The film critic’s year-end list of favorites has always struck me as a provisional undertaking at best, a flawed but essential attempt to bring some coherent framing to a year’s worth of cinematic plenty. Any honest list, however comprehensive its sweep or authoritative its posture, is made in the full awareness of potential lapses, blind spots and, yes, in-the-moment errors of judgment.
The 2022 halftime report that follows must therefore be reckoned even more hasty, unreliable and premature. Given the glut of movies that will be unveiled over the next six months – many of them timed to drop during that competitive annual scourge we call awards season – I have no idea how many of these terrific 12 will land among my top favorites come December. Even still, despite how cinematically backloaded each year invariably is, I’m gratified by how many good and even great movies I’ve seen released in the first half of 2022 alone.
I’m also dispirited, if hardly surprised, by how quickly so many of them evaporated from theaters, assuming they played in theaters in the first place. The speed at which independent movies now pass through screening venues, en route to their hopefully long VOD shelf lives, is nothing new. What’s especially alarming now is how many art-house theaters, hit hard by the pandemic shutdowns of the past two years, are themselves exiting the fray.
The permanent closure of Arclight Cinemas / Pacific Theaters last year continues to sting, even if some of their locations have reopened thanks to major chains like AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas. In May, the Landmark Theaters chain closed its 12-screen Westside Pavilion location, a major loss for LA moviegoers. One small but real source of relief: knowing that my own neighborhood art house, Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse 7, will survive and reopen later this year under Landmark ownership.
But no movie lover – and no lover of theatrical moviegoing – can afford to take this cherished pastime or their favorite venues for granted. I’m as heartened as anyone by the record-setting box office for “Top Gun: Maverick,” but movies without blockbuster budgets, franchise hooks and / or Tom Cruise face as uphill a battle as they ever did.
Here are just a few of the recent best, listed in (roughly) alphabetical order:
‘Benediction’ and ‘Great Freedom’
Two wrenching dramas about what it meant to lust, love and survive as a gay man in earlier, more oppressive eras of European history. “Benediction,” a portrait of the English poet Siegfried Sassoon and his struggles through love and war, is one of Terence Davies ’most piercingly personal works, built around a career-peak performance by Jack Lowden. In Sebastian Meise’s tender and harrowing “Great Freedom,” Franz Rogowski is equally galvanizing as a German man for whom prison offers the unexpected comforts of love, sex, community and refuge. (“Benediction” will be available for streaming July 26. “Great Freedom” is available to stream on Mubi or to rent or purchase on multiple platforms.)
‘Crimes of the Future’ and ‘Gourmet Flux’
The funniest, freakiest comedies of the year so far both imagine hard-to-stomach forms of performance art: wild gastronomical soundscapes in Peter Strickland’s “Gourmet Flux” and anesthesia-free abdominal surgery in David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future.” But for all their outlandish, satirical touches, both movies are also fundamentally serious-minded undertakings, and they treat their artist protagonists with the kind of tenderness that points to the presence of real artists behind the camera. (“Crimes of the Future” and “Gourmet Flux” are available to rent or purchase on multiple platforms, but both are also still playing in theaters – see them as soon as you can.)
Like some of the strongest abortion-themed dramas to emerge from this young century (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”), Audrey Diwan’s searing adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir made for urgent viewing even before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Through the unflinching power of Diwan’s filmmaking and the watchful intensity of Anamaria Vartolomei’s performance as a 1960s French university student seeking to end a pregnancy, the movie conjures a vision of a distant past that has become, in this country and beyond, a harrowing glimpse of the present and future. (Available to rent or purchase on multiple platforms.)
‘In Front of Your Face’
The terrific, tireless South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has made in some ways his simplest, most direct and emotionally resonant movie in years, as well as his most visually striking. Shot in warm, vibrant colors, it follows a once-famous actor (a remarkable Lee Hye-young) returning home to see her sister, revisit her old stomping grounds and investigate a rare opportunity. With aching delicacy and deftly hidden surprises, Hong strikes familiar chords of rueful melancholy but also finds a wellspring of life-affirming beauty best summed up by the movie’s title. (Available for streaming this fall.)
The knot in your stomach tightens and tightens as you watch this ridiculously suspenseful and engrossing story about three volunteer workers who venture into a woodsy, muddy stretch of countryside to offer relief to the poor – and discover firsthand what it means to be in dire need of assistance. The result is the Romanian director Radu Muntean’s strongest movie since his exceptional “Tuesday, After Christmas” (2010); moral drama doesn’t get much more unsparing in its clarity or compassion. (Available to stream on Mubi.)
It went straight to HBO Max, but Steven Soderbergh’s supremely nimble paranoid thriller is the best movie I’ve seen emerge from an American studio so far this year. Replete with shoutouts to “Rear Window,” “The Parallax View,” “The Conversation” and, yes, “Home Alone,” it’s also an acutely empathetic, even hopeful portrait of one woman (a superb Zoë Kravitz) and the world around her emerging from mid-pandemic limbo. The final ripsnorting is one for the ages. (Available to stream on HBO Max or to rent or purchase on multiple platforms.)
With its booming volcanoes and rampaging warriors, its incantatory monologues and muddy, bloody torsos, Robert Eggers’ mad and magnificent howl of a Viking epic demanded to be seen and heard on the biggest screen possible. But that’s no reason not to fire it up at home, where you can thrill to the wholly committed performances of Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman and a seashell-bedecked Björk. (Available to stream on Peacock or to rent or purchase on multiple platforms.)
The shortest feature on my list runs a perfectly chiseled 72 minutes and never leaves the grounds of a public elementary school, but within those constraints, the debuting Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel creates a fully realized world. As a 7-year-old girl who endures and bears witness to cruel and entirely commonplace bullying, Maya Vanderbeque is simply astonishing. (Available to rent or purchase on multiple platforms.)
The longest feature on my list runs more than three hours and earns every supercharged minute. Already the second-highest-grossing Indian film of all time in America (it’s grossed more than $ 140 million worldwide), SS Rajamouli’s Telugu-language sensation is a hellaciously entertaining mash-up of history and legend, politics and romance, hyperviolent action and song -and-dance musical, venomous snakes and throat-mauling tigers. As the two mighty warriors whose tender bromance becomes a truly infernal affair, NT Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan are forces of nature. (Available to stream on Netflix.)
‘The Tsugua Diaries’
As a backwards-unspooling movie about moviemaking, this sly, summery delight from the Lisbon-based filmmakers Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes might sound like François Truffaut’s “Day for Night” crossed with Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” But while it’s a model of narrative invention – and one of the loveliest surprises to emerge from COVID-era shooting restrictions – it has an intoxicating, wistfully enchanting vibe all its own. (Available for streaming Aug. 10.)