“It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot,” says Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick, a wryly self-reflexive line of dialogue reminding us that the one thing a star vehicle really needs is a star. But while Maverick is undeniably a “star text”—a movie contoured to the myth and mystique of Tom Cruise—it’s wrong to reduce director Joseph Kosinski to a wingman: His steady hand helps the film achieve liftoff. When looking at the best movies of 2022 so far—Maverick among them—the common denominator is keen, inventive directorial choices that either reconfigure conventional material in unpredictable ways, pare stories down to their essence, or show us things we haven’t seen before (and maybe aren’t sure we want to). A few movies on this list are holdovers from last year’s international festival circuit, but there’s also an encouragingly solid percentage here of multiplex-friendly titles—movies that don’t have to be sought out, so much as met and appreciated on their own populist terms.
Whether or not special effects guru Phil Tippett’s stop-motion labor of love—produced over a period of 30 years and released to streaming on Shudder this summer—is actually one of the best films of 2022 is beside the point. In an era of compulsory CGI when genuinely visionary imagery is rare, this beguilingly tactile vision of an analogue apocalypse, set in a Boschian hellscape whose inhabitants and their backdrop have been literally handcrafted in miniature-slash-maximalist detail, qualifies as a heroic act. The film is disorienting, disgusting, and, at times, genuinely disturbing; think Tim Burton minus the cuteness, or maybe a vintage Tool video stretched (and gorily distended) to feature length. Tippett, who once joked that the animated dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were going to make him extinct (a line that made it into the movie), has drawn—or, more truthfully, physically etched—a line in the sand on his side of the uncanny valley. The best compliment you can pay to Mad God is to say it’s made in the image of its creator.
10. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair
Jane Schoenbrun’s nifty dish of internet creepypasta draws a bead on online loneliness and isolation; think Unfriended except there’s no actual ghost in the machine. Drawn into a mysterious role-playing game that asks its participants to record testimonials about their psychological and physical mutations, an impressionable teenage girl starts believing in her own transformation. As a simultaneously perverse and tender coming-of-age story, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair vibrates with empathy for its heroine while also finding the right mix of curiosity, skepticism, and empathy for the older male gamer who’s styling himself as her white knight for reasons known only to him. When the history of 21st century screen-life horror movies gets written—or blogged about—Schoenbrun’s inventive cult favorite will warrant its own chapter.
9. Jackass Forever
Alternate title: More Crimes of the Future. It’s a good bet that David Cronenberg’s body-artist Saul Tenser would get along with Johnny Knoxville—they’re both willing to put their lives (and limbs) on the line for the purposes of entertainment. Knoxville doesn’t take too much punishment in Jackass Forever, using his elder statesman position to victory lap around past triumphs and bask in his own surprisingly elegant middle-aged gravitas, but when it’s his turn he steps the fuck up. Knoxville is ably supported by a younger generation of self-destructive daredevils who seem so happy to be part of the franchise that they don’t mind being on the wrong end of everything from punches to paintballs to poisonous spiders, all of which is filmed with the same sense of deadpan slapstick that’s made up the greatest torture-porn movie series of all time. There won’t be a funnier, cringier scene this year than The Silence of the Lambs bit featuring the troupe locked in a dark room with what they think are poisonous snakes slithering around. Good luck trying to breathe.
8. Both Sides of the Blade
Love hurts in Claire Denis’s films, and Both Sides of the Blade is as jagged as anything she’s made in the past 15 years. Ten years ago, Sara (Juliette Binoche) left her monied lover Francois for rumpled, tender ex-con Jean (Vincent Lindon); now, Francois is back, and after recruiting Jean to help run his new rugby team, he’s pursuing Sara as well. Or is Sara the hunter? Shot in a tense, pressurized style that feels closer to a horror movie than a romantic drama—all off-center close-ups, pitch-black Parisian nightscapes, and brooding mood music via Tindersticks—Both Sides of the Blade explores the double-edged nature of intimacy: the mix of comfort, desperation, and terror that comes with truly knowing or being known by another person. The lead actors are phenomenal, with Lindon inhabiting a weary decency coursing with electric currents of insecurity and Binoche plunging deep into the skin of a woman at the mercy of her own crossed wires. The only thing she knows is that she doesn’t know what—or who—she wants.
I had S.S. Rajamouli’s previous Telegu-language blockbuster, Eega, on my list of the best foreign-language films of the 2010s, and RRR is even more rousing and accessible: an epic period drama about two Indian revolutionaries—mythic stand-ins for real-life figures—battling the British Raj in 1920. Verisimilitude isn’t really Ramajouli’s thing: He’s a purveyor of broad, stylized, seriocomic chaos, a gifted and unpretentious hybrid of Baz Luhrmann and James Cameron who puts showmanship first. And he should, because he’s a really great showman. The movie’s two big set pieces—a turbo-charged ensemble dance number and a fiery siege featuring a menagerie of lethal CGI animals—are so much more choreographically sophisticated than anything Marvel has produced that they seem to belong to another medium. At three hours, RRR’s relentless pacing and endless narrative reversals can feel punishing, but the overall effect is exhilarating. When’s the last time a big-budget action movie felt like too much of a good thing?
6. Top Gun: Maverick
Speaking of too much of a good thing, Top Gun: Maverick is also over the top—which is where a movie set in fighter planes belongs. No less warnographic than its flag-waving mid-80s predecessor—and no less hackneyed as a male-bonding melodrama—Maverick nevertheless shows us exactly how a legacy sequel should be done: with shock, awe, and a sliver of self-awareness. If the movie is propaganda, what it’s selling isn’t so much American military power as the enduring might of Tom Cruise’s persona. His performance here is priceless; flashing that same old smile and flaunting that same old six-pack, he makes Pete Mitchell an ageless, flawless, and maybe soulless icon to rival Dorian Gray. It helps that the filmmaking is pretty much impeccable, with director Joseph Kosinski providing the kind of clear, streamlined action sequences that make blockbuster spectacle feel fun instead of mandatory.
Audrey Diwan’s prize-winning drama keeps the camera close to its protagonist, observing the world—or more specifically, a prosperous French university campus circa 1960—in shallow focus from over her shoulder. The visual idea of a character who’s blurring out everything around her works beautifully for a story about a young woman trying to procure an illegal abortion—a scenario that obviously resonates in an American present tense, but betrays no sense of opportunistic topical engineering.
Happening is adapted from a memoir by Annie Ernaux, which accounts for both its sense of grimly lived-in experience and subtly literate sensibility. What’s at stake in the heroine’s journey is not just a matter of biological choice or political defiance, but a future in a world that’s already difficult for a young woman to penetrate. Anamaria Vartolomei’s lead performance is necessarily and intensely physical—and subject to some harrowing bodily choreography in the homestretch—but what binds us to her is a sense of the perceptive, gifted writer trapped behind weary, terrified eyes.
The great British director Terence Davies specializes in a brand of thinly veiled confessional, delicately filtering elements of his own autobiography through the lives of other great artists in a dualistic act of solidarity and projection. In 2016’s excellent A Quiet Passion, he found kinship in the self-effacing genius—and despair—of Emily Dickinson; in Benediction, his surrogate is the WWI veteran Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote haunting, politically charged poems about his time in the trenches and ended up as one of Britain’s most famous public dissenters. For the most part, Benediction eschews combat movie tropes and focuses instead on its subject’s troubled private life, including his affair with the composer Ivor Novello. But, the horrors of the battlefield are never far from Siegfried’s mind. Superbly incarnated by Jack Lowden (as a young upstart) and Peter Capaldi (in his embittered domestic dotage), the character seems to be buckling under the psychic weight of his own experiences and the responsibility of enshrining them in verse. As always, Davies’s careful craftsmanship and keen sense of melancholy (as opposed to melodrama) keeps the film subtle, but not benign; its portrait of the artist as a broken man gets under your skin.
3. Crimes of the Future
The end is the beginning: The post-millennial dystopia of David Cronenberg’s latest looks an awful lot like ancient Greece, and the shocking murder of a child in the opening scenes riffs with complexity on the myth of Oedipus. More abstractly, Crimes of the Future grapples with the collateral damage of generational warfare as the human race goes down to the wire. Yet somehow, a movie about civilizational breakdown and the impending necessity of living off our own waste products—of bodies evolving in defiance of known science to consume and subsist off of recycled plastic—is more hilarious than horrific. Cronenberg’s hero Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, impersonating his director) is a deadpan performance artist who resents sprouting auxiliary tumors, but is happy to show them off for fun and profit (including to a very organ-horny Kristen Stewart, contributing the best line readings of the year). The question of where Crimes ranks among its maker’s murderers’ row of genre masterpieces is irrelevant. At once sparse and thematically loaded, it’s the sort of visceral-slash-cerebral provocation that only Cronenberg could—or would—make in the first place. Meet the new flesh, same as the old flesh.
2. Hit the Road
Panah Panahi is a chip off the old block. His father, Jafar Panahi, is one of the greatest living Iranian filmmakers, and the warm, subtly political Hit the Road honors the family legacy. The story line, about a middle-aged couple trying to smuggle their eldest son out of the country while keeping his precocious little brother in the dark, is as simple as it gets, but Panahi uses it to mine a wealth of human, social, and cultural dynamics. Even the most static, stalled sequences are filled with ideas and humor (the clan’s affectionate name for their youngest member is “shithead”). There are also a few startling, unexpected nods to American movie classics—including an all-timer from Stanley Kubrick—which suggest the scope and breadth of Panahi’s own personal cinephilia, and give the idea of global, accessible arthouse filmmaking a good name.
In which Tilda Swinton copes with her bouts of insomnia by searching for the source of some otherworldly, middle-of-the-night sounds. It’s a slender, surreal story line on which Apichatpong Weerasethakul can hang his usual array of enchantments. What the Thai auteur does can technically be categorized as minimalism, but there hasn’t been a more spacious, generous movie on display this year than Memoria, which juxtaposes loneliness and obsession against some larger, cosmic sense of mystery. In a summer in which Jordan Peele looks set to riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apichatpong activates his own distinctive sense of Spielbergian wonder. One sequence, set by a riverside outside of Bogotá, depicts the thin line between life and death—and cinema and dreaming—with heart-stopping clarity, making us aware of the smallest physical movements in ways that prove more mesmerizing and rewarding than the typical big-screen spectacle.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.