The Countdown

Vikings, cows and lots of Michelle Yeohs: The best films of 2022, ranked

The Independent’s chief film critic Clarisse Loughrey has rounded up her top 15 movies of the year – 12 months in which Paul Mescal was sad, Tilda Swinton was confused and Tom Hanks was incomprehensible

Monday 05 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Best in Show: ‘Bones and All’, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, ‘Decision to Leave’, ‘The Northman’ and ‘Nope’
Best in Show: ‘Bones and All’, ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, ‘Decision to Leave’, ‘The Northman’ and ‘Nope’ (Warner Bros/A24/Mubi/Universal/iStock)

In an uncertain world, cinema has chosen to look inwards. Perhaps there’s a dose of narcissism there (with Hollywood, certainly, there always is). But so many of this year’s films have been propelled by natural, vulnerable impulses: to return home, to think back on youth, to reconsider art’s purpose. They’re present in James Gray’s autobiographical Armageddon Time, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s self-reflective Bardo, the dark comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, and Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Even the biggest blockbusters, Top Gun: Maverick and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, seem weighted with self-reflection. My own favourite 15 films, all released in the UK over the past year, have each themselves proven that the medium still has the power to heal the soul.

15. Happening

Audrey Diwan’s Happening tore into cinemas this April on the back of an oracle’s cry. The film follows Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei), a student in Sixties France who discovers she’s pregnant, a decade before abortion was legalised in the country. Released while Roe vs Wade lay on its deathbed – it was overturned in the US Supreme Court two months later – it brought with it a sickening realisation that there would soon be many more Annes in the world. Restrained but unyielding, Happening captures the vast isolation of life without solidarity (even her most sympathetic friends turn their back on her, out of fear of retribution). Neither does it shy away from the brutality of the unsafe alternatives those like Anne are forced to pursue. Chapters mark each passing week of her developing pregnancy. Anne’s body becomes a ticking clock. No horror film this year could conjure terrors this visceral.

14. Neptune Frost

A rapturous, Afrofuturistic explosion of political thought and deep-set emotion, the Burundi-set Neptune Frost is a musical shaped by the work of Saul Williams, who co-directs alongside Anisia Uzeyman. With a stringent anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist voice, it traces the twinned fates of an escaped coltan miner (Kaya Free) and an intersex runaway (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo). Somewhere in another dimension, they forge a spiritual and romantic connection within a computer hacker collective. Neptune Frost is a work of limitless imagination and Afrofuturistic in its purest sense, as coined in 1994 by critic Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future”. First, the film shows us how so many of society’s most incorporeal things – information, freedom, gender, our vision of the future – still come under the boot of those in power. Then it shows us what could be achieved once that power is wrested away from them.

13. Cow

Cow may be Andrea Arnold’s first documentary feature, but its resilient, confrontational spirit makes it no different from the likes of her Red Road (2006) or American Honey (2016). She’s always been concerned, in one way or another, about the material limits of a woman’s freedom, and what happens to those who try to push beyond those barriers. What’s surprising about Cow, though, is the nature of her rebellious protagonist – a bovine named Luna, living on an industrial dairy farm somewhere in the south of England. We see her experience the mundane cycles of captive life: birth, milking, eventual death. But Luna seems to see us, too. Again and again, she will look down the barrel of Arnold’s lens and let out a declaratory moo. Each of them is as rich and provocative as any theatrical monologue.

Read our original review of ‘Cow’ here.

12. Decision to Leave

Depending on your viewpoint, standing at the centre of Park Chan-wook’s woozily masterful Decision to Leave are two lovers. Or would-be lovers. Or should-have-been lovers. They are Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and his current suspect, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), whose rock climber husband was found dead at the bottom of a steep rock face. The film’s part-Vertigo, certainly, in the way Hae-joon’s professional interest in Seo-rae quickly spirals into personal obsession. But Park resists expectations, for Seo-rae is no ordinary femme fatale. Her true mystery lies in the personas she allows men to project onto her. She’s the lonely woman. She’s the chaste woman. She’s the wronged woman. She’s every fantasy and none of them. Hae-joon, during his stakeouts, imagines himself inside her own home, standing by her side. Decision to Leave draws us down the rabbit hole – one not without Park’s usual dose of sex and violence, but powered by a surprisingly tender romantic intrigue.

11. Memoria

Memoria is the year’s most artful, heavenly meditation video. Surrender yourself to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest dreamscape, and begin to reconsider the relationship between noise, image, and the subconscious. Tilda Swinton’s botanist Jessica is haunted by a single sound, a thud she describes as akin to “a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well which is surrounded by seawater”. Jessica sets out from Bogotá on a journey to discover its source. Has she merely imagined it? Does it come from inside the pounding blood vessels of her own head? Is it a whisper from some unknown natural or historical past? These questions feel as urgent to Jessica as they do to us. But the answers are entirely ours to discover, somewhere within the stillness of Weerasethakul’s exquisite frames.

Read our original review of ‘Memoria’ here.

Tilda Swinton and Elkin Díaz in ‘Memoria’ (Sovereign Films)

10. Everything Everywhere All at Once

A breakout hit that proved multiverses don’t belong solely to the superhero franchise, Everything Everywhere All at Once dwells far out in the wilds of the imagination, in the realm of lucid dreaming and liminal spaces. It’s the story of an ordinary woman, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), who runs a laundromat in the Simi Valley, California, with her sweet, sprightly husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). But it’s this Evelyn, out of every Evelyn who could possibly exist, who holds the key to reality’s salvation. This Evelyn, who supposedly made all the wrong choices. What a beautiful way to look at the world. Yeoh’s triumphant performance ferries us through infinite versions of Evelyn: a martial arts star, a dominatrix, a piñata, a woman with hot dogs for hands. Everything Everywhere All at Once is proudly strange and puerile, all while effortlessly bottling the fractured feeling of never being at the wheel of your own life.

Read our original review of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ here.

9. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

A kaleidoscopic beauty as painterly as it is sweet, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain captures both the being and soul of an artist. Wain, whose comical feline illustrations helped normalise the ownership of cats as pets, acquired multiple patents, and possessed an intense fascination with electricity’s time-travelling potential. But there was nothing ordinary about his genius. And the way his dreams slipped so easily into his reality made him vulnerable to life’s cruelties. Director Will Sharpe takes up that spirit with clear-eyed sincerity. Kittens speak in subtitles (“I like jomping!”). Diners in a restaurant wear giant cat heads. Nick Cave cameos as HG Wells. Benedict Cumberbatch may have played many a clever man, but the accomplishments of his Wain are never presented as justifications for the tragedies of his existence. There is beauty to be found here, but Sharpe never demeans or romanticises the pain.

Read our original review of ‘The Electrical Life of Louis Wain’ here.

8. Elvis

Austin Butler in ‘Elvis’ (Warner Bros)

I’m not sure the true Elvis – in every shade of his life and legacy – can ever faithfully be put on screen. He’s too inconclusive a subject, in part. What is he and to whom? Sex idol? innovator? Thief? Weapon? Baz Luhrmann’s cradle-to-grave biopic is remarkable, then, in the confidence of its vision. Discarding reality, the Australian filmmaker has instead used the bleached skeleton of autobiography to render the musician’s existence as a pure American fairytale. There is a villain, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who guided and exploited the star, believing himself to have found a clean-cut opium for the masses. Elvis (Austin Butler) himself is less a knight, and more captive princess. He’s all yearning, counter-culture cool in search of escape. His gyrating pelvis is the enchantment that sets off an entire generation’s sexual awakening. Wild, kinetic, and rocket-fuelled by an uncanny performance from Butler, Elvis is a cinematic portrait like no other.

Read our original review of ‘Elvis’ here.

7. Bones and All

“The world of love wants no monsters in it,” a young and restless cannibal (Taylor Russell’s Maren) is warned in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All. She’s been left behind by her father (André Holland), with nothing but a cassette tape and the promise that, at the very least, he will never resent her. She crosses paths with other cannibals. Who can she trust in this cabal of murderers? Sully (Mark Rylance), whose casual manner is betrayed by the rope of victims’ hair in his satchel? Or Lee (Timothée Chalamet), whose chiselled features seem to turn death into poetry? Bones and All burrows deep into a midwest America already picked clean of its flesh, where tragedy and beauty intermingle in ways only a filmmaker like Guadagnino seems capable of summoning.

Read our original review of ‘Bones and All’ here.

6. Nope

Nope, vast in scale but sharp in intellect, cements director Jordan Peele’s status as a true Hollywood innovator. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, two of the most charismatic actors working today, play siblings unmoored by the sudden loss of their father in a freak accident. What unites them is the financial opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to capture the “Oprah shot”, otherwise known as concrete, un-debunkable proof of extraterrestrial life. The film’s message is crystal-clear: we’ve all been subliminally trained, through news cycles and social media timelines, to view every traumatic experience as potential content. But Peele’s cinematic fluency has empowered him with the ability to turn ordinary objects into potent symbols. Nope’s single tennis shoe, inexplicably balanced on its heel, will be a hard image to shake.

Read our original review of ‘Nope’ here.

5. The Worst Person in the World

As columnists worldwide scratch their heads over the apparent aimlessness of millennials (at most, they’ll blame Netflix), the answer as to why they act as they do never seemed as clear or simple as in The Worst Person in the World. Certainly, Renate Reinsve’s Julie fits the generational bill: she goes to medical school, only to quit the field entirely to pursue photography. She leaps into a relationship with an older man, graphic artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), then gets cold feet when he announces that he wants kids. She falls, instead, into the arms of a mellow-minded bartender, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who has no particular plans of his own. The mess of it all reminds us how difficult a choice can be when the possibilities seem endless. And, in one of the year’s purest cinematic fantasies, Julie’s desire for a little clarity comes to magical fruition: the world pauses, literally, as she runs from one lover to another, gifted with sudden certainty.

Read our original review of ‘The Worst Person in the World’ here.

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in ‘The Worst Person in the World’ (Mubi)

4. Crimes of the Future

David Cronenberg’s return, after an eight-year absence, was heralded as the grand revival of a body horror genre he single-handedly defined in the early decades of his career, through films like Videodrome, The Brood, and eXistenZ. To some extent, that assumption was correct. Crimes of the Future’s undefined, dystopian future is populated by undulating, organic beds that caress its sleeper like a womb, and vertebrae-like chairs that twist and groan through the process of external digestion. But the visceral rush of his earlier films has been replaced with a deeper, more contemplative grandeur. The film imagines the next step in human evolution – in which brand new organs can be grown by the human body, and an artist (Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tenser) has them operated on in public by his surgeon-turned-collaborator Caprice (Léa Seydoux). “Surgery is the new sex”, as These characters call surgery “the new sex”. As we’re shown, surgery is the new art, too. So, if sex and art and surgery are all the same, all ways to create meaning out of flesh – by watching Crimes of the Future, are you really having sex, too?

Read our original review of ‘Crimes of the Future’ here.

3. Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is the first of Guillermo del Toro’s films to be entirely absent of the supernatural – but, for this arch-fabulist, who fears man more than he does any monster, it’s perhaps the purest distillation of his spirit. Based on the 1946 noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), as he’s taught the tools of trickery and deception that will inevitably be used against him. From sideshow worker Clem (Willem Dafoe), he learns how to strip a man of his humanity and turn him into a carnival geek. From the clairvoyant Zeena (Toni Collette), he learns how to make the bereaved believe the dead can speak to them. And from psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), he learns how to seduce and to betray. A film full of codes and mysteries, Nightmare Alley finds no singular image quite as potent as that of the geek, a man turned into a sideshow attraction while under the hold of booze and opium. Something about him stirs up all kinds of horror, both existential and moral in nature.

Read our original review of ‘Nightmare Alley’ here.

2. Aftersun

Aftersun, the debut of Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, has found a remarkable way to turn the muddiness of memory into concrete art. Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) is on holiday in Turkey with her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), at some point in the Nineties. Their time together feels picturesque, and precious in ways that are hard to define. But Wells has a kind of twist up her sleeve: what we’re watching isn’t reality, but the memories of an older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), who is trying to pinpoint some lost turning point in her life. What happened to Calum? What changed between them on that trip? What quiet hurt lies behind Mescal’s measured but haunted performance? Aftersun is a moving ode to the unanswered questions in our lives, the blank spaces in our memories we’d give anything to colour in.

Read our original review of ‘Aftersun’ here.

Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal in ‘Aftersun’ (A24)

1. The Northman

Watching The Northman – in all its fevered, blood-red glory – feels akin to witnessing the birth of a myth. Though director Robert Eggers, already a master in folklore thanks to The Witch and The Lighthouse, has loosely adapted this tale from the same source material as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, his vision remains entirely his own. Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), on his quest for vengeance against the uncle (Claes Bang) who killed his father (Ethan Hawke) and stole his mother (Nicole Kidman), crosses the barriers of reality and sanity. Men, high off the fumes of ancient henbane seeds, crawl on all fours and howl like dogs. They tear into each other’s throats with their bare teeth. They burn and belch and starve out their humanity. There’s an extended tracking shot in the film, which follows a berserker raid on a village, that is so wondrous in its execution and uncompromising in its imagery that it might very well snatch your soul out of your body.

Read our original review of ‘The Northman’ here.

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