Best Movies 2022: 15 Films Defined By Reflection, Regret, Friendship, and Optimism

From documentaries to a new kind of spectacle cinema, Oliver Jones looks at what links the year’s most resounding cinema.

Clockwise from top left: ‘The Fabelmans,’ ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ ‘She Said,’ ‘RRR’ Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Reiner Bajo, Universal, Raftar Creations

This was a year of reflection and regret, both in our lives and in our movies. In the year’s most resounding cinema, this uneasy nostalgia— a rueful and often painful reframing of past experience— had a particular sound. 

You hear it in the whir of the of the adult Sophie’s camcorder, the noise that begins Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun, a debut film that so haunted my dreams after I saw it that I had to watch it immediately over again just to get it out of my subconscious and back on to the screen. 

(In alphabetical order)
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed 
All Quiet on the Western Front
The Fabelmans
Nothing Compares
On the Count of Three
The Quiet Girl
Return to Seoul
She Said 
• Turning Red
The Woman King

The camera, like the rug that adorns the bedroom that Sophie shares with her partner, once belonged to her father Calum (a mesmerizing Paul Mescal), who used it to capture a long-ago vacation he took with the 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio, making a screen debut every bit as assured and unforgettable as her director’s) at a cheesy Turkish resort. The tiny tape inside the camera holds everything— an unearthed treasure map of loss and understanding— and also, agonizingly, not nearly enough.

It’s the thunk of a slide in a projector in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, an incisive documentation of the life of photographer Nan Goldin and an exploration of the myriad ways that the personal can and must get political. The film is Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ most accomplished documentary yet.

As Goldin reexamines her famous pictures of party girls, drag queens, abusive ex boyfriends, and friends dying of AIDS, she must confront the truth that many of these images adorn the walls of and add luster to galleries and museum wings named in honor of the Sacklers, a family who has wantonly profiteered from the death and devastation caused by the ongoing opioid crisis. Righting that injustice gives the 69-year-old Goldin renewed purpose for a life that has endured so much loss— the past ignighting a rage that can and will reshape the future.   

“Nan in the bathroom with roommate, Boston,” a Nan Goldin photograph featured in “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” Nan Goldin/Neon

It’s the thwip-thwip-thwip of 8mm film unfurling in young Sammy Fabelman’s hand cranked editing machine as he slowly discovers a truth that will eventually rip his family apart. This footage will become the basis of the “secret film” that the natural-born filmmaker, a stand-in for The Fabelmans storied director and co-screenwriter Steven Spielberg, that he will only share with his mother. That moment as she watches the movie in Sammy’s closet — with Spielberg pushing in on the open, emotionally wrought face of the otherworldly Michelle Williams — is a powerful display of the agonizing intimacy that only movies can produce.

That The Fabelmans, like Todd Field’s Tár and most of the other “prestige” films released this year, failed to bring people into the theaters is both one of the major stories of movies this year, and also a sad, yet strangely delicious irony. Five decades after ushering in the blockbuster era with Jaws, Spielberg has essentially made another “secret film” (one that happened to cost upwards of 40 million), to be shared with select audiences in movie theaters often only slightly more populated than Sammy’s closet. (Movie theaters have become an ideal refuge for people who are dying to be out in the world but still can’t handle big crowds.)

That Wells, Poitras, and Spielberg’s films dealt with processing the trauma that can ping-pong between parent and child highlights another noticeable trend in this year’s best movies.  

In The Quiet Girl, writer-director Colm Bairéad’s quietly devastating masterpiece of a feature debut, an introverted 9-year-old finds a respite from the emotional neglect and poverty of her overcrowded home when she spends the summer with a couple who are themselves trapped in a catacomb of despair. The entirely Irish language film is so poetic and precise in cinematic language that, like Aftersun, you come away feeling like you haven’t simply watched the movie, but rather lived it.

Similarly (but also completely different), Turning Redthe Pixar movie which for COVID reasons never received a theatrical release, features Mei, a 13-year-old girl trying to balance her vanishing childhood, her place as a Chinese immigrant in modern-day Toronto, and generational anguish symbolized by a magical curse that turns her into a red panda when she hits puberty. This debut feature from longtime Pixar staffer Domee Shi is loud and Jolly Rancher-colored where The Quiet Girl is withdrawn and gauzy, yet like Bairéad’s film it demonstrates cinema’s singular ability to lay bare our internal lives, and make them pulse with childhood wonder, no matter the size of the screen.

Gustav De Waele (l) and Eden Dambrine in ‘Close.’ Diaphana Films

In Lukas Dhont’s Close, the pain and loss endured by 13-year-old Léo (Eden Dambrine, in yet another of the many outstanding performances in what has been a remarkable year for young actors) is almost too much to bear. What sticks with you though, is less the agony on display than the purity and intensity of the love of the two boys at the center of the story. From the bicycle rides through the Belgian countryside to the apparent roughhousing that’s loaded with meaning not completely understood by the kids themselves, Dhont’s second film (following 2018’s controversial Girl) has an innate feel for both the rhythm of childhood and the many ways in which friendships from that time shimmer with a potency that stays with you your whole life, even if the friends themselves do not.

At a time when we have yet to come close to recovering from or even being through a global pandemic that has reshaped our lives and relationships and taken so many from us, it is strangely fitting that one of the other films that best understood male friendships, like Close, also directly confronted mental health. 

The directorial debut (yes, another one) from comedian Jerrod Carmichael, who also stars, On the Count of Three has about as bleak a premise of any film comedy ever— it’s about two friends attempting a suicide pact. That Carmichael mines tenderness, love, and sadness from this pit of hopelessness is a testament to his sensitivity as a filmmaker and the masterful acting on display. For my money, Catch-22’s Christopher Abbott, playing Carmichael’s Papa Roach-loving best friend who lugs around his childhood abuse like it’s a knapsack full of swords, gives the best supporting performance of the year. 

 Broker, a South Korean film from the Japanese master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, also mines an uncommon and bristling humanity from a hard-to-swallow concept. It’s about an owner of a laundry (Parasite’s Song Kang-ho in one of the year’s most resonant movie star turns) who absconds with a baby abandoned at a church and attempts to sell it on the black market. A companion piece to Kore-eda’s 2018 film Shoplifters and filled with the same unforced, warmhearted humor, the film adds new facets to our ongoing societal conversations about family, choice, and class. 

The intersection of family and identity is filtered through a whopper of a quarter-life crisis in Cambodian-French director Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul, about a French woman of Korean descent who decides on a whim— after a night of drinking soju— to look up and attempt to contact her birth parents. 

In a year that has been defined by stunning lead performances by female actors— to scratch the surface: Cate Blanchett in Tár, Danielle Deadwyler in Till, Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Williams in The Fabelmans, Aubrey Plaza in Emily the Criminal — first-time actor Park Ji-Min’s fearless turn in Return to Seoul as an unheeding lost soul fumbling between worlds will likely be the performance that sticks with me the longest.  

Along with its cornucopia of astonishing lead performances by women, this year was demarcated by the creativity and excellence evidenced from a diverse array of non-fiction filmmakers. Among this year’s breathtaking documentaries were Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, Daniel Roher’s Navalny, Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes: A Lengthening, Sara Dosa’s The Fire of Love, Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, U.S.A., and Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There. As impressive as that list is, that’s just a fraction of the outstanding docs that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival alone. 

Vernetta Henson in ‘Descendant.’ Participant/Courtesy of Netflix

Margaret Brown’s Descendant also played at Sundance, where it won a Special Jury prize. Trenchant and moving, the fourth feature film from Mobile Alabama native Brown reshaped the understanding of the last two and a half years of racial unrest for all who had a chance to watch it. Framed as a search for the wreck of the Clotilda, a ship that brought enslaved Africans to the U.S. two generations after slavery had been deemed a capital crime, the film explores resiliency, community, and the way the sins of our past continue to shape everything from who our neighbors are to the air that we breath. (That Descendant was also one of the best films on the environmental catastrophe we are all attempting to live through shows the depth of Brown’s achievement.)

While the history of the Clotilda was new to most of us (I first heard about it on a 2017 episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots featuring Academy Award-winning documentarian Questlove, who had an ancestor on the ship and served as a producer on Descendant), Nothing Compares tells a story we all thought we knew but actually didn’t.  

Pieced together by Irish filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson and her editor Mick Mahon, the film tells the almost impossible to believe story of Sinéad O’Connor. As a child, the singer survived neglect and mistreatment from her parents and from the Catholic Church’s infamously ruthless Magdalene Laundries as a teenager, to briefly become the biggest pop star on the planet. When she used her platform to call attention to the Church’s abuses against children a full decade before The Boston Globe laid bare those tragic crimes to the world, she became an ostracized pariah. As a Gen-Xer who watched the scandal unfold in real time and said and did nothing about it then, Ferguson’s film filled me with an epic feeling of compunction that later transformed into a call to action.

The claims that cinema as we know it is in its final death throes intensified this year, echoing an alarm that started with the streaming revolution and got even louder during the pandemic. (Film historians are well aware that pundits have been clamoring about the imminent demise of movies since shortly after the medium’s invention.) 

This became such a dominant narrative in movie-centered conversation that eye-poppingly thrilling but thematically anemic throwbacks like Top Gun: Maverick and a couple of Marvel movies became more than just enjoyable ways to kill off a Saturday night; they were deputized as saviors of an industry.

In reality, this was a landmark year for spectacle cinema, but it was no thanks to Tom Cruise, Doctor Strange, or the rest of their ilk. For once and hopefully forever, the tools of the CGI pageants that dominated the last two decades of our moviegoing lives have been wrested away from our corporate overlords and are finally being wielded by justice-invested filmmakers hellbent on doing more than simply fattening shareholders’ bottom lines. 

Viola Davis in ‘The Woman King.’ SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

We got to witness this in with depressing verisimilitude in All Quiet on the Western Front, Edward Berger’s monumental anti-war chronicle of the life of a World War I grunt. But we also saw it play out to profound, rapturous, and far less dispiriting effect in the year’s two best historical fantasies: S. S. Rajamouli’s Telugu-language epic RRR and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, marshaled by its mesmerizing star and producer Viola Davis.

RRR is an anti-colonial fable about the overlapping missions of vengeance and overthrow undertaken by a tribal leader and a police officer, played by Indian superstars N. T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan respectively. Featuring one show-stopping set piece after another, RRR is an emphatically over-the-top reminder of the power of myth-making, friendship, and perhaps most memorably, dance. Seeing it on the world’s largest IMAX screen at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater for the opening of Beyond Fest and sitting among a sold-out crowd— many of whom danced the “Naatu Naatu” during the closing credits— was the single most memorable filmgoing experience of my life.   

There was anger and pain echoing within RRR’s joyful and triumphant nose, but it is right there on the surface of The Woman King, which is a furious, guttural yowl of an action movie. Whoever imagined that a screed against colonialism, slavery, and misogyny— the effects of which have permeated too much of both our history and our screen fantasies— could kick such copious ass. 

If All Quiet on the Western Front was the most fatalistic of this year’s great movies, the journalistic procedural She Said, helmed by German actress-turned-director Maria Schrader and written by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, was the most optimistic. It proved that with precision, unrelenting drive, and the backing of a formidable institution, even the most entrenched and diabolically evil of demons can be slayed.

Schrader’s film, along with Aftersun and The Fabelmans, elicited the strongest emotional response from me of any of the films this year. After I finished this taut recounting of the investigation by The New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (played by with valiant restraint by Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) into the sexual misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein, I cried for a good 10 minutes.

Part of it was that I worked at Variety in 2000 as a reporter in their New York office. Among other things, I covered Miramax— the Tribeca-based studio that Weinstein ran and had founded with his brother— and was a regular target of the tirades of Weinstein and his underlings. 

I did not know that he was a sexual predator, and if my colleagues did they didn’t share it. But we were all well aware that his bullying was regularly rewarded with favorable stories, and to have played even a small part in the whitewashing of his reputation that was de rigueur for the trades in those days is haunting.

It is also one of the many reasons why the bravery shown by Twohey and Kantor’s sources— including former Miramax employee Laura Madden, beautifully played by Jennifer Ehle— was so moving. Over and above an opportunity for melancholic reflection, She Said, like all the most outstanding films of 2022, serves as a beacon of hope in these times that continue to be darker than we would wish. 

These films aren’t simply demanding that we do better moving forward, they give us a blueprint of how to do it.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

Best Movies 2022: 15 Films Defined By Reflection, Regret, Friendship, and Optimism