this year in movies serve up? Lots of satire, lots of horror, lots of examinations of the past to see what it teaches us about the present and the future. Watching the year’s best movies (according to me) is one way to see the rich variety of vital work still being done on screens big and small ones, and it reminds us that cinema remains a vital art, even in 2022.
So without further ado, here are the 25 best films of 2022, how and why you should watch them, and a list of honorable mentions to check out, too.
25. Jackass Forever
You want me to explain the inclusion of Jackass Forever on this list? Well, have you seen it? I have, and discovered it was as cathartic, unhinged, and weirdly good-hearted as any of its predecessors. Yes, it’s a movie about (mostly) dudes doing really stupid things together, and that’s what makes it great. Jackass Forever is the first of the films to add a new cast, because Johnny Knoxville and his long-suffering pals are hovering around 50 these days. They’re a lot more brittle than they were in the 1990s. And the new members are delighted to be in the movie we used to watch! Who can blame them? They have taken on a high, low calling: to be the fools who prostrate themselves across a pile of mousetraps or take an enormous belly flop for the camera, for us.
24. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
The summer’s funniest movie might have been Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, based on short films that Jenny Slate (who voices Marcel) and Dean Fleischer-Camp (who directs the film) made for YouTube over a decade ago. Slate and Fleischer-Camp were married in 2012; they’ve since split up, and in a somewhat remarkable fashion, they explored that experience obliquely in this feature. The protagonist, Marcel, is a 1-inch-high shell (with sneakers) who lives in an Airbnb rented by a newly single filmmaker named Dean, who decides to make a documentary about his tiny new pal. It’s hilarious and extremely sweet, and also somehow skirts the edge of over-sentimentality with aplomb — a feel-good movie that’s not like anything you’ve seen before.
23. Women Talking
The story of Women Talking springs out of a horrifying true story from 2011, in which seven men from an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia (populated by the descendants of the Eastern Europeans who settled there in 1874) were convicted of drugging and serially raping over 100 women from their community. For the film version, writer and director Sarah Polley did what every good adaptation should do and found her version of the story inside the original. With a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand (in a tiny but thematically crucial role), she tells a story about learning to unlearn oppression, about embracing freedom after violence, as the women of the colony decide whether to stay, fight, or flee. It’s a skillfully made, conversation-forward movie that unpacks various ways women have responded to violence and abuse over centuries and across the world: living with subjugation, fighting it, fleeing it, or trying to reform society from within. It imagines a feminist future.
How to watch it: Women Talking opens in theaters on December 2.
22. The Banshees of Inisherin
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson previously teamed up for director and writer Martin McDonagh’s riotous and sneakily profound In Bruges. Now they’re back in a thoroughly Irish outing. Set on a remote island off the Irish coast a century ago, The Banshees of Inisherin is about two best friends whose relationship is ripped apart when one of them decides he just can’t stand the other, and expresses it in the most unhinged way possible. The story plays like a fable, the sort of thing you’d hear recounted late at night at the pub. And while it’s thoroughly comical, it’s also got a serious core — the ongoing fights between friends and brothers that have been such an integral part of Irish history are always lurking around the edges.
How to watch it: The Banshees of Inisherin is playing in theaters.
21. Triangle of Sadness
Brace yourself. The latest satire from Swedish director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure, The Square) is uproarious, bleak, drenched in bodily fluids, and practically emblazoned with “Eat the Rich” in neon lights. It begins in the world of modeling (the “triangle of sadness” being an area between the brows often tinkered with by plastic surgeons), but soon we’re on a luxury yacht populated by the worst people in the world. From there, things go nuts. Triangle of Sadness draws on everything from Roman vomitoriums to Lord of the Flies, skewering with equal force those who make their money without scruples and those who lack the courage of their convictions to do anything about it. It’s frequently gross, blunt as a battering ram, and very, very 2022.
How to watch it: Triangle of Sadness is playing in theaters and available for digital purchase.
Sergei Loznitsa, perhaps Ukraine’s most well-known filmmaker, sank his teeth into the problem of propaganda with his barbed, satirical Donbass. The film made the festival rounds in 2018 and was selected by Ukraine as its entry for the 2019 Oscars, but the Academy didn’t nominate it. Then it seemed to disappear, at least in the US. Now, with the name “Donbass” (sometimes rendered “Donbas”) — the region in eastern Ukraine that has been the seat of pro-Putin, pro-Russian unrest since 2014 — newly recognizable to American audiences, it’s finally been released in the US. Set in the mid-2010s, Donbass is a festival of absurdism. In 13 vignettes, Loznitsa fills in an image of a region gone haywire, falling apart in the mess of conflict and deceit that has sprung up in the fighting between pro-Russian separatists, backed by Putin’s government, and Ukrainian government forces. In the way that The Wire unpacked something vital about the layered mess of American cities, Donbass digs with the grimmest of grins into a conflict that has been going on for a long time. The question isn’t what the fix is; it’s whether we’ll ever stop thinking it’s an easy one.
19. A Love Song
A woman steps out of her camping trailer, mountains looming behind, and pulls a trap full of crayfish out of a pristine lake. What is she doing here? That’s the slow reveal of A Love Song, in which Dale Dickey plays Faye, a loner and a widow who’s waiting to meet her past, accompanied only by her eerily prescient radio. Max Walker-Silverman writes and directs this small, satisfying drama about what love looks like when you’ve lived your life and are wondering what’s next.
18. Speak No Evil
This is probably the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year, but that’s what makes it great. The moral of Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil is to never vacation with strangers, but the way it goes about it is bleakly hilarious. A Danish couple (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch) on vacation in Italy with their young daughter hit it off with a Dutch couple (Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders) and their son. At their invitation, the Danes come to spend a weekend in the Netherlands. Everything feels just a little off, but politeness keeps them from figuring out what’s actually going on until things have gotten very, very bad. The film really commits to the bit, with a truly twisted (and twistedly cathartic) ending.
17. She Said
New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who broke the Harvey Weinstein story in 2017, wrote a brilliant book in 2019 about the process of reporting the story. The film adaptation of She Said nails that book’s tone and tenor brilliantly, with Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan starring as Twohey and Kantor. A sober and skillful film, it shows how hard it is to get a story like this right, and the toll it can take on the reporters. She Said is the story of two women who haven’t directly been the victims of the man they’re investigating but live, as the film shows in a few key scenes, in a culture that fosters him and others like him. And it centers the women, instead of their attacker, by pushing the latter off-screen as much as possible.
How to watch it: She Said is playing in theaters.
It’s hard to watch Murina without thinking of Patricia Highsmith’s thrillers; taut, aloof, and finely crafted, it’s a psychosexual thriller that never quite shows its hand. Teenager Julija (Gracija Filipović) lives in Croatia with her mother (Danica Curcic) and extraordinarily strict father (Leon Lucev), and yearns to get away. One day, her father’s friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) shows up, throwing a wrench into the family dynamic, and Julija’s world starts to split open. Named for a variety of eel, which stealthily moves through the water trying to avoid capture, Murina is a gorgeous and heart-pounding movie that refuses to be tamed.
15. All That Breathes
Delhi’s rapidly worsening air quality and religious violence form the backdrop for All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen’s lyrical portrait of two men who work to save injured and sick birds in the city. Their quest to find resources for their perpetually underfunded operation winds together with meditations on the nature of the birds, particularly kites — birds of prey that have been forced to adapt to the changing city. “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we’re a Band-Aid on it,” one of them says. Their work stands as a metaphor for the huge task that bringing healing to the city’s human residents might be, too. After all, we all breathe the same air.
How to watch it: All That Breathes is playing in select theaters and will premiere on HBO Max in 2023.
One of the year’s most blistering and brilliant documentaries, Descendant tracks the attempt to find and surface the Clotilda, the last ship carrying enslaved people to arrive in the United States, long after the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was made illegal. Director Margaret Brown weaves together the stories of the descendants of those who arrived on the Clotilda with the history of the region, and of the powerful family that has tried to bury and deny its story for so long. It’s an engrossing, often thrilling story with implications that echo across America today.
How to watch it: Descendant is streaming on Netflix.
13. After Yang
In the near future, you can purchase a “techno sapien” — a humanoid robot — as a companion. Jake (Colin Farrell, who is terrific) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) bought a refurbished model named Yang to befriend their daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), in part to help her learn about her country of origin, China. But now Yang is malfunctioning, and Jake is desperate to figure out how to bring him back. Directed by Kogonada (Columbus), After Yang moves slowly and quietly and then comes in like a tidal wave, exploring grief and love and memory with aching poignance.
12. Armageddon Time
James Gray’s Armageddon Time is a semi-autofictional story of a sixth grader named Paul (Banks Repeta) growing up in Queens in the 1980s who, after some trouble in his public school, ends up at a private academy at the behest of his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). The film features a jolt of a cameo with political implications that appear midway through — I don’t want to ruin it — but the film’s broader aim is to excavate the layers of privilege that the protagonist, whose ancestors fled the Holocaust, is slowly coming to realize. Paul’s family is navigating the gluey border between being the target of antisemitism and enjoying the opportunities and social standing that their Black neighbors will never have. Meanwhile, Paul is caught between his left-leaning family and the children at his new school who casually drop racial slurs or pump their fists and chant “Reagan! Reagan!” at the mention of an upcoming election. It’s a truly poignant, troubling, and ultimately brilliant work of memory and self-implication.
Jordan Peele’s Nope is a lot of things: a UFO movie, a subverted Western, a weird and wonderful comedy-horror with a fantastic cast. But at its core, it’s a film about how frequently Black film history has been pushed out of memory. Tapping into the long, long history of Hollywood sidelining Black performers and artists, Nope points to Hollywood’s history of shoving inconvenient histories aside. And it’s a film about spectacle culture, about how our experiences of reality have been almost entirely colonized by screens and cameras and the entertainment business, to the point that we can barely conceive of experiencing reality directly. Yet Nope is never overly theoretical or abstract; with a cast that includes Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluyya, and Steven Yeun, it’s hilarious, terrifying, unsettling, and altogether a blast.
10. Top Gun: Maverick
In a film set 35 years after Top Gun, Tom Cruise returns as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, no longer a bright young whippersnapper but still the best flyboy around. He’s called back to the elite Top Gun program to train a group of fresh-faced pilots for a daring mission, but he has to confront his past with old flame Penny (Jennifer Connelly) and his own mortality. Top Gun: Maverick is almost unprecedented in its class, a nostalgia sequel that doesn’t feel like a cheap IP cash grab. Instead, it brings Maverick’s story full circle in a satisfying manner that adds depth and dimension to its predecessor, but still tells a story that’s all its own.
9. The Cathedral
The Cathedral is a quietly stunning jewel box of a film, filled with images that together form the captured memories of the main character, Jesse (played by various actors through his childhood and youth). But it’s really the tale of his father (Brian d’Arcy James), whose life doesn’t turn out the way he expected. Ricky D’Ambrose’s drama stitches together Jesse’s memories — of toys, and wallpaper borders, and news events that stick in his mind — to craft the film, a reminder that it’s all the small things that lodge themselves in our minds that build us into who we are.
How to watch it: The Cathedral is streaming on Mubi and available to digitally rent or purchase on Apple TV+.
8. Emily the Criminal
Aubrey Plaza stars in a claws-out dark comedy about Emily, a 30-something trapped in a dead-end catering job who finds herself sucked into the shadowy underworld of credit card fraud and other illegal activity in an attempt to earn her way into freedom. John Patton Ford wrote and directed the movie, which is an entertaining and sharp-edged look at the world in which so many millennials find themselves: saddled with enormous debt, a lousy job market, an exploitative gig economy, and the sinking feeling that nothing’s going to get better if you don’t escape the system.
7. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Photographer and artist Nan Goldin rose to fame in part for her raw, intimate images of her friends, often in the midst of addiction, in museum works like The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985). But in recent years, she’s risked her reputation to protest art world institutions that have accepted money and named spaces for the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, which for decades has produced opioids that have been routinely overprescribed, causing an acute addiction crisis. For All the Beauty and the Bloodshed — only the second documentary ever to win the famed Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival — Goldin and director Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) weave together her family’s story with the larger cultural narrative. Deceptively simple, All The Beauty and the Bloodshed is a movie about the things we prefer to leave unsaid, and the true cost of dragging them into the light.
How to watch it: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is playing in theaters.
6. We Met in Virtual Reality
We Met in Virtual Reality was my surprise favorite documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s only grown in my estimation since. Joe Hunting’s extraordinary film was entirely filmed on the social VR platform VRChat, where he spent time with and interviewed several subjects, from a dance teacher to a sign language instructor to a couple who fell in love on the platform. I confess that I expected the movie to be gimmicky, but I was totally wrong. Instead, it’s a meditation on connection and finding a community where you belong, featuring subjects who’d found genuine friendships and relationships in VRChat that extended into the physical world. Hunting shot it in-world with a camera developed on the platform, and it looks marvelous. You may also find yourself wiping away a tear or two.
How to watch it: We Met in Virtual Reality is streaming on HBO Max.
5. Riotsville, U.S.A.
In fuzzy, grainy footage, a crowd of protesters on Main Street clamors, shouting, signs in their hands. Toward them moves a group of police officers, armed and ready to put down an uprising. The documentary Riotsville, U.S.A., made entirely from archival footage — much of it shot by the US government in the 1960s — shows something extraordinary: As uprisings became more common across the country in the late 1960s, the government constructed “Riotsvilles” on two military bases, where they staged protests and rebellions using soldiers from the US Army to play both protesters and police, then allowed police forces from across the country to learn from the military how to put them down. Directed by Sierra Pettengill, the movie works poetically but damningly, and shows the bizarre, troubling birth of the militarization of police in America.
How to watch it: Riotsville, U.S.A. is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.
4. Return to Seoul
Return to Seoul is a stone-cold stunner. The drama centers on Freddie (fantastic newcomer Park Ji-min), born in Korea but adopted by French parents; at 25, she’s decided to visit the land of her birth for the first time. With confidence, director Davy Chou plumbs Freddie’s interior landscape — this isn’t about finding home so much as reckoning with the realization that you feel like you don’t have one. As we move with Freddie through her life’s evolutions, she continually refuses to conform to the audience’s expectations. It’s the rhythm, the warp and woof of the film, that really makes it sing, the ways Freddie’s turmoil breaks the surface at unexpected moments, capturing a difficult experience like lightning in a bottle.
How to watch it: Return to Seoul opens in limited release on December 2 and will expand in the following weeks.
3. No Bears
Iranian director Jafar Panahi (This Is Not a Film) is currently imprisoned by his government, a state he’s endured, in various iterations, for decades now. The reasons why are apparent when you see his films, and No Bears might be one of his best. Panahi tirelessly throws himself (sometimes literally, as he often appears in his own movies) in the way of criticizing traditions and institutions that oppress those without power in his country. In No Bears, he plays a version of himself, a filmmaker who can’t leave the country because he’s not allowed, but is trying to direct a film just across the border in Turkey. It’s characteristically sardonic and spot-on, particularly about the ways traditions can hamper real freedom.
How to watch it: No Bears opens in New York City on December 23 and will expand in the following weeks.
One of the year’s breakout hits is Aftersun, from first-time director Charlotte Wells and starring Normal People heartthrob Paul Mescal. In the 1990s, 11-year-old Sophie (first-timer Francesca Corio) is on holiday with her father, Calum (Mescal), and for a long time Aftersun seems like it’s merely the memories of a happy childhood. But we slowly come to realize that we’re seeing those memories as an older Sophie tries to process her relationship with her father, who, while loving and supportive, is fighting his own demons. Aftersun is directed with a sure hand and immense empathy by Wells. We’re all just trying to do our best; what is left in Sophie’s memories is immense grace.
How to watch it: Aftersun is playing in theaters.
The best movie of the year is one of the most challenging and gripping and worthy of arguing over late into the night — and it features a masterful performance, to boot. Is Tar a horror film? A thriller? A satirical masterpiece? Yes, yes, and yes. Writer and director Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) returns after a years-long absence from film with Tár, a stunner of a drama about world-famous conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), whose world is coming apart at the seams. Living in a tightly controlled world of her own making, Lydia is at her peak, but a chaotic revelation threatens to unravel it all, and unravel her as well. Tár demands your attention with scenes that often only reveal themselves in retrospect, and that’s what makes it great. Class anxiety, hidden secrets, and power struggles make for a potent combination; the result is explosive, deadly, and incredible to watch.
Honorable mentions, a.k.a. great films you should seek out: 2nd Chance, Babylon, Barbarian, Benediction, Catherine Called Birdy, Decision to Leave, The Eternal Daughter, Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Fabelmans, The Fallout, Fire of Love, Friends and Strangers, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Happening, I Didn’t See You There, Mija, The Northman, One Fine Morning, Petit Maman, Tantura, The Territory, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, Turn Every Page, The Whale