The best movies of 2022: Here are John Beifuss' picks, from 'Nope … – Commercial Appeal

The late Ray Bradbury, author of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451,” classified “Singin’ in the Rain” as science fiction because the movie is about the impact of a scientific advance — in the case of the 1952 musical, the invention of the sound motion picture — on the people in the story, and on the workplace and society those people inhabit.
By that broad definition, many of my choices in this year’s “best films” list might qualify as science fiction, with filmmaking technology and computerized surveillance and data-sharing networks motivating the action and inspiring, exposing or victimizing the characters.
Cameras, cellphones and data drives are crucial to these artworks, as the methods of production burn themselves into the content of the movie, like a strip of celluloid igniting from the heat of exposure in an old-school projector. Meanwhile, the iconography of a real-world pandemic — the masks, the vaccine needles, the social distancing — provides a motif for a few of the films, on the margins or even at the forefront of the frame. Traditionally a specialty of the science-fiction and horror genres, the calamity of plague is reduced to something ubiquitous and almost banal, yet spooky, like a fire hydrant decorated for Halloween.
The discovery of such connections is among the compensations for the stressful task of compiling a “best films of the year” list, which I approach each year with a mix of pleasure and anxiety. Pleasure, because I enjoy the challenge of diving deep into my major interest, the movies; anxiety, because I know I’m inadequate to an impossible task.
The theater closures of the pandemic and the subsequent accelerated capitulations of the so-called studios to the streaming-platform strategies of their corporate overseers have disrupted traditional film distribution. Where once I pulled my “best” list from the finite roll call of movies that had screened at public venues in Memphis during the year, I now face a seemingly infinite number of candidates, thanks to the streaming services and websites that have as legitimate a claim to being an “exhibitor” of motion pictures as any brick-and-mortar cinema.
Under these circumstances, it’s absurd for any film critic or fan to pretend they have sampled even a smidgen of the year’s potentially outstanding movies. Yet, certain films — as always — have emerged as festival darlings, critics’ discoveries, Oscar front-runners and consensus favorites. I’ve tried to watch as many as I can, but I still have a lot to go.
So, no matter what the headline says, let’s call this a list of some of the year’s outstanding films: 20 of the best, arranged by pairs into 10 categories. Some are easy to find, some are not; all are worth the effort.
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Filmmaking as personal and political expression is exemplified by these best-of-the-year candidates, operating at extremes of budget and availability (“Nope” cost $60 million and opened July 22 on 3,785 screens; shot sub rosa on a shoestring, “No Bears” played several festivals but has yet to earn a theatrical or streaming-service run in the U.S.).
Making it three-for-three for writer-director Jordan Peele (his previous movies include “Get Out” and “Us”), “Nope” focuses on a brother and sister (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) whose California ranch — a business that has provided horses for movies for generations, affirming Hollywood’s indebtedness to Black talent — is menaced by an extraterrestrial visitor. Resembling a flying saucer, this canvas-sail-like organism provides a rich tapestry for Peele’s trademark but in no ways tired (and in all ways entertaining) inquisitions into the contradictions and attractions of racist America and its seductive but untrustworthy entertainment industry.
“No Bears,” meanwhile, reveals a more grounded danger for its protagonist and a genuine danger for its maker — Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi, in both cases. The fifth feature completed by the defiant Panahi since he was banned from filmmaking and placed under court-ordered “house arrest” in Iran for movies that represented “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” “No Bears” casts Panahi as himself, a director working in secret on a new project in a town near Turkey while risking exposure to the border police. The consequences are tragic, but much of the buildup is wry, even comedic — a laugh-to-keep-from-crying approach, characteristic of Panahi’s recent work, that suggests Ernst Lubitsch and the Nazi mockery of “To Be or Not to Be” (1942). The theocracy has no sense of humor, however: In July, Panahi was again arrested, and is now serving a six-year prison sentence in Tehran.
Frequent overlaps, both expected (a kid’s artistic passion is derided as a “hobby”) and surprising (dads deliver speeches on the engineering merits of the triangle), connect these autobiographically inspired dramas about Jewish childhoods in America.
Steven Spielberg’s most frankly personal film, the exuberant “Fabelmans” reimagines the future wunderkind as a suburban kid named Sammy whose 1952 baptism in the reflected light of a Cecil B. DeMille-choreographed train crash inspires a lifetime devotion to the mission of moviemaking. In a series of brilliantly engineered episodes that follow Sammy into young adulthood, Spielberg presents Sammy’s movie camera as a security blanket, a defense mechanism, an escape hatch, an instrument of vengeance, a means of self-expression, and, devastatingly, a spy scope: The domestic-suspense sequence in which the teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) discovers evidence of his mother’s infidelity while editing seemingly innocent camping-trip footage owes more to Antonioni or De Palma than to John Ford (a Sammy hero who appears in spirit and finally in person — in the surprising person of director-turned-actor David Lynch, in fact).
Beginning a generation later, in 1980, on the cusp of the election of Ronald Reagan, writer-director James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” focuses on a sensitive, artistic sixth-grader with the Anglicized name of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) who experiences anti-Semitic harassment; witnesses what we would now call the systemic racist disparagement of his Black best friend (Jaylin Webb); hears Holocaust horror stories from his supportive, beloved grandfather (Anthony Hopkins); and is subjected to school assemblies presided over by a pair of Trumps: Fred (father of Donald) and Maryanne (sister of Donald), played, respectively, by John Diehl and Jessica Chastain. If “The Fabelmans” ends with Sammy striding hopefully across a Hollywood studio lot toward future Oscars and Indiana Jones, “Armageddon” leaves Paul walking into the early-morning darkness while, on the soundtrack, Joe Strummer of the Clash raspingly croons: “Remeeember… to kick it ooover…”
The first film in seven years from 84-year-old director Jerzy Skolimowski of Poland, “EO” — as with A.A. Milne’s Eeyore, the name is an onomatopoeic rendering of an animal’s bray — updates Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece about a seemingly stoic donkey, “Au Hasard Balthazar,” for the even more aggressively materialistic if not more heartless 21st century. In place of Bresson’s black-and-white asceticism, which suggested a yearning for spiritual purity, Skolimowski introduces hellish red neon and a celebrity guest star (Isabelle Huppert); he burdens his noble beast with a seemingly metaphysical sentience that offers no protection from a fate shared (metaphorically if not literally) by exploited laborers around the world.
Directed by Shaunak Sen, the Hindi-language “All That Breathes” offers a hopeful complement to the Polish film: It’s a documentary about two brothers who have devoted their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating kites and other birds of prey in their polluted and inhospitable city of Delhi, India, where they operate a makeshift clinic that seems as fragile as the injured wings of their patients. At the risk of being corny: When the birds take flight, your heart might join them.
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Reportedly the most expensive film ever produced in India, director S.S. Rajamouli’s historically inspired if fanciful epic — a blockbuster for the global box office and, now, Netflix — is a three-hour action-musical bromance so staggering that when its revolutionist hero crashes a truckload of (digital) leopards, tigers, bears, wolves and other beasts into the courtyard of the evil English imperialists, the Noah’s Armageddon of man-vs.-animal mayhem that follows is only one highlight in a movie that repeatedly drops your jaw like an anchor, stretches your smile like an accordion and expands your eyeballs like balloons.
Along with kaleidoscopic color and nonstop spectacle, “RRR” which stands for — “Rise, Roar, Revolt” — serves up an uncompromisingly angry anti-colonizer’s point of view that may surprise audiences conditioned by traditional Hollywood’s endorsements of the British Empire; it also offers entrée into the intimidatingly vast subcontinent of popular Indian cinema. “RRR” somehow broke through to be a crossover hit and a darling of U.S. reviewers (the New York Film Critics Circle this month named Rajamouli the year’s best director), but its success should humble any serious cinephile: How many other worthy movies, from India and elsewhere, await discovery, outside the conventional festival, theatrical and streaming circuits? (“Intimidatingly vast” was not hyperbole: In 2022, by my count, *108* films from India — including “RRR” — were booked into Memphis theaters, mostly for weekend shows aimed at the local Indian audience.)
Another epic of brawny bare chests and injured honor, writer-director Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” was — like his earlier features, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” — an immersion into a meticulously rendered extinct culture, in this case the North Atlantic Viking chiefdoms of the first century, with Alexander Skarsgård as the title princeling turned slave turned avenger. Eggers’ previous anthropological expeditions were intimate, but this one is extravagant; its enticement range from a duel to the death on the slope of a lava-slathered active volcano to treks across the landscapes of Ireland and Iceland to a cavern consultation with Willem Dafoe’s decapitated and mummified yet actively oracular head.
Cate Blanchett is increasingly arrogant celebrity symphony conductor Lydia Tár in writer-director Todd Fields’ tour de force about the psychological unraveling of a maestro exposed as a monster; judging from the number of opinion columns the film has inspired, in both the editorial and entertainment pages, Fields’ baton has struck a nerve.
Meanwhile, British master Terence Davies’ “Benediction” offers Jack Lowden as gay poet Siegfried Sassoon, a real-life decorated hero of World War I whose writing depicted the terrors of the trenches and skewered the hypocrisy of supposedly patriotic politicians. Davies’ directorial rigor infuses every frame with dignity, and the wit of his writing transforms even the most poisonous inhabitants of this biopic — surely Sassoon would have loathed that ghastly neologism— into delicious company.
Children are at the center of these stories chronicling the loss of a family member, in one way or another. The debut feature from Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells, “Aftersun” stars Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio as a young father and 11-year-old daughter on holiday at a resort that caters to middle-class English-language travelers in Turkey; obliquely rendered through impressionistic editing and seemingly improvisational and multi-format photography (including video “home movies”), the film offers an accumulation of incident and intimate observation that seems mundane but proves devastating: It’s a time bomb of emotional impact.
The self-conscious little girl in “Aftersun” is eager for adulthood, but the 5-year-old whirligig (Rayan Sarlak) spinning through the irresistible “Hit the Road” is all kid-sized chaos, a constant source of irritation and amusement for his family as it travels through Iran toward the border, to smuggle an older son (Amin Simiar) into Turkey. If that sounds similar to a movie mentioned earlier in this story, it should: The debuting writer-director of “Hit the Road” is Panah Panahi, son of Jafar Panahi, director of “No Bears.”
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Mannered and gruesome and as deadpan comedic as a mutant Buster Keaton, “Crimes of the Future” is unmistakably a David Cronenberg film — a return to the so-called “body horror” of his early work, in which the Canadian auteur, like a prophet of ancient Rome, divined a post-human future from the spilled entrails of his prosthetic sacrifices. This time, Viggo Mortensen is a monkish underground artist who grows new, unclassified organs that are surgically removed in public performances; the film’s vibe as well as its action is clinical — chilly, yet also chilling.
The made-in-Rwanda “Neptune Frost,” on the other hand, champions collective resistance to repression, as a sort of Afrofuturist Avengers — computer hackers, labor-camp refugees, griots, dancers and an inter-sex runaway — assemble at a campsite constructed from computer innards and other pieces of high-tech refuse. With original songs by Saul Williams (the co-director, along with Anisia Uzeyman), this so-called “celestial cyber-musical” compensates for its diffuse storytelling with knockout visuals at every level — from curling earrings to swirling galaxies — that express its liberation mindset.
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Esteemed French auteur Claire Denis (her “Beau Travail,” from 1998, ranks at No. 7 on Sight & Sound magazine’s critics’ poll of “The Greatest Films of All Time”), returned with two movies in 2022, each presented against a backdrop of pandemic precaution appropriate to the wariness of the characters and the unreliability of the worlds the characters inhabit.
A lacerating love-and-hate story that privileges recklessness and lust over sentiment and loyalty, “Blade” stars Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon as a couple who become a triangle with the reappearance of the wife’s former lover (Grégoire Colin). Shot in Panama several months later, at the end of 2021, the dissolute spy story “Stars at Noon” — based on a novel by Denis Johnson — was not as well-received as its predecessor, but its sin esperanza aura of sexy day-drinking ennui (the cast is headed by Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn) in a sinister tropical environment patrolled by stray cats and bored soldiers was, for me, just what the virologist ordered.
Horror movies may be rife with killers, but since the pandemic they have provided a lifeline to movie theater owners, desperate for reliable attractions to fill the gaps between superhero slugfests. With a title that evokes (a) a target; (b) the cartoon representation of a dead person’s eyes; and (c) the most identifiably enunciated consonant in both “sex” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” shock veteran Ti West’s stylish and scary “X” — followed six months later by a prequel, “Pearl” — tracks a group of aspiring pornographic filmmakers (including breakout “scream queens” Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega) to a Texas farm, where the crocodile in the lake is no more dangerous than the crone in the house; the film’s suggestion that growing old and wrinkly is the ultimate horror (see also M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old,” from last year) is arguably offensive, but in keeping with the tradition of a genre that regularly swings from radical to reactionary as it taps into universal anxieties.
Meanwhile, comedy troupe graduate Zach Cregger’s bifurcated “Barbarian” begins as an exercise in slow-mounting suspense, then crosses time zones to introduce Justin Long as an obnoxious TV actor who discovers that the Airbnb version of a C.H.U.D. may “cancel” him before the culture gets its chance. Funny and creepy, the film’s energy and irreverence evoke the last great horror heyday of the 1980s.
Released to HBO Max, Steven Soderbergh’s fleet and compact “Kimi” casts Zoë Kravitz as an obsessively COVID-cautious home-based tech worker who suspects she has detected evidence of a crime in the data she monitors; imagine “Rear Window,” by way of Siri. As lively as it is timely, “Kimi” merges social commentary, comic romance and lickety-split action with an unpretentious efficiency that harks back to the era of Roger Corman’s New Line Cinema, at its most relevant.
An all-star event, the maximalist “Glass Onion” can’t afford to be as nonchalant as “Kimi,” but writer-director Rian Johnson’s second murder mystery showcasing Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc — the master detective introduced in 2019’s “Knives Out” — is similarly delightful, with a plotline also motivated by an attempt to cover up evidence that could collapse a zillion-dollar company. Like the puzzle-box invitations that lure its cast of suspects (Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Janelle Monáe, et al) to its title island retreat (built by an Elon Musk-esque tech-bro mogul, played by Edward Norton), the film is impressively ornate and deviously constructed — a layered treat for eyes and ears, with Matisse and Philip Guston on the mansion walls and Bowie and the Bee Gees on the sound system.
Also: “After Yang.” “Alice.” “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” “Amsterdam.” “Avatar: The Way of Water.” “Bad Axe.” “The Banshees of Inisherin.” “The Batman.” “Bones and All.” “Decision to Leave.” “Elvis.” “Emergency.” “The Eternal Daughter.” “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” “Fire of Love.” “Happening.” “Hatching.” “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.” “Mad God.” “Marte Um (Mars One).” “Master.” “Men.” “The Menu.” “Nanny.” “Our Father, the Devil.” “Outta the Muck.” “The Picture Taker.” “Return to Seoul.” “Saint Omer.” “Sam Now.” “Show Business Is My Life — But I Can’t Prove It.” “Terrifier 2.” “Top Gun: Maverick.” “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.” “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.”

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