These are the movies that impressed me most in the last twelve months, regardless of platform. Some were released elsewhere in 2021, but if they didn’t open in St. Louis until January, I count them as 2022 titles.
You’ll notice that, except for one, none of them are sequels, franchise extensions, or involve superheroes and comic book characters. Two are based on the exploits of real people, while others are stories that debunk the claim that “Hollywood doesn’t do anything original anymore.”
The vast majority of these did not put up big numbers at the box office. Sadly, they represent the kind of independent and small-budget titles that struggle to find an audience — which is why I’m happy to promote them with this list. Even sadder, there isn’t a single movie below that could be described as an out-and-out comedy. Yes, many of them do have funny elements, but making an audience laugh from start to finish seems to have died as an art form in Hollywood.
My capsule reviews are below, and you can read my full reviews by clicking on the title of each movie.
#1) “Nope” Jordan Peele’s latest is not a straight-up horror movie, but a somewhat scary sci-fi story brilliantly told. It tells the tale of the Haywood siblings — Emerald (Keke Palmer) and OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) — who run a California ranch that supplies horses for movies and TV shows. After a power outage and a freak storm that kills their father, OJ notices an odd cloud in the sky that doesn’t move with the others, and suspects it may be hiding an alien ship. It doesn’t take long for Emerald to come to the same conclusion. So does Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), who runs a cheesy Wild West theme park and loves to tell the story of his days as a child actor on a 1990s sitcom. As writer and director, Peele wisely keeps the audience as much in the dark as his characters about what’s happening in the sky, and is in no hurry to reveal the alien ship. In fact, the pacing of the entire movie is rather matter-of-fact, allowing Kaluuya and Palmer plenty of time to develop their characters. In addition, Peele’s audio technicians have created an aural atmosphere that enhances the mood of “Nope” so well — including the weirdest version you’ll ever hear of Corey Hart’s 1984 hit, “Sunglasses At Night.” (Peacock)
#2) “Till” The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 caught the attention of the nation, and became one of the linchpins of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu has made a very effective reminder of that moment in history, which is sadly not taught to the vast majority of Americans. She does it by focusing “Till” on Emmett’s mother, Mamie, who raised her son in Chicago and was leery of him going to a small sharecropping town in Mississippi to spend time with his cousins. Three years ago, Chukwu impressed me as writer/director of “Clemency,” an under-seen movie starring Alfre Woodard in a captivating performance about the warden of a prison who has to oversee the executions of inmates given the death penalty. “Till” is even better, a reminder to never let the echoes of our ugly past fade away. (Video on demand)
#3) “She Said” This is the story of how New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults against up-and-coming actresses and women who worked for him at Miramax. Director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz do an excellent job of revealing not only the difficulties Twohey and Kantor faced in investigating the story — while under pressure from Weinstein, his attorneys, and his acolytes — but also the impact it had on the journalists’ lives as the mothers of very young children. Every single member of the “She Said” cast is perfect, especially Mulligan and Kazan, who portray the professional, personal, and emotional demands Twohey and Kantor faced. (Video on demand)
#4) “Top Gun: Maverick” Tom Cruise still looks every bit the major movie star he’s been for four decades, complete with that famous megawatt smile. The bottom line in a movie like this comes down to the action sequences, and the ones in “Top Gun: Maverick” are pretty amazing. It’s no wonder that Cruise — one of the executive producers — said he would never allow this movie to debut on a streaming service. It really should be seen on the largest possible screen to experience the speed of the dogfights, the tension of the attack runs, and the sight of a big-time movie star doing what he does best. Derivative though it may be (it’s a sequel, after all), with plot developments you can see coming at Mach 9, “Top Gun: Maverick” delivers on its promise of good, escapist entertainment in a way few other titles did this year. (Paramount+ and video on demand)
#5) “The Banshees Of Inisherin” I’m not sure whether this Martin McDonagh movie is a very dark comedy with tragic overtones or a tragedy with light comic undertones. It takes place on Inisherin, a small island off the coast of Ireland where nothing much happens. Every day at 2pm, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) goes to get his longtime friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson), and the two walk up to the town pub for a pint. Or at least that was the custom. But as the movie opens, Colm doesn’t answer the door when Pádraic knocks, nor even look out the window when he raps on the glass. Something’s caused their friendship to fracture, but Pádraic has no idea what it is. At its core, “The Banshees Of Inisherin” is about loneliness, which can be a powerful depressive, and how it can still be a better alternative then being bored to death by the same people day after day. It’s not a feel-good movie by any means, but it is another example of McDonagh’s expert ability to pull us into small stories in small places populated by oddballs. (HBO Max)
#6) “Don’t Worry Darling” Florence Pugh plays Alice, a 1950s housewife whose entire suburban life revolves around her husband, Jack (Harry Styles). He works at the headquarters of a company called Victory, leaving at the same time every morning as the other men in their cul-de-sac, who depart in a neat line as their loving wives stand in their driveways, wave goodbye, then go inside to clean the houses. When Jack returns home, Alice is there at the front door with a drink for him and the dinner she’s prepared. The first hour of “Don’t Worry Darling” had me thinking this was some remake of “The Stepford Wives,” and I had no idea where it was going as Alice gets an inkling that things in her world aren’t what they appear. From there, the movie turns into a combination of “Pleasantville,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and an episode of “Black Mirror.” But that’s all I’ll tell you, because to reveal more would be to spoil the fun. (HBO Max)
#7) “Emily The Criminal” Aubrey Plaza plays the thirty-something title character, a young woman desperate to pay down tens of thousands in student loans but unable to find work because she has a felony conviction on her record. With few income options, she reluctantly becomes involved in a credit card ripoff ring and finds she not only likes the scam, she’s good at it, too. In his first feature, writer/director John Patton Ford has sculpted a clever story that’s unobscured by fancy camera work. Instead, he lets Plaza and the rest of the cast take their time in each scene, and doesn’t over-edit the results. Plaza has been known for light comedy, but proves in “Emily Is A Criminal” that she’s just as good at drama. (Netflix)
#8) “Empire Of Light” Sam Mendes’ latest is not a movie about movies, or about movie theaters. It’s about the people who work at The Empire, a grand art-deco movie palace which has fallen on hard times. We meet the ticket seller, the concessionaire, the projectionist, and the ushers, and are drawn into their personal stories and inter-personal relationships. With a cast including Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Michael Ward, and Toby Jones, “Empire Of Light” is such a pleasure to watch, as we learn about characters who are fully developed, relatable, and acted to perfection by a top-notch cast led by Colman, who is exceptional. (Still in theaters)
#9) “The Menu” This is about a bunch of rich, pompous foodies who spend $1,250 each to have dinner at the world’s most exclusive restaurant, The Hawthorn. The place is on its own island, lorded over by Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), who’s known for preparing the kind of pretentious meals where every course involves items plated with tweezers. He’s surrounded in his kitchen his chief assistant Elsa (Hong Chau) and a crew of obedient sous chefs who respond like cult members to the commands he issues like a drill sergeant. Among the diners are Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, Judith Light, Reed Birney, and Janet McTeer. Everything seems to be going along fine until the third course, when the entire experience goes off the rails — for the customers, not us. “The Menu” contains tasty morsels of wicked commentary on the kind of one-percenters who would visit The Hawthorn, as well as the super-foodies who swoon when they’re served items like “charred milk lace” with a side of foam. (HBO Max beginning 1/2/23)
#10) “Language Lessons” Every once in a while, it’s nice to watch a quiet movie, with no special effects, no stunt people on fire, and no car chases. “Language Lessons” fits the bill perfectly. It begins with Adam (Mark Duplass) being gifted a series of Spanish lessons by his husband. The teacher, who will work with him via video, is Cariño (Natalie Morales). From early on, the relationship between Cariño and Mark has an informal nature that isn’t typical of a teacher and student. And when tragedy strikes, it forms an undercurrent that runs through the rest of “Language Lessons.” Because the movie is framed entirely through Zoom/Skype calls, it doesn’t have the usual combination of camera angles and options. We only see the characters as they see each other, with no close-ups, master shots, or pans and zooms. To my surprise, that drew me in even more, as if not having them in the same room somehow added intimacy. (HBO Max)
Coming tomorrow: the Almost Best Movies of 2022.
And on Friday: my Worst Movies Of 2022 list.