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HomeAwardsJ. Don Birnam's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2022

J. Don Birnam’s Top 10 Favorite Films of 2022

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The end of the year means it’s time to reflect on those failed resolutions, plan new futile ones for 2023, and think back on the best moments of the previous 12 months. This includes sifting through some of our favorites in the world of entertainment to find the Top Ten “Best” (or, as I like to call them, my “Favorite”) films of the year, which has become something of a tradition here at Below the Line.

As we mentioned last year, 2021 was a watershed moment for an industry crippled by COVID, as moviegoers only returned to theaters in full force for big-ticket items like Spider-Man: No Way Home. At the same time, 2021 featured a glut of excellent filmmaking, with so many great movies held back from 2020 due to the pandemic. In my view, 2022 presented a sort of “worst of both worlds” scenario, and therefore marked a step backward for an already-hobbled industry.

Movie theater ticket sales remained abysmally low, with only Marvel and tentpoles like Avatar: The Way of Water making any serious noise. Sure, there were surprises like Top Gun: Maverick that had something to say about that, but even major franchise entries such as Jurassic World Dominion and Lightyear came up short given their sky-high box office expectations. At the same time, and making matters worse, the number of brilliant auteur films dipped dramatically, with significant misses from greats such as Damien Chazelle and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Though it is cliché to say that this was a bad year for movies — and it fairly begs the question of just how many movies the critic saw — statistically speaking, some years are bound to be worse than others, and the uncomfortable truth is that 2022 was simply one of those years, at least for this critic.

Still, I did tremendously enjoy at least the following 10 films, for the following reasons:

Top Gun: Maverick
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick/Paramount Pictures

10. Top Gun: Maverick – How can one deny the person who is perhaps the last action hero, the last true movie superstar? Tom Cruise shows no signs of slowing down with Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 classic Top Gun. At a fundamental level, this film has a lot to offer below-the-line connoisseurs. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda helps take your breath away during the film’s high-speed flying sequences, and a great score based on Harold Faltemeyer’s original, but refashioned by the brilliant Hans Zimmer, gives a new veneer of excitement to the proceedings (along with yet another impressive original song from Lady Gaga). But, really, a movie like this is best enjoyed as the sum of all of its well-oiled parts. Cruise and his co-stars Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, and Jon Hamm, all, well, ham it up exactly as needed. The baddies have changed since 1986 but the stakes remain high, and Jerry Bruckheimer‘s mission is still the same — to show you a damn good time at the movies and deliver, high-octane, popcorn entertainment in its purest form. Rarely has the raw power of Hollywood felt this exciting…

Till movie
Danielle Deadwyler and Jalyn Hall in Till/United Artists Releasing

9. Till Danielle Deadwyler gives the year’s best performance by any actor in this harrowing depiction of the real-life murder of young Emmett Till in Mississippi in the 1950s. Chinonye Chukwu returns to the director’s chair after the equally evocative Clemency, but this time she pulls out all the stops in producing a naturally effective tearjerker that is both intimately personal as well as sociopolitically majestic. Nice, era-appropriate costumes by Justine Seymour and a quiet but effective score by Abel Korzeniowski add to the proceedings, which are already adorned by strong supporting performances from Whoopi Goldberg and Sean Patrick Thomas. But Deadwyler’s performance alone is enough reason to watch this film and why Till landed on this list. She delivers an incredibly nuanced performance as she plays the grieving mother, the resolute activist, and the determined woman with convincing tones and gestures. It is method acting at its finest, and Deadwyler’s devasting turn elevates an otherwise straightforward movie into rare company in 2022.

The Eternal Daughter
Tilda Swinton in The Eternal Daughter/A24

8. The Eternal Daughter – Tilda Swinton stars as the title character in this Gothic mystery film from writer-director Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir). In the film, a woman and her aging mother — both played by Swinton thanks to makeup — find themselves in a mysterious, quiet, and seemingly haunted hotel, where they’re forced to confront family secrets and resentments over the course of several tense meals, naps, and chitchats. As they amble through the beautiful, mysterious environs in which the entire film takes place — kudos to Production Designer Stephane Collonge — we soon realize that all is not as it seems in this silent but ethereal place. There are ghosts, sure, but those are relatively easier to explain than the strange juxtaposition of mother and daughter, who sometimes blend together. The latter is ridden with a sense of guilt, the former with one of regret. Hogg’s clever script is aided tremendously by careful editing by Helle Le Fevre, though it is Swinton who — as she has so many times before — takes the entire project and runs with it, showing us why she is one of the greatest actors of her generation.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed image via NEON

7. All The Beauty and the Bloodshed – Laura Poitras’ award-winning documentary, her first since the daring Citizenfour, takes on Nan Goldin’s own pursuit of justice against the Sackler family and the role they’ve played in the opioid crisis that has gripped America. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Poitras’ movie works because it’s both her as well as Goldin’s. Interspersed between the activist artist’s efforts to bring the Sacklers to justice are vignettes about her own life, including her troubles with addiction and abuse, and her own complicated relationship with her sister, as told mostly through photographs. A documentary about a particular person is typically effective when it gets deep into their psyche and reveals new layers about the subject to the viewer. Here, though, Poitras goes even further — perhaps than any documentarian ever has when analyzing a particular persona — as she makes Goldin’s pursuit her own, and effectively merges them. Poitras is not just telling a story about Goldin, her travails, and her inspirations. Goldin is telling the story, or at least Poitras is letting her do so by projecting her voice without getting in her way. On the contrary, Poitras enhances Goldin’s voice, to the point where by the end of the film, you will be properly outraged by the Sacklers and the injustice that surrounds their many misdeeds.

Decision to Leave
Decision to Leave image via CJ Entertainment

6. Decision To Leave – The brilliant Korean director Park Chan-wook returns with South Korea’s next attempt to repeat Parasite’s improbable feat at the Academy Awards. Decision to Leave is essentially a murder mystery that follows an insomniac detective who is somewhat estranged from his wife and is thrust into the mysterious death of a retired immigration worker. But this is much more than a whodunit and much more than an analysis of a broken marriage. As with everything from Park Chan-wook, the dreariness of existence — in South Korea, for sure, but also humanity in general — is front and center. Punctuated by haunting cinematography that is as eerie as the score by Jo Yeong-wook, a frequent collaborator, Decision to Leave examines — like at least one other movie on this list — what motivates people to abandon relationships and situations that are inexplicably no longer satisfying. It is that dreary realism, that realization that little is for granted and that even less matters, that makes this such a compelling, difficult, and memorable movie.

Great Freedom
Great Freedom image via Filmladen Filmverleih

5. Great Freedom Sebastian Meise’s Austrian film about an imprisoned gay man in post-World War II Germany who develops a long-life relationship with a convicted murderer is one of the best films released in the U.S. this past year, though it was Austria’s Oscar submission in 2021. Georg Friedrich stars as Viktor, a closeted man who wonders why he served his country when that very country rejects him. The relationship he develops is at times familiar to movies about men in repressed societies, but it is also simultaneously moving and uniquely emotive. What makes Great Freedom ultimately so special is the twists of fate that the complex relationships between these two — and other — men lead them to. The originality of Meise’s script, accompanied by a painfully personal score from Peter Brotzmann, combine to deliver one of the strongest cinematic gut punches of this year.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening
Three Minutes: A Lengthening image via TIFF

4. Three Minutes: A Lengthening – Using three minutes of lost footage from a home video shot in 1938, this incredible Bianca Stiegler documentary, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, brings ghosts back to life, all the while effectively explaining the purpose of life. Using a film shot by David Kurtz in a Jewish town in Poland months before the start of World War II, Kurtz’s grandson teams up with Stiegler to engage in top-notch investigative reporting and later, storytelling meant to reconstruct life as it was for the people in the movie before the great horrors that were to come, as well as, when possible, the horrors that did ultimately befall them. Never has a filmmaker — documentary or otherwise — succeeded in pulling off Stiegler’s improbable trick: using just three minutes of footage (together with some black screens and interposed pictures) to tell a full feature-length story about anyone, let alone one this gripping.

Cate Blanchett Tar
Cate Blanchett in TÁR/Focus Features

3. TÁR – Cate Blanchett’s bravest film to date — and the one which could easily land her a well-deserved third Oscar — is my third favorite film of the year. In this film, director Todd Field and his ruthlessly inventive script tackle difficult questions surrounding “cancel culture.” To even take on this third rail of a subject in an industry that likes to eat its own is bravery worthy of admiration. But, there is more to it than that. Blanchett gives the performance of her career — saying a lot, I know — as the titular Lydia Tár, an ambitious, cut-throat symphony director who will stop at nothing to thrive in a male-dominated industry. When she realizes that equality may just mean equality — both in triumph, but also in defeat and public embarrassment — things in her life take an unexpected turn. The last 20 minutes or so of this film may have lost me, but the prior two-and-a-half hours represent the best filmmaking I’ve seen in years. Do not sleep on Bina Daigler’s post-modern, hyper-stylized costumes, as well as Oscar winner Hildur Guonadottir‘s tender yet dangerous score.

The Banshees of Inisherin
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson in The Banshees of Inisherin/Searchlight Pictures

2. The Banshees of Inisherin – Martin McDonagh returns to the big screen after his successful Three Billboards Over Ebbing, Missouri Oscar campaign with a film that is likely to return him and his collaborators to the Dolby Theater early next year. In Banshees, two lifelong friends played by an excellent Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson become abruptly estranged, exposing the pointless ennui of life as one greys and grows older. The two leads are superb and carry a dark, deep, and at times disturbingly funny script well across the finish line with the tremendous help of Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon in supporting roles. While fiddling over lost digits, McDonagh manages to ask deep questions about existence and happiness — almost as deep as the touching ones asked by the last film on this list — without falling into clichés, and he uses uncomfortable humor to pull us back from the total abyss of desperation. Featuring a beautiful score by Carter Burwell as well a perfectly somber cinematographic aesthetic by Ben Davis, The Banshees of Inisherin fires on all cylinders, creating a complete masterpiece that is well worth the torture of repeat viewings.

Everything Everywhere All at Once
Everything Everywhere All at Once image via A24

1. Everything Everywhere All at Once – When I saw Daniels‘ brilliant film starring the incredible Michelle Yeoh early in 2022, I suspected nothing could overtake it as my favorite film of the year, and more than nine months later, my suspicions proved correct. At a time when Marvel is struggling mightily to define its multiverse and explain to us what parallel dimensions and alternate realities may look like, Daniels did it in a way that made it look easy while having much more fun than many recent comic book movie offerings. Ke Huy Quan is touching as an absent-minded father and Jamie Lee Curtis is great as a frumpy bureaucrat turned killer ninja. All of them deserve Oscar nominations, but it is Yeoh who steals the show, proving her versatility as an actress with great emotional range who can also handle action and physical comedy. The movie really is about everything, everywhere, all at once, and offers a unique, original, and sincere vision of the point of life, the universe, time, and everything in between. I’m impressed with how ambitious Daniels were to even attempt to pull off this project, and I’m even more impressed that they did so successfully. Everything Everywhere All at Once was the massive injection of originality that Hollywood needed at a time when there were few good reasons to attend movie theaters. If its ingenious stamina and spunk could be somehow replicated, everything would be A-OK.

For more of J. Don Birnam’s film reviews from this past year, click here. And click here to read Isaac Feldberg’s top 10 films of 2022 on Above the Line.

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