In 2022, the last remaining shreds of pandemic-delayed movies trickled into theaters, otherwise known as places that might be destined for the bulldozer. Major chain Regal/Cinemark is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings and AMC's stock price has returned to its pre-wallstreetbets lows. In my neck of the woods, Atlanta's beloved Regal Tara theater has closed, though the continued thriving of the independent Plaza theater is a bright spot thanks to a combination of expanded screens, repertory shows, and local partnerships. Compounding the concern for film is the looming collapse of streaming services thanks to increased borrowing costs and oversaturation. The days of a streamer throwing nine figures at an esteemed director seem to be ending as surely as they did for traditional studios.
All those bad omens haven't reached the movies themselves. The key takeaway from the biggest films of 2022 was the value of earnestness, as demonstrated onscreen and by box office returns. Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water both eschewed the tongue-in-cheek irony of the year's subpar-to-terrible MCU offerings, perhaps signaling the end of meaningless that-just-happened script punch-up that increasingly robs superhero pap of any emotional weight. Everything Everywhere All at Once spends its last act begging audiences for kindness, receiving ecstatic praise and breeding the kind of strident fandom that's allergic to kindness. While my favorites of a given year are always going to trend towards the dark and the cynical and the anti-earnest, it's notable how the year's biggest successes aimed less for messages and more for happiness, and not the kind that evaporates like a sugar high as soon as the lights go up. This year wasn't a great one in my estimation, but it does give me hope that stagnant creative trends might be reversing even as financial ones look more and more dire. As long as the French keep funding their genius auteur's pet projects, we should be ok.
Apollo 10 and 1/2: A Space Age Childhood
What Is It: A Houston preteen gets drafted into the space program, but his daily existence is just as interesting as flying to the moon.
Why's It Here: Richard Linklater is the king of finding meaning in the mediocre and the regular, and his semi-autobiographical Rotoscoped nostalgia trip is transporting as a jaunty kid film and as a historical document, loaded with lived-in detail from the dangerous yet comforting Texas suburbs.
MVP: Linklater, finally returning to high quality output after a six year period that featured two prominent misfires.
What Is It: The best live action representation of the Batman is brought to life by Matt Reeves, a director who brings a distinct visual style and something to say about the character and his world.
Why's It Here: 2022 was Marvel's worst year yet, leaving an opening for rival DC to cement its place atop the superhero hierarchy. After 2021's excellent The Suicide Squad, The Batman reinforces that if superhero movies are going to have any value, they have to consider what their presence would mean in a world that resembles the real one. Reeves and his cast do exactly that, justifying their film's existence and putting it in a Fincher-esque package.
MVP: Michael Giacchino's score sets the tone from the film's opening, pounding and building and battling between sad violins and angry horns that mirror the interior of the film's iconic central character.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
What Is It: A delirious fantasia from the directors of Farty Boner Corpse (Swiss Army Man) brings life to the multiverse, far away from the machinations of a turgid comic book franchise begrudgingly mentioned earlier.
Why's It Here: Everything Everywhere All at Once has been acclaimed by its most fervent fans as the frontrunner for the best film of the decade thus far, and if its big earnest emotional swings work on the viewer, that's an understandable argument. I found them too blunt by half, but there's so much else to chew on in an ambitious film that jumps between universes as smoothly as ketchup on hot dog fingers.
MVP: Michelle Yeoh as the multiverse-traveling protagonist has been on a roll in recent years, and EEAAO provides her with a starring vehicle that stretches her considerable powers as far as they can go, which it turns out is a long way.
What Is It: Despite being omnipresent on cameras and in interviews, David Bowie remains a mysterious figure in Brett Morgen's documentary of the British glam icon.
Why's It Here: Overpowering in its use of imagery and Bowie's music, Moonage Daydream resists a linear retelling of its subject's life in exchange for a psychedelic dissection of Bowie's public persona and if a person who made himself so available was knowable at all.
MVP: Morgen, pulling triple duty as writer, director, and editor, crafts the definitive cinematic volume of one of the 20th century's great artists, and one that seems like something that Bowie himself might've liked.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
What Is It: A feature-length expansion of a series of adorable youtube shorts, Jenny Slate squeaks out the voice of a little shell in search of his family.
Why's It Here: Marcel is this year's Paddington 2, an irresistible feat of nicecore filmmaking alongside a technical stop-motion achievement and a contemplative piece on occupying one tiny corner of a big world.
MVP: Isabella Rossellini as Marcel's grandmother, weary and loving and poignant in a beautiful voice performance.
The Banshees of Inisherin
What Is It: In this gloomy and wry Irish battle of wills between two old friends, different approaches to the second half of a life become irreconcilable.
Why's It Here: Martin McDonagh makes his masterpiece with a film that embodies sadness and disappointment while never getting anywhere close to being the gray slog worthy of that kind of description.
MVP: Colin Farrell is at his very best as a man who wants nothing more than pints at the pub and cuddles with his donkey, and cannot understand why other people don't feel the same way.
What Is It: A brutal retelling of the Hamlet story in its Norse origins, The Northman stomps across Scandanavia in an animalistic frenzy.
Why's It Here: It's the year's most bone-rattling cinematic experience, and will always be remembered as one of the last films I saw at the aforementioned dearly departed Tara Theater. The Regal app screwed up my ticket and the helpful clerks got me seated before the first rattling notes of the film's militaristic score.
MVP: Robert Eggers, master of the immersive historical film, gets a bigger budget than he'll ever see again and puts every single dollar onto the screen.
What Is It: A young girl who just lost her grandmother translates her mother's grief into magical realism, zapping herself back in time to a period when her mother was the same age.
Why's It Here: Petite Maman packs an incredible level of detail and emotion in its brief runtime, asking the viewer to consider the unknowability of their parents in the present and in the past while also being as flawless a depiction of kid behavior since another titan of French cinema, Francois Truffaut, was making 400 Blows.
MVP: Writer/director Celine Sciamma cements her status as one of the world's premier filmmakers with this quiet follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Second-prize goes to editor Julien Lacheray for a match cut worthy of Laurence of Arabia.