As my counterpoint to the Oscars, and in keeping with my longstanding practice, I offer my own list of the best films of 2022, interspersed with related opinions about what and who deserve more celebration than they get inside the Hollywood machinery. I've seen nearly every Oscar-nominated film, and in the neighborhood of 150 films this year (as every year), and to my mind, these are the works the deserve to be prioritized. So here is the list itself:
1. 1. She Said
2. 2. Nope
3. 3. Living
4. 4. Cairo Conspiracy
5. 5. Prey
6. 6. The Inspection
7. 7. 2nd Chance
8. 8. RRR
9. 9. Free Choi Sol Lee
. 10. Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical
1. She Said tells a difficult story—indeed, an array of difficult stories--with consummate care. Although it is regularly compared to other feature films about heroic journalism (think “All The President’s Men” and “Spotlight”), I would put it in a separate category; it’s a story about women’s experience that would not have been told without the painstaking work of careful and courageous women, and the story of how that story came to be told reflects the painstaking work of more careful and courageous women. The execution here is, to my mind, superior to the afore-mentioned films, in part because of whose voices are centered, the deep understanding of systemic harm that is reflected in this film, and the ethic of care that is adhered to with such rigor in delivery of the story. To my mind, it’s the best film of the year.
This could have been a dry procedural infused with self-congratulation—but the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, whose pursuit of the story of Harvey Weinstein’s serial abuse of scores of women in Hollywood is ostensibly the focus, don’t exude that sort of energy, either in interviews or in the book on which the film is based. As reflected in the film and in interviews, they evince genuine interest in why this story was so difficult to tell—the forces arrayed against the telling, mostly implicating people who didn’t rape or abuse anyone.
Decades of violence by Weinstein was an open secret in Hollywood, facilitated and protected by an entire community that contributed to the near-impossibility of exposing and reckoning with that secret. In this case, the difficulty of breaking the story is part of the story, held with sensitivity and care in the screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and under the clear-eyed direction of Maria Schrader. The efforts—the collaboration—of these women (including also excellent performances by the entire cast, notably Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Carey Mulligan as Twohey, and Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle as two of the many women whose courage contributed to exposing Weinstein) becomes a depiction of solidarity, a purposeful practice of many people assuming a share of the load of great suffering with the goal of alleviating that suffering. The feat that all of these artists and fighters have pulled off here is much harder than it looks, and their work here contains wisdom beyond what most films attempt to offer. Shame on the Academy Awards for not a single woman director and nearly all men for screenplay awards—this was one of the big misses, including for Best Picture.
(In English; rated R for language and descriptions of sexual assault; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture (it would be my pick); Best Director (Maria Schrader, who would be my pick), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Rebecca Lenkiewiczw, who also would be my pick); on at least 8 other critics’ top movie lists; available on streaming platforms)
2. Nope is Jordan Peele’s third feature, and perhaps his most inscrutable. Peele is a master at misdirecting and unsettling and unnerving the audience, and this film never lets up on that. The themes here are harder to discern than in “Get Out” and “Us,” which topped my lists in 2017 and 2019. Yet I think that may well be the point. Peele manages to keep you both unsettled and engaged, a feat few filmmakers can touch, and in doing shakes up assumptions you didn’t know you had.
The story here involves two siblings—a taciturn Daniel Kaluuya and a voluble Keke Palmer—with a legacy of wrangling horses for the film industry. After their father dies in a disturbing and mysterious way, the two find themselves battling an inexplicable danger—a space invader? An alien? Which movie are we in? Stephen Yeun, especially fascinating, appears as a former child star with a surprising response to childhood trauma and this newest danger, and the siblings find two other quirky collaborators in their quest to understand the source of the danger and perhaps capture it in an “Oprah-shot” on film. How each challenge is depicted and fought is endlessly surprising and inventive, and each character’s instincts contrast with the others.
It's best to experience the film without spoilers—and then to experience it again. My own sense is that Peele is playing around with the ways in which we humans seek to control and exploit forces we assume are at our behest, and with just how wrong we can be. Each of the characters has slightly different instincts around power and domination. Do they seek to understand? To dominate? To exploit? To collaborate? Peele seems also to be interested in how such instincts play out in the film industry itself, even as he scares and confuses and entertains and messes with his film’s audience.
I’m not finished thinking about this film, and will likely see it a few more times. Peele has a way of inspiring that; there is always more to see and more to ponder. In this particular case, I suspect this film may be best understood as being about power—who has it? Who is really in charge? What moves do we really have?
[In English; rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Jordan Peele), Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay (Jordan Peele); on at least 107 other critics’ top film lists; available on streaming platforms]
3. Living is a quiet film that contains depths of meaning beyond what most critics appear to have caught. Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day”) adapted the screenplay from Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ikiru” and set the story in 1950s London, but the film is not specifically about its setting. If anything, the setting might, if we let it, help us notice parallels in our own current lives.
The basic story is of a civil servant, Williams (an excellent Bill Nighy), who heads one of several offices in a government building that appear to function entirely to ensure that nothing ever actually happens. Each day Williams and his underlings sit in a dull space with stacks of paper around them, exchanging no more than perfunctory conversation as they move the papers around. Occasionally a citizen will enter and ask that some action be taken; inevitably that person will be directed to another office, where they will experience the same thing.
Williams appears untroubled by his circumstances—until, early in the film, he learns that he is dying. For a few days, he is flummoxed; everything he has so meticulously maintained seems meaningless. But eventually, he returns to the office with a determination to live, and becomes someone entirely unlike his former self.
How he changes deserves the quiet attention offered by this observant film. He is still quite subdued—but now much more curious. When a group of ladies visits his office asking for permission to build a playground in an abandoned city space (as they have done over and over again for months to no avail), this time he listens to them. He inquires as to the proposed location, and visits the site for himself. Instead of sending the women from office to office, he visits various offices with them, and even begs the functionaries in more than one office to facilitate approving what the women want to accomplish.
I am spoiling the plot a bit here, but in aid of helping you notice the contours of Williams’ transformation. As is revealed in pieces, Williams goes from being in sync with a world where nothing ever gets done to devoting all of the life force it turns out he has to going against those instincts. He risks being annoying, an irritant. He gets his feet muddy. He waits in line for hours. He asks for things, and keeps asking, and thanks people individually when they say yes. What seems simple and obvious is actually profound, and much more unusual than we want to notice. This is where Williams’ quest to begin living takes him—and also where it would take us.
[In English; rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and smoking; received and deserved Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Ishiguro, my pick of the nominees) and Best Actor (Nighy—wonderful, though I would give the award to Austin Butler for “Elvis”); also deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Oliver Hermanus) and Best Picture; on at least 18 other critics’ top film lists; available on streaming platforms.]
4. Cairo Conspiracy (also known as “Boy From Heaven”) had only the most limited run in Portland and has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves. It took me deep into a world I understand almost nothing about, yet reflected back complicated insights, familiar to me but not commonly understood, about how treacherous it can be to navigate spaces where power games are being played.
The story centers on Adam (Tarfeek Barhom, excellent), the devout and studious son of a fisherman who lives in a small Egyptian village. He is thrilled to be offered a coveted opportunity to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the center of power for Sunni Islam. Before long, however, Adam finds himself caught in the center of high-stakes conflicts between power elites in the religious and political establishment. Integrity and intelligence are all he has to work with to save himself and his family.
Writer-Director Tarik Saleh, who grew up in Sweden, is Egyptian on his father’s side and cites his grandparents among his influences; his grandfather studied at Al-Azar. Saleh does masterful work translating this world to those of us who do not understand it, exposing elements that are troubling but doing so without the fear and judgment and othering so prevalent in Western explorations of Islam. I’m curious how someone with closer connections to this culture would feel; to me the film did not seem to center a Western gaze, which I appreciated.
I felt the challenge of entering a world where women are so peripheral, but also noted power dynamics that are quite familiar to my Western experience. The skills Adam must acquire are skills I relate to—he never imagined stakes this high, or the need for alertness this acute. And the lessons he has received even from good teachers have not prepared him with the necessary skill to discern who to trust and how to navigate terrible options. Watching him unlock what incentives will influence a rare person with integrity and thereby save himself is riveting and instructive. This is a film I will return to again and again.
[In Arabic; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Tarik Saleh), Best Original Screenplay (Tarik Saleh, who would be my pick—he actually won at Cannes), Best Actor (Tawfeek Barhom), and Best International Feature Film (it would be my pick); not on any other critics’ top film lists; not yet available streaming but I think there is reason to hope given how well the film did at Cannes, where it also was nominated for the Palme d’Or.]
5. Prey is not the sort of film I expected would end up on my top-ten list; it’s a prequel to the Predator franchise of alien action films. But this one takes what I find to be a more interesting angle than the previous installments; it’s set 300 years ago and centers on members of the Comanche nation in the Great Plains of what is currently known as the United States. Its protagonist is a young Comanche woman trained as a healer who wants to be taken seriously as a hunter.
What transpires, then, is a battle of wits between the woman, Naru (a very compelling Amber Midthunder), and the Predator, in which she employs her wits, her skill as a tracker, and her knowledge of the terrain to meet challenge after challenge, backed only by a faithful dog and belief in herself. It’s also the story of someone moving beyond the expectations of her culture’s expectations for her, cannily portraying ways in which that can be a strength and can also make one’s work harder.
Though this is not a documentary, care was taken to honor indigenous wisdom in creating the film. The indigenous characters are played by indigenous actors; Comanche tribal experts were consulted and cast members were also allowed to bring bits of their own tribal identifiers. Although the plan to film in Comanche was scrapped for English, one can watch it dubbed in Comanche. And though French settlers are also depicted, their language is not subtitled; Comanche people are centered in this story much like European settlers have been centered in an endless array of stories, a welcome and mindful shift of focus that serves this story well.
It's a too-rare pleasure watching indigenous characters display the sort of centuries-old mastery of their environment that came to be so devalued and obliterated. It’s a special pleasure to watch Amber Midthunder employ the most elemental of tools (including her own body) to fight a bear or a space alien or a French trapper or the young men of her tribe. And Dan Trachtenberg’s direction keeps the action moving; it doesn’t suffer from the overblown qualities so common to films of this genre. Watch for the cave drawings at the end of the film, which cleverly depict the legend we just witnessed and the dangers that lie ahead.
[In English, French, and Comanche; rated R for strong, bloody violence; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Daniel Trachtenberg), Best Actress (Amber Midthunder; Best Original Screenplay (Patrick Aison), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture; on at least 22 other critics’ top film lists; available for streaming on Hulu.]
6. The Inspection is not a film I enjoyed watching, and yet it is a film I will watch again. It’s the story of a Black gay man, Ellis French (brilliantly played by Jeremy Pope), who, after ten years on the streets, decides at age 25 that joining the Marines is his best option for escaping a life of homelessness, danger, and despair. If that is the choice a Black gay man makes, you know he is desperate; rejected by his mother, French trades a life on the streets for abuse and degradation in Marines basic training. It’s hard to contemplate and harder to watch.
Even while I was watching it, though, I knew the experience was important. Writer-director Elegance Bratton was himself rejected by his mother and joined the Marines in the era of “don’t-ask-don’t tell” after ten years living on the streets. The screenplay is heavily autobiographical, particularly as to the interactions with French’s mother Inez, brilliantly embodied in an unsparing performance by Gabrielle Union. The mother-son scenes are excruciating, not least because Union conveys how, in Inez’s mind, she loves her son but can’t love who he is. Bratton has said that directing Union’s work here healed him; she so faithfully captured the essence of his actual mother, with whom he was not able to find resolution before she passed away.
The military scenes are, in many ways, even harder to watch. No part of me is okay with the deliberate dehumanization that is part of basic training, and when you add the ways that toxic masculinity plays out as to a Black gay man, the senselessness of the breakdown is all but unbearable to witness. What I admired, though, was Bratton’s relentless commitment to the truth of his story. Perhaps because he has said that he is grateful for the decade he spent in the Marines, the film has received some criticism for being pro-military. In an interview with WBEZ Chicago, he noted, in response to such criticism, that his film is neither pro-military nor anti-military, but rather “pro-truth.” Indeed it is—and that feels important. His is a story that deserves attention, and we are blessed that he possesses the skill and willingness to tell it with such rigorous honesty.
[In English; rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some nudity and violence; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director (Elegance Bratton), Best Original Screenplay (Bratton), Best Actor (Jeremy Pope), Best Supporting Actress (Gabrielle Union), and Best Picture; on at least 6 other critics’ top film lists; available on several streaming platforms.]
7. 2nd Chance is the first feature length documentary by writer-director Ramin Bahrani, two of whose fictional films (“White Tiger” in 2021 and “Chop Shop” in 2006) made it onto my previous lists of the year’s best films. Bahrani’s work reflects an interest in the choices people make to improve their fortunes, particularly those at the margins, and I sense that his lens on those concerns is impacted by his social location as the American-born son of immigrants from Iran. As with his prior films, this film reflects a sort of open-handed curiosity that I really admire; complicated humans (that is, all humans) stay complicated under Bahrani’s gaze.
Richard Davis, whose life is the focus of this documentary, is definitely complicated. He invented and made a sizeable fortune from the concealable bulletproof vest, shooting himself nearly 200 times as part of his case to market his product. He did other things too, including keeping a record of lives saved by his vests and creating propagandistic films retelling the stories of the saves. He quite eagerly speaks for himself for much of the film, and Bahrani wisely lets Davis himself point us toward the increasing reasons to question his versions of nearly every story told, about his own life, about the saves, and about the success of 2nd Chance, his now-defunct company.
Others chime in too, including two ex-wives, an array of friends and ex-friends, and a man whom Davis attempted to pay as a teenager to take the fall for something to avoid blame finding its way back to Davis. The steady unraveling of pieces of Davis’s story opens up reasons to question how his promotion of his vests and the attendant propaganda contributed to a shift in the way we think about police in this country, and also to question what other similar dynamics may have contributed to those shifts. Often those who find success in a country or institution reflect back things about the country or institution itself, and the story of Richard Davis, in Bahrani’s skillful hands, definitely offers insights in that vein It deserves a broader audience.
[In English; not rated; should have received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature (and would be my pick); not on any other critics’ top ten list; available to stream on Amazon Prime.]
8. RRR has become a global phenomenon, and rightly so. It’s impossible to imagine a more audacious, over-the-top display of action, dance and musical production, and melodrama. It makes the Hollywood Marvel universe look tepid by comparison.
Set in the 1920s during British colonial rule of India, the film builds a rivalry and bromance between two impossibly virile and handsome men taking different routes to challenging the colonizers. Raju (Konidela Ram) is a police officer who appears to have chosen the route of cooperation; he accepts the task of capturing Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.), a tribal man who is on a quest to rescue a girl from his village who has been captured and enslaved by a British governor and his wife. Through a mix of attraction and deception, the two dreamboats become friends, enemies, and collaborators by turns, along the way performing impossible physical feats, out-performing all the Brits, and charming a British woman or two along the way.
The colonizers here are the most ruthless of villains—not actually far from the truth—so the stakes are as high as they need to be for maximum drama. Most Americans, including me, aren’t informed enough to sort through political signaling here that is likely problematic, though I do recommend listening to a good discussion of the film on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, which interrogates some aspects of Hindu nationalism and caste on display that deserve attention. I don’t mean to minimize those concerns—but with some hesitation about what I am celebrating without being able to fully interrogate it, I am going to go ahead and celebrate it. The scale and quality of the artistry here is so dazzling and joyous and beyond compare, I am compelled to acknowledge “RRR” as among the best films I saw this year. You won’t find a more exhilarating way to spend three hours.
[In Telugu and English; not rated; received and deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (“Naatu Naatu,” my pick); also deserved nominations for Best Director (S.S. Rajamouli), Best International Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, and Best Film Editing; on at least 78 other critics’ best film lists; available to stream on Netflix but see it on a big screen if you can, which is actually still possible in some cities.]
9. Free Chol Soo Lee brings long-overdue attention to a story whose invisibility reflects our collective failure to notice or care about injustice or about fights to overcome it. Lee immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea as a child and, as a 20-year-old, was racially profiled and convicted of a Chinatown gang murder that members of the Chinese community could have told authorities he did not commit had they bothered to care. After he spent years inside San Quentin prison, where he was targeted by gang violence and ended up on death row, Lee’s case caught the attention of a Korean-American journalist whose work to raise its profile sparked a widespread social movement of Asian Americans who collaborated to advocate for Lee’s release.
This complicated and important story is told with great care by directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi. Lee fell through a series of cracks; he survived a difficult childhood marked by abuse, poverty, and racism, only to be sucked into the criminal legal system, where police failed to even follow up with any of his alibi witnesses. He spent years inside the carceral system where the stakes of racism and violence are only raised from the already untenable levels experienced outside. The social movement that finally achieved his release is remarkable for its clarity and concern about someone who had been so easily discarded—yet he then suffered again from the lack of any reckoning with the injustices that had robbed him of so many formative years and had left him traumatized.
This film should be required viewing for anyone involved in administering the criminal legal system and, frankly, for all of us who live at a safe distance from the impacts of racial profiling and the othering experienced by immigrants and refugees and the currently and formerly incarcerated. Attending to Lee’s story can point the way to much of our work that we neglect at the expense of those with the least power and resources.
[In English and Korean; rated PG-13, presumably for mature themes; deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature; on at least one other critic’s best film list; available on streaming platforms.]
10. Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical hasn’t gotten near the appreciation it deserves. Benefitting from a spectacular lead performance by Alisha Weir, a beautifully and meaningfully diverse and talented cast, crisp and inventive direction by Matthew Warchus, and gloriously complex production numbers packed with children wrangled by choreographer Ellen Kane (whose name you really have to dig for), it’s a feat of imagination and inventiveness and heart.
The story revolves around the title character, a tiny genius who drew the short straw in the parent department. While other parents recognize their children as miracles (a focus of one of the delightful musical numbers), Matilda’s father can’t even bother to learn her gender and both parents (Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough, both terrifically despicable) view her as a curse and a bore. Left to fend for and educate herself, Matilda finally ends up in a school whose headmistress is the sort of sadist that only Roald Dahl could dream up (perfectly embodied by Emma Thompson at her horrifying best). Matilda’s instinct for revolutionary zeal ends up liberating not only her adorable classmates but the gentle teacher, Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), whose fate ends up being curiously linked to her own.
There’s a dark edge to the proceedings, since it’s Dahl, but my grandsons (then aged four and seven) adored the film; the mean parts are surrounded by such color and joy and inventiveness that many kids will be able to absorb it. As for the adults who love them—particularly those who, like me, were failed by the adults who were meant to care for them as children—the ingenious struggles for liberation and hard-won moments of triumph here may be particularly satisfying. They certainly were for me.
[In English; rated PG for thematic elements, exaggerated bullying and some language; deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Matthow Warchus), Best Visual Effects, and Best Production Design; on at least 3 other critics’ top film lists; available to stream on Netflix.]