I won’t say that things in 2022 got back to anything approaching ‘normal’ (whatever that loaded term may mean), but there was certainly more opportunity to get out there and do things again in public. So with all this new-found freedom, I contrived to have my worst year since 2014 for films seen, and among the lowest number ever seen in a cinema (putting aside 2020). Part of the reason for that was managing to entirely miss the New Zealand Film Festival, and there aren’t really many other opportunities to see the best of world cinema on the big screen in this country. However, I’ll be moving to a larger city (Melbourne) next month, so I’m hoping to work on that particular statistic a little bit in the coming year.
Last year I included some graphs tracking the metrics by which I categorise what I watch, and it makes me realise I may need to tweak them somewhat. After all, perhaps the gender or ethnicity of the director isn’t the key metric by which to judge my success in diversifying my tastes. I would imagine the majority are still English-language films, but I’ve tried to cut down on blockbusters and superhero movies (usually, an interesting director is what’s lured me back into those, though, and each time I’ve found something new to be disappointed by, whether the lugubrious pacing of last year’s Eternals or the fishy aquatic silliness of Wakanda Forever). I’ve also been redoubling my efforts to move back through film history, which is necessarily a very difficult thing to do when you’re also trying to avoid films directed by white men. So in 2022, a lot of those did crop up, which means my graphs primarily tell the story of me trying to catch up on old films at home.
This chart has really taken a dive since moving to New Zealand, largely because there are far fewer opportunities for big screen adventures, when you don’t have the British Film Institute or the Institute of Contemporary Arts showing such a huge range of cinema from around the world and back through time, nor all the many independent, local or repertory cinemas. The Wellington Film Society still shows a lot of interesting things, but with just one film a week that’s not enough for those cinema figures to really catch up with how many I’ve been seeing historically. That, combined with missing the NZIFF, means that my cinema viewing has taken another dip.
Who doesn’t love to see a nice clear trend. Unfortunately this isn’t the one I was hoping for. And while my viewing has been down on the whole, the number of films directed by women (or trans and gender-non-conforming people) is down to its lowest since 2014, at only 29% of all the films I saw, and white male directors back up to over half (52%) of my viewing. Maybe that’s just reflective of 2022 as a year and I am determined it will not be a trend that continues in 2023 (although there are still a lot of old films I need to see, plus I am planning a return to Il Cinema Ritrovato).
The third basic metric of my film watching is director ethnicity, which again has seen its lowest numbers in recent years, though only since 2016, being also now at 29% of all the films I watched. My recurring belief that I am just about to embark on a huge watch of the backlog of Japanese, Chinese, Hong Kong and Indian films I’ve not yet seen has yet to materialise it seems.
As usual, I shall redirect you to my Letterboxd account for a constantly-updated list of all the 2022 films I’ve seen (which are the ones with a 2022 production date), and I expect to keep adding films to it that only belatedly get a New Zealand/Australian release this coming year, or which I do finally catch up with (there are fully two new Claire Denis films from 2022, as well as a new Kelly Reichardt and a new Alice Diop, so I have no shortage of watching to do).
However, the list below is of my favourite new films that I saw in 2022. These include a (fairly small number of) festival films, and are mainly ones that had an official cinematic release or which were added on a streaming service (like Netflix or Mubi). As ever, if anything snuck through that was actually released in 2021, then that’s a danger (maybe The Green Knight or others like it were available online earlier, but I didn’t notice until 2022).
Before I get into the top 25, I should mention a bunch of movies that didn’t quite make the list but I think were either better than I expected, or just took me by surprise (to the extent that may mean they were underrated, or maybe overrated, who knows, but I didn’t have a clear enough sense of them to rank them effectively). Listed here in reverse order of how recently I saw them as I look back: The African Desperate (seen on Mubi, a weird art satire); Call Jane (seen on Amazon Prime, with a surprisingly moving performance from Elizabeth Banks); Emily (at the cinema, and I’m still not sure if I loved it or if it was terrible); Rosaline (a silly disposable Netflix film that was smarter than it had any right to be); Crimes of the Future (this feels like Cronenberg looking to his past hits, but Kristen Stewart was fantastic); Muru (a NZ take on recent history with an action-adventure twist that makes it feel like a turbocharged reimagining of what could have been); Bodies Bodies Bodies (easy to mock, but it has something really taut to its satire); Whina (a different, more stately, kind of NZ biopic); Diana’s Wedding (I didn’t expect to enjoy this Norwegian comedy that references the British monarchy in its title); Benedetta (just ridiculous, but I still enjoy Paul Verhoeven’s particular type of ridiculousness); King Richard (a solid biopic that was somewhat overshadowed by other, stupid things); and Nightmare Alley (because Guillermo del Toro still makes cinematic treats).
25 Taht el Karmouss (aka Sous les figues) (Under the Fig Trees)
There always needs to be a place in cinema for simple ideas, in this case a group of people (largely women) convene on an orchard to pick figs for the harvest, and through their conversations, one-on-one dialogues that take place across a few days of work, stories come out about each other, about the men, about their precarious lives and illustrate the ways that friendships strengthen and fall apart. [Cinema: African Film Festival]
24 Top Gun: Maverick
I can’t exclude the biggest cinematic event of the year. For all its jingoistic patriotism, which is very hard to ignore, there are also undeniable action sequences that rival the finest in the genre, and I still like Tom Cruise as a film presence (even if I can hardly stand him in any other context). [Cinema: general release]
23 The Wonder
This got a perfunctory cinematic release before being dropped to Netflix, but Florence Pugh, in all the years I’ve been writing this blog (since 2014’s The Falling) has always been a reliable screen presence, even if this film tries to do a lot more than it achieves. [Cinema: general release]
I cannot stand Baz Luhrmann’s filmmaking. I rewatched Romeo + Juliet recently, and I had a far harder time with it than at the time of release, and mostly I just find his bombast tiresome. However, putting aside Tom Hanks, his bombast is perfectly fitted to its subject matter here for a change, and when it’s doing the performance sequences, this is brilliant. Maybe I just love the soundtrack, though, or maybe it’s Austin Butler. I would cut away about half of this film though (including Hanks), so the fact that it scraped into my list at all is testament to what it gets right. [Cinema: general release]
21 Red Rocket (2021)
The central character is a real creep, a man with an undeniable charisma who spends the length of the film becoming less and less charming and ever more creepy and exploitative with each new plot twist, but the film remains a compelling portrait of something in American society that you don’t often see. [Cinema: general release]
20 The Woman King
This isn’t Gina Prince-Bythewood’s best picture, and it’s fairly traditional in the way it tells its history, it’s just that it deals with a history that’s rarely cinematically depicted from this point of view (it’s a big screen mainstream African action film, for a start), with a brilliant performance from Viola Davis (as well as, unexpectedly to me, John Boyega). [Cinema: general release]
19 Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Certainly not a film I went in expecting to particularly like, but for what is essentially a chamber drama set in a single room between two people, it holds your attention. I mean, Emma Thompson is a very good actor. [Cinema: general release]
18 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
A film that was only released to cinemas for a single week (once again, thank you Netflix, bring its own ‘disruption’ to this story of horrible people). I cooled down on it between seeing it in the cinema and on the small screen just before Christmas, but I still like this breezy island-set film about terrible rich people a bit more than the first Knives Out, and I have a lot of time for Daniel Craig’s detective, especially his sartorial choices. [Cinema: general release]
17 Fire Island
A comedy about a group of (gay) friends finding… well, themselves I guess, but also love, on a destination holiday island near New York. Thanks to Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, along with the rest of the ensemble cast, this really works, unexpectedly (bitter)sweet. [Online: Disney+]
16 Fire of Love
About as good as any film about two vulcanologists has any right to be, this couple are odd enough to remain compelling for the running time of this documentary. [Cinema: general release]
15 Turning Red
I don’t just enjoy bleak films about dour lives lived in abject misery. There should always be a place for a bit of levity, and as always it’s animated films which bring it. That’s not to say this film about a young Chinese-American girl isn’t without any darkness, as the big furry monster is a literalisation of a number of her worries, but it’s all told with such a light touch that it is a delight to watch. [Online: Disney+]
This horror film from Jordan Peele was one of the most divisive of the year, and I respect those who had their reasons for finding it lacking. However, the more I think about it afterwards the more I liked its slow-burning approach to the subject matter, and some of the ways it gives fresh eyes to the movie industry itself. I certainly liked it better than his previous film, Us. [Cinema: general release]
13 Catherine Called Birdy
A film about mediaeval England that finds all the usual bleak stuff about life and mortality and religion, while also allowing time for the pure joy of childhood all the same, and who knew that Lena Dunham could make such a likeable film without needing to cast herself in it. I have no doubt it’s exceptionally anachronistic but there’s something really sweet about this whole film. [Online: Amazon Prime]
12 Benediction (2021)
Sure it’s a slow, lugubrious film set at the time of World War I, but it’s also a new Terence Davies picture. It’s very distance from the usual ways of making cinema, that places it closer to a gallery installation or some kind of filmed museum piece, makes it fascinating in its own right, but Jack Lowden is excellent and I vibed. [Cinema: general release]
11 Spencer (2021)
Speaking of films that are all vibes, we got this Christmas fare about Princess Diana, which was eventually released to cinemas in NZ, and which despite my extreme reservations (hardly being a monarchist), I very much enjoyed, not least for Kristen Stewart’s performance. [Cinema: general release]
10 Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (RRR)
I mean, it’s ridiculous, it’s overblown and it has some troubling nationalist imagery but it’s a story about heroism in the face of the British occupation, and it’s very much these English stereotypes who are the bad guys here. It’s hard therefore not to get behind it, especially when it’s made with such verve and style. [Online: Netflix]
9 The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021)
I do love the western genre, especially ones that find a new way to present it. This has all the hallmarks of this quintessentially (and definitionally) American genre — the sense of place, the slow-building movement of the narrative, the forging of unlikely alliances, and the terror of the unknown — but it’s set in Australia. [Cinema: general release]
8 The Banshees of Inisherin
I’m not a big Martin McDonagh fan in terms of his cinematic vision and the way he’s written his characters in the past, but this is a different sort of pace for him, and even though it trades in a certain type of Oirishness, it finds the humanity and the sadness, set against a particular historical backdrop. Plus I’ve really enjoyed the work of Colin Farrell as an actor in recent years, and he’s spot on here. [Cinema: general release]
7 After Yang (2021)
Speaking of Colin Farrell, he’s in Kogonada’s follow-up to his excellent 2017 Columbus, an odd sci-fi dystopia but in a sort of laidback way, which hooks you in from its opening dance sequence and then starts to layer in its themes. [Cinema: general release]
6 Verdens verste menneske (The Worst Person in the World, 2021)
A rather upbeat and jolly comedy all things considered, a character study about a woman who is sort of falling apart and trying to pull herself together. The title is a bit of a misdirect, but this is elevated by a strong central performance, and director Joachim Trier’s knack of keeping things ticking along nicely. [Cinema: general release]
5 The Green Knight (2021)
This never got a cinema release, and it really did deserve one given its visual beauty but also the way it works in many shades of half-light, and perhaps it was released online in 2021, I’m not really sure, but I am not passing up the opportunity to put this in my top 10 since I caught up with it early in 2022 and it’s a wonderful piece of work. [Online: Amazon Prime]
4 Heojil kyolshim (Decision to Leave)
I had no particular expectation about this new Park Chan-wook film, but even while it’s a twisty noirish thriller, it also functions as a sort of bittersweet romance after a fashion, and probably my favourite 2022 film that got a general cinematic release in 2022. [Cinema: general release]
3 Licorice Pizza (2021)
This was on a lot of 2021 best-of lists, but it came out in NZ in 2022. I’m not insensible to the critiques of it, especially those of its central relationship, and it feels like there were a few missteps by director Paul Thomas Anderson (I didn’t find the comedy Japanese sequences particularly funny at all, and PTA’s prickly defensiveness about their inclusion didn’t really help make a case for them). However, I cannot deny that, these things aside, I really fell for its tone and pacing, as a sort of LA hangout movie with generally positive vibes and a sweet central relationship that I believed in. Would have happily watched it for a lot longer. [Cinema: general release]
2 Nous (We, 2021)
Ever since I speculatively went along to director Alice Diop’s first feature film at the London Film Festival years ago, I’ve been a big fan of her documentary making. This one dropped online only but already it looks like her 2022 film (Saint Omer) may be a contender for my next year’s list when it ever gets a release. This one has a fairly high concept, using a Parisian suburban railway line as a means to connect its various characters and their stories, but she brings out all the interesting facets of these lives. [Online: Mubi]
If everyone’s going on about this rather bleak portrait of a childhood, it’s not without reason. The darkness at the centre of the relationship between father and daughter on holiday (that is to say, his evident depression, to be clear; there’s nothing else going on between them) is really captivating and entrancing without ever quite saying what’s going on. What happens outside the frame informs it and is suggested on frequent occasions, but the film allows us to draw our own conclusions. Brilliant central performances, too, from its two lead actors, and this suggests a bright future for debut director Charlotte Wells. [Cinema: British Film Festival]