Timing the publication of my annual Top 10 list has long been a tricky thing for me.
If I haven’t seen all of the movies I perceive as “necessary contenders” – which is itself a highly arbitrary classification process – by about the third week of January, the list already feels like it’s lost its relevance and intrigue. These days, I usually miss that target, so I save my list for the day before the Oscars, when it feels like most movie-loving folks are refocusing their attention on the prior year’s crop of films.
Well, this year, I missed that goal date, too, as I was busy cramming all of the nominees right up to the telecast. So I sit here eating leftover statuette sugar cookies from my Oscar party, the day after “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (a movie that you will not find on my list) swept nearly all of the major categories, finally typing this up for posterity….
Just Missed the List (alphabetical): “Aftersun,” “Barbarian,” “Bones and All,” “Holy Spider,” “Kimi,” “No Bears,” “Ninjababy,” “Nope,” “Pearl,” “Vortex”
- “Ambulance” – Michael Bay’s penchant for excess can often distract from the strength of his craftsmanship, but this suspense-laden heist story thankfully doesn’t allow for too much dilly-dallying. We get the optimal version of Bay, still steeped in style, but never oppressively cacophonous. This is one of the best recent throwbacks to the ’90s generation of action filmmaking that Bay came up in, and it also features arguably Jake Gyllenhaal’s most delightfully, deliriously batshit performance to date.
- “The Northman” – Even though Robert Eggers’ first two films were much smaller in scale, I don’t think anyone doubted that he could pull off an epic of this size after the meticulousness of both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse.” Even considering that confidence-level, the achievement of this movie was nothing less than impressive. It perfectly marries viscerally impactful set-pieces with a surprisingly compelling spiritual component.
- “Montana Story” – For a certain swath of entertainment consumers (myself included), 2022 was the year that Haley Lu Richardson truly broke out, thanks to her irresistibly funny and charming turn as Portia on HBO’s “The White Lotus.” But Richardson deserves even more credit for her performance in this underseen drama, where alongside Owen Teague (as her brother), she absolutely breaks your heart. Paired with stunning widescreen photography of the eponymous state, this feels like exactly the kind of American drama that audiences need to reconnect with on the big screen.
- “Till” – There were so many ways that dramatizing the story of Emmett Till in a feature film could have gone terribly wrong, both in the exploitative direction and the sanitized direction. But by making a movie chiefly about a mother’s profound grief for her son, at the heart of a much larger national disgrace, co-writer/director Chinonye Chukwu finds the right way in. That said, this is an actor’s movie if I’ve ever seen one, and in the lead role, Danielle Deadwyler delivers the performance of the year. The first time I saw the movie was on a computer screen – a viewing format that almost always leaves me feeling detached – and yet, I was so completely grabbed by the emotion of Deadwyler’s Mamie Till that everything else around me disappeared.
- “Petite Maman” – So many films try to encapsulate the milestones of childhood without actually getting the feel of it right. With this gem of a compact fable, filmmaker Céline Sciamma astutely realizes that the emotional experience of being a kid – and the way we look at the world from that vantage point – is actually what we yearn for and what tells us the most about ourselves as adults. This movie examines grief in a way that only an eight-year-old’s eyes could reflect back at us.
- “The Fabelmans” – To call this “Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical love letter to cinema” is completely reductionist, though for the record, I would have happily taken just that, too. But Spielberg accomplishes so much more with “The Fabelmans,” which feels less like an ode and more like a chronicle of a young man teaching himself to use a medium to say things that he cannot on his own. The so-called “magic of the movies” isn’t just what they can share with an audience, but the very language they allow us to speak. The film also strikes me as one of the most honest celebrations of the American family I’ve encountered in some time: filled with plenty of anguish and trauma, but ultimately, it’s the engine that keeps on driving us.
- “Memoria” – There’s something truly special about the way Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest work is being presented to audiences, at least in the U.S. The film will purportedly never be made available for home consumption here, and will continue to have theatrical playdates in perpetuity, creating a real sense of urgency when it pops up in a cinema near you. This release strategy perfectly complements the way the movie works on the viewer, demanding rewatches, but also a good amount of time in between each viewing. You want it to sit with you, to work its magic on you in the gaps between exposures. To be able to study it too many times in rapid succession would allow it to be falsely intellectualized; theories about “what it all means” would crystallize with unearned certitude. It’s the kind of movie that benefits from fading in your memory a bit, so you’re once again struck by its transcendental power the next time you see it.
- “RRR” – S.S. Rajamouli’s jaw-dropping, epic Tollywood reimagining of the resistance against British rule in India arrived at the exact right time, just as superhero fatigue began to really set in for certain broader-minded American moviegoers. Here’s an action film with a familiar-enough structure and narrative arc for Marvel viewers, but it actually dares to innovate with its set-pieces, escalation, and ultimate climax. It also wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that few American blockbuster filmmakers would be vulnerable enough to allow, buoyed by two winning lead performances and a wonderful friendship at the center. And don’t even get me started on the music, which I have gleefully enjoyed on repeat in the privacy of my home more times than I am willing to admit.
- “Tár” – For all that recent American films have tackled the alleged abuses of the rich, powerful, and connected in entertainment and the arts, few have thoughtfully interrogated the psychology that underlies these. This is to say, many of the heralded works covering the #MeToo era seem all too inclined to blame capitalism and misogyny for creating the power structures that enable abusers, without necessarily attempting to understand the abusers themselves (no surprise given their collectivist underpinnings). But “Tár” raises the provocative question: Is the hubris that enables one to rise to the highest creative heights born of the same strain as that which allows one to justify one’s mistreatment of others? Does artistic transcendence actually lie right at the brink between the socially acceptable and unacceptable? As meticulously navigated by filmmaker Todd Field and lead actress Cate Blanchett, these questions take on real weight in a film that profoundly wrestles with the very notion of consequence. And for my money, “Tár” sticks the landing in the year’s single best audiovisual sequence.
- “Top Gun: Maverick” – Not since “Titanic” has a blockbuster that has played this broadly been this perfectly realized. I’m not the biggest sucker for onscreen sentiment, nor am I particularly fond of the original “Top Gun.” But I had a huge smile on my face from the first frame of “Top Gun: Maverick” to the last. And it wasn’t just the way the movie evoked a certain comfortable feeling of a bygone era of blockbuster filmmaking, when Tom Cruise was King. It was that it actually had the goods to back this feeling up, as well. It’s the entire package, immaculately constructed from top to bottom, both in terms of the interpersonal drama (you’d be forgiven for thinking we’d already spent a movie following Cruise and Jennifer Connelly together, but we hadn’t) and the invigorating flight sequences. The best big-screen spectacles require us, as audience members, to be willing to give ourselves over to them just ever so much, only to pay us back more in return. In the case of “Maverick,” the slot machine overfloweth.