WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best movies of 2022

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews his Best Movies of 2022 (Part 1)

As society emerges from the pandemic, moviegoing remains hard to track in our new streaming reality.

The box office was once again predictably ruled by superhero blockbusters, including “The Batman,” “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder,” while “Avatar: The Way of Water” will surely make a run at the top-grossing title upon its release this weekend.

On the flip side, “Elvis,” “The Whale,” “Till,” “Living,” “Bardo,” “Babylon,” “Causeway” and “White Noise” are Oscar contenders, while I also enjoyed genre flicks like “Barbarian,” “Beast,” “The Black Phone,” “Fire Island,” “The Outfit,” “Spirited,” “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.”

And yet, none of these movies made my highly subjective Top 10 list.

So what made it? Before we get to the list, here are a few superlatives:

Superlatives

-Biggest Surprise: “Prey” (Dan Trachtenberg)

Who knew the seventh installment of the “Predator” franchise would kick so much ass with a strong heroine?

-Biggest Letdown: “Empire of Light” (Sam Mendes)

The trailers made it seem like a nostalgic love note to cinema, but the heavy tone was devoid of any magic.

-Underrated: “She Said” (Maria Schrader)

This journalism procedural won’t win Best Picture like “Spotlight,” but Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan are Woodward & Bernstein for #MeToo.

-Overrated: “Decision to Leave” (Park Chan-wook)

The director’s cleverly symbolic visuals are undercut by a jumbled script that pales to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

-Growing On Me: “Nope” (Jordan Peele)

Better than “Us” but no “Get Out,” I’d love to watch this flick again with the creature as an allegory for fame.

-Better on a Big Screen: “RRR” (S.S. Rajamouli)

I wish that I saw this Bollywood blend of slow-mo action and dynamite musical numbers on a big screen.

-Not Yet Released: “Women Talking” (Sarah Polley)

This dialogue-driven piece doesn’t open until January, so I can’t include it, but it deserves all of the acclaim.

As for animation…

Favorite Animation of 2022

3. “Turning Red” – Domee Shi
2. “The Sea Beast” – Chris Williams
1. “Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood” – Richard Linklater

Not really a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” by the way.

And now, on with the list…

10. ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’

Directors: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

I hate when best lists only include Oscar bait from November and December, so to represent the earlier part of 2022 is this wacky March release that has surprisingly become an awards contender. Never has a film lived up to its title more than “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the most bonkers movie you’ll ever see, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. The film is stuffed with wild creativity by filmmaking duo The Daniels from hot-dog fingers to everything bagels to hilariously random “jumping pads” that trigger each parallel universe (backwards shoes, bursts into song, even butt plugs). The real triumph is Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) playing multiple versions of herself as she explores alternate universes. I remain leary of the “multiverse” trend in recent comic-book movies because it’s a slippery slope for chaotic storytelling in lazier hands. I honestly don’t think the premise should ever be repeated again. Let “EEAAO” exist on its own as a unique sci-fi action comedy that is now A24’s top-grossing flick. I won’t be rooting for it to win Best Picture, but if it’s nominated at the Oscars alongside “The Fabelmans,” it will provide a wonderful reunion between Steven Spielberg and Ke Huy Quan, who makes a welcome comeback decades after playing Short Round in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and Data in “The Goonies” (1985).

9. ‘Triangle of Sadness’

Director: Ruben Östlund

After his family skiing masterpiece “Force Majeure” (2014) and his Palme d’Or winner “The Square” (2017), Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund won the Palme d’Or again at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with “Triangle of Sadness,” a surprisingly accessible yet deeply profound social commentary in three acts. The first act explores evolving gender dynamics, the second act spews seasick political satire aboard a luxury yacht steered by Woody Harrelson, and the third act becomes a survivalist allegory like “Lord of the Flies.” The shocking conclusion may be hard to watch, but the overall journey is a brilliant takedown of global class divisions.

8. ‘Hustle’

Director: Jeremiah Zagar

Adam Sandler is on a roll, from last month’s tribute at the indie Gotham Awards to this week’s announcement as the next recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It’s about damn time. Highbrow circles are finally recognizing what we’ve all known for years: Sandler is hilarious. After memorable “Saturday Night Live” characters (Opera Man, Cajun Man, “Lunch Lady Land,” “The Chanukah Song”), he became a mega movie star in “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” and even a romantic in “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates.” His latest film, the Netflix original “Hustle,” casts Sandler as an NBA scout who visits Spain to recruit a 6-foot-9 prospect (Juancho Hernangómez). It’s a winner, blending comedy, drama and sports in the same lane as “Jerry Maguire.” By the way, if you liked “Happy Gilmore,” check out Mark Rylance in “The Phantom of the Open” about the worst round of golf ever at the British Open.

7. ‘Tár’

Director: Todd Field

Eight years after J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning conductor in “Whiplash” (2014), Cate Blanchett is poised to follow suit for her tour-de-force performance as fictional Berlin Philharmonic conductor Lydia Tár. Director Todd Field crafts symbolic mirror reflections and haunting apartment sounds to create dread like Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” while his script delivers a voyeuristic #MeToo subplot for a Placido Domingo-style scandal that rivals the “She Said” takedown of Harvey Weinstein. The most fascinating scene is Lydia’s defense of Bach and Beethoven to a young BIPOC student at Juilliard, who says, “White male, cis composers are just not my thing.” It’s a nuanced conversation about identity politics in society’s ongoing debate of separating “art vs. artist,” which is the exact moral judgment that the film asks us to make about Tár’s orchestrated transgressions.

6. ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’

Director: Martin McDonagh

After his controversial award contender “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), filmmaker Martin McDonagh delivered his best film in years with the black comedy “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which could win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Colin Farrell is fantastic as a kindhearted man with a pet donkey on a remote island off the coast of Ireland who is stunned when his best friend and drinking buddy (Brendan Gleeson) suddenly ends their friendship. The supporting cast is also fantastic, from Kerry Condon as his loving but restless sister to Barry Keoghan as an awkward, troubled young islander. It all adds up to a beautifully bizarre tale of wistfulness that actually caused me to laugh out loud from its tragicomic tone. It certainly won’t be for everyone (I can’t quite put my finger on why…), but if you don’t absolutely hate it, you just might love it.

5. ‘Top Gun: Maverick’

Director: Joseph Kosinski

The year’s top-grossing blockbuster was “Top Gun: Maverick,” a sequel 36 years in the making. It featured some of the silver screen’s finest aerial action sequences that weren’t just random dogfighting but served as narrative test runs to prepare viewers for the climatic mission. Tom Cruise’s scenes with an ailing Val Kilmer were emotional, Miles Teller recalled Goose singing “Great Balls of Fire” at the piano, and the final shot of Jennifer Connelly cleverly flipped the finale of Kelly McGillis. Granted, much of this was just playing the hits, right down to the iconic soundtrack. Such nostalgia wouldn’t exist without Tony Scott’s original pop-culture phenomenon “Top Gun” (1986), so it’s hard to give Joseph Kosinski credit for copying the flight pattern. Still, in an era of dwindling moviegoing, there is something to be said for a popcorn movie that got folks back into theaters.

4. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’

Director: Edward Berger

In 1929, German World War I veteran Erich Maria Remarque argued the futility of war in his novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In 1930, Hollywood filmmaker Lewis Milestone turned it into the first Best Picture Oscar winner of the talkie era. This year, German filmmaker Edward Berger delivered a surprisingly powerful remake, juxtaposing extreme wide shots of the beautiful French countryside with immersive close-ups of violence in the trenches. The most horrific sequence shows no gore at all, just tattered clothing of dead soldiers being matter-of-factly bagged up, mended on sewing machines like an assembly line, then shipped off for a new crop of naive soldiers to wear in battle set to Volker Bertelmann’s blaring three-note score. Nearly a century later, our old battle lines fade to reveal a humanistic portrait that reminds us that war is mankind’s worst addiction.

3. ‘Aftersun’

Director: Charlotte Wells

Most movies tell a plot-driven story with a traditional narrative of twists and turns. Other films take a more impressionistic approach for a memory piece that you won’t soon forget. “Aftersun” is a shining case of the latter as Scottish debut filmmaker Charlotte Wells crafts a tenderly experimental film diary about her father who died when she was just 16. Child star Frankie Corio gives arguably the performance of the year as Young Sophie, who uses an old-school camcorder to document a vacation to Turkey with her single dad, played by a brilliant Paul Mescal as the father she did and didn’t know. You won’t find a better example of a filmmaker finding dynamic ways to visually fracture an intimate space: shadows on the wall, reflections on table surfaces, even a whole conversation unfolding as we watch a Polaroid develop. These aren’t just nifty tricks for snazzy shots; they speak to the themes of memory and time, building to a strobe finale that is burned into my brain.

2. ‘The Fabelmans’

Director: Steven Spielberg

“The Fabelmans” brought back so many great childhood memories of making home movies on camcorders, now told through the lens of the most popular Hollywood filmmaker of our time. Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical journey opens with Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) filming a reenactment of “The Greatest Show on Earth” with his model train set. The train crash becomes a metaphor for his own dissolving family, as Teen Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) films events leading to the divorce of his right-brained mother (Michelle Williams) and left-brained father (Paul Dano) — yes, Spielberg positions them on those respective sides of the bed before projecting their skeletons inside a closet. It’s a film that Spielberg could not have made while his mother was still alive. The bittersweet message builds to a final scene that cinephiles will adore as John Ford (David Lynch) inspires a final camera tilt on a Hollywood backlot that made me laugh out loud with delight.

1. ‘The Woman King’

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Two decades after her beloved romance “Love & Basketball” (2000), director Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers the best battle epic since “Braveheart” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2000). It’s that good, applying a diverse cast to good old-fashioned spectacle storytelling. Set in the 1820s, “The Woman King” follows the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to 19th centuries. Viola Davis shines as the multi-dimensional General Nanisca, who bravely leads the army while overcoming her own deep personal trauma, while Thuso Mbedu steals the show as her young trainee under the tutelage of an excellent Lashana Lynch. The only thing working against the film is historical inaccuracy as the Agojie were themselves slave holders. Instead, the script reimagines things by inventing a fictional Nanisca to convince the Dahomey king (John Boyega) to end the slave trade. Is this revisionist history? Wishful thinking? Of course, but so were Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019). Groundbreaking filmmaker Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) recently ranked “The Woman King” on her Top 10 ballot for Sight & Sound magazine’s Greatest Movies of All Time, so if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to objectively name the “best movie of the year.” All you can do is name the film that resonated with you the most based on what’s going on in your life, and for me personally, “The Woman King” is timely cinematic proof that strong women can overcome anything.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews his Best Movies of 2022 (Part 2)

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