The year of 2022 has been one of the fullest years of my life. In terms of vocation, my first academic book was published: The Dardenne Brothers’ Cinematic Parables: Integrating Theology, Philosophy, and Film (Routledge). I also experienced my first full year as a professor of Christian ministries, theology and the arts at a Christian university. Ask any teacher or professor about their first year of teaching, and you’ll hear a similar story: full days and late nights doing course prep and grading, all with a sense of imposter syndrome. My job is a dream come true, but it’s also a lot of work. Plus, I became a pet owner, with first two, then four, Holland lops keeping our family on its toes.
With all of this going on, I had little time for film criticism. Beyond my book, I didn’t publish anything as a critic: no reviews for Cinemayward, no essays for the various websites where I’ve been previously published, and very few visits to the theater. As such, I’ve yet to see many critically acclaimed or popular films from 2022, such as Aftersun, Avatar: The Way of Water, Babylon, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Elvis, Empire of Light, Saint Omer, or The Woman King. I’m not sure what 2023 holds, but I do hope to write more film criticism.
Still, I managed to view around 180 films in total this year, with 50 films from 2022. It’s enough to create a list of 20 films I found to be especially meaningful, well-crafted, and spiritually enriching. Looking over the list, I can discern a thematic thread weaving its way through most, if not all, of these films: a boundary-breaking quest for community. Some of these characters travel great distances or risk life and limb in order to find a sense of belonging and affinity, a place where they can truly be themselves and flourish. Sometimes this journey of discovery brings them back to where they started, only a bit wiser and with a renewed sense of gratitude. Others’ journeys end in uncertainty or heartbreak. Whatever the result, the journey itself was transformative. These are my top films of 2022. Enjoy.
20. Hit the Road (Panah Panahi). The first Panahi film on my list, it’s best experienced if you don’t know where this light-hearted Iranian family road trip movie is headed. Featuring one of the best child performances of the year from wild child Rayan Sarlak, Hit the Road employs humor to conceal its poignancy and political subversion. Now streaming on Kanopy.
19. Prey (Dan Trachtenberg). This is the best Predator film since the original Predator. The worldbuilding is innovative, the action is intense, the direction is expressive without being over-the-top, and the performances are excellent all around. Amber Midthunder is fantastic as Naru, the fierce Comanche warrior who demonstrates her courage to her tribe and herself. Now streaming on Hulu.
18. Broker (Hirokazu Kore-eda). I once wrote that Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is “an artisan of empathy.” I stand by that statement. Broker follows familiar themes in Kore-eda’s cinema as a band of unlikely characters—a pair of human traffickers, a prostitute and her infant son, and an orphan stowaway—create a makeshift family as they search for a suitable couple to (illegally) give up the baby for adoption. Kore-eda masterfully never slips into self-parody nor mawkishness; the result is a deeply moving cinematic parable where the transcendent breaks through in the midst of everyday human relationships.
17. The Fallout (Megan Park). Maybe it’s because this was a festival film from 2021 and released on HBO rather than in theaters, but the 2022 end-of-year awards should not overlook Jenna Ortega’s incredibly powerful and dynamic performance as the survivor of a high school shooting. One of the better and more authentic contemporary films about American teens I’ve seen in recent years, right down to the cringy dialogue and texting. Now streaming on HBO Max.
16. Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg). The master of body horror, Cronenberg has crafted a delightfully disgusting and often hilarious exploration of art’s impact on bodies, both fleshly and social. Simultaneously satire, neo-noir, and sci-fi horror, Crimes is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Now streaming on Hulu.
15. The Batman (Matt Reeves). Reeves and Co. have crafted a Batman which borrows as much from David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac as it does from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, yet nevertheless is strikingly original in vision and scope. It’s the best superhero film of the year. Now streaming on HBO Max.
14. After Yang (Kogonada). I absolutely loved Kogonada’s Columbus, so this was high on my anticipated viewing list. This sci-fi drama is paradoxically tender and aloof, just like its eponymous character, Yang. I loved the opening dance scene, as well as Haley Lu Richardson’s supporting performance. I even recognized some of my own home decor in this peculiar brave new world. Available for rent on streaming services.
13. Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook). A detective investigates the suspicious death of a man while trying not to fall in love with the man’s alluring and mysterious wife. It’s a story which has been done before in various film noir, but not with this kind of romantic tension or sense of impending devastation. A tale of tragic infatuation featuring surprisingly understated direction from Park Chan-wook. Now streaming on MUBI.
12. The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg). Movies: They’re Great! And this Spielberg kid sure knows how to make ’em. Hope he directs a few more. Now in theaters.
11. Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford). The horrors of student loan debt and American capitalism are on full display here. Aubrey Plaza’s career-best performance as the eponymous Emily is transfixing. I was on this crime thriller’s wavelength from the opening scene and it never let me down. An excellent debut feature film from John Patton Ford. Now streaming on Netflix.
10. EO (Jerzy Skolimowski). A postsecular punk rock reimagining of Robert Bresson’s classic masterpiece, Au Hasard Balthazar, EO is a phenomenological wonder. We follow EO through his various encounters with both humanity and nature, opening our eyes to both the beauty and the horror of this world. Skolimowski’s camera often seems to place us in EO’s perspective, yet it also challenges our understanding of such perspective as it carries us to places where no human or donkey can go. I don’t know what it all means, but I loved the journey while it lasted.
9. TÁR (Todd Field). Lydia Tár is real. This is not to say that the EGOT-winner and chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic isn’t fictional (she is) but that the persona she creates for herself somehow feels sincere even as it appears to be overly composed. A near-perfect script, a combination of over-the-top and subtle performances and camerawork, and an exploration of what makes for “good” art and artists, both ethically and aesthetic? Consider me the tárget audience. Now in theaters and available to rent on streaming services.
8. The Banshees of Inisherin (Martin McDonagh). In the little Oregon town where I now reside, the residents have been divided by their politics. First it was the school board, then it was the city council. There have been demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. As the number of political yard signs increase, so does the tension in the community. I was reminded of all this as I watched Martin McDonagh’s parable set during the Irish Civil War, where two friends suddenly become enemies on account of…what? What causes their relationship to dissolve? What is the spiritual source of any of our social conflicts that lead to violence? Whatever the answer, McDonagh’s darkly comic tragedy rings true. Now streaming on HBO Max.
7. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski). Genuinely great and surprisingly poignant, Maverick is one of those rare examples where the sequel is as good, if not better, than the original. The film plays out like a sports movie, where an unlikely team of individuals must come together to form a community in order order to win the big game (in this case, blow up an unnamed Foreign Enemy, because We’re Americans). Despite its questionable foreign policy, Maverick is an absolute thrill ride, and one of the best experiences I had in the theaters this year. Now *still* in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.
6. RRR (S. S. Rajamouli). RRR is so big and over-the-top that it threatens to suck in all other movies into its gravity. It’s simultaneously an action film, a buddy comedy, a police procedural, a musical, and a devastating indictment of colonialism. There is enough energy in RRR to power an entire nation. It’s a film that demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible, and I wish I could have seen it in theaters. Now streaming on Netflix.
5. No Bears (Jafar Panahi). “Permission.” This repeated phrase becomes a kind of prayer as different characters request to cross the borders which divide them, then face the consequences when such “permission” is not granted. Jafar Panahi (the father of Panah) plays a version of himself as he hides out in the Iranian countryside and attempts to direct his new film from afar. A rich and moving portrait of the power of cinema for our social imagination.
4. Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter). One of the unique powers of cinema is its capacity to conjure up ghosts, to bring back to life the very real people who have died long ago, and to make us not only see them but feel them as well. Cinema has texture. The moving images are an illusion, yet also somehow true, a miracle of technology in which we can recognize the transcendent within the ordinary and mundane. In watching these 3+ minutes of home footage from 1938 in a small town made up of mainly Jewish inhabitants, we see very little that would typically be called extraordinary—it’s mostly anonymous kids craning to be in front of the camera, as if they recognize its magical powers and want to share in its sacramental mysteries. Yet, as the tragic context of this film reminds us, life itself is a gift of extraordinary measure, a gift cinema can help us to see and appreciate. This is a film I will revisit, and may assign in college classes. Now streaming on Kanopy.
3. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul). A Scottish woman (Tilda Swinton) living in Bogota, Colombia, hears a loud mysterious sound that only she can seem to hear. Then, strange things happen. That’s all that can be said about this unhurried and enigmatic film. This is the first Weerasethakul film that I feel like I “get,” even if it—like our dreams and memories—remains totally inexplicable. I went to see this in a packed theater with a friend, and the experience made me fall in love with the cinematic experience all over again. Movies move us. A room full of strangers can have a shared experience together, one which transcends our own social divisions and invites us to wonder.
2. Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan). We have to be kind. Amen. *Sticks googly eye on forehead*.
1. Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (Dean Fleischer-Camp). The second film on my list to feature googly eyes, Jenny Slate, and an everything bagel, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On totally caught me off guard with its humor and pathos. For their entire lives, my children have had a strong resistance towards watching movies. They’ll watch TV shows or nature documentaries, but feature-length fictional films? Absolutely not. The irony is not lost on me that I have devoted much of my adult life to watching and studying cinema, yet my own children apparently hate movies. But this somehow changed this past year, and during our Christmas break, we’ve been watching more movies together, including Marcel the Shell. Not since My Neighbor Totoro has a film captured a sense of childlike wonder, both on-screen in the performances as well as my own children’s undivided attention. As a family, we laughed and cried together as Marcel (Slate) and his Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) searched for their long-lost community. Upon the second viewing (at their request), my children had more questions about the filmmaking itself: how did they get that shot, how does Marcel move, what were the original YouTube videos like, etc. My children not only loved the film, but they began to become more curious about film itself. For this, I am eternally grateful to Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a film that has changed our family’s movie-watching habits forever.